Piercing A Veil
Alban stood on the broken planks of Dovetail Bridge. My trail of ants could go no further. Although I had gathered millions on the far shore to lead Alban to Jessis, the warrior magic did not sense them. It did not reason, as a name-giver would, that it should cross the river. When a trail led to an enemy, it would follow the trail; when no trail existed, the magic searched only for enemies at hand. It found none, and so it simply waited.
At the foot of the bridge, the crowd had grown to several hundred. Among them stood Filantha Decrevi, who had come from Antimere Asylum nearby to investigate the noise. Hearing them chanting ``Rogox,'' she understood at once, and she ran toward the bridge.
The stranger stood there, small and strong and clean. He looked at the crowd alertly, but did nothing. Filantha ran up beside a bearded man of middle years. He wore a carpenter's leather apron. ``Sir, sir, what's he doing, please?'' Filantha asked.
``I am not quite sure,'' said the man, with a cultured accent. ``Evidently he wants to cross. A shame about that bridge. Such a handsome piece of work, and useful.''
The crowd's chant fell away. As their hero continued watching in silence, they grew uneasy. ``Whatcher want, ter get ter Oldtown?'' -- ``Got a boat two docks over from 'ere, but it's stove in since the flood.'' -- ``Mebbe Delwar here cood fix 'er, you cood do it, eh, Delwar?''
The mob had begun to think, a death sentence for any mob. In moments the people would scatter across Twopenny.
Beside Filantha the aproned gentleman asked her, ``Strange that this `Rogox' hasn't said anything.''
Filantha said, ``He's mute, sir. I tended him in the madhouse down there, until yesterday.''
He looked at her with interest. ``Really. A lunatic, is he? Not pursuing a worthy purpose, then.'' He sounded disappointed.
``I don't know about worthiness, sir, but he surely pursues his own purpose. I'm not sure anyone else could judge it. He did save me from some men who attacked the asylum.''
``Really,'' the man repeated. ``Hmmm. Well. It might be worth a try. I would dearly love to call that bridge back.''
Filantha looked more closely at the man. He had a broad, handsome face with an auburn beard tied in two ribboned tails. He had painted black crescents on his cheeks around his pouchy eyes, and he wore a thin copper band across his high forehead. The leather apron covered dirty work clothes. Its pockets held hammers and tools, rolls of paper, and a drafter's compass.
``A questor,'' Filantha whispered.
The questor walked through the crowd. Filantha pushed her way after him, unaccountably eager.
The warrior magic watched the questor closely as he stepped onto broken Dovetail Bridge. He bowed to Alban. ``I am called Monselle the Maker. I serve the Passion Upandal.''
Monselle turned to the crowd. ``Citizens,'' he began in a loud but calm voice, ``people and what they build have but a day and disappear. It is the old law, sad but not bitter. Yet when people destroy their work to spite themselves, that is an outrage. For days and nights we have torn down. Shall we not stop until we have laid waste to all around us, like some Horror?''
Those around Filantha fell silent, listening. Something drew her gaze to the end of the bridge, where -- she could not say how she knew it -- a potent, invisible force swathed the broken edges of the planks.
Monselle continued solemnly. ``For a lifetime Dovetail Bridge linked the halves of this city in commerce, contact, communion. Think! Have you a friend or loved one on the other shore?''
People around Filantha nodded and muttered names. She thought of longtime friends in Schools, and a cousin who did maid work in a Keystone mansion. Out on the river, from the burnt stone piers, a thin beam of light shone on both shores.
``Friends! To build is to affirm our hope for the world. Build with your hearts. Put anger behind you, and build. Take experience as your arch, and build more strongly! When you labor in that spirit, Upandal is with you, in each strike of hammer on nail and in the strength that hoists a beam. Will you bring that spirit to bear now? Will you heal this bridge?''
A deafening shout. At Monselle's gesture, the light beams that stretched from shore to shore grew bright, then blinding. The light faded.
Dovetail Bridge stood again, whole and strong.
Monselle leaned against the railing, overwhelmed. The crowd roared rapturously. They chanted their adulation, not of the questor, but of the leader who had inspired the deed. ``Rogox! Rogox!''
I sent ants across the bridge and from the other side. Alban loped after them, following their trail. Filantha struggled to stay on her feet while cheering people streamed past her onto the bridge. As she watched in dismay, the mob headed straight for Oldtown.
The fireplace, Padia thought. Fireworms still drifted across the ballroom from the flames. She hoped to cross the room and extinguish the fire. At least I might do that much good. With bitterness and frustration she thought, It doesn't seem we can do much more against Vilph!
Of the eleven magicians who had stood with her when the battle commenced, only Taundis Boyhan and Ghantrem remained. The rest had watched Vilph ride out the front window on his flying carpet, then set out after him. Padia could not penetrate the illusion, but she knew that trick. She had held the elders by main force, and shouted to the others to bring them back, but a compulsion had seized them. They had set out, borne aloft by wings or spirits, after Vilph's illusion. Passions only knew how far it would lead them away from Jessis.
Vilph could hold off the three of them with his green light-bolts, whereas they could not seem to hit him. Padia began a spell to slow the ork's movements, but Vilph had grown wary of her since she had made a fool of him in the Jessis display room. With a word, he froze her in place.
