Piercing A Veil
Padia Villandry spent the next morning receiving visitors at Jessis, the Peyl-Villandry mansion on the terraced southern slope of Oldtown. The red brick manor attracted many compliments for its pleasant front and immaculate cleanliness, traits the house shared with its mistress.
With unfailing grace Padia welcomed a flood of well-wishers, curiosity seekers, crazed prophets, would-be followers, souvenir collectors, and socialites. All came to see the master of the mansion, the one-armed magistrate who had grown miraculously whole! Last night, just as the rain stopped! Before witnesses! After the fifteenth visitor, with dawn only a hint in the clearing sky, Alban had fled for Schools borough. He took the silver cord with him, leaving his wife to handle the mob.
``Hello. I'm terribly sorry you missed him, but you do understand. The magicians want to study him, you know. Hello, Landsman Drayton, lovely day, isn't it? Yes indeed, I'll tell him. Good morning, dear! Gorgeous outfit, you must give me the pattern.''
Alban's cowardice should have turned Padia's pale cheeks red with resentment. He habitually shuffled off social duties on her, and she had complained with increasing shrillness over ten years of shrill and frustrating marriage. Yet this morning, the first lovely morning in weeks, she took the duty without a qualm.
``Why, yes, I'm fine. No, my husband got the arm. He's doing splendidly, looks his best in years. Magical cord? Why, whatever cord do you mean? Magistrate Vorna, what an honor to welcome you to Jessis! Hello, thank you so much for dropping by.''
Many callers came from neighboring mansions, whereas many others had crossed the city. These hardy sorts brought word of floodwater draining away down the Byrose as if someone had unplugged a pipe. Some of them believed Alban himself had stopped the rain. I saw by her thoughts that after a sleepless night of talk and study, Padia had privately begun to agree.
``Evellan, hello, I love your new tattoo! No, I'm sorry, he left no autographs. If he ended the flood, I assure you he had no idea how. Hello, Townsman, so pleased to meet you. Oh, do please put that back, I'm sure you meant no harm. Well, hel-lo!''
Emissaries from High Hill, questors of Garlen searching for signs of the healing Passion's presence, confidence men who claimed they had cured Alban: At noon Padia courteously escorted them out and actuated the ward on the front gate. In a firm voice it told arrivals that the owners would welcome callers later that afternoon.
She retreated to the west wing drawing room, a well appointed chamber with corded cloth chairs suited for all sizes of name-givers. Alban used it for business meetings. There she shared a glass of singflower tea with her society friends, the dwarf landswomen Barghill-Bhurn and Nurnwood.
``He behaved strangely,'' she told the landswomen. ``He said next to nothing about the lost merchandise. It hardly bothered him to think we might give up Jessis.''
``Mind's gone,'' Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn declared. Her voice, unusually deep even for a dwarf, retained its unnerving resonance in her old age. ``Arm's back, mind's gone. A saaad balance.'' She spoke from the heart of a formidable dress of black organza. It made her look like a ruffed grouse. Her stub-nose face hid under a wide-brimmed sundown hat and a fashionable veil.
With one short, fat arm she raised her gilded teaglass like a sceptre of office. ``One's home, one's position in society -- anchor and boat! Boat and anchor!'' Having pronounced this lucid comparison, she sipped.
``Did he, well, I mean, was he drunk?'' Landswoman Nurnwood asked timidly. Everything about the young dwarf, from her close-curled brown hair to her simple brown dress, seemed understated. Society liked her that way.
``No, we don't drink.'' Padia poured more tea all around. She had sent the servants to their quarters for noonmeal. ``He seemed energetic but clear-headed. He kept looking around, back and forth, without seeming to. He did that in the old days. It made me feel rather nostalgic.''
Even in her frequent intervals of dullness, Earlene Nurnwood's blue eyes bulged naturally. Some wondered how she ever blinked. Now those watery eyes bulged even more. ``Do you think perhaps he might have come back to, you know, his warrior days?''
``Earlene, drink your tea!'' Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn tolerated discussion of drunkenness, infidelity, insanity, apoplexy, and, between close friends, digestive ailments. Adept magic, however, exceeded her bounds. Adepts exercised power in Merron, but that did not make them fashionable.
In most Barsaivean cities dwarfs dictated the nature and membership of proper society. Bulrutha Barghill-Bhurn ruled the Old Families much as magistrates ruled Merron, save that she had elected herself for life. She passed judgment and approved arrangements in her domain like High Hill officials in theirs. ``Whether Landsman Peyl has or has not regressed to the state you mention, Earlene, we must comfort Padia, the tormented spouse.''
``Many thanks, Landswoman, but I need no comfort just yet.'' In fact, receiving proper guests comforted Padia. Whatever her efforts to help Merron's lower classes, she felt at home only in society.
In ten years of status and comfort Padia had gradually lost interest in her discipline's analysis of the workings of magic. Now she used her powers of concentration to maintain an extensive social network, a matrix nearly as intricate as any enchantment. Her natural grace helped the Founding Families overlook her history as an adept. ``If you'll forgive me,'' she continued, ``I think Earlene has hit on the truth.''
``What, me?'' Earlene seemed flustered. ``Fancy!''
``Alban lost his arm in a magical attack. The way he changed afterward made it clear that the attack did more than steal his arm. It altered his True Pattern.''
Earlene's eyes bulged. ``What's that?''
``Everything in the Universe has a pattern of magical energy. It defines everything about the object -- or person. Alban's pattern holds his history, intellect, skills, abilities, and how he interacts with the world. Everyone he knows or who knows him, everything he is and believes, would be part of that pattern.''
``Including his arm?''
``Well, I suppose so. Ordinarily, losing an arm wouldn't affect much of the rest of Alban's pattern. But there was something strange about that attack, something powerful. It took his arm by changing him deeply. His experience fighting the river last night seems to have changed him back.''
Earlene had drawn near her limit of comprehension. ``So, you mean, when he changed his pattern, then the arm had to come back too?''
``Was someone else keeping it all these years?''
The lie came easily to Padia's lips. She had lied to Alban for years, as magicians had lied to Merron for centuries. ``I don't know. It may have just disappeared into astral space.''
``Ewgh!'' When Earlene wrinkled her nose, her face grew even more homely. ``That's where Horrors live. Do you think --?''
Padia rushed to stop that thought. ``No, no, I'm certain it wasn't a Horror. Alban's arm is healthy, and he is too. Nothing like that can come of Horror magic.'' She thought, At least that much is true. Pray the Passions don't send us a mob in the night.
Earlene looked relieved. ``But why did it stop raining?''
The second lie proved easier, because Padia could only guess at the truth. ``Coincidence, certainly.''
``Certainly! Annnd, Earlene, we need not concern ourselves beyond that.'' Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn had heard too much talk of magic. ``Padia dear, will this incident upset plans for your lovely nightmeal party?''
``I don't believe so. I hoped to talk to you about the guest list....''
All through noonmeal they assessed the current social rankings. Then Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn made the ritual apology for imposing, and Padia escorted her and Earlene to the foyer door.
She heard a knock just as she placed her hand on the latch. With irritation Padia wondered what happened to the ward on the gate. Then a voice beyond the door called, ``Open, Padia! It is I, Wohlnoth, your old teacher.''
