Piercing A Veil
The night air stung Padia's skin like a spray of needles. A buffeting wind lifted her higher, roaring in her ears. Not for years had she snapped the strings that bound her to Earth and taken to flight. The spell hummed in her mind and crackled through her bones. She had not forgotten the spell. It had only taken time to find it under a decade of clutter.
Alone, she could not have helped Alban against Vilph. Now her husband was -- where? Vilph's captive? Dead? She suppressed the thought. She needed time to collect her thoughts, to review her spells and find allies. First she needed to recover, safe within Jessis.
To the west, green light flared on the horizon. Twopenny burned.
She slowed, eyeing the shoreline, a row of tenements ruined by the flood. They looked little worse than the rest of Twopenny's rundown slums, populated by refugees from a hundred tiny villages across the Scourged countryside. Farm and workhouse laborers, apprentices in Keystone craft shops, servants -- a dozen cultures and a hundred accents mingled cheek to jowl in squalid buildings, exploited by Oldtown landowners. Everyone in Twopenny had troubles enough for eight name-givers, and now their homes were burning.
She assumed it must be the work of the spirits Oneiros had summoned. What did Vilph call them? ``Cordial Guards.'' She had never heard of such things. She had little experience with spirits, little magic to defend herself, and no strength after her ordeal on the bridge.
Padia sighed. She dipped, circled right, then soared arrow-straight toward the flaming slums. Her mansion was in Oldtown, but she was an adept, and all of Merron was her home.
Moments later, Padia alighted in the center of a street a hundred feet from the Byrose shore. Mud, ankle deep, sucked at her boots. The green flames burned in the distance. She would not investigate them until she had a better idea what she might be facing.
She stared out at the silent street. In the distant green light she saw dreary, crumbling mud-brick tenements, four or five storeys high. Parchment scraps and shredded workshirts were tacked over empty windows. A growling dog, one ear gone, guarded a ragged drunk passed out on a cracked granite stoop. Three filthy children, none older than six, scrounged in a waste barrel for broken bottles. They scrambled into an alley at Padia's approach. The air was thick with the smell of onions, burning fat, sweat, and above all of mud. Little of Twopenny had recovered from the flood that ended two nights ago.
At the end of the street Padia paused in front of a wooden warehouse with boarded windows. She heard a crowd in the distance, a cacophony of shouts. A moment later the crowd rounded the corner and headed in her direction, a hundred strong, a motley collection of slack-jawed women wearing faded smocks; potbellied men in frayed suspenders; and lumpish children in nightshirts. All waved their arms and shouted incomprehensibly. Padia hugged the warehouse wall as they ran past. Near the back of the crowd, an old man in a stained undershirt lost his footing in the mud and fell. The crowd parted around him.
Padia ran to his side. Gray stubble speckled his ample jowls, and a wisp of white hair coiled in the center of his bald head. ``Are you all right, townsman?'' she asked, helping him up.
``Fine, thank ya, missy, thank ya.'' Puffing hard, the old man sounded pleasant, even cheerful. He tottered on unsteady feet, then brushed the pebbles from the folds of his shirt. ``You comin' wi' us, missy?''
``Where? What is happening here?''
``Spirits, missy! Spirits come a-callin' in Twopenny!''
She nodded towards the distant glow. ``Spirits caused those fires?''
``You bet!'' Running his tongue over his few remaining teeth, he tucked the grimy undershirt into his cloth trousers.
``Come, I'll take you to safety.'' She smelled cheap wine on his hot breath. ``From the condition of these buildings, it won't take long for a fire like this to burn Twopenny to the ground. And you're in no condition to run.''
The man snorted like a mule. ``It ain't gonna burn nothin'. First, ain't a real fire. Second, I ain't runnin' away from it. I'm runnin' to it.''
A child behind her spoke excitedly. ``He's right, it ain't a fire! I seen it!'' Trembling with excitement, the round-faced boy brushed back an unruly shock of red hair. ``Get rid of the drunk, an' I'll show ya!''
The old man raised a hand. ``Hey, ya little snail, I know where ya live! Got a lock on that bedroom of yers?''
Padia broke in. ``You've seen the fire? Close up?'' she asked the boy.
He shrugged. ``Well, not close up. Heard 'bout it,'' he said, brightening. ``It don't hurt ya. Ain't hot.'' He sneered at the old man. ``He got that part right.''
``You haven't seen the spirits, either?''
``No,'' admitted the boy. ``But I heard about 'em. Big ole monsters, they are.'' He curled his hands like claws and stood on his tip-toes. ``Big enough to eat you up. But they's nice monsters, what I hear. Fair-spoken, they are. You gonna go look?''
``Maybe,'' said Padia. Fair-spoken monsters, she thought. Cordial Guards.
The crowd had disappeared behind a wall of dark buildings. She could still hear their shouts, now fainter. ``Go home,'' she told the boy, then rose into the night sky, heading toward the flames.
