Piercing A Veil
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection [...] that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals.
Late that day, Vilph visited Alban in Antimere.
In the asylum, as in the city outside, the inmates had grown restless. From the windowless building they could not see the Cordial Guards stalking the dark streets, nor the new fires in Twopenny and Nightshade, nor the riots against city watch patrols. Still, the madhouse inmates heard distant clamoring. Some felt heat, a fever, in the air. Whatever the reason, they fought one another, clamored for attention, or kicked savagely at the slats of their pens.
``It's the blowups and riots out there that work up the commotion in here,'' Ennis Roodville said bitterly. The crisis called for so many hands that even he, the overseer, had to cut bandages and pump water. ``Yes it is. Residents hear folks outside running around like maniacs. Residents say, `Well, the standard has obviously risen for going mad, so we'd best explore new avenues of madness.' If not for that competitive spirit, we could sit out the riots here in Antimere, our little island of sanity.''
Filantha Decrevi, having worked unceasingly for twelve hours, finally paused for breath. ``It's Lochost's work, sir, the Passion of freedom.''
``Freedom? How good that Lochost wants to loose these hopeless lunatics onto the streets! What of the woman who steals children, or the fellow who collects ears? What about the oppressed gentleman in the third pen who thinks he's Lochost, shall we let him out to see his handiwork?''
``There's more kinds of freedom than getting loose of a pen, sir.'' Filantha glanced at Roodville's stingrod, resting close to his hand.
Roodville followed her glance and scowled. ``If you don't like my ways, you, at least, are free to leave.''
Tired and tense, Filantha almost did leave on the instant. Before she could speak, a figure stepped into the torchlit front doorway. At first Filantha saw a small, hunched ork, but the form blurred and became a tall human. He wore a gray silk tunic and black hose, gentleman's clothing, and he had a thin face, the kind she thought of as a gentleman's face. Filantha's thoughts of quitting vanished; she wanted only to help this man.
He walked gracefully to Roodville and Filantha. ``Have you received a new patient within the last day or two, one who says only `rogue ox'? If so, I'd like to see him.''
The gentleman had impressed Roodville too. ``Ah, yes indeed, sir! Relative, perhaps? Can you identify him?''
``You need no identification,'' said the gentleman.
``No identification,'' said Roodville dreamily. ``Filantha, show the man to the new resident.''
In a congenial haze Filantha led the gentleman across the asylum floor. Behind the pickets of each pen, men and women leaped like apes, beat their bloody foreheads against the floor, urinated on one another, picked scabs from one another's scratches and ate them, drew pictures on the brick walls with their own filth, and gibbered as if wiping out any barrier between name-givers and the lowest beasts.
Filantha and the gentleman came to a pen full of screaming, fighting inmates. The gentleman spoke a few words, and they all fell silent. Filantha led him inside and around scattered piles of filth to the wall. The gentleman smiled, recognizing an inmate who lay sprawled there across a litter of rubble. Motionless, his breath ragged, Alban stared sightlessly into the darkness overhead. Like the other inmates, he wore only a dirty white shift. Over and over he mouthed the words ``rogue ox.''
The smear of blood still marked his forehead, but no one in the madhouse could see it -- except Vilph.
``How long he will live, do you think?'' Vilph asked Filantha.
``Not another day, sir, I'm sorry to say. Not long ago we had another poor stranger just like him, with no friends and the light gone out of his eyes. He lasted just hours. That was the last night of the flood. We had an adept here, a wizard called Padia Villandry, and not even she could help him.''
Vilph looked at her keenly. ``Villandry? I believe I've heard of her. Isn't she married to that magistrate -- oh, what is his name --?''
Filantha looked blank. ``I don't know that she's married to anyone, sir.''
``Never mind. Any notion what that `rogue ox' might mean?'' He asked the question dismissively, as though the answer mattered little. ``No? Ah, well. Leave us alone. After I leave this place, forget me.''
Filantha's eyes glazed, and she walked away in silence. As Vilph stared around at the inmates, they too lost interest in him. He sat down cross-legged beside Alban.
He said, ``Alban, three times you asked my true motive for causing the Affliction. I would not tell you then, but now you represent no threat. I guessed you would end up here and had a spare hour, and so, even after you tried so hard to hurt me, I thought I might explain.
``After I defeated you and Padia over the shipyard ten years ago, the airship carried me away. You had killed its crew. I could not maintain the ship alone. Its sails and rigging mystified me, just as a grimoire of illusions would mystify an air sailor. The ship drifted on the wind.
``I had no flying carpet then, nor the spell to make one. I had no choice but to stay aboard, living off stores. I hoped that pirates would seize the ship, and then I could seize the pirates.
``Nothing of the sort occurred. From the popular accounts you might think a given ship battles pirates and monsters three to six times a day, but my journey was disgustingly peaceful. I kept watch every moment, hoping to spot a village. Unfortunately, a west wind had taken me over the Thunder Mountains. Nothing there but pine forests and strange nighttime rumblings. I saw a band of ogres mining silver, and a cave troll on the hunt, but not one name-giver in the whole range.
``I fell asleep on deck one night while the ship drifted well above the highest peaks. It seemed hardly a moment later that a crash shook the ship, and it tilted over sharply. Something, I don't know what, had made it lose altitude and crash. Some enchantment wore off, or a wind forced it down, or perhaps there was no explanation. In my experience reasons come in short supply. Crashes, calamities, wars, disease, the passing of loves and friendships, death -- all seem as random as rainstorms.
``I fell through darkness. I don't remember anything else. When I woke, it was dawn. I lay in a pool of my own blood. A pack of coyotes had gathered, and believe me, Alban, no Horror can match the pure malice in a coyote's stare. I could manage only a few glamours and a light spell, mere novice work. These barely drove them off.
``It took me nearly five days to heal my wounds. I was far from any civilized place. I wandered for days. A spell protected me from the weather. I hunted by mesmerizing rodents, then, while they stood like pets, breaking their skulls with a rock. Depraving work, that was.
``I grew desperate and deranged. I berated the sun and bargained with the moon. At last I gave up hope. For most of a day I scratched a last testament on a boulder, using a sharp stone; it may be there still. Then, knowing Death waited for me, I resorted to that most dangerous practice, reviled in my discipline: willful self-delusion.
``I created the illusion of a well-travelled dirt trail and, pretending to see it by chance, thought, `Look, I am saved!' I followed my trail south through the mountains, creating it as I went, making it twist and curve as the mood took me. By night I made it glow and walked on. I resolved to walk the path without food or sleep, until I fell and died.
``Before dawn the next day it began to snow. The cold overwhelmed my spell's protection, and I started to freeze. You can imagine that I was giddy with hunger and lack of sleep. In that frame of mind I decided to cast the largest illusion I had ever attempted, with myself as my target. After a few minutes of steady concentration, I thought to see the blizzard clear away. The clouds broke up, and in the east the sun rose, a beautiful dawn. I knew I was still freezing to death, but with that false heat surging through me, I felt defiant. I would die in my own reality.
``An hour later my sight had clouded and my head was whirling. I turned my trail up a steep face of rock, thinking it was a precipice. I would throw myself off. I scrambled to the top, looked down across a gentle slope of snow, and saw a village. It had two dozen log huts with thatched roofs and pine walls sealed with mud. I could see firelight in their windows.
``I thought, `Hum, I did not plan a village here. My mind has gone away from me.' I decided to pursue the illusion to its end, and I went down the slope.
``In all those small villages the inhabitants are suspicious and hostile, but I decided these people of my imagination should welcome me. When I arrived, indeed, they had gathered on the common, talking in bewildered voices, amazed because the weather had cleared so suddenly. After they saw my magician's robes they greeted me as a rescuer. The village elder told me the sudden blizzard had threatened several outlying families, but by dispelling the storm I had saved them. I felt astonished at my unknown powers of invention, for I had not consciously devised any of this.
``The villagers fed and sheltered me. I ate their mutton and potatoes, and I knew the food was illusion. I slept under a warm wool blanket on a straw bed. I knew it at every moment as a trick of my mind, the last delirium before death. Yet for a whole day these people lived their lives in more intricate detail than I would have bothered to imagine. It gradually became clear that this place was real -- or at least nothing like my earlier illusions.
``A hundred questions troubled me. Had I learned to affect the world in real ways? Or did my illusions simply match reality by miraculous coincidence, so that I had saved my own life through sheerest chance? Could all this, the village and the weather and my rescue, really be a vision in the last moments before I died?
``Then, in a moment of pure comprehension, I made the breakthrough. I realized that explanations made no difference at all.
