Piercing A Veil
Dense clouds gathered, obscuring the sun. Sky and ground merged in a haze, interrupted only by the jagged outlines of the Twopenny tenements. Alban stared blearily from the whirlicote. They were near the docks now. The Byrose still ran high; if the wind rose, the water would flood the streets. If more rain fell.
Let it fall. He no longer cared.
Light flared on the horizon. A fire? Twopenny tenements, built from cheap planking and ravaged by neglect, might as well have been made of tinder. A spark from a coal or an unattended oven, that was it all it took. Like last year's fire in Oldtown, north of Hempline -- or was it north of Schools? A lightning bolt, then a wave of flames, screaming families, blackened bodies. He looked again. The fire was tinged in green. Something melting -- minerals, perhaps? Weren't the foundations viridian sandstone -- or was that Nightshade? Or was this some new disaster -- the Affliction again? He shrugged, surprised by his indifference.
He closed his eyes and pressed his thumbs against his temples. He had a blinding headache. Every beat of his heart produced a spasm in his skull. He longed for his bed, his goosefeather pillows.
Home would have to wait. Rest would elude him until he learned the result of the Gullwing deal, until he knew he had defeated the deceitful Banston Meriwell. Then sleep.
The chariot rattled to a stop in front of the dispatch house. Most windows were dark. As instructed, Norgan had sent the staff home early.
Inside, the aroma of cherry incense still lingered in the air. Alban passed Amyqua's desk, noticing a cluster of white roses floated in a bowl of water -- Where did she get the flowers? -- and entered his office.
He stopped short. His desk was as he had left it, the oil lamp burning with a soft light. He saw his same chair: stained arm rests, patched seat cushion. The pine shelves, the oak cabinet, the tile floor -- all looked the same.
The vellum map, though, was gone. In its place a corkwood slab covered the entire wall. Palm-size parchment documents covered the board in even lines. Going closer, Alban identified them as cargo manifests: fishing nets to Landis, Iopos hosiery to Jerris, blood pebble armor to Kratas, all in proper order, all dated within the last moon. All signed -- by Niss Reeves.
Astonished, Alban raced through the aisle of crates, past the reception desk, out the front door. He searched for the brass doorplate that identified his business. It read REEVES EXPORTS.
Shaken, he walked back inside, steadying himself against Amyqua's desk. He felt faint. ``Norgan!'' he howled. ``Norgan! Come here now!''
The dwarf tottered from the back room. When he saw Alban, he put his hand to his lips. ``Oh my. Who are you?''
Alban saw a dark, button-sized splotch in Norgan's forehead. Then the world blurred, and he shook his head to clear his vision. No, he saw no splotch. Even the memory of it vanished.
``Do you have business here, friend?'' Norgan asked, guardedly.
``Do you recognize me, Norgan?''
The dwarf took a step backwards. ``Should I?''
An illusion, thought Alban. This is all an illusion. The corkwood, the doorplate, Norgan. He could disperse it, if he could find the will to concentrate.
Alban closed his eyes. His thoughts flickered and churned, ribbons of color buffeted in a hurricane. Desperately, he tried to calm them, but they slipped away. Thoughts, ribbons, splatters of light -- the ribbon shrivelled, turned black, disappeared --
His thoughts had grown crazy. He opened his eyes. ``Where is Reeves?'' he asked, forcing a smile he hoped would soothe the skittish dwarf. For now, he had to tolerate the illusion.
``Away,'' said Norgan curtly. He took another step back. ``She's leading a caravan to Bartertown. She should be back by morning.''
Impossible, thought Alban. I saw Reeves in High Hill less than an hour ago. This is Vilph's work!
``Now, friend, unless you want to leave a message for Landswoman Reeves, I'm afraid I'll have to --''
Alban debated a course of action. Arguing with Norgan was pointless. He decided on a story. ``I am Alban Peyl.'' He watched the dwarf closely; no reaction to his name. He continued. ``I am an aide to the magistrates' finance ministry. Reeves had requested a variance regarding the Bartertown caravan.''
``Will there be a change?'' Norgan looked confused. ``I understood we would still qualify for the standard levy, seven percent of value. Correct, sir?''
Suddenly pain swelled in Alban's skull. ``Y-yes,'' he stammered. ``Seven per cent.''
``Then -- is that the gist of the message, sir?''
What message? Alban forgot what they had been talking about. What was this place? ``What did you say?''
``The variance. Seven percent.''
