Friday, June 8, 2018

Life, Resumed

            Nascine had not been there when they took Tarson to Hexley Prison. She was fine with that. Once she and Tartin had gotten the Rookery to come and retrieve him, she was glad not to see his face again. After a long debriefing over the course of several days, Tartin informed her that the higher-ups were satisfied with her statements and would simply need her to eventually confirm them at an eventual criminal trial – something that could be years away.
            The most surreal moment was when she was invited to the palace. The Royal Palace was a familiar sight – it stood across the square from the Rookery, after all – but she had never been inside before. She supposed the mystery and majesty of it ought to have faded since she met the queen in her own flat at the beginning of all of this madness, but for whatever reason, looking upon it filled her with a kind of anxiety.
            This was no public ceremony, and indeed there had been some constraints placed on the press to protect Nascine’s privacy. (Retrein did not have total freedom of the press, but the government generally exercised its ability to intervene only to protect the reputations of its noble houses.) Still, the story itself could not avoid breaking out. Once the Wolfsmouth Record used the term “The House,” the existence of the organization very suddenly transformed from the scoff-worthy purview of tabloids to a topic of serious and genuine public discourse.
            Nascine arrived at the palace two weeks after she had captured the House agent. She was dressed in ceremonial uniform – soft black shoes, black pants, a leather jerkin (naturally dyed black), a pair of silver daggers sheathed on her belt, a black mask covering her mouth and nose, and most ostentatiously, a cloak sewn of raven feathers. She had spent nearly half an hour staring at herself in the mirror before she entered the palace, awed by the figure she saw within it and thoroughly convinced it was someone else who was looking back at her.
            Tartin was dressed similarly, though in addition to his daggers he had a golden skeleton key sewn into his chestpiece, to denote his rank.
            When she approached the throne, she knelt. Queen Elona then stepped forth and bade her to rise. Here, the surreal quality of the event was compounded. Last Nascine had seen Elona, the queen was in a simple hooded sweatshirt and sneakers. She had looked young then, perhaps even younger than Nascine. Now, Elona stepped forward in her slate-grey robes and gown, a veil over her face and her iron crown – so thin that a foreigner might mistake it for a circlet, except for the subtle crenellations patterned with wolves, ravens, and trees that rose above its rim.
            Nascine had felt a chill run down her spine when in the presence of the queen. The woman had been alive for thousands of years, and now, with all the symbols of her sovereignty around her, Nascine could not help but feel a sense of awe. She supposed that was the point.
            And that night, she was back in her own bed, sipping a cup of tea and reading a thrilling and well-written but not terribly provocative novel. She attempted to watch television, but before she had even turned the set on, she lost interest.
            The next week, she decided to move.
            So, three weeks after she captured the agent they were now calling “James Tarson” for lack of a better name, Emily settled into her new flat in Hagabie Lane. It took nearly another month for her to get to a point where she could imagine the flat without any moving boxes still sitting there, unopened or only partially unpacked. She had been using one box with numerous books she doubted she would ever read as something of a nightstand, but now, in a burst of inspired productivity, she had emptied it and with a good, purposeful march, had taken the flattened cardboard out to the recycling bin that stood by the street.
            Her flat was in a reasonably nice part of Ravenfort, a neighborhood called Dalton, which was down the cliffs from Exbrooke. At first that had seemed too close to the safehouse where she had caught the man they were informally calling James Tarson, but after a week she had gotten used to it. Cities were odd that way – so dense as to make two miles seem like a vast expanse of distance.
            And she had been seeing someone. Actually, this was attempt number two at that whole “dating” thing. The first had been a man named Chris, a perfectly pleasant bloke whom she had met at the local pub’s weekly quiz night. She had liked him well enough, but every time she said his name it reminded her of Chris Thatch, and the paranoia crept back in.
            Thievery was a strange profession. She had gone into the business for adventure, and indeed her early years largely involved delving into uninhabited ruins and meeting people across the world, but now everything had transformed into this miasma of cloaks and daggers. Every new person she met now, and frankly even the people she had already known, she now realized she would have to surreptitiously vet. Chris (not Thatch, but rather Brennings) had not tripped any alarms, but in a weaker moment she had actually walked halfway to his office to surveil him before considering that, technically, that might just be stalking.
            After two dates, she had called it off – for his sake, she told herself.
            Officially, Tartin was assisting the investigation, though he told her that what this seemed to amount to was the periodic office visit from one of the actual investigators to ask him a few yes/no questions to clarify the narrative they had been able to construct. He was spending most of his time instead doing his typical work, and was more excited about a group of new Rookery thieves preparing for an expedition into Sardok to hunt for relics like a good thief ought to. The investigation was fairly compartmentalized, and so Tartin was happy not to have to spend too much of his time reliving the events.