Briefly Padia felt dizzy. Yes, the voice did sound like Wohlnoth's. Of course. Smiling, she told the landswomen, ``My adept master at the wizards' college.'' The butler, Dander, appeared from the servant quarters, but she waved him away. She opened the door.
For an instant she thought she saw on the porch a hunched gray form and a larger, darker shape behind. Something like panic froze her. Then Wohlnoth's deep, melodious voice said, ``Yes, Padia, it is I, Wohlnoth, looking just as you remember me from the College of Supreme Muniment!''
A flicker, a thickening in the air, and she blinked. Her vision resolved. There stood Wohlnoth, a wrinkled old man in indigo robes woven with azure runes and stars. His bushy eyebrows and long stringy beard had the same salt-and-pepper coloring she remembered from her studies, years ago. Padia quickly dismissed her fear. ``Why, Master Wohlnoth, what a fine surprise! You've not changed a jot.''
Wohlnoth chuckled in his familiar way. ``Here with me, Padia, is my loyal apprentice, a pleasant young man called Hodrick. Handsome fellow, isn't he? You'll like him, Padia, I'm sure.''
``Hello,'' said the pleasant young man called Hodrick. He had curly black hair cut short, warm brown eyes, and a well proportioned face with high sculpted cheeks and a strong chin. He wore a wide-shouldered orange robe with capacious sleeves that he held together, concealing his hands. What a handsome fellow, Padia thought. She remembered nothing of the large, dark shape. She liked Hodrick already.
Padia ushered Wohlnoth and Hodrick into the marble-floored foyer and made introductions. Earlene Nurnwood seemed dazed as she greeted them, but then she often seemed dazed. Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn appeared flustered. ``Padia, these are your, eh, friends?''
Wohlnoth smoothly intercepted the question. ``Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn, I take it? What a great pleasure for an old gray-haired human like myself to meet the leading figure of Merronese society.'' Wohlnoth took her small hand and gazed intently into her eyes. ``I must apologize, Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn, for the grooming of my hair and beard, to say nothing of these wrinkled robes. We old wizards so seldom go into society that we let these important matters slide. I hope, Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn, you'll grant me pardon?''
As she listened to the lilting voice, Bulrutha Barghill-Bhurn's eyes softened. She said dazedly, ``Why, Padia, what an enchaaanting friend you have.''
``Yes indeed,'' said Padia. Wohlnoth had developed more charm than she remembered.
Wohlnoth smiled. ``Now, Landswomen, I must apologize on behalf of Townsman Hodrick and myself for interrupting you. You were just leaving, I believe?''
``We were just leaving,'' said Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn.
``Just leaving,'' said Landswoman Nurnwood.
They left. Padia next became aware when she stood on the muddy lawn beneath the tall white ash tree on the southwest grounds. Wohlnoth and Hodrick stood by, looking up at the feathery leaves. Bright noontime light bleached the sky and hurt her eyes. The high brick wall nearby smothered sounds from the street beyond.
She seemed to remember that Wohlnoth had said something. She rubbed her temple. ``I-- I'm sorry, what were you saying?''
``I said, dear Padia, that for many days this spring I have walked past Jessis morning and night, on my way to and from the College. In the branches of this tree a pair of blackbirds built a nest, day by day, and then the mother settled in it. I watched her sit patiently in sun and rain.''
Wohlnoth rubbed his temple. ``Then one morning I saw two chicks squawking in the nest, with mother and father feeding them by turns. Even when the rain flooded the city, the parents fed their chicks. But as I walked past yesterday, in the teeth of the storm, I looked up and saw that the nest was empty. I fear the storm blew the chicks from their nest.
``Given the storm, I could do nothing. I walked on, knowing that I was leaving those small dumb birds to die. Do you know, Padia, I could not sleep well last night, thinking of those blackbirds. What a sentimental and foolish old man I have become! Finally I decided to visit and see whether they might still survive, and if so, rescue them.''
Wohlnoth's story touched Padia's heart. She clasped her hands behind her back and looked around the base of the tree. ``You've followed their progress more closely as a passerby than I did as a resident. I didn't even know of the nest. Can you see them anywhere?''
Wohlnoth casually brought his hands behind his back and clasped them. ``There, I see them. See them, Hodrick?''
``Yes,'' said Hodrick. He had hardly moved.
Padia followed Wohlnoth's gaze and found two shivering balls of down in the grass. The blackbird chicks, still in their stringy tan-brown plumage, shied from her touch. The parents chattered angrily in the branches above.
Hodrick stared at the birds as though reading a scroll. ``This mother blackbird has nested in this tree each spring for eight years. Each winter she flies south beyond Barsaive, farther than any of us have travelled in our lives. Instinct drives her; otherwise we would call her brave. How much that we name bravery among name-givers conceals instinct of another kind? How much, pride? How much, love?''
Wohlnoth looked askance. ``I have never had an apprentice who could so easily stop a conversation. Forgive him, Padia.''
Hearing Hodrick's odd speech, Padia felt a sudden, surprising affinity for him. His words showed the same unexpected thinking that had attracted her -- once -- to Alban. He, too, used to draw portentous lessons from trivialities, a quirk she alone had found amusing and endearing.
Hodrick's manner also hinted at a mysterious power, an easy familiarity with magical knowledge. Padia had once known that familiarity, long ago. His blend of the known and the exotic fascinated her.
She clasped her elbows and gazed at him. ``You divine remarkably well for an apprentice. I daresay answers to your questions would probably dismay us. You know, I planted this tree myself when my husband and I bought Jessis. I meant to use the wood for a staff, but over the years I, uh, lost the need.'' Embarrassed, she fell silent.
``Padia,'' said Wohlnoth smoothly, ``would you restore these chicks to their parents? You must fly them up to that nest in the crook of those high branches, do you see?''
Padia hedged. ``No need, I can simply levitate them.'' She still remembered levitation. She used it to lift feather dusters to inaccessible cobwebs.
Wohlnoth clasped his elbows and gazed at her. ``Levitation lacks sufficient control. Please fly.''
Padia temporized. ``Perhaps your apprentice will fly, and show us how well he has mastered his studies.''
``He has not. Please show him how a true wizard does it.''
``I -- actually, Master, I must confess, I haven't pursued my studies for years. I still keep two or three spells to, to light the fireplace and clean up around the house, but --''
She thought Wohlnoth would grow angry, but for the briefest moment a smile flickered at the corners of his mouth.
Padia's thoughts grew hazy then, like a dream. I recovered them when she did, in her display room, a bright and spacious salon at the south end of the east wing. Wohlnoth and Hodrick stood with her before the crystal shield's display case. The room held nothing else but her wand cabinet and, in two corners, suits of ring mail from the Gray Owl Company. The painted ceiling depicted a flock of chakta birds in flight.
Out the front bay window Padia saw the ash tree, but she could not see whether the chicks now sat in their nest. How had she --? When --?
Wohlnoth spoke, and his gentle voice automatically stilled her confusion. ``What a fine collection you have, Padia. Magicians of all disciplines have praised it in my hearing. These are living crystals, are they not?''