Alban had never heard of a ``variance.'' He could not fathom the meaning of ``seven percent.'' He looked around in confusion. He was standing in some kind of -- establishment. Desks and cabinets -- what were they for? Dazed, Alban groped for the doorlatch.
``Excuse me?'' said the person with him. Some dwarf. Who? ``Are you all right, friend?'' He sounded frightened.
Trembling, Alban ran into the street. The cool air hit him like a slap. He stumbled towards his whirlicote. ``Hill House,'' he said to Winn. Carush is still there. He can help me.
Inside, he slumped in his seat and tried to rest. His head pounded, and splinters of light exploded behind his eyes. He concentrated on his breathing, listening to the clack of the wheels.
``Do you know what that place was, Winn?''
``No, sir,'' the driver said. ``Don't recall I ever gone that way before.''
By the time the whirlicote reached High Hill, Alban had recovered somewhat. His headache had settled in his skull like a lump of iron, agonizing but tolerable. Both his vision and his mind were clear. He smelled the acrid water of the Byrose, felt the soft velvet of the seat cushion, heard the crows overhead -- all as usual.
Vilph did this. Though he had no evidence, he felt the truth in his bones. But how? How did he manage an illusion of such power?
For the second time that day Alban walked up the granite steps. As he approached the troll guard, it occurred to him that Vilph might have preceded him here. He slowed down.
Kriast stood guard, arms crossed, eyeing Alban with a steely glare. The troll sidestepped, moving between Alban and the door.
A dark splotch stained Kriast's forehead. Alban blinked as the sight produced confusion in his mind. No, he did not see a splotch.
``Business or visitor?'' Kriast grunted.
``Business,'' said Alban evenly. ``With former magistrate Alban Peyl.'' He watched the troll for a reaction.
Kriast's face clouded with suspicion. ``Never heard of him.''
``Business,'' said Alban. ``With Brant Carush.''
Kriast narrowed his eyes. ``Thought you said you were here for Alban Peyl.''
``I misspoke. My name is Peyl. I'm an exporter from Travar.''
``Is Carush expecting you?''
Kriast thought this over. He motioned toward the door. ``Go in.''
Inside, Alban headed down a long marble corridor to Carush's office. Had it changed, the way that other place --? No, Alban could not remember the other place. His disordered thoughts flowed in all directions.
Carush's name on the door -- so far, it all looked well. The olive door opened on a room large enough to hold a banquet. Walnut bookshelves along the left wall and glass vitrine cases around the room displayed Carush's large collection of elven porcelain. In one corner Alban saw a gold tea service on a stand with a piecrust edge. A long refectory table of carved rosewood dominated the room, and a matching kneehole desk stood at one end of the table. Here sat Carush, a willowy man with a thin brown beard, busily scrawling on a parchment.
Carush's head snapped up as Alban entered. ``Can I help you?'' he said, startled. He looked Alban up and down without a glimmer of recognition.
Alban sighed. He said politely, ``I'm looking for Landsman Carush, the magistrate.''
``You have found him. Have a seat.''
Alban walked across many pileless kilim rugs in subdued colors and took the upholstered easy chair opposite Carush. ``I apologize for the intrusion. My name is Alban Peyl. I am a warrior adept from -- from Travar.''
Warily, Carush shook hands, then placed the parchment in a desk drawer. He assumed the businesslike composure of a bureaucrat. ``How can I help you?''
``A great peril faces our -- your -- community. The recent flood --?''
Carush nodded, interested.
``It was not an act of nature, nor the work of the Passions. Like the rest of the Affliction disasters, it was instigated by the illusionist Vilph Axehandle.''
Carush tapped his quill pen on the table, glancing at Alban's ample belly. ``You say you are an adept?'' he asked skeptically.
``Yes,'' said Alban. Frustration welled inside him.
Carush continued to tap his pen, a steady, even beat.
Alban struggled to contain his anger.''Is that relevant?''
``The truth is always relevant.''
Alban gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, then floated into the air -- an inch at first, then a foot, and at last his head brushed the ceiling. He hovered over the stunned Carush like a bird of prey.
Wide-eyed, Carush pushed himself away from the desk. ``Your point is well taken, Townsman Peyl,'' he stammered. ``Now --''
Something snapped in Alban's mind. The room spun; Carush became a blur. Alban's stomach churned; he struggled to hold his concentration, but his thoughts jumped like water on a griddle. Arms flailing, he dropped like a stone and crashed onto the table. Pain lanced into his back.