Ghantrem summoned a spirit made of curling fog, with flickering darkness outlining its limbs. The nethermancer pointed to Vilph, sending the fog spirit racing toward the ork. While readying his own spell, Taundis Boyhan said, ``A capital effect, Ghantrem. I have long admired the nethermancer's mastery of the spirit world.''
``Thank you, Taundis.'' Ghantrem spoke distantly, intent on controlling his spirit. ``Your praise encourages me.''
With a smile Vilph held up a hand and said, ``Friend spirit, have you no better target?'' Then he pointed, and at once the fog spirit moved back to attack Ghantrem. Surprised and hard pressed, the nethermancer banished the spirit.
``By the Scourge, he is impudent!'' Taundis, furious and set on vengeance, gathered fire at his fingertips. As it grew brighter, Ghantrem said, ``Your command of the elements impresses me, Taundis.''
Before Taundis could either launch his fireball or give thanks for the compliment, Vilph casually scratched his temple and pointed at Taundis. The elementalist forgot what he intended to do with the fireball, and it dissipated.
With name-givers prostrate around him, howling their inmost secrets from new mouths, the gray ork capered, throwing his spells in an ungainly dance. Infuriated, Padia finally found the will to break her paralysis. She launched upward, flying toward the fireplace just under the ballroom's high gilded ceiling.
Annoyed, Vilph called out to the tormented name-givers sprawled across the floor. ``Friends!'' he said in a trumpeting voice, like a general inciting his troops. ``The villains who have caused your anguish now wait for your just retaliation! Rise and avenge yourselves!''
The horrific mouths grew silent as his spell took hold, and the partygoers lurched to their feet. From overhead Padia watched, frozen by fear, as the leading lights of Merronese society stampeded like cattle toward Ghantrem and Taundis.
Obviously the guests presented no danger to adepts, but they served Vilph as obstacles, and they endangered themselves. ``Stop! He's lying!'' Padia shouted. Yet she saw their expressions of fierce satisfaction. The guests seemed willing, even happy to believe Vilph.
Padia suddenly recalled talking with Alban over breakfast five days ago. ``You cannot make others disbelieve an illusion,'' he had said. Padia began to understand that she had made a mistake in relying on people's impulses toward truth. Abruptly she felt alienation from this society she had embraced, and disappointment that these fine folk, with all their learning and power, seemed no better than the starving wretches in Twopenny.
Below, Ghantrem gestured broadly with both hands. Fog erupted along the path they traced, and it billowed to form a dome over him and Taundis. Bat squeaks and weird hooting came from the magical cloud. The partygoers entered, then immediately turned and ran, eyes bulging with fear.
Pushed here by illusion, there by fear, Padia thought distastefully. We manipulate as Vilph does. Fighting him makes us more like him.
Vilph brazenly marched through the crowd and stood just beneath her. He spoke in a carrying voice. ``They want me, not you. The great mass of people will always embrace illusion, and then they are mine.''
In a fury Padia descended and kicked at him, but he vanished as her blow landed. He had cast an image of himself from across the room. She saw him still standing by the fireplace, chuckling.
Controlling her anger, Padia thought, Live by manipulation, die by it. ``Vilph!'' she called. ``It seems you've won. You now control the leaders of Merron. Congratulations, and see what greatness you have achieved.'' She looked around at the nightmare landscape of contorted, screaming bodies.
Vilph's wide nostrils flared, and he looked around furtively. ``You do not -- Now let me explain --'' In a new and righteous manner, he said, ``These people have blighted Merron with their callous disregard of the lower classes. I merely expose them to the truth of their empty and heartless lives.''
He smiled smugly -- and then fell, dodging an icicle spear that Boyhan threw from the fog. The spear crashed into pieces against the wall. Apoplectic with rage, Vilph rushed at the fog, firing green bolts wildly. Padia took the chance to land next to the fireplace.
Annoyed, Vilph ran awkwardly toward her. She saw green light forming at his fingers, and quickly she cast a shield of astral energy to block his bolts. Then, turning to the fireplace, Padia readied her most potent spell.
She had designed this fireplace herself when she and Alban built Jessis ten years ago. Dressed ashlar stone supported a beautiful mantlepiece of black marble. The deadly fire burned under an arched inner hearth with brass lintel, fender, and matching andirons and pokers. She thought with brief sadness, My beautiful fireplace, and then, Impermanence. She cast her spell.
The ballroom shook from floor to ceiling. A strong smell of ozone filled the room. In the fireplace the joinings between hearth stones vanished, replaced by an eye-burning light shining as if from some distant place.
``Great Passions, Padia,'' Vilph shouted over a growing thunder, ``what have you done?''
Padia had cast the doom missile, which breaks down the barrier between its target's substance and the countless planes of existence. Pulled in infinite directions at once, the bricks trembled, tore loose from their mortar, and with a final rumble, they vanished.
Silence fell. As the dust cleared, Padia saw a gaping hole in place of the hearth and, below, a bright flickering glow. Fireworm embers still drifted up through the hole. They had not come from the fireplace here, but must have emerged from below the ballroom through the ash dump in the hearth floor. Padia thought, The firepit!
In addition to the main kitchen below the central sitting room, Jessis had a second one directly under the ballroom, a large kitchen used only for parties. It had an attached scullery, larder, wine cellar, and -- Padia had suddenly remembered -- a firepit. In the days before the party, Vilph, Hodrick, and Noesis would have had time enough to do anything to it. Thinking of it, she felt terribly afraid.
