Piercing A Veil
Vilph Axehandle struck a noble, silent pose on the carpet's leading edge until he judged himself out of sight of Jessis. Then he cursed and stamped on the unyielding rug.
``That fat potseller! That bald and foolish candy-eater hit me in the eye! His dining chair groans beneath him, he cannot see his own wife's lip curl with detestation, and yet that lackwit dissipates one of my best effects. Gone, pffft! `Oh, I am sorry, did you mean that patch of vapor to be a spider? I thought it was an armchair.' Nnngh! Vilph, you sotted amateur, give up, leave town.''
Noticing Hodrick's stare, Vilph composed himself, but inwardly he suffered a hundred tortures. He could silence the Villandry woman's mockery with a word, but what spell could muffle the taunts within himself? Past embarrassments hung in his memory like bells whose ringing brought agony. His humiliating conflict with Alban and Padia rang loud as a steeple carillon.
``What bothers you?'' Hodrick shouted. Though the wind had no power to move them from the carpet, it swept away their words.
``I am rehearsing a new effect,'' Vilph shouted back. His words shaped his belief. On the instant his thoughts turned wholly to devising a new illusion. Indeed, had I not followed his thoughts second to second, I could have believed, as he did, that he had pondered this illusion ever since leaving Jessis.
Vilph had a mind of theatrical dimension. He maintained whole arrays of convictions and attitudes, each separate from the others, like flats of scenery hung above a theater stage. One scene paints a pastoral backdrop, and the troubadours praise Barsaive's rolling hills; the curtain falls, rises, and the hills have vanished; a new flat shows the prison on High Hill, and the actors assert with passionate conviction that they have held watch here days on end. Vilph's thinking progressed in the same way, from fiction to fiction. Yet as the ringing of a steeple bell near the theater brings the audience from its reverie, Vilph's memories occasionally wakened him. Then he cursed his thousand shortcomings.
For now, the new flat in place, Vilph mused on an effect to revenge himself on Alban. With a gesture he slowed the carpet and spoke normally. ``Hodrick. Tell me of Alban Peyl's patterns of association, his friends, business associates, and other connections to the community.''
Dread widened the Form's mismatched eyes. ``Will you do to him what you did to the troubadour?''
Another flat fell in Vilph's mind. ``Of course not.'' In that moment the ork believed, had always believed, would always believe this. ``I ask from simple curiosity. You know the patterns of all the name-givers in Merron, do you not?''
``I know them up to a moon ago, when you gave me awareness.'' Hodrick's deep voice carried a touch of resentment. ``Now I cannot sense them. Patterns flow like the Byrose. I traced their changes so that I might protect Merron, but you cut me loose from them. How can I serve the city now?''
``Trust me,'' said Vilph reassuringly. ``In the years since I saw you stealing Alban's arm, I have devoted much study to you.'' An attractive notion suggested itself to Vilph, and in the same moment it became eternal truth: ``I have almost finished a seven-stage plan to recover your sensory powers. We must make the magicians' guilds prove their fidelity first. Then, with their power, we will commence the restoration.''
Like others in his discipline, Vilph had mastered improvisation at short notice. Had Hodrick asked the seven stages of this plan, any illusionist could have rattled off seven fine lies. Yet few could match Vilph's power to believe his own lies and preach them like gospel.
Hodrick, having heard conflicting gospels already, looked skeptical. ``You have now given three explanations why I must use the guilds to cast these enchantments people call `the Affliction.' When you bestowed awareness on me, you said we must marshall the guilds to battle a Horror invasion. Later you dismissed that story as a test of my intellect. You claimed that in reality the Passion Mynbruje had called you to test the guilds' loyalty to the cause of truth.''
``Yes, yes. . . .''
``I want to believe that you can reconcile these differing explanations, but I do not see how.''
I hoped that in shoring up his lies, Vilph might think on his true motive in bringing the Affliction, a motive that had eluded me for a moon. In his mind there lurked a partition of sorts, a screen of chaotic sensations and images as dark to me as the wing of a theater stage. Vilph's thoughts of motive lay hidden and unknowable in that wing. Only in illusionists of the highest proficiency have I found such a barricade. It fascinated and frustrated me.
The screen still held as Vilph considered Hodrick's remarks. Explaining inconsistent lies offers mere exercise for an illusionist. Just now Vilph found the job of reconciling past stories tiresome, and so he looked down. ``Ah, Hodrick, look!''
Heading southeast and skirting Hempline, the carpet had crossed Westhrall Road, serpentine boundary between old money and new learning. Oldtown's steep terraced slope, its estates marked with wide straight roads, gave way to foothills covered with shabby boxes. The drab dwellings of Schools borough, made of marl brick or rubblework or stucco-covered softwood, clustered at the ends of branching lanes like grapes on a vine. Here lived artisans, auctioneers, bookkeepers, clerks, docents, embroiderers, grammarians, lexicographers, musicians, rent collectors, scholars, High Hill scribes, pensioned soldiers, teachers, tutors, undertakers, wet nurses, and yeomen. When not preoccupied with earning rent, they tried more or less to keep their homes livable, inasmuch as their landlords in Oldtown and Keystone never bothered.
In Schools lived most of Merron's magicians, some five or six dozen. The colleges drew them. Each college nestled in a saddle between shielding foothills, surrounded by grassy fields, the nearest buildings safely beyond blast radius.
Merron's magistrates had voted to build these four magical colleges not long after the Scourge ended. ``In this way we shall know where the magicians are and what they are about,'' said one magistrate, who might have added, ``and I shall fortify my stoneworkers' sagging wages.'' The colleges fostered progress in magical research at the price of fierce political rivalry among the disciplines. Elsewhere in Barsaive a wizard might study elementalism, an illusionist nethermancy. Those who crossed discipline boundaries in Merron concealed their ``infidelity,'' for fear of guild sanction.
Vilph's carpet first passed over Quietus, a long windowless rectangle of coffin proportions, gleaming black, from which shrieks and shrill piping music issued each night. Then he saw the college meant for illusionists, a stolid marble edifice without a trace of character. No illusionists had taken part in its design, nor shown up at the christening ceremony to name their college, nor ever occupied the building. At least, people thought not. Neighbors saw squatters go in and out, and pigeons flocked under the building's eaves. One never knew. . . .
Now, just five minutes after he left Jessis, Vilph saw a third school ahead, the wizards' College of Supreme Muniment. By horse Alban and Padia could not hope to ride here in less than fifteen minutes more. Before then Vilph would have the cord. Vilph did not fear either adept, but he recognized that they could obstruct his dealings with Haerlam. They might even raise troublesome questions with the magicians' guilds -- if the guilds dared risk trouble. Vilph smiled.
Exhilarated, he pointed out signs of flood damage. ``There, that flat expanse of mud. I recall that there stood a line of cheap laundries and teahouses. Let half wash out that mud, and let the other half serve the rinse in glasses, hah! Over there, the temple of Lochost has lost its gates, and who knows what else? No doubt the Passion refused to save the place, for its hidebound questors are a mob of hypocrites. See the people gathered around that overturned food wagon? Ants on a carcass!''
``You seem to take pleasure in the suffering of these flood victims.''
``Do not blame me, blame the guilds. Had the magicians united their efforts in good faith, they could have scrubbed this borough clean in hours. Instead they engage in their usual squabbles over position. `My apprentices will not stoop to cleaning up mud while yours have only to move books.' Hnnnh!''