``I felt I had awakened from a dream, or perhaps into a dream. For years I had changed name-givers' perceptions and emotions, turning black to white, joy to pain, always in the belief that I changed them from some `true' original. In that moment I saw that there is no true perception, no real emotion. What rises naturally in our minds is no less arbitrary, no less a phantasm, than any work of magic. If we are sad now, what of it? We were happy before, we will be again; what makes one person cry makes another laugh; every idea is simply a current in the mind's flow. If I channel the current a certain way, who can say the new path is more artificial than the old? Both pass away in a moment, like snowflakes.
``That was ten years ago. Since then my realization has transformed me and vastly increased my power. Once you recognize all thought and emotion as illusion, you can change it on a much broader scale than my discipline usually appreciates. For instance, I created Hodrick's awareness in much the same way I removed yours, Alban. I regard the Affliction as another large experiment in illusion.
``At last, in my roundabout way, I have come to the explanation you asked for. Why have I caused the Affliction? What had you imagined -- that I sought power? Revenge? Service in some cause? Hmph. More illusions.
``I'm surprised you did not think of this, Alban, back when you could think: I have no reason. I have caused the Affliction simply because I can. I decided long ago to die in my own reality, and now I simply explore how I can shape it before I go. Why not?
``You and your cronies objected to the Affliction because it inflicts a burden of suffering. You see now -- or would, if you could see beyond this instant -- that such objections are foolish. Pain, grief, joy, honor, `reality' . . . they absolutely do not matter.''
After Vilph left, Roodville and Filantha stood over Alban. Neither remembered Vilph's visit. They discussed choices.
Roodville said, ``Crowded as we are, and with the commotion and all, I'm loath to keep this one, Widow. If he's like that other stranger before -- what we may call the ant-bait variety -- he won't eat, but there's extra trouble cleaning up after him. A mixed blessing.'' He looked around at the other inmates, who looked unlike blessings of any sort, mixed or not.
``Are we to cast him on the street, sir, on this troubled night? I doubt he has another day to live. We can make his last hours less painful. And sir, think of your increased traffic with the undertaker.''
Roodville looked at Filantha ominously. ``Enough of your glib talk! For all your contempt of my management, Widow Decrevi, this asylum would not survive if we managed things your way, no it would not.''
``If we managed things my way, sir, we would not need this asylum.''
``Move the residents into people's homes, would you? Hah! Sell that notion to the magistrates, let alone the people.'' He paused, considering Alban like a row of figures in a ledger. ``Well, keep him for now.'' They walked away.
Neither they nor Vilph nor anyone had noticed that in the last hour Alban had changed. His breathing had strengthened. The tremors in his limbs had quieted.
Vilph had worked his first mind-destroying enchantment on a troubadour, an adept whose magic depends on communication. Without a mind, Boffin had lost his magic and dwindled to a quick death. Alban followed a different discipline.
A warrior adept does not need to communicate. A warrior of the Order of Inner Light does not even need a mind.
In Quietus Padia felt a persistent itch. Sometimes her nose itched, at other times the base of her neck, or her wrist, or her knee. She felt like someone, or something, kept touching her. She soon grew used to the black decor, the constant whispers from nowhere, and the sudden shifts in temperature, but she never stopped itching.
The main library in Quietus had walls and floor of a shiny, reflective black. Catching a glimpse of herself, Padia thought, Can that really be me? She saw bound wounds, a drawn face, straggling hair -- she had lost her skullcap somewhere -- and eyes that stared at her despondently. This is not me. It is some effect in the wall. She reached out to touch the black surface, and her fingers sank into it as if through mist. She drew back hurriedly. Her fingers felt numb, and swirling patterns of frost marked their tips.
``Not wall,'' said Thanyx, who had brought her to the library. ``Barrier against spirits.''
Padia followed the nethermancer along the shelves. ``Do spirits try to break in here?''
``Not in. Out.''
The college had acquired hundreds of grimoires, scrolls, hornbooks, monographs, and compendia, supposedly Barsaive's largest collection of nethermantic texts outside Throal. Some books murmured or chuckled quietly to themselves. Padia and Thanyx walked along the crammed shelves until they found the large collection of spirit rosters.
It seemed nethermancers compiled rosters in the same obsessive way wizards wrote scholarly analyses of magical techniques. Padia wondered if elementalists and illusionists had equivalent obsessions. Magicians in Merron knew little about each other's spellcasting disciplines. She had always taken this ignorance for granted, but now she found it annoying, narrow-minded, and -- as the Affliction showed -- dangerous.
Padia scratched her right arm. Her left sleeve slipped back, and for the hundredth time she saw the runic scars on her wrist. The Theran runes spelled ``Tenthonis.''
I serve the autrefect Tenthonis Awakener-Pacificator --
``Ah,'' said Thanyx. ``This one.'' She shoved aside a large copper-bound folio, which grumbled in protest, and pulled down a new-looking quarto volume in brown snakeskin.
Thanyx paged through the volume. It looked pristine, its pages creamy white, but a whiff of carrion rose from them. ``Very old book, preserved by blood magic. Collection of spirits not seen since Scourge, and some only legends.''
``Does it mention Isedris?''
-- Eldest of the Age of Isedris the Autarch, imperator of the Blood Theogency of the Emblem Teltrenix.
The old woman peered over the book with a mixture of care and pride. ``Really want to try to dispatch autrefect? Is more nethermancer's work.''
Padia felt irritation, but she knew it came of heartache and lack of sleep. She controlled herself. ``Dispelling any magic is wizard's work. If I learn about the spirits and their purpose, I can attune my spells against them.''
``Not your fight, if you don't want. When Oneiros admits mistake --''
``That will take days.''
``So? Will take you days to heal.''
``It is my fight. The Cordial Guards are Vilph's creatures, and Vilph destroyed my husband.''
Thanyx looked shocked. ``Did not know you were married! Terrible. How long ago?''
With a visible effort Padia restrained her anger. ``Not now. What does the roster say?''
``This one not a talker.'' Thanyx skimmed the pages, then smiled. ``Ah. Isedris.''
``What is happening here?'' The librarian sounded at once panicky, furious, and aggrieved. He scurried over, his black and silver robes flapping around his skinny legs. ``What is this? Townswoman Destrovan, have you simply thrown open our library to this, this --''
``Visitor,'' Padia prompted. ``Have we met?''
Thanyx introduced the bald, antiseptic librarian in a chilly tone suited to the cool black room. ``Townman Dragoslav, this is Padia Villandry, well-known and accomplished wizard. My friend, here at my request.''
Dragoslav sniffed. ``Friend or not, the library does not admit magicians of other disciplines. I'm sorry, she will have to go.''
``Dragoslav is forgetful man,'' Thanyx told Padia. ``Forgets respect due elders of college. Forgets how elders can make life hard for those under them.''
Whether this appeal to rank would have persuaded Dragoslav to leave them alone, Padia did not find out. She knew that the tactic Thanyx chose, win or lose, would only provoke the librarian's resentment toward Padia and toward all wizards. The disasters that afflicted Merron had come about partly by such resentment, and it frustrated her. After all this rivalry and politicking, couldn't anyone reach out, build?
``Townsman Dragoslav,'' Padia said sweetly, ``I understand your concern that an unwary magician could do great harm, to herself and others, by careless use of this library's powerful spells. Believe me, I shall defer to Townswoman Destrovan's superior skill and wisdom.'' Padia smiled ingratiatingly. ``You must know these shelves as well as anyone can. Will you help us? This libr-- Your library could help stop the invading spirits in Twopenny. We, and everyone in Merron, need your help.''
She wove no thread and cast no spell, but Padia worked magic of a subtler kind. The librarian faltered and said, ``Um, well, I suppose that's different.'' In a minute Dragoslav had joined them and begun eagerly pulling volumes from the shelves.
All the while, Padia reflected on the frustrations of inter-discipline rivalry. As an adept, she felt a natural impulse to act, to stop it. She thought she saw a way.
Alban's second day in Antimere.
The Cordial Guards had come back for a second night, departing at dawn, leaving new homes and rioting crowds behind. When five-storey tenements became single-family mansions, residents quarreled over who would live there. Restored buildings overlapped existing property lines, and residents fought for ownership. Name-givers who lived in unrestored shacks invaded the luxury homes across the way.
``What does it matter if these stick-figure spirits give them new homes?'' Roodville said as he and Filantha entered the men's pen on their daily rounds. ``Those wretches in Twopenny were born poor, and they think poor. Give them all the wealth of Thera, and in a year any one of them will fall back to --'' He broke off and stared, then gestured with his stingrod. ``Scourge me, but this rogue-ox fellow looks stronger.''