Carush cowered in the corner, his hands over his head. He was screaming, but the words made no sense. Dazed, Alban raised himself on trembling arms. Where am I? Who is this man?
Brushing off splinters of wood, Alban dragged himself to his feet. He left the cowering man and stumbled into some kind of hallway.
Twenty paces ahead, a troll blocked his path, brandishing a gleaming sword. The troll shouted words that made no sense.
The troll. He struggled to remember, grasping at an image on the edge of memory. I saw him in another place. His hand is on his sword. An enemy. Alban tensed. I will meet him as a warrior.
Alban lowered his head and charged.
The troll stood his ground, crouching low, sword held high in an iron grip. Alban leaped, meaning to flip over the troll's shoulders, then strike from behind -- but Alban's body would not cooperate. His leap carried him straight toward the troll's chest. Alban tried to twist away, too late. It felt like colliding with a brick wall. Senseless, he slumped to the floor, his face smacking the cold marble.
The troll sheathed his sword. He picked up Alban like a sack of rags and flung him over one shoulder.
Alban saw spirals of light. He flopped against the troll's smooth tunic, the scent of leather strong in his nostrils. He closed his eyes and went limp.
Then he smelled burning leaves and wet earth. A breeze fluttered his hair. The troll dumped Alban on the granite walk and, with a thrust of his foot, shoved Alban down the courthouse stairs. Alban tumbled, the steps bruising his ribs, banging his knees, scraping his scalp.
He rolled to a stop near the back wheels of his whirlicote. He licked his lips, tasting dirt and blood. He tried to raise his head but collapsed, exhausted.
``Let's go, sir.'' A familiar voice, distant. He opened his eyes. Winn was lifting him up, dragging him to the coach. ``Let's get you home.''
``You still know me, Winn?'' Alban asked, his voice cracking. ``You still know me?''
``O' course I know you, sir. Can't say why y'had me bring y'here, though. Sir.'' The driver eased Alban into the cab, then gently closed the door.
The chariot bounced in a rut and jarred him awake. He lay flat on his back, staring at the black fabric awning. Dirt caked his cloak and trousers, and his body ached. A fight? An accident? He could not remember. I was standing in a room, smelling cherries, speaking to a frightened man. Or a dwarf. Or was it a troll? It had all been an illusion -- Vilph's illusion. Did Vilph do this, too? He fought to remember details, but none came.
A line of apple trees scraped the side of the whirlicote. Alban knew these trees. He knew where he was: Jessis. Home.
The chariot lurched to a stop, and Alban stepped carefully onto the lawn. Winn remained in the driver's seat, speaking softly to the horses as they pawed the gravel road. The air smelled of buttercups and carnations that grew along the brick wall around the mansion.
Cautiously, Alban approached the gate. A copper plate, lit by an oil lantern, read PADIA VILLANDRY. Alban's heart sank, and he sagged where he stood.
He touched the plate, and his fingers tingled. ``Welcome to Jessis, home of Padia Villandry,'' announced the gate ward in an icy feminine voice. ``Please state your name and business.''
The ward's message sounded just the same -- except for the omission of Alban's name. Vilph had beaten him here too. No one at Jessis would know him.
Alban considered. He could scale the wall, but Winn and those inside would see him. He could go around behind the mansion and climb the north wall. But then he would have to steal around like a thief.
Alban cleared his throat and spoke to the copper plate. ``I am Alban Peyl, an old comrade of Padia's from her days in the Gray Owl Company.'' He waited.
Two minutes later, Dander padded from the mansion, immaculately dressed as always in surcoat and tails. Though the darkness made it difficult to be sure, Alban thought he saw a spot of paint (blood?) on the butler's forehead. Dander paused three feet from Alban, staring inquisitively from the opposite side of the gate. The gate lamp flickered across the butler's hairless face. No, Alban saw no spot.
``I am sorry, sir, '' Dander said. ``I am afraid Landswoman Villandry is gone for the day.''
``I have traveled a long way.'' Alban tried to look disappointed. ``Will she return soon?''
``I do not -- Excuse me, sir.'' Dander glanced toward the whirlicote and furrowed his brow. ``This is the mistress's chariot,'' he said, puzzled.
Alban cursed silently. He couldn't explain the whirlicote.
``Winn,'' Dander called to the driver. ``Who is this man?''
Winn looked baffled. He scratched his head. ``I, uh, don't remember.''