For once Vilph spoke the truth. The half dozen magicians in each guild fought political battles on a scale better suited to the dozens of Old Family oligarchs on High Hill. Magistrates and would-be magistrates raced to employ the colleges' most promising new journeymen, because a potent spellcasting servant conferred status and power. In turn the three guilds competed for these patrons' favors, the better to spread their disciplines. This led to endless petty bickering.
``Such nonsense,'' Vilph continued. ``No wonder the illusionists need no guild, when all name-givers create their own illusions to believe. Had Peyl not ruined your enchantment by taking back his dratted arm, the river might have washed away these prattling scholars by now. This borough would be better for their absence.''
``We have passed the College.''
Vilph concealed his surprise, but another tiny bell joined the many hanging in his memories. ``Yes. I knew that. I merely wished to survey the damage.'' To prove this, Vilph sent the carpet on a wide arc across the borough, gradually approaching his destination. He balanced the need for haste against a plausible patrol, while the ringing of inner bells tormented him.
After five minutes they approached the wizards' school. Wizards stoutly defended its name, the College of Supreme Muniment, against gibes from other magicians. The building had seven sides, each a different height. Each freestone wall bore lines of finger-high sigils, closely spaced. One hundred eight meticulously chosen materials went into the college's construction. Groundskeepers ruthlessly uprooted any new plant beyond the eight hundred seventy-seven originally allotted by the founders. Any staff adept could recite the auspices that dictated these and two thousand five hundred fifty-nine other necessities.
``Where is Haerlam the Diviner now?'' Vilph asked Hodrick.
``I do not know. In times past I could track any name-giver in the city, but now --''
``Yes, yes, everything went wrong after I gave you consciousness. Would you like me to revoke it?''
Hodrick looked at Vilph uneasily, but said nothing. Vilph noted that the Form's scars now bled more freely. Without the silver cord, Hodrick would have -- how long? another hour? -- before his body disintegrated into its component parts.
``What means did you use to sense these magicians' whereabouts?''
``I do not know. I had -- an instrumentality. . . .''
``How helpful. Where, as of the last moon, would Haerlam have been found at this time of day?''
Hodrick guided Vilph to a landing near the crest of the college's heptagonal roof. Below, a few people glanced up to watch the carpet descend, then walked on. ``I can enter through here,'' Hodrick said, indicating an oak trapdoor. By the ancient enchantment, the Composite Form could pass through all portals in Merron. ``Have you a plan to obtain the cord?''
``A brilliant plan,'' said Vilph. ``Go in and tell Haerlam to give it to you.''
Hodrick paused. ``Ah, the blood oath will compel him. Elegant.''
Then Vilph felt moved to look below to the manicured lawn. Seeing nothing, he realized that the impulse had come not from him, but from the Composite Form. When he looked back, Hodrick had vanished. Scourge that spell of unseen movement. To think that across the centuries Radolf's enchantment controls the movement of my head!
Though the notion offended him, Vilph had no way to revenge himself on Radolf, who had died to create the Egregore. Instead his thoughts turned to Alban, who had created this whole nuisance. If Peyl believes in such a thing as true sight, I shall give him something to see.
The consummation of his exhausting research and planning lay within reach. Once the cord had restored Hodrick, Vilph would command him to lead the guilds in greater enchantments. First Oneiros, then Noesis. Or I might resume with Geocosm, but there I have already proven my point: that --
At this hint of motive, his thoughts drifted into the wings. Despite furious effort I could not follow them.
Three minutes later Vilph looked around. Hodrick stood close by. ``I could not find Haerlam. His associates say an unexpected engagement has drawn him from his research.''
``What kind of engagement?'' Vilph asked.
The carpet settled behind the small mausoleum. On its marble wall Vilph noted dark streaks that writhed like slow fire. He crept to a corner with Hodrick unseen beside him. Although the soaked ground squelched under the ork's feet, Hodrick made no sound. They looked across the flat, grassy yard at a group of mourners gathered around an open grave.
In the afternoon sunlight they saw a mixed lot of heavy, droopy-eyed people dressed in formal wear: nondescript high-throated surcoats and breeches for the men, long tight-bodiced muslin gowns and frogged mantles for the women. All wore a fringed white scarf, symbol of mourning, on the upper left arm.
The mourners stood stiffly, trying hard to act properly. By their ruddy complexions and too-fresh outfits Vilph knew them for Schools tradespeople. He winced at the unrestrained wailing of one short, elderly woman with a figure like a rolled-up mattress. On her sloping shoulders she wore an amice, a square white cloth for the bereaved parent.
Vilph scowled. ``Here in the wizards' yard I see not a single wizard. Look, they are burying a body. In the wizard's yard, a body!'' Most of Merron preferred cremation over interment, because Barsaive's dead sometimes crawled from their graves. Nethermancers discouraged cremation for this very reason, and consequently the other colleges used cremation exclusively.
The bereaved woman and the other mourners heeded a tall woman robed in white, who stood at one end of the grave. She spoke in a high sibilant voice with an accent Vilph could not place. ``Friends, death means no end. Not cessation. Transformation. Flesh passes to Earth that mothered it, spirit joins those multitudes invisible among us. Here today we welcome a new spirit to our midst.''
The sobbing mourner called out, ``Katri, oh, Katri!''
Vilph grew still more puzzled. ``That human female speaking the eulogy . . . that is no questor. By her robe and manner I almost think her -- but no.''
The tall woman wore robes suited to a nethermancer, bone white sateen woven with staggered rows of ox skulls. Capacious sleeves bunched at the wrists under black bracelets edged with green. Her hands looked gaunt and spotted. An emerald scarab at her throat held an enveloping hood that hid her face.
``Who is she, Hodrick?''
``The nethermancer Thanyx Destrovan.''
``Indeed! Alban's bluff made flesh, here where we hoped to find Haerlam. That is too notable a coincidence.'' He pondered. ``Wait. Haerlam -- did he post that manifesto in the Allweather Teahouse two moons back? The one that asked the guilds to cooperate and learn from one another?"
``Yes. He drew little support, but Thanyx endorsed the idea.''
``Two peacemakers. . . . Hmm.''
The eulogy continued. ``The world around us, suffused with spirits,'' said Thanyx. ``Every breath we draw, mixed with air breathed by every other being who ever lived. Time, history, suffused with spirits. Our traditions, our ideas, shaped by those dead long before our births. Who can deny? Spirits control us. But with knowledge of their names, with force of will, we may control them.
``Katri had great will. I saw her through from apprentice to novice. Would have gone farther. Now she takes on new form, in the strength of youth. Enters a new world, a thousand new worlds, larger and more different than this one, suffused with power. Will go far there too, for she has no fear. I help her.''
If she says ``suffused'' one more time -- Vilph did not finish the thought. Every nethermancer he had ever seen had frightened him. No, nothing frightened him -- a new flat fell -- they had somehow irritated him. Nethermancy represented the entities he could not fool, the reality he could not long mask.
Vilph spotted a portly human of middle years waddling toward the mourners from a privy. The man wore elaborate robes, mantled and corded and cinched, sparkling with bezeled brooches and gaudy with tassels and clasps. A three-colored turban bearing four kinds of feathers crowned his pale round face. He shook when he moved, like a flustered matron.