``Really, sir?'' Filantha peered down at Alban. ``Look at that belly, thinner than last night. He's wasting away.''
``I know a hundred overstuffed gentlemen on High Hill who should `waste away' like that. Look at his muscles! Decrevi, what have you fed this one?''
``He hasn't taken a bite nor drunk a drop,'' said Filantha. ``Nor said a word, except --''
``Yes, I know. Well, he's either wasting away or getting fit as a finch, and either way he'll be out of here soon enough.''
``Oh, he's not getting fit, sir. Only look in his eyes and you can tell. There's no one in there.''
Alban heard none of this. What had passed for Alban, the flowing pattern of his personality, remained trapped in the moment. He could not think a thought beyond ``rogue ox.'' Without a past or future, without the will to react, the individual vanishes. In a real sense, Alban no longer existed.
Yet -- as his mentor, Roniro, taught -- ``Alban'' had never really existed.
Warriors in the Order of Inner Light gain magic through insight. With meditation the warrior perceives how the mind cobbles together an illusion of unchanging self from thoughts, sensations, and memories. Seeing how these passing currents cloud the mind, the warrior lets go of the illusion of self and grows calm. In the calm mind, magic arises.
With his mind's pathways empty, a kind of consciousness grew in Alban's brain, a point-like awareness divorced from personality or anything human. Unimpeded by emotion, unhindered by any trace of doubt, warrior magic moved strongly through Alban. It had no more design than does a river. The magic simply flowed into him and, as a river carves away obstructing points of sand, it began to reshape his body.
The flooding Byrose had not destroyed Dovetail Bridge. A proclamation from the magistrates on High Hill had done the job in ten minutes. Now, near sunset a day later, more proclamations appeared in Twopenny and Nightshade: curfews, seizures, death penalties.
A city watch sergeant nailed a square of parchment to the wall beside Denderbore's, a fruitselling stall popular in Nightshade. Four more watchers watched a large crowd, polearms ready. In the three days since Dovetail fell, not many patrols had stayed on the west bank of the river. Mobs had destroyed a few patrols. The onlookers here, hard-bitten men and desperate mothers and rambunctious youths, already sounded surly when the watchers prevented them from buying Denderbore's fruit. As they heard the proclamation, their tone grew angrier.
``As o' noon this day, the sixteenth of Rua,'' the watch sergeant read aloud, ``for the re-establishment o' civil peace in certain disordered boroughs, an' for the maintenance and well-being o' the city watch and other duly appointed agents o' the magistrates --''
``Thugs!'' someone called from the crowd.
``-- All private property belongin' to individuals deemed in violation o' the peace o' the city is subject to immediate seizure without hearing --''
A roar of protest. The city watchers raised their polearms nervously. An old woman in the front row shrieked, ``Them what blowed up yon bridge, did they vi'late peace?'' Another said, ``More o' the same old gougin', sounds ter me!'' Many other shouts drowned out the proclamation.
The watch sergeant, like all watchers, lived in city barracks in Schools and Hempline. However, like most watchers, he had grown up in the slums. He knew his way around these people. From the nearest fruit bin he grabbed an armful of apples and held one up. He shouted one of his stock phrases, ``By the authority o' this proclamation!'' As he repeated it, the crowd fell silent, waiting.
The sergeant continued with another practiced phrase. ``I hereby decree an' decide --'' He paused for effect. ``-- givin' away some o' this here fruit'll improve civil peace!'' He started tossing apples into the crowd. The other watchers followed suit, people dived for the fruit, and in moments the mood turned from anger to eagerness.
A troll named Morinnan looked on from a shadowed alley nearby. Short for a troll, hardly eight feet tall, he had a wide build, a handsome unscarred face, and imposing horns. Since forming his gang a year ago, Morinnan had braided his mane of russet hair into many long tails, beaded with the fingerbones of his enemies. At his waist he carried a leather lash.
He scratched his black beard and said in a low drawl to those behind him, ``The Scourgin' bloats. They played that 'un pretty good. Crowd gets a few dozen apples, an' the bloats keep the rest. Bung 'em! I'd fancied some o' Denderbore's oranges.''
Morinnan had fancied many things since the riots began. He and his nineteen followers had started by fancying the entire stock of Guzman's Smithy on Tenturn Lane -- twenty-six broadswords, nine spears, four pole axes, four spiked maces and flails, uncounted daggers, and a fine Theran warhammer -- as well as Guzman's wife and both daughters. Their fancies proceeded to rich clothing, jewelry, potions, blood charms, a cherrywood tun of red wine, and (after much of the wine had disappeared) a sculpture of the Passion Astendar, part of the courtyard fountain in Winita's House of Ecstatic Pleasure. And, now, to oranges.
Three days of strenuous fancy had left most of the gang sated, if not exhausted. Only Morinnan still desired more. But -- ``Not gon' ter get oranges now. That bloatin' sergeant, he what-yer-call turned the tide.''
``Well, there's many another fruitseller in Nightshade,'' said the t'skrang behind him, ``and no doubt all ripe for the picking, as it were.'' The reptilian female, a swordmaster adept named Phrynos, had scales of aquamarine and a cerulean blue head crest, and she wore a flowery vest and loose red trousers. She flicked her long tail impatiently. Thin steel spikes pierced the ridge of the tail.
Phrynos served Morinnan as his lieutenant and bodyguard. She followed Morinnan because the troll paid well, caroused hard, and wielded power as if born to it. Morinnan prized the swordmaster not only for her magical skill and stamina, but also because, the day after a debauch, she never felt hung over. In this respect she surpassed the six human gang members in the alley. Ordinarily ruthless and tough -- for humans, at any rate -- this afternoon they had no appetite for oranges, fighting, or anything else.
``Say, Chief,'' said one blearily, ``what say we come back tonight after the guards is gone?''
``Shut it,'' said Morinnan, and the others fell silent. They knew that tone. The troll planned something.
Fingering his lash out of habit, Morinnan thought about the crowd. The watchers had lightened its mood easily, and to Morinnan that meant he could change that mood back just as easily. Though not an adept, the troll could read a crowd as wizards read a scroll. He knew it would take more than apples to make Nightshaders love the city watch.
``Got me an idea,'' he said to his lieutenant. ``Phrynos, go out an' take that watch sergeant. Don't hurt him much, but cut off all his armor.''
One scaly brow ridge arched, and one amber cat's-eye pupil narrowed. ``Cut off his armor,'' the t'skrang repeated.
``What'sa matter? Yer can't do it?''
Her head reared back on her wattled neck. ``Sir, I am an adept. I could cut off the pieces in alphabetical order.''
``Never mind. What of the other guards?''
``These bloats'll get rid o' their hangovers an' keep the other watchers busy. Won'tcher, bloats?''
However bloated the thugs had looked, this news deflated them. ``Fight watchers, boss? Get the law on our tail?''
``Ain't no law no more.'' Morinnan pointed at the crowd. ``Them's the law, an' this'll put 'em on the watch's tails. Don't kill 'em, 'less yer have ta. Now go.'' He pulled his lash from his belt.
Resigned, the thugs readied swords and maces. Phrynos led, walking idly from the alleyway toward the fruit stand. When she drew abreast of the city watch sergeant, she whipped out a dagger. The blade moved invisibly fast; suddenly the sergeant no longer wore a helmet. As Phrynos walked on casually, the helmet fell at the sergeant's feet, the chin strap severed. Across his cheek, where the strap had rested, blood seeped from a gash no deeper than a paper cut.
The sergeant stared down at the helmet dumbly, felt his cheek, and belatedly groped for his sword. ``Attack!'' he shouted, but Morinnan's thugs had already moved in. Blades clashed, fruit boxes toppled, and the crowd drew back, fascinated but uneasy.
Phrynos maneuvered past the sergeant's slashing blade as if walking around a sculpture. She jammed her dagger under his shoulder strap and cut. Absently ducking his return swing, the t'skrang slipped her blade up and slashed his waist strap. She leapt away, and as the sergeant tried to follow, his breastplate fell askew.
Phrynos said, ``Your girdle slips, sir!'' She flipped the dagger end for end and smiled, revealing a long jaw of pointed teeth. ``Care to retire and adjust your fittings?''
Furious, the watch sergeant charged. Phrynos stepped aside, grabbed his free hand, and whirled him around, crack-the-whip. The sergeant flew into the crowd -- but Phrynos pulled off his gauntlet as he went. The crowd laughed explosively and shoved the sergeant back toward Phrynos.