``Taundis, Ghantrem!'' Padia called. ``Hodrick and Noesis must be in the kitchen below. Follow me!'' She lifted into the air and then, mastering her fear, flew straight down the hole through the rising cloud of fireworms.
Vilph looked genuinely annoyed. ``Hodrick!'' he called down the hole. ``Don't let her trick you. Remember, I hold your life in these scars!'' He thumped his chest.
The fear-fog dissipated. Ghantrem said, ``She will need us, Taundis. Quickly!'' The nethermancer pulled Taundis Boyhan toward the fireplace.
Taundis resisted. ``What of these people? What of the ork who killed my son?''
``We help these people by stopping the fireworms below. Vilph has outfought us from the start. Leave him for now.''
``No!'' Taundis shoved Ghantrem toward the fireplace and stood alone. ``I shall have his head or die trying!''
Across the room Vilph snorted. ``You are not even interesting, Boyhan, let alone capable. What was that you said? Have my head or what?'' Vilph scratched his temple.
Taundis scowled. ``Have your head or --'' He fell silent, confused.
Rolling his eyes, Ghantrem wiped his hands across his face, and when he took them away, his head had become a grinning skull. Red light burned in the sockets. The guests who had drawn closer when the fog dissipated now fled screaming again.
Ghantrem ran straight toward Vilph. ``Fear,'' he whispered. The ork stepped aside, although he did not look afraid. Ghantrem, thinking no more of that, leaped head-first into the fireplace hole.
He hit solid brick and fell, unconscious. Vilph casually scattered the illusion that had displaced the fireplace hole two paces to the right. ``Now for the last one,'' he said.
Suddenly Vilph heard many voices in a chant outside the ballroom. From the front lawn came a name that unaccountably struck terror into the gray ork's heart.
``Rogox! Rogox! Rogox!''
Alarmed, Vilph ran to the high front windows. In the lamplight of the front gate he saw a mob, led by a small, trim, bald man. Despite the warrior's transformation since Vilph had last seen him, the ork recognized Alban Peyl instantly -- the Alban he had fought years before. ``Rogue ox,'' Vilph whispered.
Puzzled and alarmed beyond reason, Vilph cast two, three, five green bolts of light at the windows. They exploded outward into scintillating shards. ``Friends!'' he called to the guests in his clarion voice. ``Here is the true cause of your terrible plight! Go forth and show these villains your righteous anger. By defeating them, you will cure yourselves!''
The spell took hold, and the partygoers ran for the front windows, each howling from a dozen fanged mouths. Vilph stepped aside from the horde, then ran across the ballroom.
He paused by the bewildered Taundis Boyhan. ``Boyhan, in a moment those guests will carry the fireworm plague to all those innocent people outside. You can pursue me for revenge, or you can stop them. Think on that.'' He ran from the ballroom, heading for Alban's weapons room. On the way, Vilph drew the pouch from his belt and whispered to it, ``The Roniro amulet.''
Taundis, his mind clear, stood torn between vow and danger.
Alban kicked open the front gate to Jessis. The mob's shouts drowned out the gate ward's alarm as it surged onto the grounds. Following Alban, it flowed up the walk, then off to the right toward the east wing ballroom. Long jagged bands of firelight, cast through broken windows across the lawn, picked out a dozen dark figures: the Inwoods, Hogen Frey-Lowden, and other partygoers, running toward the mob.
Following my trail, the warrior magic sent Alban gliding easily over the Founders' heads, but the mob hit the Founders like a wave. Without reason or prompting, frenzied by the journey and by the mob mentality, the mob attacked the partygoers. Blows landed on chest and arm, and the fanged mouths there bit hard. Name-givers screeched in pain and horror, as new mouths bloomed on them in bursts of flame.
The plague spread its burden of secrets. ``Twelve years ago I killed my wife to marry another woman! -- I betrayed everyone in my tenement to the City Watch!'' Some of those still unaffected, hearing these confessions, attacked and beat the criminals, bringing the plague on themselves. In moments the mob turned on itself.
The warrior magic watched with detachment. Marking the plague as a danger, it avoided both carriers and victims. To protect its vessel, it would stay aloof even if the crowd tore itself to pieces.
Fortunately, others had followed the mob into Oldtown. From overhead came two chattering incantations, and the words from the fireworm mouths changed. Their spectral voices grew melodious, their revelations comforting. ``I am proud to be a citizen of Merron -- If we all pull together, we can overcome our problems -- All in all, I am happy with my life.'' As effectively as any speech by magistrate or monarch, the silvery voices calmed the mob.
The warrior magic sent its vessel gliding upward. There it saw what no one else could, the two illusionists, Kharisha and Pluonus. A name-giver who penetrates an illusion unravels the spell, but the warrior magic had no self-awareness to conflict with the spell's manipulation of name-givers. With its vessel's true sight, it saw past the illusion without dispelling it.
It saw the twins clearly. Two identical stout women, frowsily dressed in sleeveless, shapeless turquoise robes without design or ornament, sat on a threadbare carpet. They looked at him with sowish black eyes. ``Thought we'd help,'' said one.
``Actually we just wanted to spite Vilph,'' said the other.
``Actually we meant to walk them all into the river, until you spotted us,'' said the first. Both giggled.
The warrior magic cared nothing for any of this. With the vessel's language it asked the only question of importance. ``Friends or foes?''
``Friendly, no doubt of it.''
