This story begins as I am engulfed in flames.
I hear the squeal of rusty hinges, a rush of air. I have just enough time to look up before the metal hand slams into my ribs. I reach for the words of incantation I have practiced year after year in preparation for moments like this.
“Uh.” I say, and fall off the bar stool. Above me, a familiar Industrial looms with a fist full of fire. Griegan fire. Fire that cannot be quenched. “Winch?” He raises his arm.
This time, my ribs break. Fire spreads across the fabric of my jacket, licking at my ears. The scent of burning hair perfumes the air.
Because I’m drunk, my reactions lack some agility. My face bumps the bar. I grunt. As the flames crawl toward my face, I slump away from Winch. Heat and pain clear my mind. Spells surface. I let the verses of binding and revulsion spill from my lips in a desperate litany, like so much cheap dandelion wine, that I might evoke powers diminutive and mighty to save my hide from total combustion.
Soft wind slips the blaze from my coat like so much rain onto the ground. It puddles, the heat contained within. A friendly shadow descends from the rafters to cover my egress as I make for the exit.
Winch says something like, “Not likely, mageling,” in the wheezing, pneumatic language of the Industrials and flings a stool at me. My ribs jangle unpleasantly as it lands heavily on my shoulder. I notice, as it pinwheels over me and I descend, that the cushion is red velvet. Viola’s going to be furious, I think. Which worries me more than the rhythmic thump of Winch’s approach. Not that I’m all atwitter about the Industrial. I roll onto my back to see his metal hands closing.
My mind fastens on the words of destruction, in ancient, eloquent Vanori. I close my eyes and point, scream a spell meant to end my enemy where he creaks.
Sweet tension spreads from the base of my skull to the back of my throat, rising into elation as it fills my head. Glorious victories in a hundred battles, the satisfaction of generations of successful industry, a thousand years of unmitigated sexual conquest: visions upon visions of masculine enterprise fill my mind and threaten to overwhelm me. I hold fast to the break in my ribs, the urgent red feeling, to keep reality in focus. With a shaking hand, I sweep the power from that Other Place between worlds, push it at Winch El Torach. A scintillant blackness that moves like a swarm of insects and sounds like rushing water covers the Industrial’s arm to the shoulder. It dissolves. Where the limb once was, there is only air.
Unfortunately, I meant the Direword for his chest. Winch doesn’t even look at the emptiness. He is already turning the gears in his remaining arm to open the nasty circular bone saws he keeps for occasions just like this. The sound they make as they whir to life makes my jaw clench and sends shivers across my back. Though his frame is steel, and heavy, Winch El Torach has survived a career of tavern brawls and border skirmishes by being fast and direct. A machine’s efficiency. After-bursts of magic spit from my limp hand, the catalogue of languages for destructive casting a shambles in my mind where the raw power of the Direword has left me pillaged. I can still feel the savage sweetness of it. But as it recedes, I recognize that I am only a man and that this mechanized warrior is going to tear me apart.
His head (or what functions as a head) explodes. Actually, as I am cowering under a table when the explosion happens, I miss the fireworks. But I am no less overjoyed when I realize, one terrified eye cracked, what has happened. My body gives from the outflow of tension and I sag against the floor. The lights above expand. Numbness creeps down my shoulder and arm. Black erasures float in my vision over the candles and beery glasses. For the first time, I notice that several patrons have overturned the heavy, circular tables and are crouched behind. They drink their liquor in furtive slurps, and watch me warily. I would raise a glass to them, but for the screaming pain in my side. There is much to celebrate: I am not dead, my limbs are still attached, and I know the man who killed my enemy. It seems that I am not going to die.
“Tellus!” I slur jovially. “Have I told you how much I love your pistol?” His musket is exquisitely crafted. Heavy enough to bear a high caliber charge, stingy of ornament, balanced to fit his hand perfectly. Handcrafted to discharge death, the gun is one half of a Bormangier’s holy artifacts, made for the sacred testament of battle. I want very much to touch it.
“Don’t touch my gun. Don’t ever touch my gun. Or my pistol, for that matter,” he holsters the musket. His eyes narrow as I toddle backward with my hands waving in what I hope is my most inoffensive manner. “Are you drunk, or concussed?”
It takes me a moment to answer. I vaguely remember hitting my head, during the tumble, but that isn’t likely the problem. I have consumed a dwarf’s share of beer (that’s how they serve it, here), and full vials of droquen, to boot. I was in pursuit of a third when Winch El Torach set me alight. Tellus doesn’t need to know that, of course. “Concussed, I suspect. The Industrial hit me. Repeatedly.”
“Bit o’ both, I suspect,” comes voice ragged from years and spirits and a lifetime spent hunched over glowing steel. I hear it over the distinct ratchet of a clockwork rifle. I know this rifle. I have seen it in action. I know that it is hefty, and that it is reliable. I can only hope it isn’t pointed at my head.
Tellus looks passed me and smirks. “Hello, Viola. Your biceps look particularly astonishing these days. Polished, even. I hope this evening finds you merry.”
“Oh, I ken it, boyo. An’ it might be, might be. If I hadna been woken by the sound of me pub bein’ destroyed. ‘Course, mebbe it’s the sight o’ this sack of sprite vomit that curdles the spit in me mouth, werst o’ all the magicky shite in all of Currandir.”
“Vivid,” I mumble.
Tellus continues to smile, though his shoulders are rigid and his hands are close to his weapons. “It is a common experience, a feeling of illness, after seeing Gabriel. You wouldn’t mind terribly if I remove him from your presence?”
Viola is a dwarf, which makes the sight of a large caliber rifle balanced easily in the crook of her arm all the more alarming. Dwarves do not take property destruction lightly. They are fond of corporeal vengeance. She spits on the floor. “Got a few tings to answer fer, do ya ken? A few... renovations he’s bin makin’ without me consent.” She nods to the puddle of fire on the floor, melting by the moment into a gulley of char and frozen ash. In retrospect, it wasn’t the most artfully crafted of spells. In retrospect, I should never have come to Viola’s. I should have stayed in my little room on Pendraug Way.