Vilph found the man so hard to view that he almost overlooked the wizard symbols woven in the motley robes. ``I take it this -- this item moving toward the grave is Haerlam the Diviner? He looks like he collided with a tailor's cart. Does he carry the cord?''
``No,'' said Hodrick sadly.
``Wait until the ceremony is over. Then I shall have him take us to the cord. It can't last more than a few minutes.''
Haerlam bowed to Thanyx, to the group, to the grave, and to a nearby bush before he could stop himself. ``Ah, yes,'' he began in a rich tenor voice, too exuberant for the setting. ``I express my sincere condolences to the bereaved relatives and friends of Katri Moone. We at the College feel boundless gratitude for her aid in our fight against the recent flood. Let me just mention, if I may, my deep sorrow at her untimely drowning. Er -- not to imply that there was a timelier drowning in store -- I mean --'' Here Haerlam started to apologize for this implication, then to apologize for interrupting his own eulogy. He trailed off in a recursive mumble.
Drowning! This nethermancer had helped rival wizards fight the flood and had died for it. Taken unaware, Vilph felt guilt and a chilling remorse. His own handiwork had taken this young name-giver! Yet of course a nethermancer trafficked in death every day, and would soon have died anyway -- if Thanyx had not resurrected her, she must not have made a great mark -- the culling of the herd -- Vilph hid away the guilt behind a lowering vista of righteousness.
The nethermancer's voice screeched like a creaking coffin lid. Her words sounded like old Theran. ``What is this, Hodrick?'' Vilph whispered.
``She has begun casting a blessed light. See, already the necessary adjutants respond to her summoning.''
Around the mourners a patterned swarm of motes appeared and circled like Iopan scarf dancers. Carrion flies wreathed in a golden aurora, they looked radiant and hideous. Where they flew over the grass, their path traced golden lines that quickly faded. Thanyx Destrovan's chant gathered the spirits in a ball overhead, and their gentle radiance lit those beneath. Katri's mother gazed up in wonder, her tears drying.
``I have not seen that spell used for mundane ceremony. How long do you think it will continue?''
Hodrick answered, ``It will last some twenty minutes, if we may judge by past rites at Quietus.''
``We have no time for this nonsense. Peyl and his wife could be rushing this way even now.'' Vilph ran his hands up and down a hand's breadth from his body, fingers twisting threads of magic. He shaped an imaginary bulge over his own flat belly, then a taller and wider silhouette. He puffed out his cheeks and pulled back his spiky gray hair. In his mind's eye rose a flawless picture, in his thoughts an undoubted conviction. His belief shaped the magic. There in the gray ork's place stood Alban Peyl.
Vilph looked down at his new shape and smirked. The black jerkin and hose, a warrior's outfit, stretched tight over his swelling stomach. What a laughable figure, he thought. Peyl could never pose a threat to me. He debated adding Alban's yellow sash to complete the ludicrous portrait, but of course he should look just as Haerlam saw Alban earlier today. Vilph moved toward the circle of blessed light, with Hodrick following unseen.
Haerlam saw him first. ``Why, ah, Alban!'' the wizard cried, interrupting the nethermancer's chant.
``What do I see?'' Vilph called out in the silence. ``Could this vision be true? Oh, wonderful!'' His voice, rolling and resonant, disarmed the mourners. Vilph measured them at a glance, discerning their desires, and his spell began to take hold. He could exploit the merest trace of his targets' desires. Vilph had long since learned the foundational insight of illusion: People want to believe.
He debated the ``great vision'' these mourners should see. With casual virtuosity Vilph had begun his spell without a notion. He rejected the idea of dead bodies clawing up from the cemetery ground, for he had a morbid distaste for cliche. Instead, on a whim, he said, ``How did these wild animals come here? What made this rich growth of jungle trees and flowers? Truly, this is a pastoral kingdom!''
The illusion reached into his victims' minds. Vilph cast into each a dream picture of cashew trees and raffia palms and mangroves with high buttressed roots, hung with lianas and moss, dotted with acrid pinmold -- of jute shrubs and firethorns with bright red berries -- of tamarisk flowers in pink clusters, orchids, and wisteria. The jungle seemed to surround the mourners. Amid this riot of color he set birds of a hundred feathers, parrots, cockatoos, hornbills; across the scene he paraded tigers, leaf monkeys, lemurs, ocelots, storm wolves, ermines, lions, and white foxes, all gathering around the circle of blessed light in peaceable assembly. He spared nothing. Vilph meant to envision an afterlife, an idea he found so nonsensical that only the most audacious nonsense could convey it.
The mourners stared like mesmerized chickens. Even the fat woman stopped her bawling. Vilph sensed in Thanyx alone a different, more skeptical attitude. That nethermancer could pose trouble. Still Vilph pressed on.
The girl's voice should resound in the forest. He had no idea what she sounded like in life, and so he created a wavering soprano. ``Mo-o-o-ther,'' he cast, and the mourners cried out as they heard the voice from among the animals. Belatedly he thought, The odious fat woman might be an aunt. ``Mo-o-o-ther, are you there?'' Vilph whispered sidelong to Hodrick, ``Help me.''
Hodrick whispered back, ``Her voice sounded several tones lower, with a nasal quality and a Schools accent.''
Vilph played the voice like an instrument. ``Mo-o-o-ther.''
``Katri! Katri! Is it you?'' The fat woman began weeping again. ``Oh, Passions! Katri, I'm here!''
``Mother, I have gone on to a wonderful reward. Look how the realm of heaven nurtures this grove of sweet content. From each bird's throat I hear a bell-like warbling, the merest note of which rings more pleasingly than any tower of Earth. The tiger walks unhid among us, the jackal needs no flesh, and no fly or bug lives here to trouble us, save that we thrill to see the lovely butterfly.''
Vilph paused, thinking he had gone too far with the thrilling-butterfly idea, but the mourners apparently liked it. They listened in reverent silence, and Katri's mother seemed ecstatic. Vilph reveled in illusion's power to elevate and transfigure the spirit. He would lead Merron, as he led these worthy innocents, to wonderful new heights!
He still felt a discord, a skeptical mind: Thanyx. Vilph whispered to Hodrick, ``How did Thanyx and her apprentice, this Katri person, regard one another?''
Hodrick whispered, ``Thanyx found in Katri a promising student with strong spirit, compassionate nature, and unusual respect for other disciplines. Katri venerated Thanyx as an elder guide into the mysteries.''
On the instant Vilph renewed the voice. ``O Master, the life beyond has verified all I learned from you. You taught so well! Here I can see at last how each magician sees only one face of a many-faceted reality.''
Hodrick whispered of Katri's excessive timidity in summoning rituals, of her friendships and rivalries with other apprentices, of her tastes in food. Vilph smoothly worked these details into the voice's narrative, and he felt Thanyx weaken.
The nethermancer pulled back the hood of her robe and gazed upward with wonder in her black eyes. She had bone-white hair and a long, gaunt face with a knife-blade nose. ``Katri. You can show yourself?''
Bother, Vilph thought. ``Hodrick.''
``Katri Moone had a pale round face, a young face, with a narrow, turned-up nose.'' As the Form spoke, Vilph conjured a cloudy, wavering image that gazed down from above the ward of blessed light. ``Heavy brown arching eyebrows,'' Hodrick continued. ``Large green eyes with gold ringing the pupils -- no, narrow the eyes. Yes. High forehead -- a bit more bulge to it -- long brown hair swept straight back. . . .''