She shook her head -- not in negation, but to clear it. Prismatic crystals studded the heavy bronze shield in the case. She stared at their flickering lights. ``Yes. A crystal viking shield from the Thunder Mountains. I took that as a trophy from an ork bandit many years ago.''
Wohlnoth shook his head gently, as though in admiration. ``Over here, this must be your fabulous collection of wands. I have wanted to see it for so long.''
Padia frowned. ``You've seen it before, Master.''
``-- Again for so long. Ah, Padia, it warms my old heart to think that I, Wohlnoth, have not changed a bit in your eyes since those days when I instructed you in our discipline's basic talents.''
His voice! She had not remembered his sonorous, soothing voice. For a moment Wohlnoth had seemed to waver in her eyes, but his voice warmed her like a blanket.
He stared at her a moment longer, then with a smile returned to the wands. The tall, wide lightwood cabinet, superbly carved with protective wards, displayed three dozen wands, one of Barsaive's largest private collections.
``Refresh my memory, Padia. Most of these wands embody various wizard spells, I take it?''
``Yes. A few come from the other spellcasting disciplines. I keep them for aesthetic interest. For instance, this firewand from Urupa, an elemental device, uses a peculiar method of manifestation --''
She pointed out many noteworthy wands, and she also satisfied Wohlnoth's curiosity about technical details of the protective wards. Hodrick seemed more interested in her; from the corner of her eye she saw him staring. She felt both unsettled and flattered.
``This drawer down below, what does it hold?''
Padia suddenly felt unsettled in a new way. The warded drawer Wohlnoth indicated had briefly held the silver cord Alban brought home this morning. ``That drawer is empty,'' she said. She spoke the truth, but she could have said more. Some impulse stayed her. Wohlnoth and Hodrick exchanged a long look.
Again a haze enveloped Padia's thoughts. She returned to awareness in her parlor in the east wing. It had furniture entirely of human scale, made of calamander wood imported from Cathay and upholstered in green and gold. Light crystals in standing bronze lamps brightened each corner. A gold tea service sat on the credenza before her, and she held a full tea glass. Hodrick sat near her, to her left. He still kept his hands in his sleeves.
Wohlnoth had said something. ``I'm sorry, what did you say?'' she asked.
Wohlnoth stood near the windowed cabinet that displayed her many scrolls. He held a full teaglass. ``I commented, Padia, that your entire home appears as fastidiously neat as any wizard's chamber. I see lustrous polish on every piece of furniture. I detect the smell of ammonia and oil of citronella.''
Padia thought dully, If he could see the mess of the rooms in Alban's side of the house, he would not think me fastidious. She never went there.
He continued, ``If you'll pardon a blunt remark from me -- Wohlnoth, your old teacher -- you have diverted your energies from the intensity of wizardly study to a wizardly intensity of housekeeping.''
His singsong voice soothed the hurt his words gave her. Padia vaguely remembered showing them her tidy rooms in this wing. ``Well,'' she began, but no more words came. She swallowed lukewarm tea and pondered. Did Wohlnoth speak the truth?
``You do Landswoman Villandry an injustice,'' Hodrick said to Wohlnoth. He sounded nothing like an apprentice speaking to his master, and Wohlnoth seemed surprised. Hodrick continued, ``She copes with the demands this life makes. What use has she for counterspells and lightning clouds, when in this setting charm and neatness make better tools? She still guides those around her toward the good, by influence and example. No adept can do more, however large her spellbook.''
Wohlnoth swallowed tea and pondered. ``Perhaps you are right. Padia, you have done well on your own path.''
Hodrick's unexpected defense left Padia startled, flustered, intrigued, and pleased. This range of emotions blended to form a stronger feeling of desire. In her sumptuous society life Padia had found little mystery before today, and the settled pleasures of Jessis carried no excitement. Something in Hodrick again reminded her of Alban in the old days.
``Master Wohlnoth has changed,'' she told Hodrick. ``Had I contradicted him during my apprenticeship, he would have set me a hundred construes from the Books of Harrow. Clearly you've already developed a magical power of charm.'' No sooner had she said the words than they seemed to her bold, even flirtatious. Ordinarily adroit in conversation, she felt nervous and distracted around him.
Wohlnoth watched her carefully. He set down his glass and asked, ``Padia, what do you suppose caused Alban to regain his lost arm?''
On an impulse below her awareness, Padia set down her glass. ``If you remember, I talked with you ten years ago, after Alban lost the arm. You told me of the -- the entity that removed it.''
``Tut, Padia. You may speak freely here.''
``You told me of --'' Padia stole a glance at Hodrick. ``I mean nothing personal, but an apprentice should not hear such things.''
``Hodrick, please calm Padia's fears by quoting the First Confidence from Dranmoret's Inedita.''
To Padia's astonishment, the young man began reciting the centuries-old text.
``In year three hundred ten of the city, the Scourge struck in force. Horrors roamed the Thunder Mountains, and in the rolling Esselfields no stalk of grass survived. With the last sending from Throal three moons past, a Horror of many limbs and eyes, no more than a cat, broke in at the northmost dome below High Hill. By chance the Warden Aurendilea stood near and fought the Horror with many spells while it grew barn size. With mortal wounds, she drove it out the way it came, and a good questor drew Upandal to remake the dome, as Aurendilea died at his feet.
``The wise of the city sought an alarm and a power. Aurendilea's betrothed, the Warden Radolf, came forth from his grief and drew all the masters of the four spellcasting disciplines. In a long working of blood magic they sacrificed him and gave him a perception and made him a focus of their power, and they called him the Egregore.''
``Enough,'' said Wohlnoth.
How, Padia wondered, could Wohlnoth have told a mere apprentice about Merron's protector? Hardly thirty of the city's magicians had even heard of the Inedita.
``I must say,'' she began in a righteous tone, then hesitated. Best not to raise the issue now. ``I must say, Hodrick shows great promise. Master, you said that the Egregore had taken Alban's arm. You knew nothing else about it and told me to leave it at that, because only the highest officials in the guilds could say more.
``But I learned more years later, when I purchased an illegible scroll by Micnor the Elder. I restored it using Hann Dronvillo's seventh variant of Edro's Restoration. Micnor's text discusses over sixty known manifestations of the Egregore in one hundred twenty-six years. It also analyzes various accounts that the guilds have suppressed since Micnor's time -- accounts of attacks on Merronese citizens by an entity that Micnor believes was the Egregore.''
Hodrick showed no interest. Rather, he still gazed at her, admiring without listening. Wohlnoth, however, followed Padia's words intently.
She continued, ``Every few years, the Egregore attacks a name-giver in the night. It uses its silver cord to take a part of the victim for itself. Micnor says that -- well, I had best quote him.''
Using her discipline training, Padia pictured all the scrolls she had ever memorized as a landscape, wide flat expanses of calligraphy, and herself as a point of mind flying high above. She surveyed the plain of memory and saw the passage she wanted as a peak on the horizon. In an instant she flew to it, and the recollection rose clear and fresh.
``The weird creature assembles itself of a hundred parts across the centuries. As each part grows infirm with age, the aggregate moves by night across the city. No one may follow, and no eye, however sharp, may note its passage. It falls upon the prey and with its silver cord seizes of them what part it needs. Thereby it renews its strength and kinship with the city.