Padia landed when she saw a spire of green fire rising from the center of a vacant lot between two faceless brick tenements. She stood thirty paces away, concealed in the shadow of a dead tree. The flames, twenty feet high, did not crackle; rather, they silently waved back and forth, like scarves blown in a breeze. The flames surrounded a boxy clapboard shack. Two figures stood before it, engaged in an animated argument Padia couldn't hear. One, a plump middle-aged woman with a pinched face, wearing a loose burlap dress, waved her finger in the face of the other, a snarling troll in a goat-hair cloak. The woman seemed not a bit intimated by the troll, who towered over her by at least a foot.
To the left of the lot, four children huddled against a tenement wall. The youngest, a toddler, rested her head against the chest of the tallest, whom Padia guessed was no older than twelve. Like the woman, they wore burlap clothing, ill-fitting and dirty. The woman was shrieking now, gesturing frantically towards the flames, calling the troll ``a thug. And so's yer boss.'' The troll crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for the woman's rant to subside.
Padia stepped from the shadows and edged closer until she stood a few paces from the flames. The woman and troll glanced at her indifferently, then resumed their argument.
The shack was not burning. Instead, the dark clapboard was changing color, turning a glossy white. The front door floated from its hinges, then descended into the ground, as if swallowed; the doorway glowed gold. Then the entire shack leaped ten feet straight up, where it hung suspended. The shack expanded; the bottom portion grew until it reached the ground. The walls stretched like hot taffy. In a minute's time, the shack had doubled in size. It continued to expand until it filled most of the lot. Throughout, the woman and the troll kept arguing, indifferent to the transformation.
``Tell yer boss it's mine!'' shrieked the woman. ``And I ain't payin' a copper more!''
``The place improves, the rent goes up,'' said the troll. ``Them's the rules. And you'll pay, all right.''
Padia pushed between the woman and the troll. ``Enough!'' she shouted. ``Your borough is under siege, and here you stand, arguing!''
Contemptuously, the woman eyed Padia up and down. ``And who might you be?''
``I am the wizard Padia Villandry.'' The woman and troll both stepped back, suddenly respectful. ``Who owns this property?'' Padia asked.
The troll said, ``Insquiss Nurnwood. Of Keystone. He owns the entire block. I collect his rents.'' Hearing the name, the woman spat on the street by the troll's cowhide boot.
The name struck Padia like a slap. Insquiss Nurnwood was Earlene's husband. Simple, amiable Insquiss and Earlene, her guests at parties -- slumlords! The thought sickened her.
Padia stared at the shack, which had sprouted a pair of gleaming silver chimneys. Turquoise pillars framed the golden door. Sheets of green flame swept up and around, in and out. ``How did this happen?''
``One o' them spirits done it!'' said the woman gleefully.
On the face of the building an image of two swans, necks entwined, filled the broad window. The image appeared to be made from bits of azurite, onyx, and emerald. The woman watched, scratching her elbow. ``It didn't hurt nobody. It was right polite, truth to tell. Made me kinda queasy and all to be around it, y'know, but it were nice enough. Me and the kids was --''
The flames erupted, turning the building into a sphere of light as bright as the summer sun. Padia recoiled, covering her eyes with her hands. She felt no heat. In fact, the air turned cold around her.
A moment later, the light disappeared. The cold air lifted. Padia lowered her hands.
The flames were gone. In the shack's place stood a palatial home of ivory bricks. Turquoise pillars now arched over a domed roof of shimmering crystal. Gray smoke spiraled from the silver chimneys. Rosebushes filled a lush green lawn. Padia was speechless.
The children cheered. Beaming, the woman waved them over. ``Let's go, kids! Pick up them feet, and let's have a look!''
The troll stepped in front of her. ``Not so fast. We still have the matter of rent.''
``Nurnwood never lifted a hand to do nothin' in all the years we lived here.'' Her finger waggled inches from the troll's chin. He didn't budge. ``When the roof leaked, he did nothin.' When the glass fell out of the windows, nothin'. I begged him -- begged him! -- to do somethin' about the rats chewin' holes in the walls. Nothin'! Now, the very second the place turns into somethin' decent, why there's his boy with his hand out, askin' for more rent!''
``The law's on our side.'' The troll spoke blandly. ``You live in a better place, you pay the price. You don't pay, we bring the city watch.''
The woman reared back and laughed. ``Go right ahead. You send yer guards. We'll send ours, too. Let's see who wins.''
The sound of branches snapping. The troll and the woman froze. Padia cocked her head, listening. She felt a ripple of fear.
Silence. Then came words, cool as steel, clanking and grinding -- the voice of a machine. ``Perhaps I may be of service.''
Padia turned and saw her first Cordial Guard.
Towering above her stood an ebony stick figure, a grotesque abstraction nearly twice her height. It walked on a pair of legs that jutted at sharp angles, knees bending both ways, reminding her of a praying mantis. The arms, gangly cords that writhed like serpents, ended in three thin fingers. In its left fist, it clutched a long-handled axe of glowing green light.
The huge triangular head, flat as parchment and solid black, bobbed from side to side like a cork in a pond. A thin, downward-pointing isosceles triangle, its sides curved slightly inward, the head looked like a top view of an axe blade. Two white spheres the size of pumpkins -- eyes -- floated on either side of the head.
The woman gathered her children around her, but made no move. The troll, though tense, likewise stood his ground. Despite its alien form, the thing seemed benign. It swung the light-axe lazily at its side, drummed its fingers against its straw-thin torso, and bobbed its head.