``You don't remember?'' Dander puffed himself up, indignant. ``Are you in the habit of picking up strangers in the mistress's chariot?''
``Of course not, sir.'' Alban heard fear in Winn's voice. ``That is to say, I don't -- Sir, I believe the mistress knows this man.''
He's lying, thought Alban. Good.
``Did she instruct you to bring him here?''
The driver looked at Alban imploringly. ``Yes. That's just what happened. I'm followin' the mistress's instructions.''
``That is true,'' said Alban.
Dander stared at Winn. ``We will speak of this later. You had best stable the horses.'' Winn nodded and drove off.
Dander turned to Alban. ``Sir, my apologies, but I cannot admit you. The Mistress left no word of your arrival, and you understand I cannot let in a stranger on his own word.''
``But I know you,'' said Alban. He resented having to lie, for it was not the warrior's way, but -- ``Dander Ensmore, the only child of a merchant seaman, trained in Iopos, head of the Jessis staff for, what would it be, eight years now. Brewer of a superb mint tea which I am eager to sample. Padia has spoken of you more times that I can count.''
Dander's eyes shifted, confused. Then he opened the gate. ``Until the mistress returns, you may wait in the sitting room.''
Alban followed the butler across the close-clipped lawn, through a redwood door carved with a golden ``V,'' and into a comfortable room. It had a plump divan, overstuffed chairs covered in red satin (didn't they used to be velvet?), and high bay windows.
``Tea, sir?'' asked the butler.
``Absolutely,'' replied Alban, ``Also, I wondered if I might have a glimpse of Padia's weapon collection. She spoke so highly of it in the Company.''
Dander looked flustered. ``Are you referring to her wands, sir? If so, then I am afraid --''
``No, no. Not her wands. I was thinking of traditional weapons. Swords, throwing blades. Staves.''
``Are you a warrior, sir?''
Alban forced a laugh. ``Only in my dreams.'' He slapped his belly.
``Very well, sir.'' Now the professional, the butler seemed intent on keeping his guest happy. He led Alban down a long hallway past pine bookcases stuffed with books. They entered a room dominated by a familiar cedar cabinet. Alban brushed by Dander and threw open the cabinet doors. Five staves -- oak, black ash, ironwood, birch, Delaris pine -- fit snugly into indentations in the back of the cabinet. A sixth indentation, larger than the others, was empty.
Alban gritted his teeth. ``The sixth staff,'' he said. ``What happened to it?''
Dander peeked in, mystified. ``A sixth staff? There is no sixth staff.''
Alban's head began to throb again. His own favorite weapon, taken! He slammed the cabinet door, and Dander started. ``Tell me,'' Alban demanded, ``what happened to the sixth staff.''
Dander backed away, straining to keep his composure. ``I assure you, sir, I dust this room three times a week, and I would know --''
Pain exploded in Alban's head. He cried out and dropped to his knees, burying his head in his hands. Nauseated, he rocked from side to side, arms locked around his waist. He struggled to his knees and raised his head, glaring at the dark-clad figure before him. The figure was backing away, escaping. An enemy.
``Surrender!'' Alban shouted. The figure fled through the door.
What is this place? Alban looked around at strange long pieces of wood and shining lengths of metal. He staggered into the hallway. Faces glared from the wall. More enemies, watching me? He stumbled down the hall on stiff legs. Waves of nausea gave way to waves of frigid cold. At the end of the hallway stood another figure, also clad in black, carrying a silver tray -- a shield -- stacked with tableware -- daggers. The figure stared, dumbstruck. An image of a past enemy rose in Alban's mind, a troll in leather with sword overhead, ready to smite him, blocking his way. Like this one.
Alban reached to the pine shelf at his right and grabbed a heavy folio. With a roar, he charged. The enemy screamed and raised the tray to protect himself, sending the tableware clattering across the floor. Alban smashed the book against the enemy's head. The figure hit the wall with a crack, then tumbled forward, landing face down in a spray of spoons and forks. Alban stood over him, book raised high, prepared to strike again. But the enemy lay vanquished.
From the far end of the house came a flurry of screams. Alban dropped the book and ran.
Chest heaving, he scrambled to the front door. He worked the latch; it wouldn't open. Desperately, he scanned the room, and his gaze rested on the bay windows. I have been here before.