``So much has its body changed in the expanse of time, the accounts have come to name it the Composite Form. Student, heed well these true words, which learned Micnor alone has compiled for welfare of the sympathetic ear!''
Wohlnoth grunted. ``Micnor always expressed a high opinion of himself. Well recalled, Padia.''
I am still that much a wizard, Padia thought with relief. ``The Egregore, or the Composite Form, took my husband's arm to sustain itself. It used an enchantment that must have changed his pattern in the taking. I honored the guild's secrecy and never told Alban. Circumstances made it easy for him to believe that the illusionist Vilph Axehandle amputated the arm.
``Last night, something -- I don't quite understand what, a kind of mystic experience -- apparently made Alban's pattern revert to normal. This broke the Egregore's enchantment, and the arm returned. You probably heard that the rain stopped just at that moment. I suspect the Egregore must have brought the rain, and that the arm's disappearance changed its own pattern. This broke its spell.''
``I believe change in a pattern does not come so easily,'' said Hodrick. ``In crisis it may warp, thereby breaking spells that derive from it. Yet within a short time it usually returns to form.''
``What about Alban, ten years ago? He changed after he lost his arm.'' And he seemed different after its return.
``He may have consented, so to speak, to the warp. Perhaps he embraced the new life it led him to.''
Passions, what an awful notion. The intensity of Padia's revulsion surprised her. After all, he had achieved fame and prosperity, and he had given her a comfortable society life. She had an impressive collection of wands and scrolls, and she organized charity work and sponsored fine artists. Of course she thanked Alban for that; and yet....
Could a warrior adept voluntarily become a bloated plutocrat? She refused to think about it. She found the idea inherently distasteful, and it roused unpleasant feelings. She would not examine them. In the deepest reaches of her mind she caged and covered them.
Wohlnoth sat in a wing chair and leaned forward intently. ``I compliment you on your learning, Padia. I tell you in confidence that the Egregore did indeed cause the recent rains and the other events that people now call the Affliction.
``For centuries the body of the Egregore, the Composite Form, has alerted Merron's guilds of magicians in times of crisis. Indeed, the working that created the Egregore indirectly spawned the guilds. They formed to respond to its warnings of Horror incursions. With the Scourge ended, and most Horrors gone from Barsaive, the guild leaders saw little of the Composite Form -- until a few weeks ago.
``At that time the Composite Form appeared at secret convocations of the three guilds. First Geocosm; then Oneiros, the guild of nethermancers; and finally Noesis. It told the high officials about a tremendous threat to Merron, and it demanded their assistance. Every guild official, from Radolf's time to this day, has sworn a blood oath to aid the Egregore when asked, and so they did. Their help has led to the grand spells that combat the threat, the spells an unknowing populace labels the Affliction.''
Padia found herself leaning forward intently. ``What threat? Master, why did Noesis not tell me of this?''
``The Form did not describe the threat. As for the guild neglecting you -- I believe you never swore the blood oath. The Egregore cannot use your power. And you must agree, Padia, you have not been active in the wizards' guild for some time.'' Wohlnoth looked at her with compassion, as though to say, We shall not mention how far your power has declined.
``But now, Padia,'' he continued, ``I bring you a chance to help. We all must do what we may to fight this threat. We must help protect the Egregore, that it may continue to alert the guilds to danger.''
Wohlnoth's gaze commanded Padia's full attention. ``The silver cord, Padia. The Form's vitality depends on the cord's binding magic. Without that cord, the Form must soon decay.'' He reached out and grasped her hand. ``You have the cord. If you will entrust it to me, I shall carry it at once to the leaders of Noesis, so that they may restore it to its rightful owner. You would earn their, and my, profound gratitude.''
Padia felt an urge to grasp Wohnoth's hands. She reached out -- and then she stopped. His intensity bothered her. For an instant her eyes seemed to lose their focus, and his image blurred.
She pulled her hand away. ``How did you know I had the silver cord, Master?''
Quickly he said, ``Why, I divined it, of course. You well remember, Padia, how I, your old teacher, could --''
``I'm sorry, Master Wohlnoth, but Alban took the cord with him to Schools borough.''
``Whom did he call on, Padia?''
``I'm sure I don't remember. He knows so many people around the city.''
Wohlnoth showed the briefest irritation, but his gentle smile returned. ``Very well.'' He stood up. ``I rely on Hodrick to entertain you while I answer a call of nature.'' Padia gave him directions, and with a curt nod he left the room.
Padia stared at the doorway as though Wohlnoth still stood there. Suspicion arose, but a fog of unfocused thoughts concealed it. Her musing gradually turned to Hodrick, who still looked at her. Irritation overcame attraction.
``What interests you about me, Hodrick, that you will look at nothing else?''
Her rebuke made no impression. With perfect seriousness Hodrick replied, ``I find you very attractive.''
Padia's reaction to such direct remarks varied with circumstance, even moment to moment. Now, with her mind clouded, she said, ``You are too forward. I am a married woman.''
``You are too --!''
``For ten years you have lived this loveless, bloodless life of pretense. You, wizard and scholar of the Gray Owl Company, master of five dozen spells and talents, who fought the minions of Intrantivere to a standstill -- you found an enemy that finally conquered you: a life of happily-ever-after.''
Padia stared, speechless.
``You did not know what life you wanted, but you did not want the life Alban chose for you: the supportive wife, the public background for his kind of public life. He wished you into a hostess who would support his career as it supported you. You accommodated him.
``You gradually found it inconvenient that Alban, obsessed or fatigued by his growing business, should never help you socially. You tried to draw him out, but everything you tried just made him draw still farther in. The moment you offered him something he wanted, he wanted something else.''
Padia barely whispered, ``Yes.''
``The two of you drifted apart. Slowly, over years, his actions came to displease you consistently, and you became his consistent critic. You took bitter pleasure in arranging his life a little better than he liked it, and making his friends like you better than him. Yet only rarely, in your most private moments, can you admit you loathe your husband.''
Padia said, ``I don't!'' She began to cry.
``You hate him,'' Hodrick continued, ``not for what he has become, but for what he has forced you to become. If you had ever let this truth rise to awareness, it would have revealed your life in society as a mere diversion from your true discipline.''
``What do you know of my life?''
``For a long time I have studied you,'' Hodrick said quietly. His words would suit a sage collecting insects, but his tone became affectionate, even reverent. ``I have admired the scholar, the adventurer, the woman that a pampered magistrate has no use for. The woman of his younger days, who first drew his love... who has drawn mine.''
``That's enough!'' Controlling her tears, Padia stood and faced Hodrick. ``That's more than enough. Even supposing for a moment what you said was true, did you honestly think a speech like that would appeal to me? When Master Wohlnoth returns, you will leave with him, and you won't come back.''
Hodrick stood too, without taking his hands from his sleeves. Something in his graceful movement, in his upright posture, reminded Padia again of Alban, long ago.
``To answer your question,'' Hodrick said calmly, ``yes, I did think stating the truth would suit you. It would have in past times, when you aspired to know the truth. You speak as wizard to apprentice, but I must tell you something that will adjust our relationship, that may justify my affection for you. You see --''
Padia did not see nor want to. She took Hodrick's right arm, intending to lead him out of the room and out the front door. Her fingers sank deep into his robe, and yet she felt no flesh. Puzzled, she felt along the arm, then pulled back the sleeve.