When the creature spoke, the bottom section of its head (the point of the axe blade) separated. It formed a second, smaller triangle that hovered below the rest of its head, jerking up and down with every syllable. ``Please do not take offense,'' it said, ``but I believe I can settle this matter, if you will kindly indulge me for just one moment.''
It pointed to the ivory house. ``In the good time, the real time, this building was owned by the ancestors of this gentle lady.'' It nodded toward the woman. ``This gallant gentlemen,'' it continued, indicating the troll, ``is descended from the servants of the lady. It follows that the gentle lady owns the building and the gallant gentlemen must work for her. Such is the true order. So says the autrefect.'' He cocked his head toward the troll. ``Please inform your new employer of this change, and express my deep appreciation for his prompt cooperation.''
The troll's eyes bulged. He stammered, then fell silent and edged away. The woman pointed and cackled at he skulked down the dark street.
``C'mon, kids!'' The woman was beside herself with joy. ``Look at them shiny bricks!'' She opened the golden door, peered inside, and whooped. ``Look at them fluffy rugs!'' The children hurried by her. ``Whattaya think now, wizard?'' the woman called, then slammed the door shut.
Padia did not know what she thought. The improvement in the building seemed real. Effects of nethermancy -- she was certain this was a nethermantic enchantment -- were usually permanent. Yet she wanted to run to the woman and tell her to get out of the house, to resist the change, to -- what? Accept the circumstances of her tawdry life? Accept that she lacked the breeding -- Padia winced at the word -- to live in a palace?
This is all Vilph's doing, she reminded herself. It must be bad, but how? This she could not answer.
``Wizard?'' the Cordial Guard repeated, and Padia felt a sudden chill. The thing's head tilted, bird-like, and its eye-spheres moved forward. ``Female human. Black hair. Brown robe. Do I have the honor to address Padia Villandry?''
Instinctively, Padia braced herself, ready for an attack, but the Guard maintained a polite distance.
She swallowed hard. She could fly away, for the enchantment still tingled in her bones. Could the thing pursue? She could strike, but it would surely fight back. She had no idea of its power. She needed information. ``Yes, I am Padia Villandry. Please tell me --''
The thing straightened. ``This is a most fortuitous meeting. I am honored. I am extremely sorry for interrupting you, but I have orders to locate you.''
``Locate me? Why?''
``An excellent question. I, of course, would gladly satisfy your curiosity, but my antiphon has already arrived, and my work is not yet finished in this section of the city. I am but a soldier, sworn to serve. Kindly excuse me.'' It turned and stalked away.
Beyond it, two more Guards had showed up, identical to the first but twice as tall. They studied the tenements across the street, bending jerkily to peer through the empty windows, craning to examine the walls and roofs. To Padia's left, a small crowd had gathered at the end of the street, twenty ill-dressed laborers carrying torches and planks, gesturing towards the things -- antiphons, thought Padia -- and muttering.
The crowd did not seem upset; if anything, people seemed impatient for the antiphons to compete their inspection. An oily man in the back of the crowd hollered, ``Hey there, leggy! Get on with it! Me and the missus ain't gettin' no younger!'' The crowd laughed.
The antiphons turned, nodded politely, then settled on a pair of tenements, three-storey structures of cracked brick and crumbling mortar, separated by a narrow alley. One antiphon lifted his light-axe high, then swung it smoothly toward the slate roof of the left tenement. The axe sliced through the roof like a knife through cake; it made no sound and did no damage. Gently, the antiphon removed the axe. A plume of green flames enveloped the tenement, swept around the base, then slithered up the sides. The crowd roared approval. Then, as if doused by a rainstorm, the flames flickered, then died. The crowd moaned in disappointment.
The antiphons walked on their mantis legs to the second tenement, their joints clicking. One lifted his weapon and brought it down. Again, the glowing blade eased through the roof without damage, and again, sheets of green flame enveloped the building. A hush fell over the crowd. The flames swelled in size, sputtered, then grew brighter. The crowd burst into applause. The antiphons bowed to each other.
Fifty feet away, on the same side of the street as Padia, the soldier-thing contemplated a pile of granite chunks stacked next to the curb. From the shape of the chunks, Padia guessed they had once been part of a granite bench. She imagined that in earlier times, before Twopenny had fallen to ruin, sightseers might have relaxed on the bench, counting their coins while waiting for a tourist carriage. Elderly couples might have rested there, warming themselves in the sunshine.
Soundlessly, the soldier struck the granite with his axe. Fingers of green flame leaped from the ground and danced across the rough surfaces of the stones. The soldier stood back, admiring his work.
Tentatively, Padia approached the soldier. An aura of green flared on the horizon, backlighting the distant tenements. More fires, she thought. More antiphons.
The soldier's left eye rotated in her direction. Padia stopped, facing the green flames. She was within an axe-swing of the soldier.
It was colder here. Padia rubbed her hands together. ``Merron is quite large,'' she said, speaking casually. ``You have a formidable task.''
``How kind of you to notice,'' it said politely.
The flames grew higher, rising even with Padia's chest. ``You know my name. Do you know where I am from?''
``The area you call Oldtown,'' it said. ``In the real time we called it Tranidisix, Forest-Height.''