Head down, Alban hurled himself through the window. He did not remember breaking the same one yesterday. He hit the ground in a shower of glass and tumbled across the lawn, shards of glass cutting his face. He crashed against a tree trunk, tried to stand, but his right leg cramped. A jagged shard of glass, as broad as his hand, pierced his right calf. With a grunt, he pulled out the shard and tossed it into the grass. Blood streamed from the wound.
He ripped a length of cotton cloth from the lining of his coat and tied it around his bleeding calf. Shouts arose in the distance. He tried to stand. His right leg throbbed; the crude bandage had already soaked through with blood. He glanced over his shoulder. Windows had lit all along the mansion. What is this place? What brought me here?
The shouts grew louder, closer. Enemies.
He limped toward the gate. With a wrenching effort he hoisted himself over the top, landing in the grass beyond with a force that shot splinters of pain through his bad leg. Ahead stood a grove of trees. He hobbled toward them, his right leg numb.
Alban welcomed the chill breeze. The night sky, which had seemed oppressive and ominous, now felt comforting as a winter blanket. Now he must hide.
Water rushed strongly around the hulls of fishing boats and the pilings of a rotted dock. A few feet away, two crows picked at the corpse of a lungfish. Moonlight rippled on the surface of the water. Except for the rush of the current, all was silent.
Alban huddled closer to a boathouse, burying himself in shadows. He had no idea how long he had slept here, where he had been before, or how he had wounded his leg. From his exhaustion and the ache in his muscles when he awoke, he at first assumed he was an old man, a drifter who had come to the docks to die. Then he looked at his reflection in a puddle and saw a much younger man staring back at him, his face creased with despair, his hollow eyes betraying grief and regret. Then he remembered his name, at least, and this city and his wife. Padia. The graying black of her hair, the softness of her skin.
He remembered this wharf: Blackwind, a dreary boatyard in Hempline. Here fat rats and rabid dogs competed for sanctuary with addicts and murderers. Dimly he recalled beating a man with a heavy object -- a brick? a book? -- but he could not remember why. Something had hacked away chunks of his mind with an axe.
Vilph, he thought suddenly. Vilph did this to me.
Wearily, he rose to his feet, the bad leg stiff. He gazed across the river. Greenish flames flickered on the horizon, reaching like skeletal fingers into the dead black sky. He knew where they burned: Twopenny, the slums. To his left, not far away, some kind of bridge crossed the river. He could hide in the slums. He would be safe there from his enemies.
He took two steps and felt a sharp thrust between his shoulder blades. A boy's voice, thin and nasal, said, ``Stop right there, fat man.''
Alban raised his hands and turned slowly. The youth, about sixteen, brushed a strand of greasy blonde hair from his filthy forehead. He looked like a pig, with a flat snoutish nose and tiny, dull eyes. He wore a ragged black tunic, two sizes too big, and trousers stained with tar. A crooked smile revealed a row of yellow teeth; a front tooth was snapped in half. He shifted back and forth, waving a knife in front of Alban's face.
``Whataya doin' out here, fat man?'' His tongue flicked across his lips. ``What's in them pockets?''
Alban's eyes locked on the knife. Six inches long, honed to a fine edge, it caught a glint of green firelight.
``Lookin' for somethin' out here? You want some peace and quiet, big man?'' He nudged Alban in the stomach, then hopped back, making wide swipes with the knife.
Alban fought panic. He could not run with his bad leg; the enemy would catch him. Yet if he stood his ground, the enemy would kill him. Alban took a step closer, but the boy waved him back.
``Don't try it, fat man. I can cut you. You want me to cut you?'' He was breathing heavily now, back hunched and knees bent, squatting like a cat ready to pounce. Unexpectedly, he lunged, swiping the knife in a shallow arc. It caught Alban near his right elbow, slashing through his coat and nicking his forearm.
``Like that, fat man?'' The enemy cackled, wiping a stream of spittle from his chin with a dirty sleeve. ``You want some more?''
Alban hurled himself against the boy, pinning him against the boathouse wall. The youth gasped, and the knife fell to the ground. In a single motion, Alban scooped it up with his left hand and lodged his right forearm under the boy's chin, crushing his throat. Gagging, the boy squirmed, limbs flailing. The sallow flesh of his face turned crimson.
``You are right,'' Alban hissed. ``I want peace.''
Terrified, the boy jerked his head from side to side, grunting and snorting. He reeked of stale beer and smokeweed.
``You know where I can find peace?'' said Alban. ``You said you did.''