Hodrick had no right arm. In its place he wore a framework of rigid steel wire, cunningly wrought and fitted.
Padia gasped. ``You have no -- you're missing --'' She divined the truth. ``You had his arm. You, the Egregore. The Composite Form.''
The fog of illusion lifted from Padia's mind, and she saw with clarity. She fell back, horrified, as Hodrick wavered and dissolved. In his place stood a tall, burly form, human-looking but misshapen under a ragged orange robe. Straight ridges of pink scar tissue boxed the Composite Form's two eyes, one gray, one green; and its aquiline nose; and its jaw, which had darker skin than the rest of its pale, hairless head. Likewise its tawny, muscular left arm and the five unmatched fingers of its piebald hand. The creature stood unevenly.
Padia fought panic. ``The cord. You wanted the silver cord.''
``Yes, I do need the cord to survive,'' said the Form, in Hodrick's voice. ``But I mean no harm, and I told the truth. I understand how my appearance upsets you, but please believe me --'' The Form took a faltering step toward her.
Padia stumbled backward, searching for a weapon or escape. When she saw the doorway, she suddenly thought, Wohlnoth! Without a backward glance she ran for the door, driven by a dread that overwhelmed thoughts of the Form. She didn't dare take time to get a weapon from the displays in Alban's side of the house. As she ran down the hall, thoughts ran still more quickly through her mind:
Here, in my own lovely home!
When did I last have a spell for anything but housecleaning?
He must have thrown those chicks from the nest himself. Somehow this act struck her as more ruthless than any cruelty to name-givers.
``I still keep two or three spells to light the fireplace and clean up around the house --'' She had freely revealed her weakness. Now she would pay for that stupidity. Passing the cleaning room, she snatched a feather duster from a wicker hamper. On the run she began weaving a thread of magical force.
There, just ahead: the doorway to the display room. If he thinks I haven't discovered him, he won't have readied his defenses. She ran headlong to the door.
There stood the shield display case, there the wand cabinet, and there by it, Wohlnoth. He crouched by the open drawer that had held the silver cord. She stared at him searchingly, concentrating, and Wohlnoth's image dissolved.
The old ork in his place looked small and gray. The color of his bristling, wiry hair matched the chalk white of his long lower canine tusks. One tusk grew crooked. A single heavy eyebrow topped the sunken orbits of both black eyes. Two moles marked his shaven jaw. From one grew black hair, from the other white. The ork wore a broadcloth robe that matched his skin, both gray as fireplace ash. The robe had wide sleeves no more than elbow length, and its twill weave bore jagged embroidery. Lions, woven in white, overlapped jackals of black.
On one scrawny forearm the ork had a black tattoo of a crawling snake. Padia remembered that tattoo. At times it would slither from one arm to the other.
Seeing this figure from her past, Padia felt both apprehension and relief. She had nothing like her old power, but she had never worried much about the illusionist Vilph Axehandle.
Vilph looked at his own knobby hands as his Wohlnoth-image vanished, then got up. Padia had never seen a smaller ork. He stood hardly a head taller than a dwarf, shorter even than Alban. Vilph smiled smugly. ``I see my little pretense is exposed, but be grateful that I --''
Padia brought her arms smartly down to cast her spell, then threw the feather duster. It swooped into Vilph's face. ``Hnrf!'' said Vilph, falling back a step. Padia's levitation took the mop of feathers up and down squarely across the illusionist's snout, blinding him. As she ran for the shield case, she snapped her fingers, pointed, and the feather duster burst into flame.
The stink of burning feathers filled the room. Vilph grunted and pulled away the flaming duster. Barking a guttural word, he threw the duster at her. In flight it multiplied into five identical dusters, all aflame. Barely missing her as she ducked behind the case, they hit the wall by a suit of armor and fell, extinguished. The four copies vanished.
Wiping soot from his face, Vilph said, ``You cannot comprehend how my power has grooomph!'' The levitated case, propelled by Padia's kick, hit him heavily in the face and chest. He fell flat.
Even as he hit, the stunted ork extended a hand, and lime green light formed at his fingers. Fast as an arrow, a bolt wriggled forth and shattered the shield case. As she recoiled from a spray of glass shards, Padia thought, That was no illusion! He is stronger.
Vilph sprang to his feet. ``Now do you understand that -- ahh!'' He dodged a wickedly sharp sliver of glass. He watched it sail past him, then turned back with a snort. ``If you think such trifles --''
The crystal shield's edge caught him under the nose. An arc of red blood traced the illusionist's fall. His head bounced on the hardwood floor.
Padia swung the heavy shield again, striking Vilph just under the ribcage, then ran for the wand cabinet. Breathless, Vilph gestured. Another green bolt traced a wiggling curve toward Padia's shoulder.
She shrieked. Her robe scorched and her skin burned. Reeling, she slammed into the cabinet's glass door and shattered it.
No alarm sounded, for Vilph had disarmed the protective wards. Padia seized a wand of twisting briarwood and found the Theran inscription on its ivory handle. She concentrated, learning the incantation.
``No more games,'' said Vilph. ``Padia, drop the shield!''
Padia dropped the shield at her feet. She looked down, startled, for she had acted before she could think. That voice! So long as Vilph could speak, she dared not rely even on her own limbs. By the Passions, he's twice the magician I am. I have to escape.
Did he still have that eccentric obsession with conserving blood? She had nothing to lose. ``Your nose is bleeding, Vilph.''
Reflexively the ork touched a nostril. He started as his finger came away red. ``Hold still!'' he shouted, and suddenly she could not move. Yet she still held the wand, and -- his mistake! -- she could still speak.
Vilph closed his eyes. While Padia nervously wove a thread to power her wand, the blood on the ork's nose and lip sank into his gray skin as though absorbed by a sponge. He opened his eyes. ``Now drop the --''
He spoke too late. As she finished the incantation, a loud creaking erupted beneath the floor. Through cracks in the floor rose a dozen thin briars. They grew like a sheet of flame, branching with explosive speed, so that a forest of dense thorn bushes surrounded Vilph before he could move. The branches shook and hummed, and the tortured floorboards screeched.
Vilph cried out. Hearing the scream, Padia found new heart. She snapped the paralysis and ran from the display room, pointing the wand behind her. Buzzing briar walls grew in her wake.
From the room behind she heard curses, then a shout. ``Hodrick! Hold her!''
Padia pointed the wand at the parlor doorway as she passed. She hoped the Form had stayed there, and that the thorns would hold it. She had no idea of the Form's powers, except that it could move unseen.
Clutching her shoulder, she ran down the windowed hallway of the east wing toward the sitting room, which opened onto the foyer and the front door. Briefly she wondered whether Vilph had already escaped the thorns and waited there. Had he meant his shout as a trick? Angrily she shut away the thought. He shows up after ten years, and in one moment I start dancing to his tune! No pride in her own skill and cleverness entered her mind. Adepts took such things for granted.
From the display room she heard rumblings, then the crash of snapping briars.