The name meant nothing to Padia. ``Then you have the advantage of me -- sir.''
The soldier tilted its head back and forth, eye-spheres swaying like balls on strings. ``You are correct. Forgive my rudeness. I am Dismas, private in the First Watertown Company of Edro's Ninth Legion. I serve the autrefect Tenthonis Awakener-Pacificator, eldest from the Age of Isedris the Autarch, imperator of the Blood Theogency of the Emblem Teltrenix.''
Of all the soldier said, Padia recognized only Watertown, the ancient name for Merron, and Edro, first Overgovernor of the Theran Empire. She dimly recalled Isedris, a legendary figure said to have lived centuries before the Scourge.
Across the street the crowd had grown larger and more boisterous. Whenever the tenement flames brightened, the crowd shouted their approval. Except for their quivering eye-spheres, the antiphons stood motionless, as impassive as wire statues. They and the crowd remained oblivious to Padia and the soldier.
The flames surrounding the granite pile flared, then subsided. In place of the granite there now stood a silver basin filled with sparkling water, mounted on a pedestal of polished brass. Tentatively, Padia peered inside. A knot of brown fish, none more than an inch long, wriggled near the bottom of the pool. She looked more closely. They were not fish at all, but tiny horses, munching contentedly on a bed of translucent moss.
``Sir,'' said Padia. ``If I may ask, what is happening to the buildings when they burn?''
``We restore the real city,'' the soldier said, straightening. ``The only decent place and time. This has become a strange and awful place. We will restore it, and you will live as we lived, in the true order. Excuse me, please.'' It motioned for Padia to move aside, but she moved too slowly. As the soldier squeezed by, its leg brushed against her hand. She felt a sting of pain, like a splash of boiling water, and she cried out.
``Forgive me,'' said the soldier politely.
Padia shook her head. ``I'm not hurt. It was nothing.'' The pain was agonizing. She concentrated, shutting it out. ``Across the street,'' she continued. ``The antiphon burned one tenement, but the flames died. The building was not changed.''
``Nothing stood there before, not in our time. The antiphons can reach no further back, and so they have summoned the eldest.'' He lifted his axe, pointing to the adjacent tenement, now obscured by flames. ``There. He has arrived. Now you will see change.''
No sooner had the soldier spoken than Padia heard a metallic screeching beyond the tenement. An odor drifted to her, the smell of Manmidden Field: fresh-turned dirt, honeysuckle, and rotting leaves. More than the scent, she noticed a strange quality to her own thoughts. Hearing the screech, she suddenly felt as if she had almost recalled a distant memory, an ancient recollection from some life before her own. She felt unaccountably chilled.
She glimpsed an angled shape moving behind the roof of the tenement and, at the same instant, a wavering hand along the left wall and another at the right. Passions, is it bigger than the building?
The flames surrounding the tenement coalesced in a blinding blaze of light. Padia shielded her face. Abruptly, the light vanished. The metallic screech receded across Twopenny.
The tenement was gone. In its place stood a structure of monstrous proportions and nightmarish design, a tower rising ten times as high as the five-storey tenement beside it. It appeared to be made of orange clay, wads and lumps of random size stuck together with a watery black glue that seeped between the cracks and oozed down the sides. There was no obvious door. The bottom of the tower was encircled by tentacle-like projections, dark as tree roots, ending in steel tips that twitched and jerked. Brick walkways ringed the tower, as did sweeping loops of black fabric. An iron bridge jutted out from the middle of the tower, ending in mid-air. A puckered valve on the tower's marbled roof released puffs of thin mist, the color of blood.
The crowd fell deathly silent. Someone began to boo, but he was shouted down. Faint applause followed.
Padia was dumbstruck. ``What is this?'' She could not conceive of going near such a structure, let alone living in it.
``The work of the autrefect, the eldest,'' the soldier said proudly. ``This place stood here long, very long ago.''
Their work complete, the antiphons moved on to a wooden warehouse, two buildings away from the grotesque orange tower. A city watcher arrived, an ork guard wearing a leather tunic and waving a brass baton. Cautiously, he approached the nearest antiphon. ``You there!'' he cried. ``What's this?''
The antiphon's sphere-eyes elevated another foot over its head. ``In the good time, your ancestors protected those who lived here. Let you do the same now.'' As the antiphon turned away, the crowd cheered.
The guard ambled toward them. ``That'll be enough! If we did protect your ancestors, then we protected 'em from rabble like you.''
``Go home!'' somebody cried. ``This is ours!''
``It ain't yours!'' said the guard. ``It belongs to the owner!''
The crowd surged forward and slammed the guard to the ground. At once Padia launched into the air and flew to the guard's side. Her robes swirling around her, she landed and cried, ``Stop!''
Not many in Twopenny had ever seen an adept, but everyone knew what to make of a flying woman in magician's robes. The crowd fell back in a panic, then broke and fled.
The guard stood, unharmed. ``Thank'ey,'' he said, almost grudgingly. ``Gotta get a watch patrol. There'll be trouble here tonight.'' He backed away, managed a slight bow to Padia, then turned and ran down the street toward Oldtown.
