Fattening Stacks, Fashioning Stones

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An important transaction took place under flickering lights at the quiet heart of West Virginia. Items were piled up, prices were exchanged, and negotiations lasted long into the night. Harsh terms were set, harsher demands were made, and a tense air settled about the place. A glum salesman tallied goods as ▓▓▒░▓ adjusted her wooden mask. Ovine, in honor of a most profitable creature. Finely sculpted, in honor of her family's means. She watched through glass eyes as he passed items under a red light. Efficiently, as befitting one trusted to watch over a market alone. ▓▓▒░▓ would have expected nothing less from a world of such excessive commerce.

"So, uh." The salesman pushed long strands of greasy brown hair away from his forehead and fiddled with the machine before him. "With the drinks, and the chips, and the candy, and the magazine, and the band-aids, and the jerky, that's uh… $27.67."

"Your terms are acceptable." ▓▓▒░▓ held out a bandaged hand. A tinkling tide of silver filled her palm, rising like water in a bubbling spring. Money, but the wrong kind. She frowned and closed her hand, opening it again to reveal faux gold coins. Gold in spirit, copper-plated by feel, and engraved with the faces of this world's honored dead. An admirably complex system for bearing the weight of unsubstantiated wealth. The coins were met with a confused expression by the shopkeeper, but he accepted them all the same.

▓▓▒░▓ stepped out into the dead of night. In the most hellish days of summer, the Shell station was the only light for miles along the highway. Offering sorcerous shelter from the heat and a vast array of almost-food, it drew things far larger than moths from the treeline. Beady eyes watched ▓▓▒░▓ and her accomplice from the surrounding trees, wafts of wormwolf piss drifted across the parking lot, and cloaked shoppers regularly scraped hooded heads on the automatic door. Three generations of the same family worked the long counter, and all three had long since been inured. That much was apparent to anyone with an eye for business.

She walked from the store at an even pace, arms full of packages with strange textures and stranger writing. ▒░▒░░░, her compatriot and near-twin waited outside, staring out into the hungry forest. A warm wind blew through, sending loose tunics fluttering along with their scruffs of oil-black hair. Each mask stayed thankfully firm.

"His hands are sufficiently gilded for our purposes, I would think," said ▓▓▒░▓. She wrenched the cap from one bottle of murky liquid and winced at the bubbling release. Cold, but fouled by some force. Rotted fish may be called a delicacy, but words had their outer limits.

"An apt handler of wealth, but how well does he play the shrew? Your bargaining was a simple rout." ▒░▒░░░ pushed his own ovine mask high enough to drink from the bubbling bottle. An act of vulnerability, especially in such a strange world. ▓▓▒░▓ only did the same once his visage was firmly in place again.

"'twas a fierce battle. The strength of the victor does not prove the weakness of the defeated."

"The outcome may give some hint."

"Do we require a great general then?"

"An apt one, at the least."

"I name him apt! A lamb among sheep, but a lamb all the same." ▓▓▒░▓ drank from the bottle and coughed violently, spending splatters along the dry asphalt. Awful. Vile. Fizzy. "Unless you wish to offer up a better gem for shining?"

"Such a challenge would never cross my lips!"

"You may buzz about until it crosses mine though." Both sheep laughed quietly in the wide, empty lot. They took turns eating salted meats, drinking disgusting beverages, and marveling at the alien starscape overhead. Even on rare nights when the lands of the Howling Pillar went without clouds, the naked sky was dull and empty. What few specks of light shone there were nothing compared to the pinprick tapestry overhead, all so neatly bifurcated from the heavens' dark half.

▓▓▒░▓'s fingers itched fiercely as she watched brighter lights streak across the night. Base to tip, tip to base, as though things crawled laps inside her. Nothing was there though. She had picked them raw enough times to see inside. Scratching offered little solace, but she did it all the same. An old reminder of older punishments.

"Shall we begin the Exarch's edifice then?" asked ▒░▒░░░.

"Even if its key is to be his, the construction is ours. Look at his hands and tell me he has lifted a single brick."

"Still, the matter is of coin. It will bear his name. It will entomb his memory. Is that such a travesty?"

▓▓▒░▓ frowned behind her mask and picked at bandaged fingers. Though the contract offered by the Exarch of the First District was mildly generous, he had been no great patron of their families over ten generations. The sum entrusted to them was minuscule in the tides of his vaults, and any benefits he reaped would far outstrip it. To bear no risk and every reward was hardly respectable business acumin.