“Absolutely. And wouldn’t you know? I have a job for him.” Viola cocks an eyebrow and directs the rifle at Tellus. He lifts a forestalling finger on his left and as his right moves to a throwing dagger secreted in his waist sash. “A paying job. A job that only Gabriel here can do.”
She snorts, “Sucking up droquen and conning the petty folk out o’ coin?”
“I am very good at those things, you have to admit,” I say to no one in particular.
Tellus shows a wide smirk, “Something like that. Big pay day-- enough to keep the bar in liquor and lacquer for a year.”
Viola looks at the bartender, a rotund man with a swirl of ancient, sunsoaked tattoos atop his fleshy pate. “Olaq r’tuni? Droguena, polvat?” She asks him if I am into him for anything, if I performed a polva, or ritual promise of money and favors in return for droquen yet undelivered. I have not. I didn’t have time to chant the chants that bind a man to his ji’polva, holder of the debt. Dwarves, to whom the concept is native, are particular about polva in the very same way they are particular about burning holes in their floors.
The publican shakes his jowls, “Ni polvat. Tunen ni, Gratu.” Gratu. Deference to the angry little woman with a very big gun.
Viola gives Tellus a pair of narrowed eyes. “A’right, vrinagh. You keep ‘im for the nonce. But see he comes back wi’ coin, or that his purse does.”
Tellus grabs my shoulder where the stool hit it and it is all I can do not to faint. He squeezes as he drags me from the tavern. “I shall kill him myself, if it comes to it, Viola, and send his head along with his money.”
“Ach no, thankee. Me bar’s a place of repute. Can’t have nothin’ s’ugly hangin’ round.”
Outside the air is crisp with the smell of sewers. The rains have come to wash our streets of their inequities. First, of course, they will hold the products of civilization under our noses for us to see. Nuckbo, my neighborhood and bastion of Currandir’s exceptionally poor, sags toward midnight, the structures crouched and defeated in the hazy gaslight. We stand in an empty street of broken cobblestones where the rain pools in the potholes. Tellus stares at me while I wait for the pain to recede enough to talk. It would be cruel of him to stand and watch my shame. But he knows as well as I do that I have no shame to watch. No, Tellus is trying to reckon if I can stay upright long enough to complete the job.
“Well, Tellus, it is an unexpected pleasure to see you here, in Nuckbo, at midnight. And entirely at your leisure. Tell me, would a note, sent round with one of your little warriors as you like to do, not have served?”
“No.” He gestures toward the shadows on the tavern window. “She would have killed you.”
“And more fortunate me that you should have such a silver tongue.” I sway in a breeze that isn’t there. “Who knew?”
He stiffens a little. “A Bormangier may find the use for a fine word, from time to time.”
There is bile in the back of my throat, “Oh indeed. More than one, even.” I push Tellus away as firmly as I can as I bend to retch on the street.
“Hmmm. Not as bad as I thought.” He says. “It is early, though.” The night is spinning. My stomach is empty and knotted.
“Pray tell what brings you to Nuckbo at this hour, Tellus? I figured you for friend of the whores, but only in a deeper darks than this one.”
Tellus frowns, “Been a fortnight since we last made a payday. You must be broke. Had to get here before you pledged away your soul.”
“I had no idea my soul was of such consequence to you.”
Tellus smiles. I can see the sincerity in it and am reminded, of a time when the sun shone on his fresh blades and war was still the stuff of his father’s fables. It’s a moment that stretches to me over the course of dreary years. He smiled easily, the. But we were younger. The world was brighter. “Your soul is a lost cause, Gabriel. I would that you kept hold of it, at least. That way, someone can find it when it is really needed.”
“Oh please,” I say, dropping pretense. “You are not a sentimental ass and I am not a girl. Not yet, anyway. And not for you. A job?”
His smile fades. “I need you, Gabriel.”
I shake my head. “Tellus...”
“I would ask anyone else. But he would eat them alive.”
I feel the bile in the back of my throat again, feel as though I might be drowning. “Oh no. He will do worse with me--”
“No one else even speaks the language.”
“I’m doing my damndest to forget it!”
“And when you factor the risk of hiring someone I don’t know for the magic, it makes no good sense to ask anyone but you.”
“This is not a job, it is sadism. A character flaw I should have known to expect from a--”
“I would not finish that thought,” he says without any heat.
I gulp, though the sensation of drowning remains. “The Verian.” I gulp again.
Tellus places a hand the shoulder that has not been assaulted. “The money is good. More than enough for Viola. More than enough to cover any polva you have.”
“Am I such a predictable creature? I should be a rat in one of Doctor Menelaus’s labyrinths to spend my days pacing the same petty hallways over and over.” That reeks of melodrama, even to me, but I let it linger. Tellus removes his hand and we stare fixedly at nothing, our words languishing.
We are standing there, silence soaking the space between us, when we hear the sound of rushing boot heels that signal further complications and entanglements in our immediate future. No night is a boring night in Nuckbo.
We see the Shade Imperatrix first, gaseous blue features that blur and shift, hovering above the ground. Behind it come the burnished orange coats of the Autumn Brigade, a small detachment in hot pursuit of the ghostly leader. They surround us, tensed. The Shade points toward me and a pair of soldiers with long two-pronged poles with metal at the ends that crackle like spent lightning step close. Young faces with anxious eyes. The metal at the ends of their poles, Ullarium, strips a body of its inherent magical gifts. Turns a mage into a drooling idiot faster than a pretty tavern girl. I do everything I can not to scream. It is impossible to stand still, to wait for their nerves to get the better of them. To wait to be silenced.
A woman steps into the circle. Her blonde hair is cut short in the back, and left to grow in the front so that she can comb it into a long feathers that caress one side of her face. The leaves on her epaulette proclaim that she is a lieutenant, but we both already know that. Seannalee Cordry adjusts the fingers of her gloves and exhales, her cheeks barely touched by red in this cold. Her eyes fix on Tellus immediately. He stares back at her. A moment passes in which the various fidgety Leafers shift their weight and make momentary eye contact. I let my arms hang until I can’t stand it anymore. With a deep and (I hope) meaningful eye-roll, I address the officer.