The t'skrang sighed to herself. ``One more gauntlet, the two arm brassards, a fauld at his waist, kneepieces, and greaves. This grows tedious.'' As the sergeant rushed her again, she turned to one side and whipped up her tail. It slapped across the sergeant's face, stunning him. He wavered, and the tail struck again, flashing right, left, right. At the fourth blow the sergeant fell, out cold.
As the crowd burst into applause, Phrynos said, ``In a moment I shall do the dog-work of cutting off the rest,'' then turned to inspect the situation inside Denderbore's fruit stall.
Her fellows had pushed the watchers against the inside wall. The watchers, outnumbered, looked nervous but resolute, ready to die fighting. Onlookers nearby seemed tense.
Phrynos looked up at the canvas awning that stretched over the fruit stall. She called to the thugs, ``Enough of this! To me, my friends!'' They withdrew to her side. Drawing her twin sabres for the first time, Phrynos slashed at the awning's wooden support poles. The awning fell over the helpless watchers, and the crowd laughed uproariously.
At this dramatic point, Morinnan made his entrance. ``Good work, you scrappers!'' he called loudly. He put his brawny arm around the t'skrang's shoulder. ``Folks, my gang don't like this bunch any more'n any o' yer. Watch now, we're gonna send 'em back ta High Hill ta tell them bloats what we think of 'em!''
His thugs disarmed the watchers, then sent them running. With a few strokes of his lash, Morinnan sent their sergeant fleeing ahead of them -- dressed only in his own proclamations.
Morinnan shouted to the delighted crowd, ``Remember who's really helpin' ya. Thinkin' them bloats 're the same as us is like -- like apples an' oranges!''
Laughter, loud as the Byrose. He threw a few oranges to them, although not the best quality. In another moment he would send away the crowd and start his gang looting the stand.
Denderbore, a stout balding man with a narrow mustache, laughed loudest of all. ``Good job, troll! I'd take you over that lot any day. Tell your men to help yourselves to the fruit!''
Smiling in gratitude, he placed a ripe orange in Morinnan's hand.
Surprised, Morinnan stared at the orange. He thought, Don't need to loot this place after all. Then he thought, This must be how them bloats do it on High Hill. This idea flowed directly to another and another. Together they formed a possibility so large he could not absorb it at once. His brow furrowed, and he breathed faster.
Unconscious of the crowd's noise, Morinnan stared down the street, where through a gap between buildings he saw the domes of High Hill. In the sunset they looked like ripe oranges.
For a third night the Cordial Guards returned to Twopenny and Nightshade. They stalked the streets, unfailingly courteous, not harming anyone. In their wake they left beautiful restored buildings, alien structures, and riots. Earlier the Byrose had displaced and shuffled Twopenny's property. Now, in the same impersonal way, the Guards disturbed its society.
Neither river nor spirits could dislodge the unshakable Old Families from Oldtown. They viewed the riots across the river with mild distaste. ``Frivolous. Inconsiderate,'' announced Landswoman Bulrutha Barghill-Bhurn. ``Decent folk wish to inspect the late improvements to their Twopenny properties, but can they? No! I tell you they cannot! The lower classes must have their mischief first, against reason and propriety. Nothing shows more clearly why they cannot rise out of Twopenny.'' Her nostrils flared as she pronounced her verdict: ``Water! Water finding its level!''
Thirty fine Old Family patriarchs and matriarchs in thirty opulent mansions held thirty identical conversations. Barghill-Bhurn, the Nurnwoods, the Styche-Mudds, the Dormowses and Llugards and Parrsytes: each in turn spoke to an esteemed peer, Padia Villandry -- or rather, one whom each saw as Padia.
Impersonating Padia over three days' time, Vilph Axehandle visited each Old Family over brunch, tea, dinner, or an evening game of quartillo. In Padia's voice he told Oldtown's finest, ``I admire your clear insight into the Twopenny problem, Landsman Parrsyte'' -- ``Oh, Landsman Moache, you must recount your views at my nightmeal party, the night after tomorrow'' -- ``Of course I dearly hope you will show up, Landswoman Frey-Lowden, and bring your family and associates.''
Each of thirty families wondered, ``Do you still intend to hold the party, dear, in light of the -- er --?''
Thirty times Vilph answered smoothly, ``What better time? We must show the riff-raff that life in the better classes continues undisturbed.'' Thirty times he leaned in, gazed deep in their eyes, and wove his spell. ``Don't you agree, Landsman Leyche? -- Landswoman Truckler? -- Landsman Spohnge-Dobbit?''
Thirty times they nodded, eyes glazed.
At each home Vilph happened on some innocuous item belonging to the resident Founding Family. Each time, he greeted the sight with glad cries. ``Why, what a beautiful cameo!'' (Chalice, statuette, girandole candlestick.) ``You must let me borrow it for the fireworm ceremony.''
``Fireworks, you say?'' asked thirty Founders.
``No, fireworm. A pleasant little rite where we light a little candle in front of items of sentimental value. This symbolizes our long tradition and unity.''
``Capital! Why do you call it `fireworm,' Padia?''
``Oh, no doubt there's some obscure historical reason, but you don't really care about that.'' He stared, and thirty families decided they did not care about that. In this way Merron's great families gave Vilph their own pattern items.
``We shall certainly be there, Padia,'' each family told him in parting. ``Your party will be a triumph.''
``Exactly,'' said Vilph. ``I believe everyone will talk about it for a long time to come.''
``I have asked you here tonight to discuss evacuation.''
Padia -- the real Padia -- looked out from the podium at the dozen magicians of Oneiros and Geocosm. She had invited the wizards of Noesis as well, but they had not appeared. The members of the two guilds sat well apart in two tight groups, with many rows of wooden seats between them. They had come to this Quietus lecture hall unwillingly, and they looked sullen. When they heard ``evacuation,'' they looked dumbstruck.
``The spirits have created civil disorder,'' Padia continued. ``Even now they are overrunning half of Merron. The riots seem likely to spread, and High Hill may fall. I propose that the magicians' guilds leave and relocate to a calmer city, such as Travar. If we unite, we shall command power enough to do what we wish.''
``I cannot believe this!'' Taundis Boyhan, leader of Geocosm, leaped to his feet. The fire of his red hair matched the fiery anger in his eyes. ``Desert the city? Better to stay and destroy the cause of its problems!''
``Indeed,'' said Ramiel, gazing insolently at the Oneiros nethermancers. ``Who summoned those spirits, I wonder?''
Ghantrem, elder of Oneiros, sprang to his feet angrily, but Taundis silenced Ramiel with a gesture. ``I meant Vilph Axehandle!''
Simon Weald, whose gaze seldom met that of others directly, stared pensively into the writhing colors of his onyx ring. ``Vilph has lost control of the Composite Form. We saw it ourselves at the Fastness, when the Form went with Villandry.''
``And my husband,'' Padia added without thinking.
Weald scowled. ``Husband? I distinctly remember you were alone. When did you marry?''
Padia looked at them all and despaired. Not even the most powerful magicians in Merron could penetrate Vilph's illusion.
``Whether the Form went with her or with others, Townsman Weald, you are sadly out of date,'' said Daimon Angelicon Dimitrio, whose magnetic gaze met that of others much too often for their liking. ``Vilph prompted the Form to lead us in summoning the Guards -- although, unlike some others,'' and here Dimitrio looked straight at the complacent Hendon of Hemiptera, ``I am not yet convinced that summoning the Guards was a mistake. They have done much good restoring the lower city.''
Many discordant voices argued this, until Padia clapped her hands and quieted them. ``We cannot beat Vilph,'' she said. Speaking over a dozen protests, ranging from Logro the Skinworker's murmur to Boyhan's howl, she continued. ``How can we fight Vilph, when Vilph can easily pit us against one another? Over and over he manipulates us into these disastrous rituals, because we would rather show up one another's guilds than protect the city. If blind rivalry keeps us from helping Merron, we should simply abandon it and start over somewhere else.''
The magicians greeted this with fury. ``I would die for Merron!'' -- ``Oneiros does not foster this rivalry!'' -- ``Well, Geocosm certainly doesn't!''
Suddenly Taundis Boyhan shouted, ``Stop!'' As he stared at Padia, his heavy bushy red eyebrows lowered. ``You do not argue this sincerely, do you, Padia? You manipulate us just as Vilph might, by taking a foolish position and driving us to the contrary.''
``You are too astute, Taundis,'' said Padia with a disarming smile. ``True, I do not want to leave Merron. Yet is my `foolish position' anything but a statement of the situation?''
Once more the magicians grew sullen. Boyhan, elder of Geocosm, looked sidelong at Ghantrem, elder of Oneiros, and the nethermancer returned a grudging glance. The silence lengthened.