▒░▒░░░ slapped her back harder than necessary. "If nothing else, think of it as a grand reunion. Why should we not shepherd this world's tomes back to this world's hands?"

"Has my friend become a librarian?"

"Has my friend misplaced her mind? Doling out adoptions deserves commissions, I would think."

"I would think!"

They laughed again, and something deep in the trees laughed back. Each bookseller fiddled with their clothes, hair, and masks. They were indistinguishable when each made an effort, and the effect was notable. To negotiate with twin sheep unnerved all but the most hardened quartermasters. Book in hand, ▓▓▒░▓ walked to the market's entrance. It parted in her presence.

"Did you want your receipt?" asked the poxed shopkeeper as the pair approached the long counter, passing between shelves stuffed full of fine wares. He looked back and forth between the pair, unsure of who he had dealt with. A bit disappointing that he could not follow the scent of prior business, but he would be workable all the same.

"Please put such minor deals aside," said ▒░▒░░░ in the neutral voice they each settled into.

"They are far beneath your attention," said ▓▓▒░▓, not leaving any pause to invite interruption.

"Unworthy of even your briefest thought."

"Such a grand merchant should only deal in cities."

"Cities and nations."

"Nations and empires."

"Wait," said the young merchant. He held his hand out as if to deflect the words. "Uh, just… just wait? I don't know what you're talking about, okay? We don't care who comes to shop, but you gotta go if you're gonna start being weird."

"Ah, of course, of course," said ▓▓▒░▓.

"We do apologize for squandering your cherished time," said ▒░▒░░░.

"Shall we demonstrate our sincerity?" the booksellers asked each other. Each opened their hands toward the counter, and a shimmering stream of coins spilled from them. Not the peasant metals pretending to be kings that passed for money in this world, but treasure from their own hoards. A meager fee covered by their contract, but the shopkeeper's eyes brightened all the same.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"Merely to offer you a sea of wealth." ▓▓▒░▓ pulled a hardcover book from a satchel.

"An ocean of profits." ▒░▒░░░ placed it on the counter.

"The business opportunity of a hundred lifetimes." She opened the cover of Organizational Symbology.

"A golden river that never dries." He flipped through the printed pages, each bearing the red ink of the Exarch's most prominent magi. A spellbook worked over with new spells.

The shopkeeper stared at the tome. Transfixed, as expected. The pages were but a foundation, the red notations a blueprint. Each invited construction and elaboration. Each would add new rows of living bricks to the Exarch's edifice. All that was required of its components is obedience to the fundamental urges of spending money, earning more, and protecting the grand assemblage of its parts.

"Oh, uh, yeah. Of course." A few strands a greasy drooped over his pale eyes. He blew them away, and they fell back down immediately. "But how can I…?"

"It's straightforward."

"It's simple."

"We couldn't possibly reduce it any further."

"The tome will instruct you on success. The feeling is plain already, is it not?"

"Others will feel the same. Should they not pay handsomely for such secrets?"

"Cast open your accounts." ▓▓▒░▓ leaned forward on the tips of her toes.

"Spend dry your savings." ▒░▒░░░ did the same.

"We gladly offer you these secrets and more for purchase. Think of others' desperation for your knowledge. Their drool at your troves. Buy and resell a few books. A handful, that's all. You would not manage this market, but own it."

"A few more sales, and you might build a mansion."

"More still, a castle."


"How many can we mark you down for?" the two sheep asked as one.

The red ink did its work well. Each line tugged open the shopkeeper's eyes and ears. Each pulled away blockages of hesitation and consideration. That he would bear the brunt of failure went unconsidered. That they were strangers to this place went ignored. ▓▓▒░▓ and ▒░▒░░░ watched as he emptied his wallet, then the tiny safe before him. He removed paper bills from a glowing machine in one corner of the shop, then brought bales from a room in the back. Strange money, but its value held all the same.

"Please do burn a flare when you have sold these," said ▓▓▒░▓. "We would be happy to provide more."

"Ecstatic," continued ▒░▒░░░. "A discount may be possible, given sufficient capacity."