“Good even, Lieutenant. You are looking efficient and, might I say, rather less oppressive than usual.”
She snaps her eyes to me. “A Direword? In the city?”
Tellus looks from her to me and back again. “Seanna--” Her lip curls. “Lieutenant, you know Gabriel hasn’t got the power or the discipline for that.”
I begin to object, but Tellus makes a motion with his hand. “Yes, right. Neither one of those things have I got.” I clasp my hands behind my back and give her what I hope is a conspiratorial smile. A smile that that says, “I understand how often I cause trouble, and I am appropriately contrite.” She’s not buying.
“Do not test your luck, Gabriel.” She says.
“Put your hands where we can see them!” A smaller, but much more ferocious, woman storms into the circle, next to the Lieutenant. “Let’s have you, Gabriel! You’re nicked!”
I give a little curtsey, because I think it might seem respectful, and also because I almost fall down. “But you heard the good Tellus, here. I am an undisciplined cadet. I couldn’t manage a Direword if I wanted to! And I don’t. Because they are very bad.”
“The Imperatrix See made this sector, for the spell. The Shade confirms it that it was you, Gabriel Kalehar!” I remind myself to curse the Imperatrix and its shades, the next time I am out of the city. “As a Runic Adept, I can sense the vile words on your tongue. I know it was you! Admit it!” Vallewold wears fingerless gloves, runes glowing on the backs. They are spells captured in fabric. Put there by silent slaves in the deepest basements of the Brigade’s keep.
I point at Vallewold. “How could you know? You haven’t got the talent that the Artifactor gave a dragonfly. Runic mage, my bloody guts.” She is on me before I can finish the thought. She pushes with all her might and corded muscle so that I stumble backward into a streetlamp. I jostle limply with the impact, my body rapidly losing its ability to keep me upright. Vallewold reaches for my throat. I have time to form half a plea for her to stop before her fingers close and the air to my lungs is taken.
The Leafers, as they are known in Nuckbo (and elsewhere, though perhaps more quietly), move as one to surround me again. Cordry follows behind, all deadly grace and reserve. Tellus walks beside her. His eyes never leave her face as they walk. She says, “I told you not to push it, Gabriel. Vallewold, release him, please. Corporal Vallewold!” The younger woman does not move. “Drayma?”
It takes a moment for the effect of the sigil tattooed on my neck to settle, but eventually her fingers loosen from my throat (seconds later and I would have been unconscious-- I really ought to decrease the operational time). I sag against the streetlamp. “Astral Transportation, Lieutenant. Nothing, in this particular, to cause you worry.”
Cordry pushes through her men and unsheathes the rapier at her side. “Where is she, Kalehar? Where is her soul?”
I place a fingertip on the edge of the sword. “Ah. I see you, as have many others, no need to be ashamed, I see you have a rather imperfect understanding of the process. You see,” she has no patience for me. The blade digs into my finger. A thin line of blood runs down the length of it.
“Ouch. Well, her soul is exactly where it should be, which is in her body, or, at least, tethered to it.” She draws the sword back to make her intentions clear. “Wait! It’s her mind, her waking mind, that is temporarily-- very temporarily!-- on holiday, so to speak.”
Astral Transport is a fairly standard procedure, and rather ineffective as a trap, usually, unless you are trying to trap someone with little or no magical facility. Those with talent spend at least some time wandering the astral planes and can return to their bodies as easily as holding their breath. For those who have never been, like Runic Adepts, the astral may be a tad overwhelming. Mages can set up various and sundry nasty scenarios for the inexperienced and untalented: endless torture, soul-crushing loss, madness. Mine is a room with a very comfortable couch upon which victims are made to sit and listen to a rather long winded cat recite a selection from that great work of history, Currandir and Its Origins, Volumes I-X. I had grown tired of displeased creditors trying to choke the money out of me. Vallewold’s unscheduled transportation is an unfortunate consequence of my less than moral existence.
“In truth,” I say, “she probably welcomes a bit of respite from the daily woes, don’t you think?” Lieutenant Cordry moves her sword in a manner that suggests that no, she does not think. “She should be back momentarily.” This in something between a whimper and a chuckle. The blade remains, fixed. Seconds pass.
Vallewold inhales deeply, her eyes fluttering, and begins to collapse. Cordry returns her sword to its sheathe as the other Leafers, their wariness forgotten, rush to catch their comrade. It is a mass of confusion as one private stumbles into another, their hands and voices and legs a jumble of misdirected good intention. Not a one actually makes it to catch their corporal as she descends pants first toward the cobblestones. The responsibility falls to me.
I wrap an arm around her waist and tip her gently back, carrying her weight into a position that resembles the final flourish of a dance. She wraps her hands around my neck, recalling her last, more hostile, gesture. The sigil’s power has been expended; there is no further threat. It takes her a few dazed seconds to recognize me. Then she starts shouting. A pair of hands, and then a second, appear beneath her. A man with a gnarled scar spanning his right cheek pushes me away.
I don’t mind: our time together might have been brief, but it was enough to slip two fingers into her jacket pocket and remove the glass cylinder resting at the bottom. I use the commotion of jostling Leafers to pop the cork with a thumbnail and take in Vallewold’s weekly ration of droquen. I cover the motion with an exaggerated stumble. I careen passed Cordry and Tellus, the droquen safely in my mouth. Before the blue liquid reaches my belly, I can feel the void, a stillness that saturates every moment and all of my tissues, expand from my chest. The effect is immediate as the liquid coats the track of my throat. The strobing sting in my ribs vanishes, my head clears, and I develop, for the moment, a grace I have never enjoyed. When he turns, Tellus turns to see me standing upright, brushing my coat.
“I’ll kill him!” Shouts Vallewold from her nest of comrades. “The bastard!”