``I promise you this,'' said Boyhan at last. ``Vilph caused the death of my son. I promise that Geocosm will no longer aid him, nor the Composite Form, not while I live.'' Every magician took this pronouncement gravely, for Taundis as much as vowed to violate the blood oath that had killed Britham Boyhan.
Ghantrem seemed to decide on the spot, perhaps to avoid appearing irresolute beside Boyhan. ``Although the alleged harm done by the Cordial Guards is not yet proven, the other disasters of the Affliction testify that Vilph causes more trouble than he cures. We of Oneiros will also stop aiding the Form while Vilph controls it.''
``You are the only wizard here, Landswoman Villandry,'' said Gideon Lant of Geocosm. ``Where is Noesis in all this?''
The question disquieted Padia. ``I had hoped Haerlam the Diviner would bring the wizards, but I have heard nothing.''
Gideon pursed his lips, then said, ``How interesting. Do we know Vilph's whereabouts or current plans?''
The question, and its implications, hung in the air.
Alban's third day in Antimere.
Filantha and Roodville stood over Alban. ``Not natural,'' said Roodville nervously. ``Hasn't eaten nor drunk nor eliminated since he got here. Horror work, this is. We'd best bring in a questor. Or --'' He worked up his courage. ``-- we could beat his brains out here and now.'' He raised the stingrod.
``Sir, please!'' Filantha stood between the overseer and Alban. ``He doesn't seem a threat, now does he? He's better-looking, not worse -- magic it must be, but not Horror magic.''
The inmates gathered in a wide semicircle around the unconscious stranger. Watching him over the last day, they had grown subdued and thoughtful. Now, hearing Filantha's words, they peered at Alban with fresh wonder.
He had transformed. His skin had flushed bright red, as though burning. Amid the filth of the pen, he had somehow become perfectly clean. Every trace of fat on his body had melted away, leaving his stomach flat and his limbs muscular. Every hair on his body had fallen out, leaving his scalp shiny and his fevered skin youthful. Curled in a ball, he hardly breathed. Only occasional twitches showed that he still lived.
Filantha knelt with a cup of water. As she tried to get Alban to drink, she spilled a few drops on his skin. They sizzled and steamed away.
Roodville saw this, and his courage vanished. ``Keep away from him, Decrevi! Just, just let him alone. Perhaps he'll burn up by tomorrow. Otherwise, I'll bring in the city watch, yes I will, if any are left this side of the river. I'll wager they handle him like they handled the bridge.''
Alban did not comprehend this conversation, but behind his eyes the warrior magic measured each of them, second to second. It judged Filantha No danger and, in certain moments, Ally; Roodville, Possible danger. No appraisal survived the instant. Nothing signaled an immediate threat, and so the magic took no action. It merely flowed, stronger in its vessel hour by hour.
That night the Cordial Guard returned to Twopenny and Nightshade for a fourth time. By now they had restored almost all the western half of the city, and so those east of the Byrose grew more nervous each night. Would the Guards cross the river and alter Hempline or Schools? Did they lack decency to such an extent that they could contemplate revising Keystone? Surely even a Cordial Guard must acknowledge the incorruptibility of Oldtown; the spirits would not dare meddle with what the Founding Families already knew to be perfect.
Still, in their private moments the Founders and all their scions, hangers-on, and servants cast worried glances at the hallowed halls that sheltered them. What strange constructions stood on these slopes in the past? Had the hallowed halls stood in what the Guards called ``the real time''? Glorious mansions had once stood in the Twopenny slums, and they had become mere mud-caked timbers in unspeakable tenements. Could these very halls of Oldtown, these hallowed halls -- could they --?
No. What nonsense! Their thoughts restored to their customary happiness, the Founding Families went about selecting outfits for tomorrow night's party at Jessis.
That same night, flying low over Schools borough on the carpet, Vilph and Hodrick made for the College of Supreme Muniment to meet with the wizards of the Noesis guild. Hodrick said, ``I cannot believe you intend to continue with this Affliction. Now all of Merron's magicians must recognize that you mean no good for the city. Blood oath or no, they will refuse to cooperate.''
Vilph no longer regarded Hodrick as worthy of the effort of lying. The ork asked, ``If you believe I mean no good for Merron, Hodrick, then why do you still cooperate with me?''
As Vilph expected, the straightforward question took Hodrick off guard. ``I -- I do so because you can destroy me, just as you created me.''
Vilph enjoyed toying with Hodrick. ``I did not create your body, and I cannot destroy it. The self-awareness you enjoy is an illusion. Your form would still protect the city if I dispelled the illusion. Why cling to it?''
Hodrick's eyes matched only in their look of despair. ``Whether this body survives, I would die. I fear death.''
``Exactly. Now you understand why those wizards in Noesis will cooperate. Their self-awareness is no less an illusion than yours, except that I cannot dispel theirs. Yet they will cling to it as you do.''
Hodrick sighed. ``In that fear I betrayed friends and loved ones. In love I found heartbreak, as does every name-giver in this city. They age, see their bodies decay and grow ill, and see everything they cherished slip away or become perverted. Through it all they, and I, see no way out save death, a nightmare fear.''
``We must also listen to dull and pompous speeches,'' said Vilph. Hodrick's increasing restiveness infuriated him, but he pretended boredom and, as always, his pretense became outward reality.
Vilph landed the carpet on the College roof, and the two descended through the open trapdoor. They saw no one in the low-ceilinged hallway. On a whim, Vilph cast an illusion to conceal his presence, the same one he had used to spy on Alban and Padia in the dining room at Jessis. It shrouded him from observers' awareness for a march of ten paces. Vilph renewed it with casual skill as he walked, and Hodrick moved unseen.
They reached a small, spare meeting chamber. Protected by their magic, Vilph and Hodrick entered invisibly and eavesdropped on the six members of Noesis.
At a round teakwood table of a diameter meticulously dictated by ancient auspices, Haerlam the Diviner led the discussion. Around the table sat his five fellow wizards, each one a graying eminence and slightly dusty scholar:
Eustachia Munt, a dwarf woman of great accomplishment in both magic and music, short and broad in pale blue robes with a green maniple. She strummed listlessly on a small lute.
Ludvic the Red, gaunt in crimson robes, ill-tempered and at times violent-- but, as he always put it, ``only after sufficient provocation.''
Jorzz, Master of the Geminids, a pale, vain human in violet robes with a white dalmatic tunic. Some claimed that he had maintained his youthful look for five decades through a series of tempestuous affairs with elves. Whether or not they kept him young, these doomed romances certainly kept him interested.
Norria Longtooth, ork, survivor of a destroyed scorcher tribe to the north, now a prominent cloth merchant in Keystone. Tonight she wore her black surplice with shooting comets embroidered in gold leaf along each sleeve.
Finally, Master Wohlnoth, whose identity Vilph had taken while visiting Padia at Jessis. Vilph had caught the bearded old man's likeness well, including his rumpled indigo robes. However, the real Wohlnoth had a more abrupt and less charming manner.
``I am frankly skeptical of the Composite Form's bidding,'' Wohlnoth said crossly. ``Help it cast a fireworm plague? How can that possibly protect the city? I recognize that refusal to cooperate means breaking the blood oath, but we have seen how its past bidding led to disaster.''
``Ah. If I may,'' said Haerlam deferentially. ``The plague may originally have been Vilph's idea. He pulled the Form's strings for some time, until it deserted him some days back. The Form may require us to continue with that plan out of, ah, shall we say, force of habit.''
Eustachia Munt lifted a black eyebrow. ``On the next day after the Form's supposed desertion, legions of spirits invaded. Did the Form proceed from habit then, too? Vilph may still control the thing.''
Jorzz waved a thin hand, dismissing the question. ``Who know that the Composite Form summoned those -- what are they -- Cordial Guards? Oneiros could have done that alone. Those nethermancers are irresponsible and impulsive. No scholarship.''
Norria added, ``No control, either. We can control a fireworm plague.''
``Utter nonsense!'' Ludvic waved his muscular arms in frustration. ``Consult the account of fireworms in Galadria's Fifth Discourse, to say nothing of Corolomir's Dynamemnicon. You seem sadly unschooled in the relevant lore, Norria.''
Norria's voice rose. ``How sad, Ludwic, that your aging memory has failed to recall Sannon Twelvetrees' refutation of Corolomir's apocryphal anecdote, as published in --''
``If I may!'' said Haerlam. ``Please! Shall we restrict our discussion to the immediate issue? Do we cooperate with the Composite Form? Or do we violate the blood oath and die, as Britham Boyhan died?''