Ahead through a wide doorway she saw the sitting room, largest room in the mansion. Sunlight beamed through its high bay windows. The room held farthingale chairs and divans covered in crimson velvet, as well as a dining set of polished cherrywood. The most fashionable t'skrang artists had created the motion paintings that writhed on the walls. From a domed ceiling edged with walnut bird's-beak molding hung an enormous crystal chandelier.
Padia burst into this room and nearly collided with Dander. She looked past him. Oh no, I completely forgot. Behind the tall old butler stood the matron, both parlormaids, the footman and cook, grooms, gardeners, even scullery maids -- every domestic in Jessis. Wide-eyed and trembling, they stood close together as though poised to take flight, like a flock of pigeons.
Padia sent them flying. ``Get out, off the grounds, now!''
The rumblings from Vilph's part of the house grew louder. Loud scrapes, squeaks, rips, crashes; the briars no longer hummed. She heard a whispery scrabbling sound, like dozens of light scuttling feet.
Padia shooed the domestics into the foyer. Dander, trying to maintain etiquette by facing her even while running, said, ``My profoundest regrets, madam, for bringing the help into the sitting room, but --''
``Out, before he gets free! Go across the way to Lansu's mansion. Stay there until I call you back.'' The crowd of servants prevented Padia's own escape, while the scrabbling sounds drew nearer. She ran back to the sitting room.
From nowhere a piebald hand grabbed her.
Padia screamed. The Composite Form held her hand, and the briar wand, high above her head. She kicked at it, then tried to gouge its eyes, but something made her stop. Mind effect, she thought, keeping me from hurting him. Radolf the Warden had crafted this enchantment centuries ago. It neutralized direct aggression toward the Composite Form by any resident of Merron.
The Form appeared distressed. ``Padia, if you would only tell us where your husband took the cord, we would leave without harming you.''
``I'm sure you would!'' Padia gritted her teeth, shutting out the pain of her wound. She could see, far down the sunlit east hallway, a huge gray shape. The floor vibrated with the weight of its many feet. Illusion! she told herself. Don't believe it!
``Why will you not tell us?'' the Form asked.
``That Vilph wants to know is reason enough for me not to tell.'' She struggled to break its grip.
An odor of vinegar grew as the gray thing moved closer. The long black talons of its eight feet clacked on the parquet floor. As it passed each hall window, slanting squares of light rippled over its swollen body. With a smooth, rocking gait it scuttled to the doorway and squeezed through, spiny hairs across its back scraping the top. Eight shiny black eyes, twin clusters of four on either side of its snout, stared at her with inscrutable interest. Padia felt a fear she had not known in years.
She had stumbled on a beast like this long ago in the Servos Jungle. Alban had thought of those days with a warrior's nostalgia. Padia, adept in a more scholarly discipline, remembered fatigue, deprivation, and danger. She remembered how she and Alban had stopped in a clearing. Alban left to fetch water, and moments later, the huge gray shape leaped from the trees....
Now another, the very image of the jehuthra that wounded her years ago, stood before her on high, jointed legs. They gave off a sprattling string of hollow snaps, like knuckles cracking, as the thing raced toward her. She stood fast, fighting her terror. Not a real jehuthra. Concentrate. Transcend the illusion.
The acrid vinegar stench engulfed her. A foreleg darted out. One talon, shiny black and perfect but for a coin-sized chip, caught at her stomacher and pulled. She stumbled forward, still intent on disbelief.
As the jehuthra pinned her under one bristling leg, she disbelieved. As twin palps, slathered with drool, extruded from its rubbery mouth, showing blue veins inside its distended lips, her conviction wavered. As she saw the pulse in its angular throat, the oozing black ulcers on its heaving gray-white belly, and the fur of parasitic fungus on its tarsal joints, she began to tremble. Somehow Vilph had summoned a real jehuthra.
With sick despair she recalled her words to Alban: ``Vilph wasn't much of a threat, really.''
The thing lowered its head toward hers, and she cried out. In a throaty voice the thing spoke a babble of syllables, Nga-hangh-la-aga-ah-naara-yahagga. It did nothing else, and after a time Padia guessed it meant to trap her until Vilph arrived. She could not levitate such a monster, and fire would not scare it. She could only wait.
Putting on a brave front, she twisted to look up at the Composite Form. ``So, `Hodrick,' I gather you're the one pulling Vilph's strings this time. What are you really called?''
``I use the name Vilph gave me. However, I do not control him. Quite the reverse.''
``Did the Egregore -- did you really warn the guilds about some threat to the city? Did they help you bring about the Affliction?''
``I do not know. Vilph says he knows.''
Padia stared in disbelief. ``Vilph Axehandle, who couldn't speak a true word under torture, says he knows. Vilph, controlling the Affliction! What does he want?''
The Form looked uncomfortable. ``He has offered conflicting motives.''
It -- he -- seemed utterly guileless. She suspected another trick, but to what end? She would not reveal where Alban took the silver cord; Hodrick must know that. He pursed his lips as he looked at her, and his uneven eyebrows rose in a way that again reminded her of Alban.
Suddenly she realized the truth. Ten years ago the Composite Form had taken Alban's arm and his pattern, at the height of Alban's power and of his love for Padia. The Form had taken that power, and it seemed the love had gone with it. Did the Form retain both even after the arm vanished?
She squirmed again under the creature's foot, but it did not move. From the east wing came vigorous footsteps. With desperate hope Padia said, ``Hodrick. Please let me loose.''
``I do not control the jehuthra. Vilph controls it.''
``You could fight it. You could fight Vilph. I know him. Whatever he has told you is a lie, and you may be sure he means terrible harm to me and to the city.''
Hodrick looked uncertain. Padia hesitated, weighing her self-respect against the danger to her, to Jessis, even to Merron. Conscious that she crossed a line, she said, ``If you truly care for me, help me loose so I may defend myself.''
``You do not know -- he would not --'' Each square of Hodrick's patchwork face showed anguish. She saw now that the pink scar lines around each feature had begun to bleed. Without the binding cord, the Form's integrity had begun to decay.
Padia wondered how far she dare go. She imagined the words. You spoke the truth. I do not love my husband. Free me, and you may tell me of your love. She opened her mouth, but the words caught in her throat. Hating herself even for thinking them, she thought instead of a maxim from her days in the Company: ``Fighting your enemy makes you more like him.''
She might even yet have said the words, given time to rationalize the need, but then Vilph arrived. He strode through the east doorway with his characteristic stride, long stiff steps with back and arms held rigid.
The hunched ork looked at the jehuthra and its victim. He drew back his lips in a grimace. ``As I began to say before your rude interruption, you cannot comprehend how my power has grown.''
Padia tried to sound bored. ``If we can take the ritual gloating as read, perhaps we could move on to -- mmmph!'' A wide pink tongue appeared from the jehuthra's humanoid mouth. The tongue snaked down an arm's length and fell across her lips. Repelled, she thrashed back and forth, but a fold of the tongue fell across her jaw and neck. Hot, wet, sticky, it held her fast.