``We have nothing but friendly intentions,'' they chorused, and broke into giggles again.
They flew away on their carpet. Alban did not pursue, but instead floated down to enter the ballroom. He found the broken windows blocked by high stone bars, cast by Taundis Boyhan. Hundreds of deluded partygoers clawed at the bars, crazed as Antimere inmates, still trying to get out and spread the plague.
Just outside, Taundis maintained his cage spells and looked morose. He stared up at Alban, not recognizing him. ``Whoever you are, I must insist that you leave Vilph Axehandle for me. He has tricked me into this, but he is still mine to kill! He will fall!''
Alban said nothing. He saw that I had formed a new trail of ants leading up the wall past the ballroom. With the crowd cheering below, Alban glided alongside the east wing of Jessis and entered through a high window of the second floor.
In the kitchen beneath Jessis, Padia plunged through a rising cloud of ashes and twisted aside to avoid the bonfire in the brick firepit. The heat singed her hair and robe. She landed beside the fire, just inside a ring of figures. The six wizards of Noesis surrounded the shallow, circular pit, ignoring Padia and chanting intently.
The seventh figure, Hodrick, held the silver cord, which brightened and dimmed in time with the bonfire. The Composite Form looked at Padia with distress. ``I had hoped you would avoid the fireworms,'' he said.
``Avoid --?'' Padia froze as a brilliant orange flame erupted at the base of her throat. The fanged mouth spoke in a hoarse, tired voice. ``I have no one to live for and nothing to aspire to,'' it said. ``All my beliefs have come to nothing. I wished to help people who deserve nothing but contempt.''
Terrified, Padia shouted with her own mouth, ``No! That isn't true!''
``The firemouths speak one's inmost secrets,'' Hodrick said with compassion. ``You are hearing your truth.''
``Nothing, nothing, nothing,'' the second mouth said despairingly, while Padia covered her ears. Hearing the voice resonate in her chest, she concentrated, marshalling a will that the Founding Families could not even imagine. I am a wizard adept, she thought, over and over.
``Nothing, noth-- I am a wizard adept,'' said the fanged mouth. ``Master of memory, student of magic, seeker of myself.'' In their astonishment the Noesis wizards stumbled in their chant, but they recovered and kept on.
With a final effort of will, Padia silenced the second mouth. ``That is my truth, Hodrick,'' she said clearly, in her own voice. ``Here is another: I cannot harm you. Now tell me if this is true: You don't wish to harm me. If it came to my death, you would prevent it. In this hopeless mess you and Vilph have made of your life, you have nothing else left to cherish, except your feelings for me.''
Hodrick looked pained, but he said nothing. The Noesis magicians continued their chant, and the bonfire crackled.
``Hodrick,'' said Padia. ``Watch me as I step into that fire.''
``No!'' the Form said, shocked.
``You just heard that I have nothing to live for. I will not protect myself. I will burn alive.''
``No, I beg you!''
``Watch.'' With iron will, Padia leaped into the flame.
It felt like leaping into water, boiling water. Scalding pain struck her hands and face, then her feet, and after a moment it seized her whole body. She had a moment to think, Even if he does nothing, better this than going on.
Then a hand with mismatched fingers shoved her from the firepit. The mouth at her throat bit Hodrick's fingers and held on. Her skin and robe badly burned, Padia fell back, pulling Hodrick into his bonfire.
In the weapons room, surrounded by staves and swords in display cases, Vilph groped for an explanation. He knew his spell over Alban remained in force; the scars of blood magic on his chest still bound part of Vilph's life force to maintain the spell. Yet now Peyl had transformed and become, if anything, more powerful than a decade ago. How had he recovered his pattern?
Vilph fitted the vambrace over his arm. ``Roniro,'' he said to the amethyst encasement, ``I, I seek guidance on the path.''
Glittering light within the gem. ``The teachings guide us all.''
``How can --? What does `rogue ox' --? No, not now. What would make your apprentice, Alban Peyl, give up a quest for vengeance?''
Flashing within the gem, backward, forward, a maddening delay. ``I have no apprentice named Alban Peyl.''
Vilph moaned incoherently. Crossed by his own spell! ``Alban Peyl is about to break in here! Alban Peyl is about to crack my skull!'' He struggled to control his breathing. ``Attend me, Roniro. What will appease a warrior who seeks vengeance?''
Streaking and twinkling in the amulet. ``The enlightened warrior does not seek vengeance.''
In a blind rage Vilph dashed the useless gem to the floor. He searched the cases, looking for a likely weapon, but he knew nothing of weapons. He had stored Alban's pattern staff, Starstriker, here in its case, but he could not wield the staff as anything but a walking stick.
Then Vilph remembered the crystal viking shield in Padia's display room at the other end of the house. That shield could serve him well. The ork ran for the doorway -- and there in his path stood Alban.
``Rogue ox,'' said Alban. The warrior magic extended its vessel's hand, and the staff display case crashed open. Starstriker, Alban's pattern weapon, flew into his right hand. He spun the staff too fast to see, caught it, and stood squarely between Vilph and anywhere Vilph wished to go.
Hodrick writhed in the firepit. The bonfire held none of Hodrick's pattern items, but the spell's magic, focused through Hodrick, partook deeply of his pattern. In his pain he lost control of the spell, and the fireworm embers circled and dived at him like filings to a magnet. The Noesis wizards stopped chanting and watched with morbid fascination.