The boy whimpered, a throaty moan that reminded Alban of a dog he'd seen run over by a wagon, years ago, a handsome collie with sleek fur and golden eyes. He remembered the dog twitching in the street, its hind legs twisted and bent, its agonized yaps. He cradled it tenderly, stroked its fur, screamed for help that never came. The dog died in his arms. He laid the corpse in the gutter and went home.
By the time he reached Dovetail Bridge, Alban had lost all memory of the boy. Alban gazed dumbly at the blood on his hands. They were not bleeding. Perhaps his leg wound had opened again; he could not remember how he had been wounded. Pain rose from the pit of his stomach and pounded in his head, a mallet on a gong.
Through a blanket of mist, a city beckoned across the bridge, dense rows of buildings silhouetted against the haze, haloed in green. The halo shimmered -- flames. Green fire. The light drew him. He walked the bridge with faltering steps, delicately, as if the hardwood span would crack if he stepped too hard. The torrent below echoed in his ears.
Midway across, Alban heard swift, loud splashes, like planks slapped against the river's surface. He squinted into the darkness, but he saw nothing.
The splashes continued, coming closer. A hundred paces away, to Alban's left, a pair of spindly legs, thin as reeds and obsidian black, pierced a cloud of mist. The legs, four times Alban's height, skimmed the surface of the water like an insect, stalking toward the green flames. The thing disappeared into a fogbank. The splashes receded into the distance.
Terror gripped Alban. He could not identify the thing. Nor could he recall the name of the bridge, the river, the haloed borough, the city he lived in, or a reason to move. He turned back.
A curtain of crimson fire fell across the bridge.
Instinctively, Alban threw his hands up and stumbled back. The flames flickered without heat or sound. An illusion, thought Alban. A simple illusion, a glamour. Alban forced himself to stare into the flames. Concentrate. Make it go away. His hands trembled, and the light stung his eyes. The flames inched closer, flaring. In a moment, they would envelop him.
Alban's concentration broke. He fell to his knees, waiting for the end.
He heard words beyond the fire curtain, a deep voice, silky smooth and compelling:
``Pillars of stone, planks of wood, water below, air above, and the fire -- the ritual's staging does indeed benefit from an elemental touch.''
The curtain disappeared. Twenty feet from Alban stood a stunted ork with skin gray as granite, a burlap sack slung over one shoulder. Recognition struck Alban's confused mind like a blow: Vilph Axehandle. Vilph did this to me.
The ork steadied himself with a mahogany quarterstaff that glistened as if wet with paint. Behind Vilph came Hodrick, carrying in his one arm an unconscious woman whose black curls dangled limply over her pale face.
``Padia,'' whispered Alban. Fingers shaking, he reached toward her. He lacked strength to hold his arm erect, and it dropped to his side.
``No greeting for me?'' said Vilph. He sauntered past Alban, tapping the staff on the planks of bridge. He paused, his back to Alban, and contemplated the burning tenements on the distant shore.
``If you have harmed her -- ''
``You have more important worries just now, Alban,'' Vilph snapped. ``Hodrick, let her down.''
The Form hesitated, then let the wizard slip from his grasp. She collapsed at his feet.
``I have gifts,'' said Vilph. He turned to Alban and held up the burlap bag. ``Not gifts from me, but from you.''
Vilph drew four objects from the bag and arranged them in a neat line on the bridge, an arm's length from Alban. The ceramic mug bearing the image of an owl in flight. The vellum map, rolled and secured with twine. The wrinkled sash. The vambrace with Roniro's amulet. Each object bore a fine red sheen. Alban winced at the smell, a coppery, vinegar stench: blood.
Alban grabbed at the amulet. The ork smacked his fingers with the staff. ``These are mine now,'' said Vilph. ``Your pattern items, Alban. Have a good look.''
A bead of blood trickled from the sash. Alban looked at the dried blood on his hands and remembered the youth with the blade. Images: Shattered glass on a lawn; a man clad in black, beaten with a book; a troll with a sword; a corkboard. Splotches of color on foreheads, there, then gone.
``Pattern items,'' Vilph repeated, ``every one of them a reflection of, an insight into, some part of your True Pattern. Five items, and two more to come.'' He eased the staff through the handle of the mug. He raised the staff, and the mug slid down the shaft into his hand. ``With any one of them, Alban, I would have magical power over you. With all seven, I can do to you -- well, simply anything I desire.''
Alban tried to stand but fell forward, hitting the planks. Fighting for consciousness, he asked, ``Has all this been an illusion?''