``Not so talkative now?'' As Vilph peered at her in triumph, Padia saw briar scratches on his craggy face. He continued, ``No, for some reason you don't talk now. You thought you could overpower me, fine lady? You with your feather dusters and thorn bushes? You never could match me, with your polished furniture and gold tea sets, and now all the less, after ten years that you have spent in pleasant gossip and perfumed parties, but that I have spent in relentless study under conditions you would sneer at, you and your well-dressed tight-fisted empty-headed society friends, the mannered heirs of brigands who gained their wealth through plunder and vicious crimes that would repel the lowliest Twopenny thief, but who is sneering now? Do you sneer now?''
Padia rolled her eyes in boredom. Vilph snarled and drew back one foot.
Quickly Hodrick said, ``Please do not kick her.''
Vilph froze in surprise. After a tense pause he said, ``Of course not. I had no intent to kick.'' He looked down. ``I merely wanted to remove this briar.''
Vilph pulled a thorn branch from the hem of his robe and examined it. He carried it over to the dining table and casually scraped it across the cherrywood top. Padia winced at the scratching, until she saw Vilph looking sidelong at her. Ah, the mind-shattering duels of magicians, she thought sourly. How did this insect gain such power?
Hodrick cleared his sectioned throat. ``Perhaps we should attend to the time.''
``Do not pressure me, Hodrick. I shall not be pressured.'' Vilph scraped twice more, sullenly. ``Enough of this byplay,'' he said, throwing the briar at the chandelier. ``I shall now transport you into astral space, Padia, to a locality particularly favored by Horrors. When convenient, I shall retrieve whatever they leave of you.'' He began to gesture.
Terrified, Padia thrashed against the monster's foot. She had never heard of such a heinous spell. He's taken up nethermancy. He summoned this creature, and now he traffics with Horrors! Though fear lent her strength, she still could not budge the jehuthra's foot.
Hodrick spoke plaintively. ``Will you not give her one more chance to tell where her husband took the cord?''
``She will never tell. Do not interrupt me.''
With sure movements Vilph wove the threads of the spell. In another mood Padia might have grudgingly admired his technique. After a moment she saw hazy colorless arcs trailing his hands.
Her skin grew clammy. Tendrils of gray fog seeped up from beneath her, evoking a pale green glow where they touched her skin. When a wisp of fog touched her shoulder wound, it felt like a swarm of crawling ants. The walls of the room seemed to grow distant, and an enveloping shimmer of nihility hurt her eyes. Astral space! He can do it! Passions help me, help!
Vilph held his hands high, poised. ``Now, Padia dear, I bid you --''
With an ear-splitting crash of glass, Alban Peyl leaped through the bay window. Shards spun and glittered in the sunlight. Vilph whirled. The astral vapors around Padia instantly vanished.
Alban wore, not an expensive coat or his yellow sash, but only a tight black jerkin and black hose. Sailing through the air, curled in a ball, the fat merchant seemed a warrior come again. He landed on his feet with a thud.
Then, groaning in pain, he keeled over onto the floor.
Padia thought it the most graceless entrance she had ever seen, and yet not for years had she felt so glad to see him.
Vilph stared, then laughed harshly. ``Yes, Alban? Have you something to say? A warrior follows a dramatic entrance with a dramatic statement.''
Alban wheezed like an invalid. ``Let -- let her --''
Vilph laughed again. ``How the years change us! When I saw you last, you could leap twice that height. You kicked through an oak beam without drawing a breath.''
The ork walked on sandaled feet through the broken glass to stand over Alban. ``Tell me, Alban, when did you last do anything more strenuous than climb stairs? Yet when your arm came back, so did the old instincts. You thought, `Hah, I'll jump through the window!' As usual, the practice of illusion spreads far beyond my discipline.''
Padia looked at Alban lying breathless on the floor, and she saw what Vilph missed. Alban's brow showed lines of concentration, and his eyes darted every few seconds to the jehuthra. She thought, He's trying to penetrate the illusion, the dunce! She wanted to call out, shake him, make him realize the truth. It's no illusion, get up, hit him!
``Hit him!'' she cried, surprising herself. The jehuthra's tongue no longer gagged her, and she could move freely. She looked around, disoriented. The monster had vanished.
Startled, Vilph stared first at the empty space, then at Alban.
``Perhaps you recall,'' Alban said, panting, ``in my order we develop a talent for true sight. I can see past your illusions.''
``Scourge you!'' Vilph gestured, and green light bloomed again at his fingertips. ``Hodrick, get her!''
Padia had already rolled to her feet and away from the Form -- or had she? Where had he gone? She pointed the briar wand at Vilph, but with inhuman speed the Form's mottled hand once again seized hers.
Blood seeped from Hodrick's scars and ran down his cheeks like tears. ``I must apologize,'' he said gently.
Vilph calmed himself and smiled. ``For centuries Hodrick has caught beings far more powerful than either of you. You might say he lives for nothing else. You just regained your arm, Alban. If you attack me, Hodrick will remove both of hers.''
Padia gasped. She looked into the Form's mismatched eyes. They showed pity and guilt.
Alban stood up calmly, though he still breathed hard. ``Whatever grudge you had against us is ten years past. We have no quarrel with you now. Leave us alone.''
``I have never been one to hold a grudge,'' said the ork righteously. ``I merely help my friend Hodrick secure his rightful property, the silver cord that maintains his body. Tell us where you took the cord, and we shall leave you alone.''
Padia struggled in the Form's grasp. ``Don't tell him! He's using the Form -- Hodrick -- to bring the Affliction! He attacked me!'' That she had attacked him first seemed beside the point.
Vilph said drily, ``I also ruined her favorite tabletop. Truly, I am a fiend. Tell me, and be free of me forever.''
Alban's glance darted among all three of them. Finally he said, ``I shall tell you if you tell me something in return.''
``Of course. When have I ever failed to --?''
``Last night at Antimere Asylum we met someone who said you had done something to him. Was that true?''
Vilph smiled blandly. ``Ask him yourself.''
``He died. What did you do to him?''
``Already dead? My, my.'' Vilph's smile spread. ``I did nothing. Really, it comes down to my word against his, and troubadours are notorious liars.''
Alban started. ``I did not say he was a troubadour. Who was he?''
``Dear me, you seem to have caught me out. Clever Alban. Was he not a friend of yours?''
``I never --'' Alban stopped. Surprise and dread showed on his face.
Vilph said, ``I grow forgetful in my old age. What did you just tell me about true sight? Something about penetrating my illusions?''
Alban scowled. ``I want you out of here. I took the cord to Quare Fructidor, the appraiser on Westhrall Street. He didn't know what to make of it, so I went to Quietus. I left the cord with someone named Thanyx. Now go.''
Hodrick said, ``Quietus, the nethermancy college. Thanyx Destrovan, journeyman nethermancer and prefect of matrix research.''
Vilph nodded. ``Hodrick, release her and come with me. Peyl, make way for my transport.'' Vilph drew back to the wall, where Hodrick joined him. The ork gestured grandly.
In through the window flew a carpet.
Hardly three steps long by two wide, it properly qualified as a mere rug. Crafters in Keystone and Twopenny had closely woven its flat, velvety pile with colored wing shapes. A gold like eagle feathers overlapped the red of cardinals.
The carpet sailed in, steady as an airship, its edges flapping in steady rhythm. It settled light as a leaf on the floor beside the dining table. Vilph stepped on, Hodrick followed, and the carpet lifted. The two stood as on a ship deck.