The soldier stood close by Padia. ``I can do no more here,'' it said. ``The antiphons will complete the rest. I am most happy that I have found you.'' It fixed its sphere-eyed gaze on Padia.
She stepped away. ``Why?''
The soldier extended its free hand. ``I am extremely sorry to intrude on your plans, but I have orders to capture you.'' The spindly fingers dug into her shoulder. ``My sincere apologies. I must alert you that should you try to escape, I shall be compelled to kill you.''
Pain flared through Padia's neck and chest. She stumbled backwards, wresting free of the soldier's grip. The soldier cocked its head, eye-spheres twitching, then raised its axe.
The agony ruined Padia's concentration. Her flight spell had lapsed. She looked left, then right. Buildings crowded both streets, separated by narrow dead-end alleys. Behind her, the antiphons continued their work, discussing in rasping voices which tenement to inflame next.
No escape on foot. She had to fly. A flush of warmth swelled in her chest and rippled through her limbs -- the glow of the spell. Pieces of its pattern floated in her mind like leaves on a pond. She concentrated, gathering the pieces, and the warmth grew stronger. She crouched. Muscles tense, she prepared to launch herself into the sky.
The spell failed.
Her heart sank. In an instant the white-hot ripples had become as cold as dead embers. She could not focus, could not sift the pattern from her thoughts of the soldiers, the flames, the transformed buildings. She needed time -- seconds, a minute -- to clear her mind.
The soldier stirred. It rattled its jaw, then lifted its right foot. The knee nearly reached its eyes. Two steps, and it would stand over her.
Padia turned and ran, groping desperately for a plan as her feet pounded the pebbled street. The soldier paced after her easily. ``I strongly counsel against this action,'' it said. ``If you persist, I must disable you.'' It extended its axe.
A block ahead, the antiphons waited. One of the antiphons pointed at her. The other twisted its thin neck and glared in her direction. ``Soldier,'' it called. ``Cease pursuit. We have recalled the eldest.''
At once the soldier halted behind Padia. She still ran, while the second antiphon said, ``Padia Villandry, please stay where you are. The autrefect asks your cooperation.''
Padia heard a distant, metallic screeching, and she smelled honeysuckle. She looked around wildly.To her left stood a deserted single-storey warehouse, half a block long, built of filthy cinder bricks. It had a broken oak door and no visible windows. Padia hurled herself against the door, fled inside, and slammed it behind her.
Breathlessly, she flattened herself against the hard wall. All was dark, silent. The air smelled of must and dampness. The building looked sturdy enough. All the walls appeared solid, the high ceiling was made of heavy timbers, and the window -- there was only one, a glassless rectangle in the right wall -- was far too small for the Guards. But she saw no exit. Suppose the antiphons inflamed the building? She remembered the tentacled orange tower. If there had been people inside, what happened to them?
``Please reconsider your actions, Padia Villandry,'' came a raspy voice beyond the door. ``The autrefect has arrived and would much prefer your cooperation.''
She edged away from the door, easing into the gloom of the building. Next to the door stood a dusty stone table. Straining, she shoved it in front of the door. She had no idea how strong the Guards were, but it was better than nothing.
Her eyes adjusting to the darkness, she pushed past bundles of rags, stacks of wooden planks, and broken bottles. She poked the debris with her foot. Nothing remotely useful. Against the left wall, opposite the wall with the window, was another stone table, identical to the one now blocking the door. She considered pushing the second table to the door as well, but wasn't sure if she could muster the strength.
She heard a scraping sound. She turned, and gasped.
An enormous sphere-eye filled the open window. Beyond it, a triangular head twice her height rolled back and forth. The autrefect's eye hung in the air, rotating slowly.
Padia froze. The autrefect, eldest of the Cordial Guards, scratched at the window sill, the tips of its black fingers playing along the inner edges. Abruptly it shoved both sphere-eyes forward, trying to jam them through. But they were too big. They withdrew.
Padia breathed in shallow, ragged gasps. Trembling, she moved backwards toward the left wall, inching toward the stone table, the farthest point from the window. It didn't see me. Couldn't have.
An arm thrust through the window. Padia dived under the table, piercing a curtain of cobwebs.
The autrefect's arm flailed back and forth, making wide, frantic sweeps across the floor, knocking aside planks and rags like dust balls. Fingers clicked along the floor, batting aside scraps of wood and fragments of glass. The autrefect's angular shoulder was lodged in the window. The fingers groped at the center of the room, a dozen paces inside. After long, tense moments, the arm withdrew. Padia started to breathe again, when from outside came a shattering, inhuman scream, the sound of a metal sheet ripping in half. The autrefect was angry.
Startled by the scream, Padia jerked her head, banging it against the wall behind her. She tasted blood. Her heart pounded in her chest.
Again, the scream. The sound slashed like a razor.
Padia sat with her knees on her chest, her back against the wall. From this position, the table blocked her view. Painstakingly, she hunched forward, then peered through the darkness towards the opposite wall.
The window was empty. The autrefect was gone.
With a groan of relief, Padia sat back. She touched the back of her head and winced. The table leg had made a gash in her neck.