Vilph resolved the cloud into a crisp image, and former mourners shouted with joy.
``Katri!'' Thanyx cried. She smiled, and her deathly air vanished. Along with it went her skepticism, and Vilph grinned in triumph. Exhilarated, he thought of the old saying: ``Elementalists command the real, nethermancers the unreal, and wizards the force of magic itself; but illusionists command elementalists, nethermancers, and wizards.'' What a blessing he brought to Merron and its good people by conjuring these images! They would say, Ah, we never knew true beauty until our beloved Vilph came forth to show us. He twists the greatest nethermancers around his little finger.
``You hoped to speed the service, I think?'' Hodrick whispered.
``Yes, yes --'' Vilph concentrated, and Katri's image spoke again. ``Mother, Master, my dear friends, go forward, knowing the happy reward that awaits you! Waste not another second of your life in this ceremony! Wherever you go, I will always be with you. . . .'' And so on. As the crowd departed in a haze of pleasure, not even Katri's mother remembered that the grave remained open and the coffin unburied.
Haerlam rushed over to Vilph, with Thanyx behind. Neither saw Hodrick, and both took Vilph for Alban Peyl.
``Did you see that, Alban?'' Haerlam began. ``Er, hello, by the way, but did you see? I had no idea, no, none, but then, the Affliction has caused the strangest things, indeed it has, not to imply that this happy incident in any way connotes the tragedy of those other terrible events --''
Vilph quickly discovered that a conversation with Haerlam the Diviner consisted of interrupting him. ``Have you learned anything of the silver cord I brought you, Haerlam?'' Vilph asked. The illusion disguised his voice.
``Ah. Oh. Well, in the spirit of cooperation between the guilds, I took it to show to that nethermancer I mentioned to you this morning, Thanyx, who I believe is around here some-- oh, here she is right here. Eh, um, have you two met?''
The woman extended a frail hand. ``Yes, I hear of you, you are husband to wizard Padia Villandry.''
``Charmed.'' Vilph belatedly decided Alban would never say ``charmed,'' but Thanyx could not know that.
The oblivious Haerlam had started on a long trip through another sentence. ``Well, she couldn't make much more of the cord than I, and privately I am starting to think no one in Merron can make much of it, but in the spirit of tolerance and open communication, we resolved to show it to an elementalist, the one you mentioned to me this morning -- Boyhan? Was that the name?''
``Britham Boyhan,'' said Thanyx. Vilph nodded as though he knew this person intimately.
``As to the spirit of tolerance, by the way, Alban,'' Haerlam continued, ``you may not appreciate the magnitude of my feat in persuading the College to allow this ceremony here just now, nor the courage of my esteemed colleague Thanyx in venturing to heal a long-festering gap between -- well, I don't mean to imply that a gap can fester, but --''
``Does Boyhan have the cord now?''
``Ah! Well, Boyhan proved remarkably civil, especially after I mentioned your name -- a tribute to you, of course, Alban. He told us that you know --'' Haerlam's voice dropped, ``-- you know about the magicians' guilds.''
``You may speak freely to me,'' Vilph said grandly. ``My wife, Padia, thought it wise to confide in me. You may be sure I shall protect your secrets.'' Feel free to tell me exactly how much you know, he thought.
``Well, er, Boyhan promised to pass the cord to his father, old Taundis Boyhan, and get the old fellow to convoke the elementalists' guild, Geocosm. So far as I know, they are studying it now at the University.''
At Vilph's prompting the three set off at once for the elementalist college. Hodrick accompanied them unseen. With a thought Vilph sent away his carpet to its nearest hiding place, under the center span of Dovetail Bridge.
They walked across Schools borough. Haerlam chattered, but Thanyx seemed absorbed in meditation. Vilph could not judge Haerlam. The man seemed naive and bumbling, but occasionally he could sound as wise as a sage. Perhaps he fashioned his scholarly orations from past lectures to apprentices.
``The Composite Form's magic comes of three known sources,'' Haerlam said, ``its body, its cord, and its oaths.
``First, we know of four innate enchantments placed on the Form by Radolf and his allies as the Scourge commenced. The Form uses invisibility of a kind. It passes barriers. It senses Horror magic and other pattern disruptions, even across the city. A mental effect of some sort protects others from attacking it.''
They left the college grounds and walked along wide, muddy streets. The people of Schools scrubbed mud from their doorways, bought clay jugs from water-carriers, and threw wrecked furniture on high piles at each intersection.
``Second,'' Haerlam continued, ``the Form's silver cord, also Radolf's work, draws upon Theran crafts lost to us. We have deduced three powers that do not correspond well to our spellcasting disciplines. The cord steals body parts and transplants them to the Form. It sustains the Form itself. Based on what you told us this morning, Alban, we presume the Form can divine the cord's location at some range.''
The adepts walked through the Lantern Way marketplace. Customers, tradespeople, and children all shied away as Thanyx Destrovan passed, and the sight of Haerlam's gaudy outfit made them pause. Even in Schools people rarely saw magicians.
``Third and last, with each passing generation the guild officials renew their blood oaths to lend the Form their collected power on demand. The theory behind these, too, was lost in the Scourge. In those times the sharing of power let the Form battle Horrors, at least the lesser Horrors, on something like equal footing. Unfortunately, these same oaths let the Form bring the flood and our other recent disasters.''
Vilph hardly listened. He noted with interest that he himself -- or rather, Alban Peyl -- fascinated the crowd even more than the magicians did. Evidently the return of Peyl's arm had become the gossip of the day. He overheard a group of children arguing whether his arm looked real. On a whim he waved to them, and they shied back and ran.
``Should also make clear, Haerlam,'' Thanyx added, ``that Composite Form does not converse. Records of several centuries show only that it makes, what is the word, rote repetition of warnings -- `Danger from Horrors in northeast.' Like parrot.''
You are a moon out of date, Vilph thought.
They passed into an open park-like area of meadowgrass. A well-kept dirt trail wound toward the center of the park. There a large disk of rock floated in empty air, the only outward sign of the elementalists' college.
They came to a wide saucer-like depression in the ground, overgrown with grass and ringed with trees. A steep ridge of earth rose along one arc of the perimeter, and in it a long row of windows overlooked the center. A pool there, beneath the rock disk, reflected blue sky in all weather. This place, the University, marked the lowest elevation anywhere in Schools, apart from the border with Hempline, and yet only here had residents felt absolutely safe from the flood.
They paused at the ridge and looked around. They saw no one else. ``You have visited here before, Alban?'' Thanyx asked.
Vilph had come here invisibly ten days ago. He had watched Hodrick lead the elementalists of Geocosm in the ritual spell that flooded the Byrose. He recalled the elementalists standing evenly spaced along the ridge, guarded from view by a shell of fog, lightning crackling from figure to figure. . . . ``No, I've never seen it.''
``Central rock disk is called the Fastness, meeting site for Geocosm. Disk is protected with many wards. There elementalists meet in privacy or try new spells that, outside, would draw Horrors.''
``The College of Supreme Muniment has two such strongpoints,'' Haerlam said, then caught himself. ``Er, not to presuppose superiority over our esteemed colleagues at the University.''
``No, of course not,'' said Thanyx. ``Means nothing that Quietus has three.''
Haerlam raised his thin eyebrows. ``Please put the scandalous rumor to rest, dear Thanyx, that two of those strongpoints have become corrupted by failed summonings.''