Firemouths opened wide along the Composite Form's body, between arm and forearm, down his chest like ladder rungs, and at every seam of his face. However, Hodrick had lived too briefly and naively to accumulate secrets. Over the flames, the mouths expressed only what he already admitted. ``This existence torments me,'' said a hundred loud voices in chorus. ``My reason to live has passed, and now I bring only danger to the city I once protected. I helped bring about this world, and now it has no place for me.'' Meanwhile, with his own voice, Hodrick screamed his agony.
At once all the mouths went silent. The fireworm spell lost its focus, and the embers vanished. Hodrick, who had come unwillingly and full-formed into this world a moon ago, now left it in sadness and resignation.
I had little time. Hodrick's pattern, created by Vilph's spell, unraveled with his death throes. When the pattern vanished, I inherited the force of that spell. At that time I felt no more emotion for Hodrick's passing than I would for a single one of my ants. Instead I felt an unfamiliar eagerness. At last I could retrieve my instrument, the speaking figure who had once delivered my warnings to the magicians of Merron. I could reincorporate it into my pattern and resume my old function.
-- Except that I no longer wished to perform that needless task. I wanted a better instrument, not a decaying monstrosity that required new blood from innocent victims. With the Scourge past, I desired a new instrument and a new life.
I walked the Composite Form out of the firepit, still burning. I could not seek far for a new instrument, but then I did not need to. As I had the Form wrap the silver cord around the burned neck, the wizards of Noesis tried to intervene. However, the Form's protective enchantments still held, and they could do nothing. In an instant the cord pulled tight, slicing cleanly through Padia's spine.
My blood, Vilph thought. My precious blood. Shattering glass had cut him in a dozen places when Alban threw him into a display case. Starstriker had bruised him in a dozen more, and Alban's kicks had almost dislocated Vilph's jaw.
Alban charged from the other end of the room, staff ready. From the ground Vilph tried another bolt of green energy; he had not even bothered to attempt an illusion. Alban dodged it with supernatural speed, like all the others.
Vilph rolled as Starstriker hit the case, but he could not move half as fast as Alban. The staff grazed his ribs, and pain lanced up his spine. I cannot take more of this!
``All right,'' Vilph gasped. ``You win. I surrender.'' He held his hands still, in plain sight, as he climbed to his feet. He thought, Well, I can always escape from the watch, or wherever he puts me. ``I must say, Alban, you've --''
Alban's kick caught the ork in his bruised midsection, driving him back against a wall. Vilph hit and fell, stunned. Groggily he thought, Giving no quarter. No surrender.
The warrior magic watched alertly. Surrender and mercy were for name-givers; it knew nothing of them. ``Rogue ox,'' said Alban.
Hearing this, Vilph thought, He's empty-headed. Something's wrong with his mind. Then Vilph finally realized his terrible predicament. He could not hope for mercy from a lunatic. He would pass out soon, or worse. He needed to restore his strength, but how? He saw only one hope: the many lines of runes scarring his thin chest. They held the life force he had bound into his most powerful spells. If he dispelled them, he could recover that energy. A terrible sacrifice, but --
Still on the floor, Vilph backed away from Alban, keeping him at bay with green bolts of light. As Vilph crawled, one knobby finger traced the runes that had given him his flying carpet. They vanished at his touch. Somewhere -- where had he left it? -- the carpet fluttered to earth, a mere rug once more. There, he felt stronger already. Now the spell he had cast to wipe out the troubadour's memory. Ahh --
In the crowd outside, a woman who had avoided the plague suddenly began singing. ``Too poor to clean his clothing,'' she sang, surprised but smiling. ``Alas, old gentleman Vilph.''
A man beside her, quizzically amused, joined in. ``Should rain fall on your surcoat,/ It will drench your feet in filth.''
Taundis Boyhan raised his eyebrows. ``Now, where have I heard that?'' he asked himself.
The crowd laughed, releasing its tension, delighting in a rediscovered memory. Many, even those who moments ago had been plague-ridden, struck up the next verse of ``Little Vilph Soils His Robe,'' by Boffin the troubadour.
``Too dense to pick a leader!
Alas, old gentleman Vilph,
And covered you in his filth!''
Raucous laughter. ``That's Boffin's work, ain't it?'' -- ``Wotever happened ter him?''
Twin turquoise blurs appeared overhead. As the crowd began the next of many verses, they found their words twisted into lyrics that Boffin had never composed:
``So proud he'd take the city!
Good work, old gentleman Vilph.
Opened the mouths of his victims
And made them speak their filth!''
The words hung in the silence. Realizing what they had sung, the crowd grew angry. Someone observed that Vilph might be here in this mansion; another proposed that they look for him and lynch him; and in moments they set out seeking an entrance -- a mob once again.
Inside the ballroom, Vilph's deluding spell expired, leaving the partygoers confused and frightened. They represented no more threat to themselves or others. ``One danger lapses and another takes its place!'' Taundis muttered. Letting his cages evaporate, he set off after the mob. The idea occurred to him that their lust for vengeance differed little from his own, but he shut away the thought.
The first verse drifted into the weapons room. Vilph heard ``Alas, old gentleman Vilph,'' and hatred and fear struck his heart. Alban struck at the same time, and Vilph flew back and hit a souvenir case. I always despised that song, he thought giddily. He had only two blood spells left to tap for strength: the one that gave Hodrick his consciousness, and the one that revoked Alban's.