Cordry cuts a hand. “No, I think you have come quite close enough to that tonight.”
Vallewold struggles up and points at me. “Lieutenant, he is a rogue mage and an addict and... and...” She wants so very badly to say it. One can hear the disdain in every word: “Nuckbo scum! He is violation of the Constraints!”
Cordry faces Vallewold severely. “You may forget that you are in the presence of a Bormangier Tariman and that this scum,” she points at me, less than generously, “is a Magus of the White Hall, but I have not.” Her tone, never far from level, returns to its refined tambor. “Please take the troop back to the Gate House. Quickly, Corporal.” There is muttering, most of it about the size of my manhood, but the Autumn Brigade turns as one and begins to march away. The evening improves with my spirits, as they recede. Cordry’s eyes find me. The disgust is palpable.
“You, Gabriel Kalehar, will cease and desist any and all use of illicit and prohibited magic and magical language. You will also-- don’t you dare interrupt, you ridiculous ass-- You will also, forthwith and without unnecessary delay, report to Gate House Sixteen for formal assessment of your talents and capacities.” I can’t prevent the groan from escaping my lips.
She turns to Tellus. “And you, Tariman, you should choose your friends wisely.” Cordry moves into the night like a jungle cat. Tellus is riveted.
“I think that she wants to be your friend, Tellus. I really and truly do.”
“Well...” He drifts back to reality slowly for a warrior of his credentials. “Leave her. She has left us.” Tellus removes a pocket watch from his vest and exhales. “If we go now, we might even make it on time.”
“Oh yes, punctuality. Let us please make very sure that we arrive on time. It wouldn’t do to be late to having your soul devoured.”
I fall in stride with Tellus as he says, “You seem happy, for a criminal.”
“It’s a comedy, is the world, for a man like me. Tragedy is for people with money.”
The warehouse in which the Verian resides sits on a small lot in the Lower Basin, by Weskey, among the massive repositories of the Currandirian shipping elite. Each of the other storehouses are surrounded by vaulted brick walls and are staffed by mean, stupid guards with too much time and too many sharp weapons nearby. The Verian does not need any protection; the insignia inscribed on a shingle just before the gates is enough to keep the rabble at bay. A “V” transected by two lines, each with a serif at opposing ends. Understated. A symbol that needs no explanation to convey its potency, which is a magic of its own kind.
Of course, the other kind of magic is everywhere in evidence at the Verian’s compound. So much so that it seeps from the seams of the building and into the street. Ancient and mysterious, a mere flicker on this plane of what he is on the others. Still, he has power enough to depute to his various and sundry minions. And he has so many minions. They are everywhere. All of them aspects of his need, his overwhelming need, to control. The Verian. As old as Currandir itself, and likely present from the moment the first stones were set.
We stand in the foyer of the building, a carnelian carpet spread under our feet. The walls are a polished teak, occasionally interrupted by tapestries and paintings. Cultural marvels no doubt requisitioned in the service of a crippling debt or two. Like mounted heads.
Industrials, fashioned to look like the old Guardian Spirits that protect the temple ruins from here to the Serian Sea, stand at either side of a door that stretches floor to ceiling. Their orders are to stand immobile, the first of many treacherous deceptions awaiting the unsuspecting. We know these metal men, of course. We have had dealings.
“ ‘Lo, Pratch. Lanmoore,” I say, tipping an invisible hat to them.
Tellus bows to each. Their ocular components appear, apertures dilating, a wan white light in their faceplates. They are remarkable, even for Industrials: every cord and tube perfectly calibrated, no jangling additions or semi-functional parts. Nothing like Winch El Torach. Each bends at the middle in a movement too exact toward Tellus.
“Nothing for me, gents? Have I offended?”
Pratch, the lefthand giant, extends a finger from his enormous gauntlet. “Winch El Torach was Gear and Steam to us. His loss is on your soul.”
“Winch El Torach was sabotaging, ambushing oil-stain of an Industrial and you should be thanking me for how well shot you are of that bastard.” The anger, especially through the droquen, is unexpected. “Besides, Tellus shot him. Where is his share of the blame?”
Lanmoore answers, “You spoke the Direword, mageling. You broke the Constraints.”
I can feel my brow furrow. “He had Griegan Fire. He would have burned the whole city down. Once the Constraints are breached, they remain breached. Anything goes.”
Pratch says, “It shall be on your soul. The Foundry has spoken.” The sentries revert to form as the doors open. I am left with my mouth open as Criobhan enters the room, flanked by cobalt-skinned goblins. Their fangs protrude from their lips.
Probably the most beautiful male I have ever seen and a full measure taller than I, Criobhan is a presence. I have found in my travels that the Fay often outshine the light in a room, but Criobhan is without equal. He extends his hands as if to engirth both of us and draw us to him, though he stops well short of touching us.
“Gentlemen, I cannot tell you how very pleased the master is that you have chosen to aid our enterprise. If you might come with me, he has asked that the young Magus be brought into the Presence.” He beckons us along.
As we fall behind him, Tellus grabs my arm and whispers, “”Remember, he is old Fay. The rules.”
“I recall, Tellus, as you might recall that I taught you the rules.”
“Say them back to me, Gabriel.”
I sigh. “No making trades and always, always ask, ‘What’s the catch?’”
“And no magic.”
I sigh again. “Would that I could.”
We follow Criobhan along a hall that should not be as long as it is, given the size of the building, nor as wide. There are countless lacquered black doors set into the walls. Another deception. Without warning, Criobhan pauses outside a door and removes a key from the sash at his waist.
“Please, Tariman. I must ask you to await my return here.” He motions inside. Tellus enters without a word, his lands loose at his sides. The goblins follow. I wonder what they will talk about.
We cross the hall to a door that opens as we approach, revealing a stairway illuminated by a soft radiance that might mistaken for candlelight if there were candles to be lit. The stairs, like the doors, are a viscous black. Criobhan smiles at me and waits for me to descend.