She felt rain falling. Bits of plaster and brick covered her hair and shoulders. She looked up through the space separating the table from the wall. Overhead she saw a wide crack where the ceiling joined the wall. The crack was empty, showing only black sky. Padia brushed plaster dust from her shoulder and shook bits of brick from her hair. Another pebble fell from the crack and bounced off her forehead.
The room filled with a loud hum, the sound of a thousand buzzing bees. An arm's length from Padia, a pool of green light appeared in the floor, the size of the table top. She stifled a scream.
A sphere-eye rose from the pool, rotated slowly until it faced her. Then the eye sank, disappearing. The pool remained.
Dimensional gate. Padia struggled to calm herself. Don't panic. Concentrate.
Two spheres protruded from the pool, then the autrefect's head and its rattling jaw.
One arm emerged beside the head, briefly hovered in the air, then snaked towards Padia.
The fingers wriggled like worms, groping toward Padia's leg.
A bolt of violent energy lanced from Padia's right palm and pierced the nearest sphere-eye. The autrefect shrieked with a sound of ripping metal. Its arm vibrated with such intensity that Padia thought the fingers would fly off. The eye collapsed in on itself, like a grape shriveling in the sun. Sparks of light, residual energy from the bolt, danced over the soldier's reedy body, then vanished. The second eye collapsed and the soldier fell. Lifelessly, it dangled over the side of the green pool, deflated eyes limp against the floor.
Padia waited. She held her breath.
The right sphere-eye twitched and began to swell. Then the left.
Padia shook her head in disbelief. No. Please, no.
The stalk of its neck pulled upright. The eyes, now full size, bobbed madly. It lifted its arm, tentatively at first, then the arm stretched to its full length. The fingers curled like claws, scraping the stone floor inches from Padia's foot.
Padia recoiled, but she had nowhere to go. The finger brushed the top of her right boot.
From above came a crackle of energy. Padia jerked her head back and stared up through the space between the table and the wall. Two bolts of violet light streaked from the crack overhead, blasting the ceiling above the green pool. The ceiling groaned, then collapsed in an avalanche of stone and wood. Padia buried her head in her lap, hands over her head. Bricks slammed against the top of the table and clouds of dust erupted around her.
Then it ended.
Choking, she waved the clouds away. Before her, where the green pool had been, stood a mound of shattered bricks and splintered timber, blanketed in a haze of white dust. She saw no sign of the pool or the autrefect.
For a moment, all was silent. Then from above came a cackle, soft and feminine. Padia looked up. Two figures -- turquoise robes, smooth heads -- peered down at her, laughing. Padia began to speak, too late. The figures evaporated into twin swirls of turquoise mist, which spiraled into the air and disappeared.
Painfully, Padia dragged herself from under the table, wiping the torn sleeve of her robe against her bruised face. She felt disoriented, confused, angry. The arrogance of Kharisha and Pluonus enraged her; they'd saved her, but to them, it was all a joke. She'd had enough of illusionists -- enough of illusions -- to last a lifetime.
She steadied herself, then closed her eyes. To her surprise, she found her focus with ease. The spell bubbled into her consciousness, simply, naturally.
Padia launched herself up and flew toward Oldtown.
She flew halfway across the Byrose, high above the roaring water. Behind her, Twopenny continued to burn green. Ahead stood the dark silhouette of Dovetail Bridge. She was on her way to Oldtown, to heal in Jessis, to marshall her spells and find help. To mourn Alban.
Airborne for only a few seconds, she noticed a head floating beside her.
I had trouble discerning the head. At this altitude I had only a few points of awareness, and I found it difficult to observe. Still, I could see the head glowing golden against the black sky, impassive, unblinking. It was an exact duplicate of Thanyx Destrovan, from the ebony hood that curtained her sallow face to the emerald scarab at her throat.
Padia shut her eyes. If she ignored the messenger spirit for just a little longer, it would vanish. The nethermancer's spell could not hold. Go away. Please go away. She spoke the words in her mind.
Already the spell waned. Shanks of gray hair fell from the skull; the eyes clouded. ``If you feel guilt,'' it said, ``you are absolved.'' The voice of Thanyx echoed, a cry from the bottom of a well.
Padia paused, hovering. The wind tossed her hair and billowed in her robe. She turned to stare questioningly at the head.
``Open your sleeve,'' said the spirit.
I will not. Padia drew the robe over her wrist, hiding the runic scars.
``No,'' said Padia aloud. Her voice shook.
``Was Vilph's doing.'' The scarab loosened, dropped, and disappeared. ``You are not to blame.''
What do you want from me?
``Come to Quietus. Much to discuss.'' The messenger spirit's hair was entirely gone now. Mottled skin stretched taut over the top of its skull. ``Cordial Guards, the creatures in Twopenny, are fanatical name-givers from long past.'' The skin yellowed and faded, revealing webs of tiny veins. ``Died for their doctrines, but provided for their resurrection.'' The voice trailed off.
The head gagged, then spat bloody teeth. ``Many forms.'' The voice grew garbled. ``Oneiros summoned benign form, but Guards' work provoked violence, chaos.'' The face fell off like a mask and floated away. Beneath, bone glistened.
Padia thought bitterly, Vilph knew. He had to have known.