Vilph's fingers strayed toward the scars that created Hodrick's pattern, and I felt deep anxiety. Unknown to Vilph or anyone, my own awareness depended on that same spell. I had many ants in that room, and I sent them crawling at Vilph, hoping to alarm or distract him from dispelling the enchantment.
Only the warrior magic noticed, and it paused in its attack to watch. However, I could not gather significant numbers around Vilph quickly enough. As it happened, Vilph instead thought of another idea. He's not the same Alban, but someone new. If I abandon the spell that suppressed his old pattern, the pattern might come back and confuse him.
With this thought, Vilph shifted his hand and erased the scars he had shown Alban on Dovetail Bridge. ``Bankrupt'' vanished --
. . .And in Keystone, Norgan the dwarf started as if waking from a dream, wondering why he'd been totalling the accounts of Niss Reeves, and why he had not thought of his employer in days. . . .
``Disenfranchised'' disappeared --
. . .And in Hempline, Kriast the troll suddenly realized that he had thrown former magistrate Alban Peyl out of the courthouse five days before -- and the small bald human who had just defeated the troll an hour ago bore a strange resemblance to Magistrate Peyl. . . .
``Homeless,'' ``unguided,'' ``bereft'' all disappeared from Vilph's chest. In the Jessis ballroom and across Merron, servants and adepts and citizens abruptly remembered Alban Peyl.
Finally, with the warrior magic moving in for the killing stroke, Vilph banished the runes for ``Padia'' and ``Alban.'' The ork watched in bitter satisfaction as Alban blinked, gasped, and sank to his knees.
Strengthened by the returning life force, Vilph stumbled from the room and along the corridor. He carefully descended a flight of stairs, groaning in pain at every step, and headed for the front entrance. As he drew near, a familiar melody with new words rang through the halls:
``Arise, Merron's downtrodden,
And find old gentleman Vilph!
We'll roll him in the gutter
And drown him in his filth!''
``No,'' said Vilph dully. ``No, no. This is some nightmare.'' He did not know of the twin illusionists outside. He felt fury, dread, and wonder all at once.
The front door to Jessis fell, crash! The mob poured in, saw Vilph, gave a blood-curdling shout, and ran down the hallway at him.
Desperately Vilph cast his concealment spell. With the mob leaders a few paces away, it took hold. They flowed around him, ignoring him, and sped around a turn in the hallway.
``The waterfront,'' Vilph said aloud. ``A boat. Get out of the city.'' He staggered to the doorway. ``Will that dratted singing never stop? Transport. How to get to the river?''
A sudden wind grew in the doorway, a wind loud with many voices -- the same wind that had thrown Magistrate Alban Peyl against a wall in Antimere Asylum, days past. The blast caught the small ork and blew him down like a reed. He hit the floor with a grunt. Boyhan, he thought. Thank the Passions!
``Your end is at hand, murderer!'' said Taundis Boyhan from the darkness outside. A glimmer of firelight gathered around the old elementalist's hands. ``Here is the punishment you deserve!''
Vilph coughed weakly. ``You are very repetitive, Boyhan, but I am still pleased to see you. Stop your spell and carry me down to Hempline. Hurry!''
Taundis struggled against the command spell, but Vilph, even when exhausted and badly wounded, could still mold him like sculptor's clay. With glazed eyes the elementalist began to conjure a transport spell. Vilph smiled. At last something goes well. Has any innocent ever been so put upon as I have?
The music echoed through the halls:
``Adept Taundis Boyhan!
Beware the gentleman ork!
Suborning help and transport,
He plans his filthy work!''
High giggles from every direction. As Boyhan blinked and slipped Vilph's control, the ork looked around wildly. ``No! Unfair!'' He said to Boyhan, ``Do not move!'' Then Vilph ran on foot for the front gate of Jessis. Behind him, singing voices alerted the searchers. As Vilph reached the gate and headed down the dark slope of Oldtown, he heard the mob clamoring close behind.
Though any adept could outrun an ordinary name-giver, Vilph was old and badly wounded. He made poor speed with a limping jog, and the mob closed. At an intersection lit by glowing ivory spheres, he split himself into three identical copies and sent the two false images running down opposite streets. The mob paused, uncertain, then divided in three and hared off after all the images.
Two dozen angry people kept after the real Vilph as he stumbled down toward the Byrose. The river: opportunity, escape, salvation. He could not reach Hempline before they caught him, and so he staggered across Gandhutten Promenade to Oldtown's rocky shoals. Faltering at the last, he crossed a lighted beach three paces wide and splashed into the frigid water.
So cold! No. Not cold, ignore it. No boats, no boatkeeper to control. Vilph gathered his scattered thoughts and tried to cast his concealment spell. He looked down and saw that the mud of the shoals had soiled his robe. The sight brought bitter anger, fear, and a maelstrom of other emotions. He lost his concentration, the spell failed, and the mob swarmed down the shore around him.
Screaming wildly, the mob beat him, kicked him, and held him underwater. Vilph could not concentrate. Not fair, he thought in confusion. I did nothing to them!
To prolong the torture, the mob pulled him up for breath. Gasping, he realized he had reached the last terrible minute of his life, and exhausted bitterness overwhelmed him. ``Finish it, you sorry idiots,'' he cried, ``and to the Horrors with all of you!''