A tense silence. Wohlnoth cleared his throat, then said, ``To my mind it can do little lasting harm, if restricted to the party as the Form has decreed. Those Oldtown twits can use a fireworm or two, simply to deflate their distended aura of self-importance. However, it seems relevant to learn whether Vilph Axehandle is still controlling the Form.''
``No, no, as I mentioned before,'' Haerlam said, ``I saw it abandon Vilph to go with Padia Villandry and --'' He paused, his brow wrinkling. ``And, ah -- I thought there was another -- well, that is unimportant.''
Jorzz spoke nervously. ``Really, what matter if Vilph has suggested the idea to the Form? Vilph has achieved unmatched skill in his discipline. Surely anyone of such accomplishment has a certain rudimentary sense.''
One part of Vilph's mind basked in the compliment, but another simultaneously derided Jorzz's obvious rationalization. How many lunatic magicians have endangered the whole of Barsaive? he thought. Then he realized that the question had implications for his own actions, and he quickly hid the thought behind a new flat of righteousness.
``Do we respect power for its own sake?'' asked Eustachia rhetorically.
``We should at least respect this power,'' said Jorzz, ``inasmuch as it can rend us to bloody shreds with the power of our own oaths. If Vilph does indeed control the Form, we should ask his motives. If he can offer a plausible explanation, we should give him the benefit of the doubt.''
Jorzz licked his lips. Vilph discerned that Jorzz had already decided to cooperate, and now he desired only a rationale to salvage his pride. Looking around the table, Vilph saw with pleasure that same desire, the same longing for a plausible pretext. He smiled. He could exploit the merest trace of desire. People, even wizards, want to believe.
With a thought he dispelled his invisibility. ``I congratulate you on your tolerance, Jorzz,'' he said. The wizards jumped from their seats and shied back. They stared at him with bulging eyes, and Vilph saw in those eyes a cowed respect.
``You desired my reasons. A perfectly reasonable request. To begin, let me declare with absolute candor --''
Vilph continued as though reciting a masterful speech in a melodrama he had written.
``187. During the same period the Deouri, free from dissension at home and emboldened by the death of Autarch Isedris, made inroads into Lower Bautra, under the command of Gannascus. This man had served in the Teltrenix auxiliary, had then deserted, and now made piratical assaults on the unwarlike people. The autrefect Tenthonis Awakener entered the province with careful preparation and, soon winning renown that merited the title Pacificator, he brought his triremes up the Great-Winding River and sunk the enemy's flotilla. Having driven out Gannascus and restored good order, Tenthonis set his enchanters to ensure survival of the Blood Theogency into perpetuity. He said, These are the last good times. Ahead lie centuries of barbarism.''
Padia woke suddenly, late at night. She had fallen asleep at her desk in the Quietus library. After three days she had finally healed her wounds, but she had gotten little sleep. The quotation ran through her mind and through her dreams. It came from the book Thanyx found for her, an impenetrable history of a forgotten age.
In that age the Eldest of the Cordial Guards, the autrefect, had been a human general of Isedris. The Guards: humans of past ages, summoned to replace the present. Padia thought, To them Merron must look like some alien netherworld. She had unconsciously taken her own society's customs for inviolable laws of nature. The Guards proved many of those customs arbitrary; this challenged her understanding. Until Padia understood the Guards, she could not strengthen her magic against them.
At least Geocosm and Oneiros had agreed to help fight the autrefect. In theory Oneiros could dispel the creatures they had summoned in their own ritual, but in practice they needed Hodrick, for they had used him in the summoning; and dispelling their own spell would violate the blood oath. Ghantrem had told her drily, ``We are with you, but we will not destroy ourselves without help from our enemy.''
Padia yawned and returned to her reading. ``188. The autrefect's enchanters initiated a cult of mysteries that would extend through the ages, from time to time recruiting likely subjects as guardians of the true values. . . .''
``The account is inaccurate in some respects,'' said a voice behind her.
Padia leaped from her chair. Here in the Quietus library, an arm's length away, stood Hodrick.
At once she began an attack spell, but as soon as she formed the idea, the Composite Form's ancient protections dispelled it. She reached out in frustration as if wanting to strangle him. ``I wish I could burn you,'' she said passionately. ``I wish I could tear you up along those ugly seams!''
Only two nethermancy students lingered in the library at this late hour. They saw Hodrick, took him for some kind of summoned creature, and ran for help, leaving Padia alone with the Composite Form.
Hodrick looked sorrowful. ``I bring you a warning. Vilph has recruited the wizards of Noesis to cast a dangerous spell, a fireworm ritual.''
``They call it a fireworm ritual. I do not know the details, except that the spell involves pattern items from the Founding Families.''
Padia had never heard of this ritual, but then, wizards devised new rituals all the time. ``When?''
``Tomorrow night, at your nightmeal party.''
``The party! No one in Oldtown has seen me for days. They must know the party is cancelled.''
``Vilph has secured their attendance. I identified the items needed, and Noesis is preparing them now. I must help them cast the ritual at the party.''
Padia thought, He means to lure me there. ``Why are you not involved in the preparation?''
``I serve merely as a lens, combining the magic of the various wizards through the power of the blood oath.''
``No one should have such power as that oath. When you were only a pawn of the Egregore, the oath served a purpose, but now, as a thinking being, you are --'' Padia spoke the word with utter contempt, ``weak.'' Crying, and hating herself for crying, she continued, ``I shall not ask why you give me this warning; as likely as not, you still work as Vilph's stooge. Understand this: From now on, Hodrick, we are enemies. If I can destroy you, I will.''
Despite his monstrous appearance and patchwork face, he looked like a hurt child. ``I might almost thank you,'' he said dully. ``I became self-aware only recently, and yet already I understand why Alban sought enlightenment, the release from pain.''
Padia fought to control her tears. ``Go!''
Hodrick turned awkwardly to go. After a few uneven steps, he paused. ``Vilph's spell that granted me awareness may also have made the Egregore self-aware. If you destroy me, these great powers may still reside with an unknown intelligence.''
Those powers made Padia turn away, and Hodrick left unseen. The panicked librarian, Dragoslav, arrived soon after, like a summoned spirit of anxiety. Padia calmed him and recounted everything that had happened. Dragoslav politely asked Padia to leave, then closed the library.
Padia retired to her guest quarters without argument. She had memorized the history, and now she needed only to review it in her memory. First, however, she visited Thanyx Destrovan and told her of Hodrick's warning. ``We must dispose of the Cordial Guards before tomorrow night,'' Padia said glumly. ``We cannot allow Vilph or Hodrick to call on them for help.''
``Still need many preparations,'' Thanyx said. ``Cannot go to Manmidden before sunset.''
Padia nodded and retired to her quarters. A sense of doom hung over her.
Later, in calm recollection, Padia pondered Hodrick's words about the Egregore. From her reading about it, and by Hodrick's own words, she knew the entity sensed the pattern of every name-giver in Merron. That would require a webwork of sensing devices across the city, invisible and yet everywhere. A spell to do this could not last across the centuries; the task required some living being, or beings. What kind? What concealed it, or them, from people's awareness? Some powerful illusion?
Her thoughts, alone among all those in Merron, drew close to the truth. For the first time I, who know little of name-givers' emotions, felt excitement. I felt desperate to find someone who could hear me. Had Padia only thought further, only tried to penetrate the illusion, she might have seen me sitting on the table before her.
Unfortunately, Padia returned to her study of the autrefect. Soon, fatigued in heart and body, she fell asleep again. She did not think of me again that day.
The following afternoon saw Morinnan the troll and his entire gang on the shore of the Byrose, down a long sloping beach from the Nightshade warehouse of Tormathis Exports.
The troll and his nineteen followers stood almost in the shadow of the destroyed bridge, hiding by a sandwall on shore. Morinnan looked up the beach toward Antimere Asylum and the red brick warehouse that lay beyond it.
Morinnan had changed his look. He had removed the fingerbones from his braids and combed them out. Now he wore a neat tunic, fashionably baggy trousers, and huge boots covered in espagra scales. He looked clean-cut, at least by troll standards.
``Listen, you bloats. Look up there at that warehouse. We're gonna take it. It's, what-yer-call, the first step ta lots bigger action.''
The gang members laughed. ``Yeh, a biiig party!'' said one. With more imagination, another said, ``Smugglin'!''
Morinnan sighed theatrically. ``Nah. We use the goods ta bribe the city watch over ta our side.''
Impressed by their leader's vision, the thugs grew excited. ``Yeah!'' -- ``Then we can loot any place!'' -- ``Knock over the banks!''
Phrynos the swordmaster showed the most ingenuity: ``We could demand a portion of every theft on this side of the river!'' The others began to laugh and cheer.