The shopkeeper nodded, and nodded, and promised to embark on a grand venture. They left the store to see dawn gently crest over the treeline. An alien sight. A terrifying one, once the furious star crested the mountain line. Fearful, once the illuminated sky loomed so high overhead. They would survive, but ▓▓▒░▓ found the forest a far more comforting canopy in their travels.

The booksellers traveled along the junctures of civilization, avoiding lands of this world's exarchs and their capital cities. ▓▓▒░▓ felt the beacons of wealth deep in her bones, but lords never truly appreciated the free trade of knowledge and capital, let alone their citizen's participation in another's edifice. Sheep often went unseen, but only to the inattentive. So they displayed the books and peddled their wares elsewhere. Small markets in small towns, rife with antiques. Narrow shops in narrower alleys, which dealt exclusively to visitors like themselves. Each buyer made a new brick. Each promised future profits.

A wide and crooked path led them one way along the land, then back along a different path. Not all could pay for books in coin, but trades were possible all the same. In a small village of boxy vehicles, they traded a tome for the burned remains of a god. Even priests would pay when faced with red ink. In the heart of a swamp, a witch traded murky brews for bound pages. Initial profits were never the point. They sowed the seeds of future reapings. One sale would lead to may more. One debt would bloom and blossom with proper care. They were sheep after all, and excellent ones at that. That a wolf hunted behind did not birth the slightest concern, not even as its hunt continued through the seasons.

▓▓▒░▓ and ▒░▒░░░ grew confident as their edifice rose. Brick after brick, stone after stone, the vast pyramid grew and grew. That confidence led them closer to those imposing capitals, closer to the vast whirlpools of wealth they contained. Towering buildings overfull with precious things pulled harder and harder, until their orbit became a tightening spiral. Day after day and sale after sale led them inward and inward, until they stood at the heart of a place called Philadelphia. How could they fail to make a nest for themselves in such an exorbitant cityscape? How could they fail to wring money from it?

The great city's towers were not as imposing as the Howling Pillar itself, but they distracted all the same. The wide roads were not as bustling as ▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒'s, but they were far from empty. The pair drifted one way and another, giving each sight proper consideration. Coin flowed from thousands of hands to thousands of others with each second. Goods fell from one to another even faster. An impressive city, but not so impressive that the booksellers failed to notice the wolf drawing nearer to their lair.

"I think it supremely dangerous," said ▓▓▒░▓, voicing the dark feeling churning inside them both. They stood in a dark alleyway beside a tavern, peeking out from its mouth in turns. Each word loosed a frosted breath. Each second brought a new shiver. Cold air suited them not, even when clothed in this world's wares.

"The point of a vast spear. An army of ten-thousand, bound up by a single will."

"The first of a vast stampede, more like. A horde of a hundred thousand, driven by a uniform desire."

▒░▒░░░ sniffed and snuffled. "The Exarch will be displeased to hear of such a thing. It may seek to challenge our construction."

"What about us? Displeasure is such a gentle thing. There are worse, you know."

"I'll not be worried so long as we are well defended. The wolf may serve well as a brick."

"Not with a single tome, I fear."

"Not one, but the full of our stock below. That may be sufficient binding."

"May indeed."

"A sufficient may, I hope. Unless you think a better tool is available?"

"Retreat is not without merit. For now, or forever."

"An opportunity for the Exarch to flay us, perhaps. I would not wish to face that wrath."

"Could we not…?"

"If only." He sniffed loudly.

"But what if we…?"

"Truly, if we could." He snuffled louder.

▓▓▒░▓ scowled under her mask. Were the Exarch not so consumed with pointless greed, he would be happy with what they had already erected. Were he burdened by the remotest concern, he would understand their predicament. If only both were not so clearly the case. If only.

"Danger, then," she said. Her fingers itched fiercely, worse than ever before, but she clasped them firmly on her friend's mask anyway. They would persist so long as they remained together.

"Danger," he said, doing the same.

The two spanned the gap between their spot and the wolf in moments. A moment that stretched into seconds, then minutes. A trip that wore harder than a week of walking. Anything to avoid worse dangers though. ▓▓▒░▓ considered their hunter as they emerged in the space behind her. Scrawnier than she would have predicted, even in a quilted coat. Bloodier than she would have imagined, even for a spearhead. The world felt wretched and rotting in her presence. All the more reason to quickly enact a binding. Only then would they be safe.

"You are a knight errant, are you not?" she asked the red hound. All would be well. Soon.

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