The mob howled again and shoved him back underwater. Through the rippling surface Vilph watched with darkening vision as a pale shape fell from high over the crowd. Two legs landed lightly astride him, and the mob splashed back onto the shore. Two wiry arms lifted Vilph from the water, and the ork coughed helplessly.
Alban looked down at Vilph with sincere kindness in his eyes. He said to the ork, ``Thank you.''
I walked into the ballroom.
The sensations of a self-aware instrument fascinated me. Existence felt local and intense. I understood how Hodrick had watched the passing scenery so avidly from Padia's curricle. My world had changed.
The Noesis wizards followed me. They knelt by each stricken Founder and dispelled the firemouths. The wizards themselves looked no less stricken as they saw the effects of their spell. Moving among them, Haerlam said ``Oh dear, ah me,'' over and over. The wound on his forehead felt to him like a brand of his shame.
I examined the guests' patterns. Now healed, they lay exhausted, their firemouths gone and their clothing healed. These people had suffered, but only by confronting the truth. They had recoiled, and in a few days almost all would deny anything had happened. In that sense they would recover. Whether they might learn more about themselves and each other from the experience, I could not yet tell. Padia's disillusionment with these people had doomed her, and yet I still held a guarded hope.
I stepped through a broken window and jumped down to the lawn. The magicians of Oneiros and Geocosm had returned from their wild pursuit of Vilph's image. Ghantrem and Boyhan broke off their scolding when they saw me.
``Padia?'' Ghantrem asked, then looked at me searchingly.
``Yes,'' I said. ``In a way.'' It felt so strange to speak! I had to grapple with emotions I had not known before -- Padia's emotions. Her pattern had become part of mine. ``Vilph pulled Hodrick away from his role as Merron's protector. I have taken up that role.''
The magicians gaped. ``The Egregore!'' Boyhan said. ``What has become of the Composite Form, and the cord? And the blood oaths?''
I fingered the cord, now a silver choker necklace at my throat. ``The Form has dissolved. This instrument will live out a normal span and die, instead of preying barbarically on Merron's citizens. As for the oaths --'' I had their full attention. ``--I release you all. Merron's time for bloody oaths has passed. Don't you agree, Boyhan?''
Taundis scowled. Anger and sorrow still burned in him, but embarrassment had tempered it. Inwardly he doubted that he could ever defeat Vilph in honorable combat. He regretted making his oath, which now seemed to him the stuff of youth, of doomed heroes, not of rational guild elders. He thought, Do I honor my Britham, behaving this way? He said nothing. I decided to counsel him privately later, if he wished it. To the rest I said, ``The oaths have passed, and I only hope that the rivalry between your guilds will expire with them.''
They looked at one another. In their patterns I read a mixture of deep suspicion, resentment, tentative truce, and in some a sense of opportunity, a flicker of hope.
``Well,'' said Haerlam, ``we shall, I hope, try to build some bridges. Eh, Ghantrem?''
Ghantrem said, ``Oneiros will gladly pursue better relations, following the lead of our own Thanyx Destrovan.'' He looked around for Ramiel Sandstorm. ``How is Thanyx, has anyone heard?''
I said, ``Thanyx is resting comfortably in the Garlen shrine in western Hempline. Ramiel is at her side. They have struck up a lively conversation, which has just begun to compare the differing natures of Ghantrem and Taundis.''
The two elders looked ruffled, as the other magicians laughed. ``And what do they have to say?'' asked Taundis darkly.
I started to reply, and then I felt a sudden need for discretion -- Padia's influence. I smiled and shook my head.
Simon Weald, looking at me, decided to speak his thoughts. ``Something dangerous, perhaps, in a self-aware entity with total knowledge of us all.''
I had already sensed this suspicion in the rest. ``Hodrick partook of a warrior's pattern, Alban Peyl's,'' I told them, ``and perhaps because of that, he lived in conflict. I have taken a different pattern as my model. I intend to begin rebuilding.''
``Alban,'' said Haerlam suddenly. ``For some reason I'd forgotten all about him! Where is he?''
I turned. Alban glided through the broken front gate, Vilph in his arms, most of the crowd following. Filantha Decrevi had followed them and now looked up at Alban with a mixture of admiration and unease.
Of course I had watched Alban's journey from the river. In a way Padia had loved him to the end, and this feeling carried over to me. However, Alban truly interested me for another reason. Since Vilph restored his pattern, his thoughts had grown extraordinarily clear and placid.
He saw me and glided to earth a few steps away, with the crowd close behind. Alban deposited the bound Vilph beside him. The ork's wounds ached. All the spirit had gone from him, and he had descended into sullen silence.
Alban smiled at me. ``I am glad you survived.''
I sensed the surprise of Filantha and the crowd. They had expected, at least, a tearful embrace. Alban spoke to me as to a friend, as he would to anyone.
I said, ``I have bad news, Alban.''
My voice -- a new voice -- startled him. ``Tell me.''
I told him of Padia's sacrifice, and he stepped back in shock. For a moment he said nothing, but then he spoke with composure. ``The Egregore. You guided me to Vilph. Thank you.'' He breathed deeply; following his breath, he calmed his thoughts. Dwelling on impermanence as Padia had, in moments he became calm. ``Well, I must say you look well.''
The news of Padia's loss saddened Filantha greatly, and she had known Padia only distantly. Disturbed at Alban's composure, she spoke up. ``If you don't mind my asking, didn't you love her, sir?''