``Interesting question.'' Vilph coughed, a series of rasping hacks. He held the mug to his mouth and spat. ``If it has all been an illusion, why have you not seen through it with your -- wht did you call it -- `true sight'?'' The contempt in his voice as he spoke those words! ``Could it be that some illusions are more vivid than reality? Why, that would mean that lies are more powerful than truth.'' Another spate of coughing.
``Did I kill that boy?''
Vilph peered into the mug. ``You drank from this?'' He lifted the sash with the staff, then stuffed the bloody cloth into the mug, swirled it twice, and tugged it out. ``You are, in fact, asking me if the universe is benign or malevolent. In a benign universe a heroic warrior for `lasting truths' would never kill an innocent. The murder would turn out an illusion, or the scoundrel would deserve to die anyway, or you would be absolved for killing while --'' Vilph searched for the word. ``-- deluded. In contrast, a malign universe would condemn you regardless.''
Vilph dropped the mug, which thudded against the wood and rolled to a stop inches from Alban. He tossed the sash beside it. ``Alban, I answer your question by posing another: What possible difference can it make?''
Vilph prodded the vambrace with the staff and raised it in the air. ``I have waited ten years for this moment. I perfected the spell itself some moons ago, after years of research. Yet without Hodrick, I could never have found the pattern items my spell requires.'' The vambrace slipped down the staff. ``It has not been easy, I assure you.'' He rubbed his thumb along the ridge of the inlaid amulet.
``The enchantment does not kill,'' Vilph continued. ``It destroys your pattern -- your place in the world, your sense of self. Really, it replaces one illusion with another. Each name-giver's pattern is a construct of pure fantasy.'' He tipped the staff towards Alban. The vambrace fell from the staff and struck Alban's forehead.
``The enchantment destroys the memory and the will. The victim lives only in an unmoored present. Apparently, this condition is fatal. You remember the troubadour, don't you, Hodrick?''
Hodrick stood with his head bowed, arms at his side. He did not answer.
Vilph shrugged. ``Well, take my word for it.''
``Why are you doing this?'' said Alban. ``Not just this -- the Affliction, the cruelty. What do you want? Control of the guilds, of the city?''
Vilph chuckled. ``Nothing so mundane, I assure you.''
``Should we meet again, perhaps I shall tell you.'' He motioned to Hodrick. ``Bring the wizard.''
Hodrick grasped Padia by the collar of her muddy robe. Slowly, he dragged her towards Vilph. Padia groaned but did not resist.
``Seven items, Alban,'' said Vilph. ``Seven items that represent your links to Merron. I have destroyed five links: your business, your political career, your home life, your warrior discipline, and, most recently --'' Vilph broke off. He picked up the vambrace with the Roniro amulet. ``This one,'' he said, shaking his head, ``this amulet gave me much trouble. This represented your strong desire for enlightenment.'' He placed it beside the sash, mug, map, and staff.
``Now, the final two.'' Vilph laced his fingers. ``When we have finished, no one in Merron will remember you except myself, Hodrick, and -- as a courtesy and a reminder -- your wife.''
Splayed on his stomach, his left cheek flat against the planks of the bridge, Alban looked toward Padia. She had awakened and now stared at him with red-rimmed eyes. She moved her lips, but no words came.
``I do not wish her to remember,'' Alban whispered.
``Oh, I do,'' said Vilph. He removed a knife from the burlap bag, a curved steel blade as long as his forearm. ``Item number six, representing your life's true love. Padia herself.''
The ork opened his robe, revealing a thin chest pocked with tufts of wiry white hair. Ribs bulged against the sallow flesh.
Alban recoiled. Vilph's chest was a horrid mass of scar tissue. Ridged scars overlapped like craters on a moon. Each scar formed a Theran rune, the telltale sign of blood magic -- vast amounts of blood magic.
Five fresh cuts formed scabs in runic shapes. Five Theran characters:
Vilph raised the blade and slashed at his chest as if gutting a fish. Deep gashes opened along the scabbed cuts. The gashes welled with blood, which streamed over his round belly and soaked his wool leggings.
Hodrick cried, ``That is too much!'' He moved to help, but Vilph stepped back. ``It will never be enough!'' the ork snarled. He staggered, his chest drenched in crimson. The knife tumbled from his fingers.