            Nascine was practically on vacation. She only had to check in at the Rookery about once a week, and spent much of her time reading prospective reports on new acquisitions targets – none of them, thankfully, people. She felt particularly odd about her medal after what had happened with Jaroka.
            She had not yet come up with a place to put it. It seemed odd to display it. Most intelligence officers did not display medals, nor were they even typically allowed to keep them. But Nascine’s position was a somewhat blurry territory, and certainly some of Retrein’s great thieves had lived lives of baroque extravagance following their famous scores, with the full encouragement of the culture as a whole.
            Nascine did not feel she ranked that high. The medal was strange. Yes, she had done something unprecedented, capturing an enemy agent and exposing a major threat to the nation’s security. On paper, she could not be anything but a hero.
            But Nascine felt she had simply bumbled into it. She hadn’t gone to the safehouse looking for anything other than a place to escape the House and think about her next moves. It had been luck that put them all there at the same time. If medals were awarded for luck, she didn’t know what they represented.
            For now, at least until the trial, her role in the affair was over, and that was a cause for relief. Tartin didn’t seem too troubled by it either, not that they had spoken much about it.
            They had not had many opportunities to speak. Adult friendships, even with co-workers, were sporadic in nature. When they did speak, Tartin affected a chipper attitude, claiming to be happy to focus on bright new thieves, though Nascine had known him long enough that she could tell he was anxious to see the investigation into the House reach some conclusions. At least they had Tarson in custody over at Hexley Prison. That meant he wasn’t going anywhere.
            So Nascine attempted to just live as if things were normal. She tried to relax, and so far, there was nothing for her to complain about.
            And there was the new guy. Moses Sanborn. He was Narcian, though he’d moved to Retrein when he was still a child. They had been on three dates now, and while he had been in the apartment already, she now felt like he might be able to stay for a more formal visit.
            It had been warm, lately, but any real Ravenforter would know to wear a light jacket at least and bring an umbrella even when there was a clear blue sky. Like clockwork, as Nascine left her building to go to the local grocer’s, there was a pitter patter of rain – not much more than a drizzle, but it paid to be cautious.
            Nascine walked three blocks to the grocer’s, passing over a small bridge under which the little stream called the Cheldley, which fed into the much larger Lockey, began to swell at the mild precipitation.
            She smiled as she saw a young couple guiding their daughter along the sidewalk. The girl looked as if she had only been walking a few months, and was clearly finding it rather difficult to circumnavigate the puddles that had begun to form (or more likely were left over from the previous night’s storm.)
            She wondered if House Agents had children.
            She supposed some must. She wondered who “James Tarson” truly was. Surely under all of those lies and false identities there had been a boy who was born and grew through all of his adolescent years to become the adult man. The cute girl on the sidewalk was the very image of innocence, and yet twenty, thirty years from now she would be an adult, not entitled to that special adoration that strangers give freely.
            This girl would become some woman. She might be nice and friendly and kind, or perhaps she would be cruel and arrogant and abusive. Every monster was once a little child.
            She had liked Tarson well enough when they were working with one another. He wasn’t all that much younger than she was, but she felt as if she could have mentored him. But that person had never existed. It was dissonant – her memories of this person who could have become an old friend in a few years’ time, even a boyfriend or husband, contrasted with her new knowledge that he had been lying to her from the moment she first saw him.
            When she walked into the store she realized she had not thought of what she wanted to purchase. There were her usual staples – cod for grilling, some ready-made meals for when she was feeling lazy, salad-fixings, and a bit of chocolate as a treat. Moses had told her he was going to teach her how to make Tibs, a traditional southern Narcian dish, so she was careful not to purchase too many things.
            When she reached for a little package of chocolate (the kind with orange jelly at the center) a woman bumped into her.
            “I’m so sorry, I must be blind,” said the woman, who was now bending down to gather her dropped groceries. A carton of milk had burst and was now spilling out onto the floor. “Shit, sorry, watch your shoes.”
            Nascine bent down, nearly bumping her head into the shelf as she did so, and began to help the woman gather her things. The woman looked Arizi, perhaps of mixed descent, and she had a rather conventional Retron accent. She seemed perhaps a little older than Nascine, though she could not tell quite how much.
            “Oh, you don’t have to do that,” said the woman. “My fault entirely.”
            “Not at all,” said Nascine, and picked up two cans of chicken broth and began to hand the cans to her when she saw the woman’s hand dart into her purse.
            Nascine reeled back, rolling back across the floor and jumping up into a standing position, readying to kick at the woman’s hand before it could grab the gun in the bag.
            And then the woman froze, her hand clasped around her wallet. The other shoppers receded suddenly, one of them audibly gasping. The Arizi woman slowly put her hands up, and Nascine felt every nerve in her body jangling with energy.