The nethermancer's head drew back. ``Friend Haerlam, `corrupted' is unfair. We can purify them when we need.''
``So you are saying --''
Vilph stepped between them. ``I wonder if this is Boyhan now?'' He pointed along the inner embankment of the ridge, where an iris of grassy earth had dilated. Through the portal came Britham Boyhan. The blue of his robe had lightened to match the clear sky, obscuring the white threads that had glimmered like lightning the night before.
Boyhan strode toward them, and even at a distance Vilph could sense the elementalist's suspicion. Something in the way those blue eyes narrowed when they looked at Vilph --
Boyhan nodded coolly to Thanyx and Haerlam. ``Well met, Adepts. Welcome to the college. And you, Landsman Peyl.'' He gazed at Vilph intently. ``The new arm suits you. I see you are dressed more as the adept now.''
Vilph had mastered his role as thoroughly as a theater performer. ``I have always been the adept, whatever I wore,'' he said smoothly.
Boyhan stared a moment longer, then said, ``My father has convened Geocosm in the Fastness. We are discussing the subversion of the Egregore and its Composite Form. Will the three of you join us?''
Haerlam and Thanyx exchanged surprised glances. Haerlam said, ``We, uh, we would greatly appreciate that honor.''
Vilph, concealing his own amazement, now felt certain that Boyhan -- or his father, a well-known and powerful adept -- planned a trap. A magicians' guild, maintained in lethal secrecy for centuries, did not simply invite newcomers to sit in! He thought, Peyl and Villandry got here -- must have tracked Haerlam this way -- they warned the guild. At once Vilph silently readied a new spell.
They walked into the earthen basin and down to the pool, where the air itself seemed charged with magic. In this place a visitor could sense spirits of earth, water, wood, all the old and potent principles. Here the disk of the Fastness, suspended motionless in the still air, seemed almost ordinary.
``How shall we, ah, ascend?'' Haerlam asked.
``A moment while I bring up the fountain.'' Boyhan began an incantation in one of the elemental tongues.
Meanwhile Vilph cast his illusion. ``I trust you will not mind me simply standing here, doing nothing,'' he said to the others. As the spell took hold, their eyes became glassy, and they nodded. Now they would ignore whatever Vilph did.
``Hodrick, are you here?'' he called.
The Form stood at his side. The seams joining Hodrick's limbs and features had widened. The red gashes now bled freely. ``I sense the silver cord atop the disk,'' he said. ``I must have it soon.''
``Yes, yes, that's why we're here. Let your mind go blank. This effect is most difficult, and I insist on your cooperation.''
While Vilph began a second spell, Boyhan completed his. A rippling in the pool -- a line of bulges on its surface, like vertebrae -- suddenly a dozen fountains erupted into the sunshine. From a low burbling swell near the pool's edge, the fountains rose in unbroken succession to the Fastness rim, each fountain higher than the last. Within their rising jets sunbeams flickered and broke into sparkling motes of color that shook like leaves in the wind. At the peak of each cascade, white foam fell left, then right, then on all sides in beautiful chaos.
Boyhan admired the fountains for a moment, then spoke a final word. Instantly the jets of water stopped in place, not frozen into ice but transfixed as if painted.
``Follow me, if you will,'' Boyhan said to the magicians. He set a sandaled foot on the lowest fountain; it held his weight like stone. He climbed up the fountain stairs, step by step.
``Ah, a pretty effect, without question,'' said Haerlam. ``Yet I hesitate to climb so high without a railing. If you don't mind, I will use my own methods.'' He spoke a brief incantation and flew upward. The wizard's awkwardness on the ground became flawless grace in the air. He rose in a smooth arc and landed lightly on the Fastness edge.
Thanyx scowled. ``Well, if comes to that, I summon spirits to carry me.'' She began to chant tonelessly.
Boyhan interrupted her. ``Please. We cannot afford time to upstage one another. The guild waits.''
He hurried Thanyx up the fountain steps and stared down at Vilph. To the eyes of Boyhan and the others, Alban Peyl had stood silently by, but Vilph had finished casting an elaborate spell.
``You are ready, Hodrick?'' he asked. ``As before, we shall begin by demanding the cord. Trap or no trap, these magicians of Geocosm must still honor the blood oath. If that fails, remember the secondary plan. Come with me.''
Hodrick spoke with resignation and despair. ``As you wish.'' His speech had slurred, for his jaw now hung loosely.
Both visible, the two slowly marched up the fountain steps.
An outside observer could see only gray fog atop the stone disk. The adepts inside the Fastness dwelt under a dome of roiling gray mist. A glowing patch of light on the dome moved through the day, following the sun. Colors within the Fastness seemed more vivid, sounds brighter, and the air sweeter.
Vilph and Hodrick entered the dome of fog at the top of the fountain steps. Thanyx and Haerlam waited nearby. At the sight of the Composite Form, both looked startled.
The six elementalists of Geocosm stood shoulder to shoulder at the far side of the dome. At one end of the line stood Britham Boyhan, and beside him two well-known magicians: the portly and phlegmatic Gideon Lant, an immigrant from the mining village of Nore; and Simon Weald, an old and respected crafter of many wood-shaping effects. Both wore conservative gray-brown robes.
At the other end of the line, Ramiel Sandstorm and Forleau the Gleaner stared suspiciously at Vilph. Ramiel, a young elf of precocious talent and surpassing arrogance, wore a tawny robe woven with abstract designs representing the wind. He held three clear glass spheres between the four long fingers of his right hand, ready to throw. Forleau arched her thin black eyebrows; she had no other hair, but a pearly mist covered her scalp. Her robe showed fish designs in many colors.
The tallest magician held the center of the line: the leader of Geocosm, Taundis Boyhan, called ``Firehair.'' Old Taundis had his son Britham's broad frame, leonine features, and bright blue eyes, but in contrast to Britham's black hair, Taundis had a striking red mane with a white forelock, as well as a white stripe down the center of his full red beard. He wore a white robe, embroidered with sun symbols in red and gold, and a long red tippet scarf.
Because the elementalists showed no surprise at the sight of Hodrick, Vilph knew he had entered a trap.
Taundis spoke sternly in a resounding baritone. ``Welcome to Thanyx Destrovan of the guild Oneiros. Welcome to Haerlam the Diviner, elder of the guild Noesis. Welcome to -- to the warrior adept Alban Peyl. I shall speak to the point. For centuries the Composite Form, the voice of Merron's Egregore, has appeared to the guilds as the harbinger of imminent danger. Now, however, we believe that the disgraced illusionist Vilph Axehandle has gained control of the Form and subverted its original purpose. Does the Composite Form reply?''
Patchwork lips parted, their corners bleeding as they recited an ancient invocation. ``For the good of Merron! By the blood oath you have sworn, bring the Composite Form its silver cord, or Merron's guardian will perish.''
No one moved. Vilph thought, They are hiding something -- or someone. Peyl and Villandry are hiding in ambush behind them. He readied a new spell.
Ramiel Sandstorm wore a prim smile. ``The Scourge has passed. Some say `Merron's guardian' has become a greater menace than the Horrors it once warned against.''
Forleau nodded once, smartly. ``The Form is only a mouthpiece. The Egregore's puppet. Not a name-giver. So it passes? What of it?''