Morinnan held up one hand for quiet. ``Nah,'' he repeated. ``With the watchers on our side, we cross the river ta High Hill an' persuade everyone there that we c'n run things better. Then we take over the city."
Dead silence. Phrynos and the thugs looked frozen.
Morinnan let them think it over. Gradually a strange new light entered the eyes of a few, and they exchanged furtive looks. One or two started to giggle. ``Per-suaaade,'' said one, tasting the word like candy. The gang looked at Morinnan with open wonder.
``From now on, you bloats is gonna call me `Morinnan the First.' Or say `Yer lordship' if y' want. Get me?'' They nodded uncertainly. ``Good. Now we gotta get that warehouse. It's got trolls, rock men, an' who-knows-what wards an' stuff.''
One thug shook his head. ``Tough place to break, boss,''
Morinnan stared coldly.
``I, I mean, yer lordship,'' said the thug, gulping.
``Here's what I figger. We're gonna use a what-yer-call diversion -- that madhouse up there. We're gonna free the loonies in there, then herd 'em to the front o' the warehouse. The guards'll go up front to handle 'em, an' then we'll break in at the back.
``Phrynos is gonna be our insider. Phrynos, you go in an' act like yer gonna buy somep'n, or pick up somep'n, whaddever. When the loonies come 'round an' distract the guards, kill whoever looks interestin'.''
``Your lordship.'' The t'skrang bowed. ``Even now I am there.'' She set out running for the warehouse.
``You others, lessee -- Jok, Lang, Reg, an' Dorn. Sneak along this wall an' up to the back o' the madhouse. Get in, roust out the loonies, an' send 'em to the warehouse. Rest o' you lot, stay here with me 'til things get active.
Alban's fourth day in Antimere.
Every inmate in the pen watched in silence as Filantha Decrevi washed Alban's skin. His feverish heat had passed, having burned away every drop of fat in his body. Alban had not moved for days, and yet his limbs had grown muscular -- not bulky, but lean like a runner's limbs. Under his sackcloth smock muscle layered his ribs and shoulders. He breathed slowly, deeply, and his flat stomach rippled with each breath.
Every hair on his body had fallen out, making him look curiously young. His skin had tanned to a rich golden brown, though no sunlight entered the asylum. At odd moments Filantha thought she saw patterns forming and dissolving under his skin: tree bark, veined marble.
The transformation both frightened and intrigued Filantha. As impersonal as a starry sky, magic could summon wonders or Horrors. To her it hinted of life's mystery. ``You're wonderful work, you are,'' Filantha whispered solemnly to Alban. ``I hope so. Stranger, can you even hear me? Townsman Roodville won't come near you. I think he's wanting to bring the watch and haul you away to the river.''
Alban still said nothing except, occasionally, a whispered ``rogue ox.'' The warrior magic, though, weighed every word for threats. Roodville and the watch it labelled Potential danger. Filantha's other words passed, leaving no memory.
However, another heard Filantha's words. ``I did look for the watch, Widow Decrevi,'' said Roodville, startling her. ``Not to be found. Might as well look for gold bars as for law in Nightshade. But I won't let this Horror situation go any farther. I'll drag him to the river. I won't even ask if you care to help.'' Ignoring Filantha's protests, Roodville grabbed Alban under the arms.
The magic assessed this and instantly judged it. Danger! Immediate danger to the vessel!
For the first time in four days, Alban's eyes opened. Filantha and the inmates cried out as the magic brought Alban to his feet. He rested lightly in a slight crouch, eyes darting back and forth but always returning to Roodville.
Roodville, taken aback, reflexively swung his stingrod. Alban batted away the blow, grabbed the stingrod and, with what seemed a mere brush of palm against chest, shoved the overseer against the brick wall.
Like any bully, Roodville lacked courage. Still, he had a manager's presence of mind. His eyes widened, and sweat broke on his high forehead, but he avoided stammering. ``Look here, you. Your type's not what we want here, no it isn't. Just walk out the door and, and don't come back.''
The magic judged the stingrod an inadequate weapon. The magic had its vessel drop the tube to the ground and crush it under a heel. Then, staring, it measured Roodville.
Roodville's mouth went dry. ``Now, nobody wants any trouble,'' he said.
The magic lacked memory of Roodville's past hostility, and it cared nothing about his cruelty to other inmates. It judged the overseer no threat at this moment. Alban backed away and headed for the front door. The magic assumed that enemies hid everywhere; now it would seek them.
It would not have to seek far. Through the door ran four of Morinnan's thugs, heavyset men in studded leather armor. They yelled and waved swords. Two struck down the fence of the womens' pen and rousted the inmates. Screeches echoed like green lumber splitting. The other two thugs ran into the men's pen and, seeing Roodville and Filantha, ran straight at them.
``Here, what's this?'' Roodville shouted. ``You're not the watch!''
``Sharp feller,'' said one thug. He punched the thin overseer in the stomach, then clubbed him with his sword-hilt. Roodville fell and lay still. The thug turned to Filantha. ``You, nurse! Get these crazies up and movin'!''
Alarmed, Filantha stepped back. One thug, a tall man with a red beard and a circle design tattooed on one cheek, grabbed the nurse by her hair. ``You hear me? Do it now!''
Filantha screamed. Alban Peyl, had he existed, would have leapt to her defense, but the warrior magic did nothing. It remembered nothing of Filantha's care, and the thugs presented no immediate threat to its vessel. The magic watched impassively, judging Filantha's fitness as an ally. If she could not fight, it would deem her a liability and abandon her.
The second thug, short and broad, kicked down the pen and waved his sword at the male inmates. They fell back before him, stumbling over the pickets. Alban instead moved lightly back toward the brick wall. Seeing this, the second thug said, ``Here, you too, shorty. C'mon!''
He moved toward Alban, sword up and waving. The magic moved through Alban, driving his leg up in a kick under the man's wrist. The sword went flying straight up. As the astonished thug reflexively grabbed his broken right wrist, Alban's fist drove the man's left wrist against his armored chest, breaking it too. With the other hand Alban drove his fingers into the man's eyes, then into his throat. Alban kicked the man's legs out from under him, and the blinded, crippled thug hit the floor just as the sword fell into Alban's waiting hand. The man never had time to scream.
Alban stood on guard as the red-bearded man turned in surprise. Having looked away for three seconds, he had missed the entire struggle. The man had courage, but he also had a brain. Seeing this wiry inmate standing over his fallen friend, sword ready, the thug fell back and called, ``Reg, Dorn! Trouble!''
The other two thugs ran to his side, and all three faced Alban. The puzzled inmates grew quiet, and a strange silence fell.
``Wha'd he do, Lang? How'd he pop Jok?'' asked Reg.
``Dint see it,'' said the red-bearded man, Lang.
Dorn, a long-haired dark man with a silver headband, peered at Alban through narrowed eyes. ``Lookit 'im hold that sword. Hey, bloat, where'dja learn that?''
Alban said, ``Rogue ox.''
Reg snorted. ``Wha'd he say? He's a crazy. C'mon, let's spike him.''
Lang made no move. ``He's a crazy adept, he is.''
``Adept? Here?'' Reg moved forward, sword ready. Reluctantly the other two moved to surround Alban. They each took one step. Before the steps landed, Alban rushed Reg, cut through his sword hand just above the armored wrist, and delivered a ferocious kick to the thug's right knee. It broke backward. As Reg started to fall, Alban leaped back toward the brick wall and faced the other two, sword ready.
Reg's sword, still in his severed hand, hit the floor with a clatter.
Dorn and Lang ran backward, almost tripping on the pickets. ``Phrynos!'' Lang shouted. ``Boss!'' As Reg's anguished screams mingled with those of the inmates, the two thugs split up and ran, Lang for the back door, Dorn for the front.
The magic labelled this action Retreating to summon more enemies. It acted automatically, sending its vessel leaping after the nearer thug. The high leap brought Alban over Dorn's head and directly into his path. Dorn swung frantically at Alban's waist. Alban watched the blade approach, then fell under the swing. As it passed, he flipped forward onto his hands and, with his feet, grabbed Dorn's head just under the headband. With one smooth pull Alban brought Dorn's head down and cracked it sharply on the floor. The headband split with the skull. Alban rolled out from under the body as it fell, then leaped to his feet.
Lang had seen all this. He ran still faster for the back door, screaming for Phrynos. The warrior magic measured his speed and distance, then threw the vessel's sword. It arced across the room and impaled Lang's chest. The big man fell forward, but somehow he kept going. Coughing blood, Lang crawled through the beaded curtain and fell off the asylum's back stoop.