            “Is… are you… is everything?” the woman sputtered.
            Nascine looked around. No, this was not some ambush by the House in retribution for her actions. This was a random woman who probably just wanted to make sure that her wallet had not fallen out of her purse after dropping her groceries.
            Nascine’s muscles had yet to relax, and she felt very much like the moment after a nightmare in which the awakened must gradually remember which elements of their dream had been real and which had been imagined.
            Real: she was in a grocery store, and she had seen the woman’s hand dart into her bag.
            Imagined: the deadly weapon in that bag that could have spelled sudden death.
            After what felt like an hour standing perfectly still in the aisle, Nascine finally felt she could move. She walked out of the store, dimly aware of the gawking stares of the other shoppers. It would only occur to her once she had gotten home that she had left the food she had meant to purchase in her basket on the floor.
            She could barely get the key into its hole when she got back to her flat. The tight lock of her muscles had given way to uncontrollable shakes. The adrenaline was draining out of her system.
            So she sat in the comfortable chair in her living room and sat staring at the wall while she attempted to recover from the experience in the least productive way imaginable, namely playing it over and over in her mind, trying and failing to justify that she had acted perfectly rationally.
            She knew that people could get treatment for this. Indeed, she knew that this was probably some form of post-traumatic stress condition, though that felt odd. She knew of people that had really experienced true stress – soldiers and victims of catastrophic accidents and that sort of thing. All she had been through was…
            A clandestine organization with agents across the world had tried to kill her, then tried to manipulate her, then had once again tried to kill her right after she had discovered the frozen and disfigured corpse of a fellow thief.
            When she thought of it this way, it did not seem so absurd to say she might benefit from some professional help.
            The phone rang. Nascine considered very seriously not answering it. She eventually overcame this urge and picked up.
            “Emily.” It was Tartin.
            “Gil, how are you?” She wondered how well she was affecting the sort of calm nonchalance that any normal person would have after going to the grocery store.
            “We’ve got a really big problem.”

            She knew things had not been going smoothly, but that had to be normal when investigating the House.
            “Emily, I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear right now, but I have a special order to bring you onto the Tarson investigation. You’re the one who knows him best.”
            She had hoped never to see him again. It was easiest to think of him as never having existed. She felt her heart begin to race. She was sure he was a tough nut to crack, and surely the Rookery wanted every potential angle to get into his mind. She began to think of how she might approach Tarson: was she a friend? A rival? A lifeline? She was not very experienced in interrogation, but maybe she would have some luck.
            It would mean cancelling with Moses.
            “All right. So Hexley tomorrow morning?” Gods, what a long slog that’ll be bright and early.
            “No,” said Tartin. The word felt like a brick wall she had just run into. “Not Hexley.”
            “Why, where is he being held now?”
            “Mm. I can’t say. On the phone.”
            She heard the period in his voice. He couldn’t say. Tarson was missing.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Castle of Dusk Revisited

         Mraxinar did not sleep. For the comfort of the people of Port O’James, he confined himself, along with the surviving members of his entourage, to a hotel room. He knew that mortals had a deep and instinctive aversion to skeletal forms, not to mention a rather practical (from an evolutionary perspective) tendency to experience fear at a greater intensity at night. Death was something to be kept warded away, secluded in cemeteries, where bodies were buried or burned to hide them from the living. There was, of course, the terror at seeing loved ones reduced from animate, living beings to shriveled ruins or unrecognizable ash – an emotional threat. But there was, of course, also the practical threat – a dead body could no longer defend itself as microorganisms consumed it, bacteria multiplying and producing not only unpleasant olfactory phenomena but also genuine danger in the form of infection.
         The sun would not rise for several hours, but this far north, the glow of the pre-dawn twilight was already beginning to illuminate the streets, dimming the stars by comparison. Mraxinar noted that even this early there were people moving about – there was a man on the street below walking briskly in a jacket that seemed too thin for what was sure to be below-freezing temperatures outside. The man was holding his arms around his chest. Mraxinar pitied him, theorizing that the man was a vagrant – not something he believed common in the North East Colony, but he had heard of such people in some human countries.
         Magic required imagination to take form. Undeath, the state of once-living material brought back to an animate state, was presumably born from nightmare – that these things that were dead could become an active and deliberate threat rather than simply an object that needed to be dealt with.