Gideon turned ponderously to Simon Weald. ``You would remember, Simon. Would you not? Yes, you would. When, aside from this recent hoax that tricked us into bringing that disastrous flood, did the Composite Form last warn of an incursion by Horrors?''
Simon stroked his brown beard. ``Mmmph. Missed the Rasper-Nor business, outside town -- missed Intrantivere's plan, no Horror actually summoned -- mmmph. Fourteen years ago, bloatforms in the Keystone public baths.''
Staring at Taundis Boyhan, Vilph cast his spell. He muttered under his breath, ``Show the cord.''
``So we see,'' Taundis began, ``that the Composite Form has outlived its use. We see no reason --'' He broke off and stared blankly. ``--reason not to show you the cord,'' he resumed, ``although we have no intention of giving it to you. Bag!''
The Geocosm magicians showed their surprise. ``Father,'' began Britham, ``are you sure --?''
``Silence! I have decided. Bag! Where is that Bag?''
At the base of the fog dome a knee-high mound formed in the stone. It looked like an inverted hamper, round on top, with two stubby arms. The mound slid toward Taundis, passing through the rock of the Fastness like a ripple in water. It stopped beside Taundis and flung out its tiny arms.
``No hugs,'' Taundis warned. ``Open up, Bag.''
The porter lowered its arms. After a sullen pause a long slit appeared across Bag's round top. It opened like a mouth. Taundis reached into the black void within, rooted around, and pulled out the silver cord.
A garotte as long as the magician's arm, it glowed with the color of strong moonlight. At first glance the cord seemed tightly woven from strands of silver. A careful eye could see the thinner lines that made up those strands, the finer filaments that in turn made up the lines, and so on down to the limit of vision.
``Theran work,'' Haerlam the Diviner said to himself. ``Fine, fine work.''
Vilph thought, At last. He murmured, ``Give the cord back to the porter.''
Taundis dropped the cord into Bag's huge mouth. ``Close, Bag,'' said the old elementalist. ``That is the last you will see of this cord, Landsman Peyl -- or shall I say, Vilph Axehandle.''
There it is, then. They'll attack soon. Seeing no point in maintaining it, Vilph dismissed his illusion of Alban. The adepts saw Alban's form give way to Vilph's. Fixing his eyes on the porter, Vilph whispered, ``Move this way.''
At once Bag left Taundis Boyhan's side and moved toward the hunched ork. The Geocosm adepts cried out, but before they could act, Alban Peyl -- the real Alban Peyl, now armored in ring mail and carrying a mahogany quarterstaff -- fell from the foggy ceiling. Padia Villandry fell with him. She too wore ring mail, and she carried her crystal shield and an ivory wand. They had hidden in the fog on a lattice of air.
Alban and Padia saw Vilph directly beneath them. They had taken him completely by surprise and would hit him hard. Then something caused Alban and Padia to twist aside in the air, so that Padia fell behind the ork. Alban fell forward, between Vilph and Bag.
Alban scrambled to his feet, panting. ``Something's wrong,'' he called to the elementalists.
Padia readied her shield. ``We meant to hit him!''
Geocosm paid no attention. They saw Vilph bearing down on Alban, or on Bag behind him, and they readied their spells.
Britham called, ``Watch out, Peyl!'' He spoke an incantation and pointed at Vilph, but his arm fell. He looked confused. ``Some illusion,'' he said aloud. ``Well, if I cannot strike you, I can dispose of the cord. Apologies, Bag.''
Britham pointed to Bag, and fire shot from his fingertips. Alban leaped away. The bolt of flame hit the porter, and a screech rose from its gaping mouth. Bag vanished and shards of stone burst upward, striking Vilph and drawing blood.
That blood -- it bled from above Vilph's skin. Only then did the others see clearly. The gray ork's form dissolved, and there stood Hodrick, even as Hodrick's shape dissolved to reveal Vilph. His illusion had switched their likenesses. Fooled by the trick, Britham Boyhan had done the unthinkable. He had wounded the Composite Form, violating the ancient blood oath.
Wild-eyed, Hodrick felt his cheek. His arm jerked as it moved, as though worked by strings. He stared at the blood on his fingertips. The seams on his face widened as his eyes bulged. His loose jaw dropped still further, grotesquely exaggerating his look of horror.
Vilph thought, All those centuries and he never got hurt before. Events had flowed beyond Vilph's control. The ork looked on in dread, for he could see the calamity coming.
Alban foresaw it too, and he ran for Hodrick. He faltered as the protective enchantment dispelled his intent to attack. He watched helplessly.
The enraged Hodrick fixed his bloodshot eyes on Britham Boyhan. Extending his arm jerkily, the Composite Form spoke. His words emerged as a guttural and incoherent scream, but condemnation by the blood oath required no words.
Boyhan began an incantation to defend himself, too late. Across the gulf of centuries, the warden magicians of Merron pronounced their verdict.
A spray of blood shot from Boyhan's forehead. The wound formed the Theran rune ``betrayal.'' Screaming, his arms flailing, Boyhan reeled backward as if hit by a mace. A wet salty smell filled the Fastness.
Two more jets of blood, one from each shoulder: ``faithless'' read the left rune, ``disloyal'' the right. Boyhan's blood tore through his robe like red shrapnel. It sprayed the Geocosm magicians, and they leaped back as though the harmless blood burned them.
Boyhan's scream became a shriek. From his hips burst two new explosions, in the runes ``selfish'' and ``insane.'' Boyhan fell on his back. He thrashed so hard that his elbows cracked on the stone floor.
Old Taundis Boyhan ran to his son, but he fell back as the sixth rune exploded on Britham's belly: ``weak.'' Weak in the belly, Vilph thought crazily.
The old man knelt at his son's side. ``Britham! Britham!''
Shocked, Vilph could not control his thoughts. Back in the Scourge they said that about cowards. An idiom.
The father's shouts drowned out the son's. ``Hold on, son! Be strong!''
He can't, he's weak in the belly. Vilph felt a hideous urge to laugh. He had just met Boyhan and now, ten minutes later, had killed him. How absurd!
Britham looked up at his father and tried to speak. ``It's -- it's not --''
The seventh and final rune exploded directly over his heart: ``justice.'' He convulsed and lay still.
A deathly quiet, until Taundis began to sob. Hodrick gazed fixedly at the body, fury giving way to shock.
Thanyx Destrovan silently walked to the body and drew a circle in the air above it. ``Escaped to larger world,'' she whispered. ``Be brave, adept.''
One by one the five surviving elementalists, the two wizards, the nethermancer, and the warrior turned to face Vilph. In each expression he saw mute accusation.
``I did not mean that to happen,'' the ork said, his thoughts still scattered. ``Hodrick did it. Boyhan brought it on himself, you all saw that. This never would have happened if you had simply given over the cord!''
Taundis Boyhan stood. The air around him grew hot. The bloody splashes on his robe had already dried; now they began to smoulder. ``My son. He might have surpassed us all in mastery of magic. He had the kindest --'' Choking, the old man broke off. A tear fell from one eye, but it sizzled and boiled away. His eyes glazed fiery orange. ``Vilph Axehandle,'' Taundis said solemnly. ``If I live only five minutes more, I shall live to see you burn.''
Vilph's broad nostrils flared. As his thoughts focused, a new flat fell. Young Boyhan had attacked out of hand -- impetuous behavior always brought disaster -- the culling of the herd --
``This is no time for blustering threats,'' Vilph said righteously. ``You must give Hodrick the cord. Your blood oath compels service to the Composite Form, Merron's protector. If you violate it, you will perish as young Boyhan did.''