Filantha did not know whether to applaud or scream. The stranger ran her way, and she began, ``Oh, thank you, sir, thank you so much for s--''
He ran past her without a glance. As he went, the magic noted that Reg had climbed to his feet, cradling his bleeding wrist. Alban leapt, solidly kicked the base of Reg's neck, snapped it, then fell lightly and kept running.
The inmates had set up a ghastly clamor, a mix of fearful shrieks and jubilation. Some danced on the fallen pickets while others rushed to hug or assault those in the opposite pen. Many residents milled around, nervous, wondering what to do but incapable of decision.
Alban rushed out the back door. The warrior magic knew enemies had come from there; more enemies might wait outside.
A few other inmates, seeing him run, concluded that he fled some threat. They set up an alarm. ``Somep'n's wrong!'' shouted a Horror-scarred woman, and a firestarter gleefully cried, ``Fire!'' Panic ensued, despite Filantha's efforts to calm them. Like water gushing out an opened gate, a wave of shrieking people surged out the back after Alban.
On the shore behind Antimere, Morinnan looked up the beach and saw the impaled man fall off the stoop. ``Whoa! Somethin' spiked Lang. Derry, Wick, get up there, an' look sharp.''
Two thugs ran up with weapons ready. Lang waved them away and tried to shout, but he choked on his own blood. At that moment Alban ran from the asylum, saw the two armored thugs, and ran straight at them -- with Lang in his path. Alban hopped lightly onto the sword hilt protruding from Lang's back. He drove it down through Lang's body and into the sand.
Blood gushed from the man's back, spattering Alban's smock. Where the blood hit his legs, it rolled off like rain from an everclean cloak.
Derry and Wick shouted wordlessly and rushed at him. Alban jumped straight up, kicked Derry's sword from his hand on the way up, then caught the sword at the height of his leap. Derry stared, open-mouthed. Descending, Alban drove the sword down Derry's throat and into his body to the hilt, then landed again one-footed on Lang's sword hilt. Derry died, then fell.
Wick swung his flail. The spiked metal ball on its arm-length chain flew straight at Alban's leg. Alban leaped over the chain and kicked out at Wick's chin. The blow knocked Wick cold. Alban landed again on the sword hilt.
Beneath him, Lang gurgled and died, impaled like a bug on display.
Balancing on the sword hilt as he had balanced on his bedpost at Jessis five days before, Alban looked around. The battle had lasted five seconds. Madhouse inmates rushed out, saw Alban and the dead bodies, shrieked, and ran away across the beach or around the building.
Down on shore, the five surviving thugs shrank back. ``Scourge me!'' -- ``That leap!'' -- ``Warrior, has to be!''
Morinnan said, ``Calm down, keep yer belly strong. Hagger, you an' Reese circle round --''
``Boss, that's an adept!'' -- ``Let Phrynos handle 'im!'' -- ``We gotta get outta here, c'mon!'' The thugs tried to grab Morinnan and pull him along with them. The troll shook them away and glared with contempt.
``What'zis? You cowards? There's a dozen o' you agin one o' him!''
The thugs' eyes shifted nervously between troll and warrior. Morinnan saw he would get no use from them.
Ordinary upstarts in Morinnan's position would abandon their ambitions and flee. The troll, already thinking like a ruler, followed his instincts. With his gang shouting for him to stop, he stepped out from hiding and walked casually toward Alban, keeping his hands open at his sides.
The troll stopped well beyond attack range. Behind Alban's eyes, the warrior magic watched carefully but detected no immediate threat.
``Name's Morinnan. Morinnan the First. I'm the new law in Merron. Y' just splattered six o' my men, but no hard feelin's.''
``What, that yer name? `Rogox'?''
``Right enough, Rogox. How'd they pop a warrior like you into Antimere?''
``Urr-- right. I get it now. Well, y' ain't the best talker, Rogox, but I c'n always use a warrior adept. Y' ever do bodyguard work? Uh, just nod er shake yer head.''
No response. The magic, seeing no current danger in the entity called ``Morinnan,'' took no action.
Morinnan sighed. ``Tell yer what. Have a go at my lieutenant, just fer fun. She's a swordmaster. No blood, no one gets hurt. Hold yer own and yer c'n join my gang -- I mean, staff.''
``Whaddya need, Rogox? I c'n offer yer a lot better life than Antimere -- good food, the respect o' what-yer-call yer everyday people, plenny excitin' fights. I bet a warrior likes excitement, eh?''
The warrior magic in Alban did not know excitement, but it did understand ``plenty of fights,'' for within its narrow range it commanded Alban's intellect. The magic inherently assumed that enemies surrounded its vessel, identified as ``Rogox.'' It saw in Morinnan a way to locate enemies of Rogox. Therefore it must gain Morinnan's cooperation.
It needed speech. Alban, or what remained of him, spoke nothing but ``rogue ox.'' The magic obeyed no such restriction. To serve its single purpose, it could use the vessel's tongue as it used his arms and legs.
It spoke through Alban's mouth. ``I will fight the swordmaster. Then you will show me the enemies.''
The troll started. ``Yer do talk. Right, that's the deal then. Whaddyer know, here's Phrynos now.''
Morinnan's fleeing thugs had reached the Tormathis warehouse and alerted the t'skrang adept. Phrynos now ran to Morinnan. The rest of the gang followed warily, noting the unconscious men on the sand at Alban's feet.
Morinnan called the lizard woman aside. ``That bird, name o' Rogox, pounded six of us. Looks like a warrior, 'cept I think he's addled. Test 'im. No blood, er anyway not much.''
Phrynos instantly leapt into the air, flipped, landed on one hand, and sprang around Alban in a chain of lightning somersaults. After a final high twist Phrynos landed with her twin sabres already drawn.
``Phrynos Thiskillion at your service, Rogox,'' she said. She whirled the blades in an intricate pattern that formed a lattice of light. ``Itinerant adventurer, swordmaster of the Silver Covenant, slayer of Bolcondo the Carcass Lord!'' She crossed her arms and sheathed both sabres in one smooth motion. ``What say you, sir?''
The warrior magic had used Alban's eyes to follow every motion of both blades, but it saw no purpose in responding.
``Well, my talkative friend,'' said the swordmaster, ``we know you're faster than an ox, but can you match a rogue? A test of speed -- and I warn you, against a swordmaster of the Sixth Circle you must expect frustration and shame. Come all, gather round!'' She drew the gang into a wide circle around the two adepts. The thugs stared, fascinated.
One scaly hand dipped inside her vest and pulled forth a crow's feather. ``Now, Rogox, when you can take this feather from my hand, then you --''
Phrynos saw a blur and stopped. She had not even extended her hand, and yet the feather had vanished from her grip. She looked around, baffled, then saw the feather resting lightly in Alban's palm. Laughter erupted in the crowd.
``Give it back, I wasn't ready,'' Phrynos snapped. She grabbed the feather and, shielding it with her free hand, began again. ``Now, sir, after I give the signal, when you can take this feather from my hand, you may be ready to face a novice swordmaster.'' She paused for dramatic effect. ``N--''
A blur. Something swatted aside her free hand. The feather vanished.
``--owww!'' Phrynos rubbed her hand. When the gang saw the feather in Alban's palm, they laughed harder.
Phrynos noticed Morinnan frowning at her. ``A petty trick for a petty test,'' she said loudly. ``Let this Rogox match his speed against mine in a contest of genuine skill. Ha-hahhh!''
Crossing her arms, she drew both sabres. Tossing one to Alban, Phrynos faced him on guard. She twirled the point of her blade in small, perfect circles. ``To maintain interest in the contest, I shall improvise a quatrain about our silent friend, speaking one line with each touch I make. With the fourth line I shall slice my initial, P, in his -- mwuhhh!''
When she traced her initial in the air, the warrior magic saw an opening and lunged. Phrynos parried Alban's blade in low third position, a finger's length from her snout. She tried a riposte, but Alban disappeared straight up. Suddenly two feet landed on her shoulders and flattened her.
She rolled and slashed. A clean miss, for Alban had floated off the ground. Astonished, she leapt to her feet, then dodged his thrust -- rather, his feint, for his left foot caught her squarely on the brow ridge. The blow turned her half around and made her bite her pointed tongue. Struggling to clear her head, she whipped her tail around wildly. She felt him grab and pull, and she fell on her belly.
The gang members howled with laughter. One called, ``Still waitin' fer the quatrain!'' They struck up a chant of ``Quatrain, quatrain,'' and, soon, ``Rogox! Rogox!''
Phrynos never spoke the first line of her poem. In ninety seconds she lay unconscious and unemployed. Alban became official bodyguard to Morinnan the First.