“Wouldn’t you like to join me, Criobhan? Spend a little time with the old Sprite?” He cringes at that word. “Perhaps learn a little of his history, his personal story?”
The smile sharpens. “What little of his history I know, I know is enough. Please, do not do us both the disservice of making the Master wait.”
The stairs ripple and shimmer as I step onto them. I hope that this will be a short meeting. The kind of meeting in which we trade pleasantries and I leave with more money than I had before. I hope that the Verian will be in a patient mood. He has been known to burn the soul right out of folks when he is feeling punchy. I hope he won’t burn my soul.
The light lapses as I move farther below until I am walking in complete darkness. I have made this journey before, am one of the few who has been bidden into the Presence. It’s a dubious honor, but that is the only honor I get these days. The air clouds around me and dew appears on my coat. I am moving outside the borders of the world into another place. An alien place, made from and part of the thing that has summoned me here. I am suddenly very thirsty.
Twelve shards of stained glass arranged in a jagged circle comprise the entry to the Verian’s Presence, the thirteenth space left unoccupied. Visions dance on the glass, attuned to the changes in the Verian’s mood. It’s a blatant vanity, but an impressive one. Today, the tableaux is bleak: A drunken juggler uses a throwing knife to rob a goodwife on her way to the market. A minister of the Artifactor’s Grace ushers a prostitute into his study, paying with congregational coin. Somewhere in the Adjutine Hill, a wealthy man with jewels on his fingers undresses before two boys barely old enough to grow hair on their bodies. A woman strikes water from her sickly mother’s hand as she screams and weeps.
It seems the Verian is displeased.
The room shifts as I enter, briefly two places simultaneously. The image resolves, though it never really settles: if you look too long at an object or a pattern, say, in the curtains, it begins to blend and expand until it becomes, with hallucinatory grace, something else entirely. The room blurs like that, though this is only one of the Verian’s subtle ways of disrupting his guests.
Once, the Verian chose the living room of my childhood home as the setting for our conversation. Through the course of it, he caused grey shadows that looked like my family to pass over the walls and to wink out of existence when I turned to look at them. I have never spoken with the Verian about my life. I have never described my family. Today, the Verian has chosen a cold, stone chamber, not unlike the interior of a cell.
He is tall, wrapped in a cerulean robe in the corner, his hooked nosed just visible in profile. His eyes are turned to the dismal sky framed by a window of vanishing slenderness.
“Ulika harekreklika, jo,” he says.
It will be Berendi, then, from the early period, when that bellicose people spread across the Southern continents burning and looting. A language of empire and sacrifice; a brutal lexicon.
“Nareklika, jo kinuch,” I respond.
He turns, his moonlight skin mottled with fury, and fixes his purple cat’s eyes on me. Suddenly he is next to me and a little behind, as if he has always been just over my over shoulder. I cannot help a small gasp.
His voice is a sonorous baritone, from which the liquid consonants of the history’s languages flow seductively. He slips into Kessel, the common tongue. What Tellus says is not true; I am not the only one who speaks the language of the Verian. I simply speak more languages than anyone else in this city. So I can amuse him for longer.
“Do you know, dear Grabriel, the tremendous effort a soul must expend to truly trust another? To share deeply from one’s sacred stock of secrets? Hm? I wonder, do you know what it is like to give, and give, and give of yourself? So that you are naked and howling for cover?”
I swallow. “Speaking metaphorically?”
“Or literally, or metaphysically. Whatever you like, Gabriel. Whatever you like. But tell me! Have you ever made such overtures, having allowed such unmitigated access to your darkest depths, only to be betrayed?”
“Have I been betrayed?” His face hovers in the periphery of my vision, his eyes intent. My clothes feel like a discarded skin on my own. Rills of sweat run down my back.
“Yes, Gabriel. Betrayed. Duped by false sincerity. Hoodwinked by mendacity and duplicity. The victim of audacious chicanery. Am I making sense, Gabriel? Deceived by a trusted friend, perhaps?” His face is so close that I should feel breath on my neck, but I do not. The absence is as disturbing as the breath would be. My skin prickles in anticipation of a sensation that will never come.
I think for a moment. “Yes. Yes, I know some little of betrayal in this world.”
He appears, his back to me again, in the center of the cell. He turns, his eyes lachrymose, his robe clutched close to his chest. “I have been betrayed,” he says in a puckered whisper. A moment passes in silence. “I have been betrayed and brought low. My soul rent to tatters, my heart plucked from my chest.”
“Do you say so?” I raise a comforting hand. “Perhaps you would rather I leave and let you mourn alone? It would not do for me to bear witness to the sorrow of one so mighty as you.”
The Verian turns with a flourish and draws himself to full height. In doing so, he levitates from the floor and spreads his hands. “Bear witness, Gabriel. Bear witness.”
The Verian extends a finger and touches my brow, between my eyes. He pushes slightly, bearing his teeth, and floods my body with panic. My thoughts collapse and fall away, my heart races. As the senseless, maddening fear swells. I forget why it is happening. My mind falls away in constant crash of terror. The Verian’s face floats in front of mine. Leering. I try to ask him to stop, to make it go away, but I have no voice.
Without a word, he removes his finger and turns away. For my part, I fall to the floor.
“What if I told you that you and the Bormangier you use as a crutch could help me? Could, in the event, make great strides toward redressing the hurt mine enemy has done me?”
I pant for breath as he circles the room, feet not touching the ground.
“And what, if I were to whisper in your ear a particular object of fascination, a simple antiquity, that would make my heart to sing? What would you do? Would you say, ‘Yes!’ and be my champion? In this matter, would you serve as my agent? Say yes, and we are well met.”
“You know full well that we are at your leisure, Verian. Tell me, how can we be of service?” I say them, but the words are revolting.
“The rewards will be tremendous.” He smiles with transparent lips.
“What’s the catch?” As I stand, I hope that he will not decide to touch me again for this question.
His smile widens and a vial appears in his hand. “What if I were to tell you that you would not be the only men about this business tonight?” Light from nowhere glints on the blue liquid within the glass. I forget the crippling dismay I have just experienced. The thirst chastens my throat.