``If I live only five minutes more --'' Taundis repeated, marching forward. Flames burned in his eyes and at his fingertips.
Alban stepped between them. ``One moment, Taundis. Hodrick, we mean no harm to you, except as you serve Vilph. Leave him, join us, and we shall give you the cord. For Vilph's sake you brought the Affliction. Do you even know why he uses you?''
Hodrick answered with a dismal wail. His neck had begun to split, so that his head lolled to one side. Blood covered his chest and arms.
``We have no time for banter,'' said Vilph. ``Bring back the porter, give Hodrick the cord, and then we can discuss his allegiance.''
``Tell us why you have brought on the Affliction.''
Vilph sighed. ``Very well, I shall tell you the truth. The Therans hired me to cause disorder and weaken the city so that they could invade.'' His thoughts retreated behind his mental screen of chaotic images, and I could not discern the truth of his words.
Alban and the magicians considered this. ``Ridiculous,'' said Haerlam. ``I've heard no reports of Theran troop movements anywhere in this area.''
``I merely tested your credence,'' Vilph said. ``In truth I lead a cabal of merchants who want to lower property values and purchase large tracts cheaply.''
The others stared skeptically. ``Most of the city has suffered equally,'' said Alban. ``Merchants would target one borough at a time, to keep their purchases manageable.''
``All right, all right,'' said Vilph tiredly. ``You have seen through me. You deserve the absolute truth. I serve Vestrial, the Mad Passion of deceit and treachery. He is manipulating the magicians' guilds to destroy Merron.''
``This madman is toying with us!'' Taundis rushed forward, his hands flaming. ``He has delayed us while he readies a spell!''
Vilph smiled. ``Very shrewd.'' He cast the spell.
Taundis froze. He and the rest saw a skull image fall across Vilph's face (or did it glow white beneath his skin?), and in that skull they foresaw, they felt agonizing deaths. With rising terror Gideon Lant knew he lay trapped in a mine, and a mountain of rock crushed his ribcage. Forleau pushed away a suckered tentacle, froze as she looked in the kraken's bulbous blue eye, and felt its beak cut her in half at the waist. Ramiel, Simon Weald, Haerlam: strangled by a rival, skull smashed in a fall, heart failure in doddering senility. They edged back from Vilph, then turned and fled.
Even Thanyx the nethermancer, graceful traveller in the dark realms, drew back in fright. She knew fates the others could not imagine. Transfixed by iron spikes at every joint, she shrieked as the Horror called the Needlemaker lovingly scraped the skin from her torso, then extruded its scalpel tongue and -- she ran, blindly.
Thanyx, Haerlam, Padia, Geocosm -- the most powerful magicians of Merron ran from Vilph Axehandle like headless hens. They ran through the fog walls of the Fastness and off the stone disk, flying or falling to the pool below.
``Run, you arrogant wretches!'' Vilph reveled in his power. He noticed Hodrick listing to one side on a bloody leg. Hurriedly Vilph knelt down by Taundis Boyhan, who lay shaking on the stone floor, lost in a nightmare of incineration. ``Now, Taundis,'' Vilph said amiably, ``is the weather hot enough for you? Bring back the porter, and I shall release you.''
Trembling, Taundis shied back from the ork. ``B-bag,'' he stammered.
The porter bulged upward from the floor by its master's head. Hugging Boyhan's wrinkled neck, Bag opened its mouth.
Vilph said, ``Hodrick, come here.'' Vilph heard a clinking sound drawing near, but in his excitement he took it for Hodrick. The ork reached in --
A pudgy hand darted in and seized the silver cord. Vilph staggered back in astonishment. Hodrick cried out wordlessly.
Though the magicians had fled, one adept still faced Vilph: Alban Peyl, warrior adept in the Order of Inner Light. Alban backed away with the cord, his ring mail clinking.
Affronted, Vilph scrutinized the fat man. ``Why are you still here? Look, the troll is attacking with his pole-ax, he'll disembowel you, run! Look, the thundra beast is charging. Drop the cord, run, it can kill you without a thought!''
Alban said, ``And I can die without a thought.'' He stepped forward, watching the ork and Hodrick intently.
``Idiot! Don't you fear death?''
Alban reached striking distance. ``There is no self in this body,'' he said placidly, ``and therefore no one who can die.''
``What drivel!'' Vilph loosed another spell. ``Look, you are on fire!'' Flames sprang up on Alban's sleeve; he stared at them, and they vanished. Snarling, Vilph shouted, ``Bats! Bats fill the air!'' Alban gazed at the descending swarm of squeaking vampire bats, and they faded away.
``I see clearly,'' said Alban. ``I live by the truth. Give up.''
Fury harshened the ork's velvety voice. ``You speak of truth, you standing there, brand new arm-in-arm with Geocosm, a guild of stiff-necked politicking liars who have deceived Merron for centuries about the Egregore and about their own existence, yes, aided by the other guilds too, while the Form assaulted good citizens! Your own wife helped them. She lied to you!''
``They can embrace the truth or not, as they will. So can you. Give this up.''
``Embrace this truth,'' Vilph said coldly. A pit yawned under Alban's feet, and he fell into blackness -- until he saw past the illusion and stood on his feet again. He thumped Vilph's chest with his mahogany staff, and a tiny star of light flickered where it struck.
``Hodrick, will you join us now?'' Alban asked.
Hodrick said nothing. He looked blank. Did he even hear them?
Vilph set his jaw and concentrated. On Alban's hands and face green pustules erupted, then burst to reveal crimson rosebuds that bloomed into tiny singing skulls -- until the illusion faded under Alban's gaze. The staff struck Vilph again, knocking him down.
A windstorm, fading, the strike. Gangrene, fade, strike.
At any time Vilph could have foiled Alban's true sight with one of his few genuine effects, the green bolts that had wounded Padia. Yet as his best illusions faded and vanished, Vilph perversely disdained to rely on real magic. Everyone succumbs to illusion; he believed that like the law of gravity. He clenched his pointed teeth and, on principle, brought forth more vivid phantasms.
The battle took a toll on them both, but on Vilph much the worse. Whereas Alban wheezed with exertion, a constellation of bruises marked Vilph's skinny body. As another blow landed and another star of pain flared, the ork searched for a dignified exit. ``Hodrick,'' he called, ``I have softened him up for you. You may --'' He ducked another blow. ``You may take the cord now.''
Vilph and Alban lost sight of Hodrick. The warrior retreated quickly, wheeling to scan the room. He saw nothing, and so he threw the cord as far as he could beyond the fog wall. A second later the Composite Form collapsed against Alban, bearing him down under a load of squelching flesh.
``After the cord, Hodrick!'' Vilph shouted. With a thought he summoned his flying carpet; it would arrive within a minute.
Five seconds later, Vilph saw a shadowy figure within the fog wall. In one hand a bright silver light shone lantern-like, and Vilph's heart sank. Through the wall came Padia Villandry, the cord in her hand. She looked frightened but resolute. Measuring the situation at a glance, she levitated to the ceiling, out of Hodrick's reach.
Vilph stamped his foot and readied another spell, but Alban had freed himself and now ran at Vilph again. Preoccupied in dodging the quarterstaff, Vilph called to her, ``Hodrick will die unless you give him the cord.''