The head was now a toothless skull with filmy eyeballs lolling in its sockets. ``Guards vanish at dawn, but return at dusk. Until autrefect is destroyed.'' The eyeballs melted. A milky liquid spilled from the sockets and ran in rivulets into the hollow cheekbones.
``I cannot do that,'' said Padia. She began to cry. ``I think my husband is dead.''
``Quietus,'' the skull whispered. Then its jaw broke loose and hung from a thread of tendon. The cheekbones split and cracked, and in a moment the messenger spirit crumbled to dust.
Tears streaming down her face, Padia veered to the right of Dovetail Bridge and flew toward the lights of Schools. Toward Quietus.
The first rays of dawn struck the Byrose. Vilph clambered up a narrow dirt road to the top of a barren hill on the Nightshade shore, a hundred paces from Antimere Asylum. Burlap sandbags, reminders of the flood, were strewn on either side of the road. To the south, the ivory towers and silver spires of the new Twopenny skyline stood stark and alien against the orange horizon.
Vilph inhaled deeply of the clean morning air, leaning on Starstriker for support, relishing the feel of the staff's smooth surface. It made an even better walking stick, now that the blood had dried.
``Hurry,'' called Vilph. ``The view from here is magnificent.'' Hodrick joined the ork atop the hill. Hodrick had said little since they had left Twopenny. He looked tired, his eyes empty and distant, his steps laborious. They had been up all night, marveling over the transformations in Twopenny. Actually, Vilph had done most of the marvelling; Hodrick had lingered at his side, silent and unseen. By all rights, it was Vilph who should be tired. But he felt energized. He felt immortal.
``Look,'' Vilph pointed towards the Dovetail Bridge, two hundred paces distant. ``We are witness to history.''
Two armies were gathering on either end of the bridge. On the west end, the section nearest Vilph and Hodrick, a mob of Twopenny peasants waved broomsticks, clubs, and kitchen knives, their angry shouts rolling across the river like waves of thunder. The mob had swelled from a few dozen to three hundred in the past half hour. Now milling on the bridge, the mob worked itself into a frenzy, preparing to storm the other side.
On the east end, squads of the Oldtown city watch waited silently. The militia was much smaller than the mob -- no more than thirty, Vilph estimated -- but with gleaming longswords and razor-tipped polearms, they were much better armed. Resplendent in buffed copper chest pieces and knee-high leather boots, the city guards stood with their weapons at their sides, casually confident. Too confident, thought Vilph. How can they stand against a mob that size? Vilph trembled with excitement. What a battle this will be!
``I tell you, Hodrick,'' said Vilph, slapping his companion on the back, ``I cannot remember that last time I felt such a sense of accomplishment.'' He threw his arms open wide. ``My people!''
``They are not your people,'' said Hodrick wearily. ``But you have made them your responsibility.''
Vilph cocked an eye. What did he mean by that? Of course they are my people. Last night, he and Hodrick had witnessed instance after instance of city watch officers chasing the peasants from their new homes, the officers growing bolder as the Cordial Guards began to disappear at the approach of dawn. Infuriated, Vilph urged the peasants to rise against Oldtown.
``They have no right to turn you out!'' Vilph had proclaimed. With pride, he remembered how the peasants had looked at him -- worshipfully, as he remembered it. ``As long as you continue to think like wretches, you will continue to live like wretches!'' Drawn by the passion of his rhetoric, the crowd grew, their murmurs turning to shouts of affirmation. ``No matter if you live in a mansion, you will still be filth to them. So the Oldtowners would turn you out of your homes? Then turn them out of theirs!'' Inflamed with the fervor of revolt, the crowd stormed off to Dovetail Bridge.
``They are taking control of their own destiny,'' said Vilph. Absently, he ran his hand over his chest. Blood no longer seeped from his wounds. He felt little pain. ``The greed of the Oldtowners will not stand unchallenged.''
``Your concern for the unprivileged is touching.''
``I have always despised the Oldtowners. You must agree. You spent centuries protecting the -- what was it you called them? -- the unprivileged.''
Hodrick studied the mob. Some had tied axe blades to the ends of sticks; others lit crude torches. ``I did not know them. I knew only their patterns.'' He sounded disdainful, ashamed. ``You gave me understanding. Now I know them for what they are: small-minded, vengeful, and ugly.'' He spoke while staring directly at Vilph.
Vilph stamped his foot. ``Why do you insist on ruining this glorious morning? If you find us so disappointing, I can send you back to your happy animal state at a moment's notice. I need only dispel the forces tied up in one row of scars, right here.'' He traced a line on his chest. ``Do you wish to become the pawn of the Egregore once again? I think not. If anything, the Egregore would wish to have awareness as you do.''
``I wonder,'' said Hodrick. ``You cast a spell to impose awareness on this form. How?''
Vilph spoke dismissively. ``It involved a reversal of the process I used on Peyl and the troubadour -- the imposition of self-awareness on your existing pattern.''
``This form must have shared its pattern with the Egregore, because the Egregore used it as an instrument. Your spell severed that connection; it cut the pattern in half, so to speak. Could the spell that granted me awareness also have imposed a separate awareness on the other half of the pattern -- the Egregore?''
The idea disquieted Vilph. ``Nonsense,'' he said after a moment. ``At any rate, what of it? Aware or not, the Egregore, whatever it was, could not act or communicate except through you. It would be no use to anybody. -- Hold, something is happening.''