I drag my eyes away, “Who else?”
“Aggomar the Wolf. The rumors speak his name.” His fingers rotate the cylinder and he looks at it fondly.
“Aggomar. And protection measures? Does this antique is have a guardian spirit?”
Impossibly, the Verian’s smile widens, ever more disturbing as his lips distort and stretch beyond human boundaries. “Oh very good, Gabriel. A Fenwrick. A rather unsociable one, as I understand it.” With a flick of his wrist, the vial is in the air, rotating as if through syrup, in pristine somersaults. I am so lost in the glint of the light on the droquen that I almost forget to raise and hand and catch it.
“A fenwrick,” I murmur. “Not too much trouble, I think.”
“No, no. Of course not.”
“A fenwrick!?” Tellus looks like a hungry snake when he is angry. His fangs elongate and you can imagine the venom dripping from them (he’s too composed for that, but only just). “Is there enough gold in Currandir to fight a Fenwrick? It will bring all manner of attention to us. I don’t believe I need to remind you how little attention I can bear.”
“And here I thought the Bormangier ran from nothing. Retreated only when Death herself sounded the horn, wasn’t that it?” I keep my head down in my collar and hold my aching ribs. The night has grown cold.
“The Bormangier know better than to tempt a Fenwrick with nothing but a single warrior and a droquen soaked mage! Especially when silence is the watchword. Tensions are high, Gabriel.” The Autumn Brigade and the Borgmangier Tarimen enjoy an uneasy truce at the best of times. Lately rancor on both ends approaches bloodlust.
“In fairness, the droquen should help. My capacities are doubled, at least.”
“Capacities? If you had any capacities you would have said, ‘No thank you,’ and been on your way.”
“Might I remind you that this debacle was your idea, not mine.”
“A fenwrick, Gabriel!”
“The Verian is very... persuasive.”
“The Verian has a lot of whatever anybody wants. How much did he give you?”
Too much. And then again, never enough. To Tellus, I say, “He gave me nothing at all. Payment to be delivered upon his acquisition of the antiquity.”
“Nothing? I don’t believe it.”
“Then you may feel free to tell the Verian that when we bring him his prize.”
Tellus stares at the ground as we make our way toward the Sailor’s gate and Weskey. “What is the prize, anyway.”
“Quaint,” I exhale and watch my breath steam and disappear in the long shadows. “The prize is quaint. A teakettle, supposedly from the Huvin Dynasty. A prosperous reign they had-- made beautiful ceramics and the like. You remember? Until the Bormangier decided to take their gold by force majeur and sell their lands piecemeal.”
Tellus nods, “A great conquest for Gaius Tariman, let his hands ever know the feel of iron in their grasp.”
“Not entirely the point I was pressing, but good job you for knowing it.”
His hand on the hilt of his sword, Tellus asks, “Why a teakettle?”
I turn my palm up, show it the moon. “That was not a subject upon which I found the Verian amenable to discourse.”
“He scares you, eh?”
“Yes.” I say it without thinking. Without defense. He scares me deeply. Then, “Much like the prospect of a Fenwrick scares you.”
“Fear has nothing to do with it. Too many eyes will be watching if we wake a Fenwrick. The Shades will be upon us in an instant. I cannot fight those things. They heal in an instant.” Bormangier deeply distrust anything they cannot stab to death.
“Only if we wake it. I believe we can enter and exit without disrupting its sleep. A simple Revelation overlaid by Disambiguation, and then an elementary Glamor to shield us from any other eyes that might be about.”
“Those are… you’re talking about spells?”
I nod. “Spells.”
We walk in silence as we near the Gate. Eventually, Tellus says, “Weskey. We haven’t worked in Weskey since we tracked that thief, Harmless George, here a year ago.”
“Harmless George, right! How did that end? Remind me: I was a bit worse for the wear, I believe.”
I can hear the ghost of regret in his voice, “He fell. From the roof of the Fantomine Inn and missed the water. Dead before I could get to the stairs.”
“But we were paid, despite his fall?” I ask, though I know the answer.
I make my voice light, “Then it ended well. And I have been told all that ends well is probably worth forgetting. Or something like that.”
Tellus frowns. “It wasn’t clean. There is no honor in a death like that, for anyone.”
“Well,” I say as we cross into Weskey, “no need to worry yourself. This is like to be a quiet affair. We’re only after a teakettle, after all. Nothing messy about teakettles.”
Umble’s Curios sits at the corner Twelling Lane and the Sailor’s Road, which runs from the ports and warren of docks on the Grandel River to the base of the Old Bailey on Curran’s Hill. We walk passed it without stopping before turning into an alley down the road a bit to take stock. Weskey is silent save for the groaning of boats where they are tethered to the docks, and a subtle undertone of snoring. Sailors, it is known the world over, snore like bears. Seafaring bears.
The gates have all been closed for the evening; the district is forbidden to anyone but business owners and the Autumn Brigade after eight o’clock. The gates are locked and sealed magically. Breaking them, scaling them, picking the locks-- all impossible. One needs a key. Luckily, Tellus and I worked for a particularly careless merchant, once upon a time. While Tellus and the merchant discussed the particulars, I lifted his key. Tellus was angry at first, but it has made things so bloody easy.
Tellus checks the alleyway before speaking. “Did you see the cart beside the wine shop?” I nod. “No one would leave a cart out overnight. Not in this salt air. It ruins the wood.”
“Ah. Right. And that means?”
“That someone used it to climb onto the roof of the Drivers’ stable, next door.”
Understanding dawns, “And thence to the roof of Umble’s Curio shoppe, where they will, I’ve no doubt, rob the place blind. Do you think Aggomar knows there is a Fenwrick?”
“No.” Says Tellus. He steps onto a midden heap against the wall before grasping an exposed brick on the side of the alley. Muscles flex beneath his woolen coat, I can see them bunched in his forearm as his sleeve falls, and he begins to climb. Midway up the wall, he stops to say, “I am going to keep him from waking the beast. Can you find the kettle?”