Alban called in turn, ``He hasn't agreed to join us.''
Padia looked down at Hodrick. Now hardly more than a heap of flesh, the Composite Form raised its bloody head. One ear fell off with a moist plop. The Form's hand, its fingers intact but hanging limp, reached toward her imploringly.
Ninety minutes ago she had sat with Hodrick in her parlor. He had told her painful things about herself, things her society friends wouldn't think of discussing. He had said, I mean no harm, and I told the truth.
What finally decided her? Only her sheer revulsion at the idea of passing a death sentence. She called to Alban, ``Enlisting him by extortion is no answer.'' She dropped the silver cord into his hand. ``Hodrick,'' she said, ``Vilph is using you. Please leave him and join us.''
Vilph's carpet soared in through the fog dome. Ducking another blow from Alban's staff, Vilph jumped on gracelessly and sent the carpet speeding toward Hodrick. ``Come along,'' he said.
Hodrick stood up. The blood had vanished. His legs and his single arm had grown whole; clean pink ridges once again marked his patchwork features. In the Form's gray and green eyes Vilph saw a new expression: contempt. ``I will stay here,'' Hodrick said. He gazed reverently at Padia, who still floated overhead.
Vilph cursed him. ``You forget yourself! You forget me, and what I can do!''
``What can you do to me? Nothing worse than what you made me do to Merron. I reject you, VIlph, you and your lies and your mysterious purposes.''
Vilph saw Alban running at him, staff raised. In a panic the ork rose out of reach. ``Peyl! This is all your doing!''
``No, Vilph,'' said Alban. ``Had you sent Hodrick to Jessis openly and alone, we would have directed him to Haerlam, and then Geocosm would have met him without suspicion. Your own distrust, your urge toward deception, ruined you.''
Vilph glared. ``We shall see who is ruined. Remember that troubadour, Alban. I did not like him either.'' He flew away into the fog.
With Hodrick looking on, Padia knelt by Taundis, soothing him and rubbing his shoulders. The old man still seemed dazed.
``I know what he's going through," she told Alban. ``That fear was awful. I felt the sureness of my own death. Those magicians may be running still.''
``Yet you came back,'' Alban said.
She looked up at him. ``Death or not, I didn't want to leave you,'' she said, thinking, Not with everything so new and unsettled. She said uneasily, ``I never took the blood oath. When I joined Noesis, the elders insisted I should -- but the idea bothered me, and at any rate I soon fell away from my discipline. I was never active in guild politics, and so the elders never pressed the issue.
``Had I taken the oath, Britham Boyhan's fate could have been mine.'' She shivered. ``That was the death I saw in Vilph's spell: runic wounds, and my blood pouring out like water from a cup.''
``It is all over now,'' began Alban -- and Hodrick. Both had spoken at once. Warrior and Composite Form looked at each other, each with a lifted eyebrow and the same tilt of the head.
Alban smiled, slightly. ``You gained more from me than an arm.''
Hodrick tried a tentative smile in return. ``Your pattern helped me. I believe I still retain much of it.''
``I only wish I had, these ten years.'' Alban looked to Padia. ``I returned to myself just last night, and now we've collected a copy. Shall we put him in the east guest room?''
Padia smiled, but her heart leaped. In Hodrick, a rag-patch monster, a tatterdemalion, she saw much of Alban. She saw the calm strength and compassion she had liked in Alban ten years ago, free from intervening memories of heartache. Her feelings, uncomplicated by physical attraction, predisposed her toward warm friendship with Hodrick, a feeling she could not yet muster for Alban.
Taundis Boyhan rose unsteadily. He looked at them all bitterly, then at his son's grisly body. With tears streaming down his withered cheeks, he raised a fist, and the dome of fog vanished in an eyeblink. Under bright sunlight he said, ``Here in my place of power I will swear an oath to destroy Vilph Axehandle. Who will join me?''
Padia placed a hand on the elementalist's shoulder. ``We have time for oaths later. We must attend to your son's cremation, and then you can rest.''
``No! I will swear while the Passions burn in me!''
``Your son died by an oath,'' said Alban. ``Would you imitate him? Against Vilph we do not need passion. We need careful thought and clear sight.''
``Away from me, then!'' Taundis shouted a Theran incantation and cast his arms wide. He glowed with a light of alizarin red, and the smell of sulphur pervaded the air. While the others looked on in disquiet, he began to swear his oath.
Vilph fled the Fastness in a horrible mood. The encounter had left him with a new bell, and its ringing tortured him. That Peyl! He is more than a nuisance -- he always was. I must dispose of him, definitely. Definitely.
He landed and sent away his carpet. After his humiliation, he wished to walk among inferiors -- no -- among the simple and unaffected name-givers of Merron. He left the University and came to the market at Lantern Way. Passing one hand over his robe, he disguised it as plain street clothing, a brown wool sark and black knee breeches.
Wandering through the marketplace, Vilph noticed a familiar stout woman. She stood chatting at the booth of a travelling brazier who sold tiny icons of the Passions. Vilph took a moment to place her. Ah, at the funeral -- the mother of that apprentice nethermancer.
``Really, it was just wonderful,'' she told the merchant serenely. ``The afterlife is glorious, and after my time here, which I hope is still a while longer, Garlen willing, I'll go join my beautiful Katri in the beautiful forest.'' A blissful sigh. She bought a statuette of Garlen in its female aspect, and then she wandered along the line of booths toward Vilph.
Vilph had no reason to stay. He cared nothing about this woman. Except -- her idiotic joy sickened him. That she found lumpish pleasure in this life of suffering, this sickened him.
He saw her leave the booths and walk across a grassy field toward a fountain. He overtook her, calling, ``Townswoman!''
She turned. ``Yes? I'm sorry, do I know you?''
He stared at her, a killing stare, while he wove the thread of magic. ``I am surprised you have ventured onto this swampy ground. Quicksand is everywhere around here.''
The woman looked around, startled. As Vilph cast his spell, her eyes widened and she fell to the grass. ``Aaah! Help!''
``In fact,'' he continued calmly, ``many people have sunk deep underground, while the wet sand seeps into their mouth and their lungs. They die buried, in darkness, utterly alone.''
The woman tried to scream, but the scream died in her throat. She trembled like a sleeper in nightmare, her eyes wide.
Some insignificant part of Vilph's mind spoke up. It said, You are torturing this innocent woman. For an instant Vilph wavered, afflicted by guilt. Then he gritted his sharp teeth and thought, I have a high purpose.
He spoke again. ``You believe in a benign world and a nonsensical afterlife.''
The woman looked around frantically. ``Who's there? He-help me, help!''
``Understand: The world does not care to comfort you, nor frighten you, nor save you from danger, nor punish you for crimes, in this life or thereafter.''
``The ground is -- Help me, please!'' She choked as though strangled.
``The Universe cares not at all whether you live or die. Goodness and evil, justice and guilt, they are all illusions. Reflect on this, and grow strong.''
He walked away, leaving her in contest with the terrors of her mind. Guilt, vengeance, righteousness, contempt: Flats fell in rapid succession.
Later, sitting cross-legged on his carpet with a bracing wind in his face, Vilph commended himself for his dramatic delivery, his illuminating insight. Freeing a populace from the bonds of illusion called for genuine moral stature. How fortunate that this city had gained, though no one yet knew it, a guide of requisite virtue.