Between clenched teeth, Vilph began to chant, a string of mumbled syllables. Shivering, he pressed the robe around his oozing chest and took a tottering step toward Padia. He extended his right hand, glistening red, and dabbed a blot of blood in the center of her forehead. She jerked back, and then her body stiffened.
Breathing hard, Vilph fell to his knees before Alban. ``I persuaded Padia to betray you under false pretenses, Alban. She will insist you believe that, and indeed you should. Yet she did betray you, willingly. She donated blood for my summoning ritual, thinking she gave it to her dearest friend -- Hodrick.
``Padia does not precisely like you, Alban. She despised you before you recovered your arm, and now she finds you rather too -- what's the word? `Enlightened'? A dispassionate attitude may bring power in the Order of Inner Light, but it evidently makes for poor marriages. She betrayed you, and do you know? It was easy.''
Alban stared at his wife. ``Is this true?''
Padia wept silently.
Still she wept. ``Her tears are her answer,'' said Vilph hoarsely. ``I wrapped you in a net of illusion, Alban, and all your friends and fellows hold it. To cut it loose, to catch your pattern's threads in one tangle, I need a blade of truth. See, Alban, I do not look at Padia, nor does Hodrick. She speaks, or does not speak, of her own will. Tell him, Padia, whether I have lied.''
He had not lied, for once, but the truth caught in her throat. It hurt her more than any of his past deceits. Alban saw, and he knew. Again a hammer of pain slammed in his head. This time he did not resist it. He wept with the pain.
Padia turned away. ``Let me go. I must go,'' she said. Her brow wrinkled, and she shut her eyes tightly. Hodrick stepped between her and Alban. Whether by accident or intent, his tattered robe brushed against the bloody symbol on her forehead. She shook her head as though clearing it. ``I must go,'' she repeated in a whisper. ``I know the spell. I know the spell.'' She kept whispering, as though trying to convince herself.
Preoccupied, Vilph did not notice. ``Now,'' he said to Alban, ``the seventh.'' Arm outstretched, hand trembling, Vilph edged toward Alban and smeared a bloody finger on his forehead. Alban flinched as pain knifed through him.
Vilph croaked a few syllables of his guttural chant, then stopped, the effort too great to maintain. He collapsed next to Alban. They lay face to face like lovers. ``Seven,'' Vilph whispered, ``is your sense of self. You.''
White-hot pain pierced Alban's brain. Something scraped the inside of his skull. He heard shattering glass, a scream, and the snapping of brittle reeds. Memory and volition began to leave him like water squeezing from a sponge.
``Listen, Alban,'' Vilph said carefully. ``You will remember this next sentence for the rest of your short life. Repeat it now: Vilph did this to me.''
``Rogue ox,'' Alban said.
``What?'' Vilph's brow furrowed. ``What did you say?''
Alban's speech grew slurred, but he repeated the words with lunatic intensity. ``Rogue ox!''
``No!'' Vilph slammed his fist against Alban's chest. ``Vilph did this to me. Repeat it!''
Alban had no mind left to answer. Behind his eyes, a veil of red enveloped and hid everything he had ever been or thought.
Angry at the misfire of his vengeance, and inexplicably unsettled, Vilph kicked at Alban. The man did not move or cry, but he mindlessly repeated the words: ``rogue ox.''
Hodrick tried to help Vilph up, but the ork pushed him back. ``Get away!'' Glaring at Alban, Vilph stood on shaking legs. ``What on Earth --? `Rogue ox.' Blast his eyes!'' Numbness had spread to his limbs. He felt lightheaded.
Suddenly he looked around. ``Where is the wizard?'' He scanned the bridge, then looked up. Over Hodrick's shoulder, a human figure soared through the sky like a shot from a sling. Silhouetted against the clouds, arms extended, Padia Villandry flew north toward Oldtown.
Vilph kicked at Hodrick's thick leg. ``You let her loose!''
Hodrick glared at him but said nothing. He stared across the surging river.
``Horrors take this night!'' Vilph struggled to catch his breath. ``Assist me,'' he panted. Hodrick hesitated, then helped drag Alban to the edge of the bridge. Alban did not resist. Vilph shoved him over. Alive and conscious, but weak and bereft of memory and will, Alban fell like a stone into the rushing Byrose. The river carried him away -- whether to drown, or to wash helpless on some downstream shore, Vilph did not care.
Between the ork and the consummation of his vengeance stood one last obstacle: the fugitive wizard Padia Villandry. Against her Vilph now turned his whole will and all his strength.