“Ah, yes. I do the work, and you get to stab someone. Certainly seems like a fair trade.”
“I am taking all the risk.”
“No you aren’t. And you like stabbing people. It’s in your blood.”
His face, momentarily gone over the ledge of the wall, returns, framed by the brightness of the moon. “And you like... old things in boxes. Be quick.” The whisper lingers as he disappears.
“I hope you fall down and possibly turn your ankle,” I grumble after him, but not so loud that he (or anyone else) might notice.
The truth is that the front door is the best point of access. Though there will be redundant wards and spells of violent expulsion, there are not likely to be any protective spells that might cause lasting and painful damage. The merchant’s mind is a simple one: never damage the goods. The words for revealing guard spells are in bog-standard Surrilian. No need even to make a chant of them-- that’s for higher order magic.
There are three wards of momentary confusion. I have seen more of these in my time than I can count. More interestingly, there is a rather elegant magical trap set for anyone who opens crosses the threshold with malice in their heart. Made of bands of condensed force, it’s set to blow any would-be burglars across the street.
The wards of confusion are easy to get rid of-- the afterthoughts of a middling mage. The force seal, however, is a rather different matter. Force is a wild thing. You can’t keep hold of it without a whole lot of power or a whole lot of skill. The bands contained in the seal are completely secure. Whoever is responsible earned their pay.
The wards, fortuitously, are written in Kessle, the common language. I speak their make-chants backward and watch them dissolve into air. I take step back. The seal of force will take more time, more thought. More droquen. I repair to the street and fumble the Verian’s flask from my pocket.
I’ve barely swallowed when I hear the legendary snarl of Aggomar the Wolf. He’s seen Tellus. Steel meets steel, ceramic shingles fall to the ground. I speak the first stanza of Portua the Younger’s wyrd of dispell, imagining as I do the letters breaking from my lips like smoke that curls toward the door to tickle the force contained within. It is a lazy making, the words all susurration and slur, but in the throes of the droquen, I am too powerful for it to matter. I could call on the flames of World Below, blow them from my mouth like a dragon and still be able to sing with the choir afterword. After a manner of speaking, of course: I never had what you might call a “singing voice”.
The bands holding the force field (a virulent orange to my eyes) are thick. A lesser mage (or the less arrogant mage) would attempt to remove them completely, leaving the path open. But I know that a Fenwrick sleeps just beyond the borders of this plane, tethered by enchantment to the shop, and I suspect a blast like that will waken it. Which would be very bad. I change the pacing of my evocation slightly and, like a fine needle, I slip the spell just under the fabric of the restraints and lift. It is a delicate procedure, but I have forgotten my friend and comrade on the roof, the Verian, the pain in my side from the Industrial’s exertions. I am aware only of the salt in the air, the sound of the waves lapping in my ears.
The door snaps open, heavy hinges groaning. It bangs against the wall as if I had kicked it. But I haven’t. What have done is overwhelmed the wards. I wait, breathe. Breathe again. Nothing jumps from the interior darkness to eat me with nasty teeth. Oversize, dripping, nasty teeth.
Fenwricks are the worst.
The gloom recedes a bit as I step through the door. It is, like the other shops in Weskey, a place of unfathomable stuffiness. Here and there are a few small trinkets left to the open air, but everything else is encased by glass or transparent crystal. Placards beneath each piece announce mystic properties or legendary provenance. I can tell by looking that most are fakes. The thing I seek is in the back, among some loosely packed crates. It is a small, iron kettle, as the Verian described it would be. A network of ancient runes have been worked along the circumference of the vessel, runes I do not recognize. Even in my intoxication, this gives me pause. To touch an artifact, worked over with strange magic, coveted by a malevolent force? I should consider this closely.
Unless, of course, my partner comes crashing through the ceiling window with a spitting, cursing Griegan mercenary on top of him. As Tellus hits the floor, a swirl of shadows begins at the center of Umble’s Curios and I curse as loudly as I can muster. Without a thought, I turn and grab hold of the kettle...
… and find myself standing in a small field, dotted by dogwood and oak and daisies, that floats, it would seem, on an ocean of rimless infinity.
“Uh,” I say, and raise the hand where the kettle was to look at it.
“It’s gone, you see? That’s the trouble with Astral Transport: You have to leave the boat behind.” An old man stands next to me. His upper lip is covered in white hair. He slips his eyes to my hand. “I thought you would have known that, Gabriel.”
“Where exactly am I?”
“I would have thought you knew that, as well. You are in the Aether, between spaces.”
“Yes, of course. The Aether. Though, tell me, how does one get to the Aether? You see, I was standing in an antique shop and now I am here.”
“Astral Transport, my boy. I told you only just a moment ago.”
I look at him. He is familiar, in a murky way. “No. Astral Transport suggests some movement along the Astral Plane, which is a fixed and rather well understood environment. This,” I wave a hand toward the space where the field ends, “is the Aether. Which is entirely theoretical. You know, unstable.”
“Oh, indeed it is unstable. But, you know, it has its benefits. For example, did you know this is the only place a living soul like yourself and non-living entity like me can interact?” He clasps his hands behind his back in a gesture I would call professorial in any other context.
“You are not alive?” Things are fast moving beyond my comprehension.
He turns and shuffles toward a campfire set in the middle of the clearing. A spit has been erected. In the middle, a cobalt blue kettle that shines like starlight depends over a fire. “Yes. Dead, in fact, but that is a very narrow interpretation of ‘non-living’.” He pauses, looks at me as if he expects me to follow. Which, in spite of myself, I do.
“So, to summarize: you are dead, I am not, we are in the Aether and I have been transported here by the Artifactor-knows-what to sit at a campfire?”
“That is an awfully good summary, Gabriel.”
“How do you know my name?”
He sits, indicating I should do the same. “I was told about you, in the beginning. But I’ve been watching you since. In fact, I brought you here today.”