``So don't you feel bad?''
Alban smiled serenely. ``I have found release from sadness. The Order of Inner Light shows the way, but Vilph brought me much farther along the path. For that I must thank him.''
Vilph maintained a stony silence. The nightmeal guests, the powerful Founding Families of Merron, did not. ``Thank him!'' said Insquiss Nurnwood. ``I think not! Vilph must pay for what he did to us! And to the city, of course.''
``Put him in irons!'' said Hogen Frey-Lowden.
The magistrates sounded ready to pronounce the ork guilty on the spot, and Landswoman Bulrutha Barghill-Bhurn said for all to hear, ``You must allow me, me, to pull the rope that hangs him!''
Amid the noise, Alban spoke quietly. ``I take responsibility for Vilph.''
The crowd looked astonished, Vilph most of all.
``I shall see to his punishment,'' Alban continued in the silence, ``and to his reform.''
``Reform!'' A hundred voices shouted angrily. ``Punish him! -- Execute him! -- Throw him to a Horror!''
``Vilph is an adept,'' said Alban. ``Every adept has the potential to achieve self-understanding. Is this not true?'' he asked the magicians.
A few nodded grudgingly.
Alban continued, ``Still, you cannot enlighten others unless they are receptive to it. No one gains freedom from illusion on another's behalf. Each person must achieve it alone, through relentless effort.
``The Order of Inner Light makes this point in the parable of the rogue ox.''
Vilph started. He, Filantha, and all those who had followed ``Rogox'' listened raptly.
``A farmer had an ox he could not break,'' said Alban. ``It would not take the bit, and it attacked the rest of the herd. Others told the farmer to slaughter his ox. Instead, the farmer fenced it apart, yet within sight of the herd. He watched the rogue ox and tried patiently to break it. He knew he would not tame the ox until it consented to be tamed. Finally, after careful attention, the ox took the bit and joined the herd.''
Vilph said angrily, ``I am not a beast to be broken!''
The crowd bellowed madly in response, until Alban raised his hand and silenced them. ``Anger brings only more anger,'' he told them. To Vilph he said, ``No, you are no beast. You are a name-giver of vast but misdirected power. You work against the rest of us because you see nothing of us in yourself, and no worth in anything.
``I have discovered true worth,'' he continued, ``a release from life's suffering. Will you dare to journey with me and try to disprove that truth?''
Vilph stared incredulously. ``Do you offer to take me on as your student?'' he asked with sarcasm.
Vilph looked dumbstruck. A hostile murmur rose in the crowd. Even Filantha found this beyond reason. Taundis Boyhan said, ``Peyl! This wretched ork has destroyed much of this city and ruined or ended the lives of thousands. Vilph has destroyed your home, your life, and your business. His work brought about your own wife's destruction, or transformation. We must punish him!''
Alban said calmly, ``For myself, I lost nothing but shackles. I cannot speak for Padia. As for the rest, yes. We must punish Vilph. Still, he is an adept; he can learn from mistakes. He can make restitution for his crimes, but only when he accepts them. You cannot punish him before he is willing to learn, for punishment without instruction is only cruelty.''
Ignoring the crowd's angry clamor, he turned to Vilph. ``I am guilty myself,'' Alban said, ``and I must go to accept my punishment. You can help me, and if you wish, I can help you.''
Vilph Axehandle stared, stunned. Notions of escape or revenge tumbled together with childlike hope for acceptance and a perverse need to prove his faith in truthlessness. Flats vanished and inward bells rang loudly. His thoughts at last open, his illusions dispersed, the small ork felt doubt and torment.
Dawn in Hempline. Alban lashed a few small crates of food and supplies to one end of his makeshift raft. He had given over his dispatch house to Norgan, the manager, and had consigned Jessis to Earlene and Insquiss Nurnwood, who had agreed in return to sell their Twopenny properties to the tenants for one silver each. Now Alban prepared to head north up the Byrose.
Alban had searched Hempline for friends of the youth he had killed. They said the boy had come to Merron from Shunya, a small village to the north. Alban intended to ride the river north to Shunya, meet the boy's parents, and do whatever penance he and they deemed necessary.
I walked down to say farewell. ``When you leave Merron, you will pass beyond my awareness,'' I said. ``I regret that. I enjoy the quality of your mind.''
``So do I,'' Alban replied. ``I may well return, but life always presents surprises.''
``I have begun to see this. I study so many patterns now. Many of them repel me, some attract me, but the variety itself fascinates me.''
``Spoken like a child,'' said Vilph as he carried a coil of rope down from the dockhouse. ``You will soon encounter the harsh lessons of life, Egregore, and then you will understand the attraction of illusion. I intend to make Peyl understand as well.'' He spoke smoothly, but the storm of thoughts in his mind held no certainty.
``Make your best try at it, Vilph,'' said Alban without concern, ``but don't begin until you have finished packing the crates and balancing the load.''
``Apprentice work! Stevedore labor!'' Vilph maintained a litany of complaint, and yet he bent to the task without delay. The labor calmed him, though he would not admit it. While he worked, his inner bells remained quiet.
The two pushed off without ceremony. I watched them drift northward down the tranquil river. As they reached the outer limits of my perception, Vilph looked up at the beautifully clear sky. ``How long do you think the weather will go on?''
Alban replied, ``How long will it go on? I feel sure the weather will go on for quite a long time.''