``I leave you with this thought,'' Vilph said. ``Know that whatever you do now, I shall always --''
Padia said, ``Your nose is bleeding, Vilph.''
She saw Vilph's hand dart halfway to his face, then halt. He gave her a look of plain hatred, then made a chopping gesture. The carpet turned, and they passed out the window without touching a shard.
From the window Alban watched them fly into the sky, as Padia stumbled over to join him. He said thoughtfully, ``We shall need help against them. How badly are you hurt?''
``I need a day or so to heal.'' Looking at his hands and forearms, she saw several deep cuts from the glass. ``Oh! I'll get the healing herbs.''
``Don't bother.'' Alban stared down at the cuts, and they closed as she watched. ``I am an adept again.''
Somehow this made Padia uneasy. ``I wondered, when you jumped through the window. What a ridic--!'' She stopped. From habit she had begun to criticize, and yet his action had saved her.
Alban smiled. ``I meant to evade the gawkers at the gate, so I climbed the back wall.''
``Halfway up the lawn I saw Vilph and the monster through the window. I suppose he was right. Old instincts outstripped good sense.''
``I should say so! I, I mean, you should watch yourself while you adjust. Thank -- thank you for saving me.'' The moment called for a hug, she thought, or even a kiss. Bothered, she hurried on. ``It disturbed me, Vilph's talk about `a friend of yours.' I'm afraid he has somehow altered our memories.''
``-- And the man we saw last night was someone we once knew. What an awful idea. Is such a thing possible?''
Padia considered. ``Illusion usually involves brief effects, lasting minutes or hours at most. We should have recalled this `friend' by now.''
``Unless he used blood magic.''
She shivered. Though its power and duration far surpassed odinary spells, magic of the blood, of the life force, still carried a taint of the Scourge. ``Vilph always protected his blood. Now I wonder what he might have saved it for.''
``He has some kind of hold over that Hodrick creature. The Egregore, or the Composite Form, or whatever he is.''
Padia's eyes widened. ``How did you know?''
``When I took the cord to Haerlam the Diviner, I convinced him to tell me about it before he showed it around to --'' Alban broke off. His eyes darted around the sitting room. ``I've just had an unusual impulse. May I have that wand?''
``You don't know how to use it.''
``I'd like to look at it. Call it an unusual impulse.''
Padia belatedly recognized their old warning phrase from the Gray Owl Company. Baffled, she passed him the wand.
Alban held it by its handle, then flipped it once in the air. With uncanny speed he whirled and threw it at an empty corner of the room. The wand caromed off one wall, another, and flew back to slide across the ruined dining table. Alban snatched it up and threw it at a blank section of wall.
The wand hit some invisible obstruction and bounced to the floor. Stunned, Padia stared at the spot. As she watched, the illusion flickered, and there stood Vilph and Hodrick on the grounded carpet.
The ork shouted, ``Both of you, stop where you are! Remain silent!'' With resentful fury Padia found that Vilph had again paralyzed her. Evidently Alban could not move either.
Vilph rubbed one eye and glared at them. ``An attempt to disbelieve would have sufficed.'' He shook his head. ``Alban, you were always a poor liar. I would have left, if only you had told the truth about -- what was the name? Haerlam?''
Hodrick said, ``Haerlam of Choraetalan, called the Diviner. Instructor at the College of Supreme Muniment and an elder of Noesis.''
``Thank you.'' Vilph took on a tone of artless sincerity. ``As we leave, think of the corrosive effect on your lives of even a little lie. The price of wisdom is adherence, always, to the truth.''
He waved a hand, and the carpet floated a few feet upward. ``To further the cause of truth, Alban, I must tell you that Padia knew, these many years, that the Form took your arm. See what living a lie can do to the happiest marriage!'' He bowed, and the carpet whisked away through the window.
To Padia's astonishment, Alban turned to watch them vanish in the distance. Then he slowly scanned the room and grounds. ``I think this time they've really gone. Concentrate, Padia. Recognize the illusion.'' He stared at her intently.
Padia stumbled as the spell dissolved. ``You could move all that time? Why didn't you do something?''
``I had no chance against him,'' he said. ``Bad tidings. I'd hoped to reach Haerlam while they followed that false trail to Thanyx. Now we can't hope to get there first. Still, we'd best get the horses ready.''
``I sent the servants across the way to Lansu's.''
``I'll ready the horses myself.'' Alban looked up at her. ``Was Vilph right? Did you know?''
In Padia's mind guilt led, by a well worn path, to hostility. ``I was forbidden to tell you. If you mean to blame me for honoring the precepts of my guild, look to your own example first.'' She braced for the counter-attack.
Alban gazed at her placidly. ``I don't blame you. Do you suppose it would be best if this Hodrick regained the cord? Evidently it belongs to him.''
``Well,'' Padia began uncertainly. She had charged onto a battlefield and found it empty. More than his leaps and throws, more than his healing, this finally convinced her that the man she once loved had returned. Old affections fought in her heart against bitterness accrued over many years. ``I'm sorry, I can't -- I don't know how to -- Alban, where were you?''
Against her will, her wizard's memory recalled his every slight and cruelty and error. If he had reverted to his old self, should she absolve him? Could she? She began to cry. ``You left me alone, all these years. You did such terrible things to me, and made me do awful things to you. When I saved your life all those times and you saved mine, what did we save them for?''
He tried to take her in his arms, but resentment still held her. ``We were adepts,'' she said. ``I wanted to help people. Do some good. You dropped me in this house with nothing to do but clean it, and throw parties, and buy all those wands. Oh, he's ruined my wand case and my display room and, and I don't have anything to care about but -- display cases.'' She could say nothing more. She wept against his shoulder.
For long moments no sound touched the air save the calling of thrushes on the wing, a warbling tune, each phrase falling away like the woman's sobs. At last Alban said, ``You remember that time in Servos when I left you waiting on the trail, and you fought that jehuthra alone. I came back too late to help you. When I saw you lying wounded -- I don't think I realized until that moment how much you meant to me.
``Somewhere along the way, after I lost my -- my direction, I lost sight of my feelings. I came back here today and found you again fighting alone and wounded. I want you to know that, today, I felt that same love and admiration.
``Never doubt why we saved each other. We both walk the adept's way, the path to understanding. I strayed from that path, and you waited for me. Now I've come back, and I hope we'll go on together.''
Padia saw that Alban meant this subdued speech as comfort. She could hear the fondness in his words, and yet he sounded so detached. Had he behaved that way so long ago? Had she thought it appealing? She returned his embrace, but with a sense of inevitability, of resignation. The years had changed her as much as him, and no magic could restore her. In place of the hatred she had caged all those years, she now confined her misgivings.
She felt the sensation that annoys a wizard above all others, the feeling that she had forgotten something. Suddenly she cried, ``The chicks!'' She ran out the foyer door and onto the front lawn, with a bewildered Alban close behind.
Padia looked up at the ash tree, then down to the shadowed grass beneath. None of the afternoon's enigmas so mystified her as what she now saw.
In the blackbird nest one chick cheeped loudly, while its parents fed it worms and grubs. On the ground the other chick lay dead, its brains dashed in a red stain across the grass.