I sit. “This kind of spell... I’ve heard of spells like it. This kind of free travel through the planes... no one has done it for centuries and centuries. We don’t even have a language for it.” The fire spits and crackles as entire cosmos dilate into being and collapse in the sky above us.
The old man smiles such that his eyes are almost closed behind rimmed spectacles. “I believe you are catching on!”
“Who are you?” I ask, perhaps belatedly.
“Oh! Fiero Gaspucci. Tea?”
I am amazed. “Fiero Gaspucci, Supreme Magus of the Council of Seven? The man who opened the Path of the Wanderer and spoke with the Artifactor?” I accept the small, handleless cup he offers me. The tea steams.
Gaspucci nods. “Well, whether it was the Artifactor or some trumped up divinity trying to pass itself off as the Artifactor has never been clear to me. Talk about unstable!” He slaps his knee. “Took me near a millenium to perfect Opening the Path.”
“But that’s impossible.” Of course, all of this is impossible.
“Oh, I spent most of it here. Things are strange here.” He surveys the surroundings, as if for the first time. “Time moves... well, it’s different. Do please drink your tea.”
The sip I take is heavenly. I have trouble restraining myself and, in the offing, only manage to keep myself from gulping it all in one swallow by stopping to speak, “Do you know that a very frightening creature wants me to recover your kettle? I feel as though I can share this with you, under the circumstances.”
“I hope you feel you can share anything with me, Gabriel. The Verian,” he sighs. “You be very careful with him. He is more dangerous than you know.”
“I am well versed in his danger, methinks.”
“Good!” He rises. “Good tea, eh? Listen, it was good to meet you. I fear you have to go, now.”
I feel the world slipping around me, disaggregating into nothing. At the same time, I am becoming rapidly aware of a nasty scuffle behind me. Somehow, neither seems real. “Well, this has been very strange. Good-bye, I suppose.”
The old man waves to me. “Force provokes force, Gabriel. Always”
Aggomar the Wolf screams as he is bitten in half.
Tellus shouts, “This Fenwrick is going to kill us! Kill us right now!”
I shake my head. The handle of the kettle is still in hand, cold and inert. The night outside has taken a kind of sincere clarity, as if I am only now seeing it for the first time. Or perhaps just beginning to understand it. I see a ripple of water on the ocean where a small guide boat bobs in the brine. I imagine the man who might be sleeping in the cabin, probably with a cat or two nestled against his cheeks. It is a simple life, light on intrigue and danger, and probably heavy on strong wine. A life I could have lived, or one very much like it, if I had only been able to see the future. I would have run as fast as I could away from this farce I am living now, this pastiche of degeneration and crime.
“Duck, Tellus.” I say, eyes still on the sea. The old man was right about force: it doesn’t simply leave the world, it generates more force. Often in the opposite direction.
A fenwrick is terrible in it’s simplicity. Two arms, one long, serpentine body of shining orange, and a double set of jaws lined with razor sharp teeth. It lives to eat the flesh of the living in one set of jaws and chew the less tangible parts that try to escape afterward with a second set. No one knows where they originate, or who is responsible for dragging them out of that place and into this one. I suspect that if I ever met that man, I would kick him in the balls.
The fenwrick is slapping its tongues against its lips, blood and human waste brimming its mouth. It has no eyes, but doesn’t need them: it is sensitive to our vitality. It slithers closer. For this moment, I have selected a Gullor phrase wrapped in Berendi, the magical equivalent of a cannon blast wrapped in hammer blows. It is too much for a man to handle, without a skinful of droquen, but only just enough to upset a fenwrick. I say words that sound like breaking bones and point at the writhing creature. When the spell strikes, it flings the fenwrick backward, so that it spins in the air and thrashes. It’s most satisfying to watch.
“Stay down!” I yell and crouch as well. At its velocity, and given its constitution, the fenwrick would blow through anything in its path. Well, almost anything. Tightly contained, heavily charged bands of force are the exception. The Fenwrick slams into the door and is immediately sent rocketing back over our heads and through the far wall.
“Run away!” I scream, hoping that I sound exactly as afraid as I am. Tellus does not need a second invitation. We pass through the ruin of the shop, splinters and cuts forgotten as our boots crunch into the street. There are lights on in some of the high windows now and I hear the hand-cranked klaxon of the Brigade as the watchmen call to their comrades. I feel as though I am running in a dream, as though my feet won’t touch the ground.
Did I say dream? I am sure I meant nightmare.
We run and run, dodging behind buildings and leaping over fences, away from the Sailor’s Gate and toward the center of the city, finding our way by instinct. All the while, I trail my friend with a teakettle in my hand, praying to a deity that has abandoned us that just this once, we will be lucky.
Somewhere on the horizon, the sun appears, bringing morning.
I have rarely seen the Verian so overjoyed. The sight will haunt me from this life to the next. His payment included a dram of droquen, handed to me in secret by one of his blue goblins. I want to weep with joy when I realize what it is. There are also several purses of good, honest coin, half of which I give to Tellus to pay my creditors, Viola and the rent on my small apartment in Nuckbo. I will be returning there shortly, and would very much like to find my bed where I left it. Tellus smiles one of those genuine smiles at me as we leave the warehouse.
“This is new,” bouncing my coin in his hand.
“Yes, well, let’s not make a habit of it.” I thrust my hands in my pockets as nod to him as we part ways.
The morning is cool and bright, a summer day waking around me. The path to Nuckbo is quiet as it trails through the city. No one is travelling my way at this hour. I am at ease, the ecstasy of the last vial now a quiet elation simmering at the back of my skull. I am ready to relinquish the night’s events to the land of Things That Ended Well, and forget them. But I am dogged by one implacable question. The Old Man, who was dead and called himself Fiero Gaspucci and who couldn’t possibly be , knew my name. He told me that someone had given it to him. That she had given it to him. I have no idea who she might be, but I am certain that anyone who speaks with delusional ghosts means trouble for me.
Distractedly, I fumble for the dram in my jacket. Troubles, it seems, are my lot in life. Luckily, I have a remedy for that.