On the bridge the watcher's ranks parted, allowing a green-clad officer to pass through. Wearing a silver headband and a fluttering golden cape, the officer moved in front of the Oldtown army and raised his hands, palms extended.
A magician, thought Vilph, though he could not identify him at this range. Headband, cape. How pretentious.
The Twopenny mob roared at the sight of the magician and began moving toward him, cautiously at first, then running, waving their crude weapons overhead.
The magician stood still. Behind him, the city watch retreated for the shore in close order. The mob kept on; someone hurled a torch which spiraled through the air and bounced off the side of the bridge, into the water. The mob neared the center point of the bridge; a volley of stones arced towards the magician, falling short by fifty feet.
The magician clapped his hands, once.
The bridge exploded. A shower of granite chunks, splintered planks, and twisted bodies erupted into the air. The center span sagged, then collapsed into the river, taking dozens of people with it. A man clung to the side of the bridge, legs kicking; then he, too, fell screaming. A chunk of granite fell from the sky and crushed the head of a fleeing boy. A man drenched in blood stumbled in a drunken circle, hands pressed over his face, then slipped through a crack and disappeared. Those spared by the explosion, perhaps fifty of the three hundred, turned to flee, trampling anyone in their path. Acrid smoke billowed up. Bodies flailed in the river, and then the raging current sucked them under. The water ran red.
Calmly, the magician joined his companions on the Oldtown shore. No one on that side of the river made a sound.
The color had drained from Vilph's face. ``Who was that magician?'' he stammered. ``What kind of magic is this?''
Hodrick looked away. ``How could it matter?''
Vilph frantically licked his tusks. ``This is outrageous. The watch has no decency. Even in war, there are rules.''
Half the bridge was gone. A few smouldering planks bobbed in the water. A man swam weakly toward the shore, but the effort proved too much; the river swallowed him.
Hodrick asked blandly, ``Do you like your handiwork?''
Vilph almost snarled. ``Don't be ridiculous. I had nothing to do with this.''
``You provoked them!''
Vilph slammed his staff against the rocky slope. ``I did not provoke them! I inspired them! How dare you blame me for the actions of Oldtown? Come, we must go.''
Hodrick walked down the hill.
Vilph scratched at his chest, then stared at his hand; his fingernails were caked with dried blood. ``This robe is ruined,'' he muttered. He followed Hodrick. ``I admit, the peasants were stupid.'' He forced a laugh. ``Charging an army with broomsticks and bottles. What did they expect?''
Hodrick sat on a flat stone and lowered his head.
Vilph moved beside Hodrick. ``The Twopenny mob -- a herd of animals. Brutal. Ignorant. If I'd stood with Oldtown, I'd have done the same thing. But enough of this. The Guards performed well, don't you think?''
Hodrick ran his hand across his patchy scalp.
``Did they capture Padia?'' asked Vilph.
Hodrick stared into the sky. From the distance came the cry of a crow, mournful and urgent. ``No. They did not.''
``Blast them! Incompetents!'' Vilph beat the staff on the dirt. Then he laced his fingers over his stomach, thinking. ``The nightmeal party,'' he said suddenly. He tottered down the hill, leaning on the staff. ``Come along. We have much to do.'' As he walked, Vilph glanced up at the destroyed bridge, and he winced as though deafened by the clanging of bells.
On the north edge of Nightshade, where the Byrose bent east around the promontory of High Hill, a sodden figure washed up on the western shore. Looters set on him like crows, pulling off his clothing. Then he lay neglected in the morning sun. After two hours a city watch patrol marched down to the shore, having received orders to abandon their duties and withdraw across the river to Schools.
On shore they waited warily for the patrol boat. ``Good job just ter leave this whole half o' the city ter burn, I don't think,'' one watcher muttered to his fellow.
``Nerrr, the High Hats is just lettin' things cool down fer a while,'' murmured his friend, with the conviction of one intimate with High Hill's magistrates. ``The rabble starve fer a bit, get a bit less antsy, an' then we go back in with truncheons an' sort things out. Here, who's this 'un?''
They fell out and walked over to the man lying on the shore. The muddy current bubbled around his body. His pale skin had burned in the sun, and crows had begun to peck at his flabby body.
``Deader'n a cadaver man.''
``Ner, listen.'' Leaning down, they heard his whispered words, barely audible over the rushing current: ``Rogue ox.''
``Aah, leave 'im ter die. Passions know, enough o' these folks'll die here in these next days.''
``Sod that! Enough o' these folks'll die, an' us lettin' this 'un go too! You signed on ter the watch so you could stand an' watch some poor nobody die?''
``I signed on ter the watch ter get out o' Twopenny, same as you.'' He looked down at the man and sighed. ``Yeh, all right. Garlen shrine's near here. I'll tell the sergeant. Better get back 'fore that boat comes, says I.''
The watchers carried the man to Garlen's shrine for healing. The overworked questors could do nothing for him. Lay workers delivered the mindless form to a dismal square building on the shore north of the ruined bridge. At noon, inevitably, as though pulled by gravity, Alban Peyl arrived at Antimere Asylum.