         And now he followed, with fascination, the story of Ana Sweeney, a woman who had only recently discovered herself to be undead, as she navigated the delicate challenges of reintegrating herself into the society to which she had previously belonged. Yet Ana was far from the kind of rotting corpse the humans feared. Her body was mostly still functional, still capable of fighting off disease and infection. Hers was not a shambling gait, and her odors were rather ordinary for a living human woman of roughly a quarter century in age. Her brain was the only thing one could call lifeless, but the magic that had reanimated her body had allowed her spirit – the ethereal and fundamentally mysterious mechanism of experience – to assume direct control over her functions. That mind, Mraxinar speculated, might one day grow beyond the limits that had been imposed on it by the physical structure of her brain, but such a development, if it ever happened, was likely not to occur for a great long time, and for now, the mind that had taken the form of a human brain would continue to function very much like one, even in its maturation past the death of the physical brain, calling into question the very abnormality of this woman’s nature. She certainly looked and acted normal.
         Mraxinar had never looked like an ordinary human being. Presumably the previous owner of his skull had, at one time. A thousand years earlier, there was, evidently, a man roughly in his forties who died and left bones behind. And later, the Bone King, in his vast and broad power, would make use of these remains and others to construct a being called Mraxinar. This individual, this bone construct, felt only a distant connection to that man. In truth, the way he saw it was that he and that long-dead man shared as much as a human who ate a piece of beef shared with the cow, or even the other humans whose bodies had fed the grass that had fed the cow that had, in turn, fed the beef-eating human. It was the same physical matter, but not the individuality. Having no illusions of being some human soul placed in a different body, Mraxinar saw himself as kin to the golems of the Redlands – beings of stone and metal and glass who had, long ago, been imbued with minds and animation and set about on their journeys.
         The man who had been walking down the street stopped not far from the hotel. Mraxinar gazed down, vaguely concerned that he might give the poor fellow a fright if the vagrant were to look up at the window and see a skull with deep blue flames for eyes staring back at him from above. Mraxinar decided it would be best to step away from the window just in case.
         In his idle times, such as these window-gazing times, he contemplated the crimes his creator had committed in order to build the nation called the Wastes. In a thousand years the Bone King had not extended that destruction elsewhere, and as an envoy of his sovereign creator, Mraxinar was convinced of the Bone King’s earnest good intention. But he also knew that the mortals had every reason to distrust. A nation had died to create the material for Mraxinar and his kin to exist. Mraxinar had not taken part in that monstrous deed, but he owed to it his existence. It was a question of philosophy to what degree that made him complicit, though Mraxinar had long ago concluded that whatever guilt he might share, there was no action he could take to make up for it, except to do what he could to assist humanity in whatever capacity he possessed.
         Now he found himself here in northern Elderland, the very place that the Bone King, when he was a mortal man known initially as Natano Gordenni, the respected doctor, and later as Mogra Thesh, the reviled necromancer, had gone to learn his arts. Gordenni had, of course, learned of this land by studying the autobiography of Paul Airbright, who had briefly been allowed to publish from prison only for his books to be seized in an extremely rare case of Narcian censorship. Gordenni had been forced to twist some arms and bribe some law enforcement officers in order to secure a copy, succeeding presumably only because Narcia was in the midst of its tragic Brothers’ War at the time the “good doctor” had decided to pursue this line of research.
         “Mogra Thesh” had come to these lands before there was a Northeast Colony. The colony was founded by Sardok exiles during the fascist period, which came hundreds of years later. So when he landed on the shores, most likely in the Northwest, across the continent from the future site of the Colony, there were only abandoned villages from some long-since vanished civilization. The mountains formed a barrier that protected the nation of Fealdoraga to the south, and so the man who would eventually come to be known as the Bone King must have seen no one but perhaps the occasional Redlander or Feal fisherman before pressing into a forest populated solely by the undead.
         There was a power in the forest. They called it the Dusk Forest because the light never seemed to shine bright there. After weeks of travel through dense foliage, one came to the Thanatos Trees. Hard as rock and seemingly lifeless, the Thanatos Trees were grey and menacing. And mortals who strayed beyond them were almost never heard from again.
         But Mogra Thesh was heard from. And that was because he had done his research. He knew of the one who held sway over those forests. A being called Hazhed-Funir. The Ice Lord.

         The Castle of Dusk:

         Mogra Thesh was forced to walk into the Dusk Forest – the horses refused to enter the woods, and he could see why. The trees grew extremely close to each other, sometimes forcing him to step up and squeeze between them. Even though it was noon, the sky was dark, almost as night, and a low, painful, howling wind blew. The trees were either dead, or they had learned to feign death lest someone notice them.
         There seemed to be no color in the forest except for the patterns in his thick traveling robe or the horse blood on his hands. He had slit the horses’ throats when they refused to enter, and smeared the blood in sweeping glyphs on the Thanatos Trees – those eerie sentinels that marked the beginning of the Dusk Forest.
         An offering was required to enter the forest, but it was only the first toll of many. As soon as he had passed into the forest, he felt the eyes around him. He feared a torch would give the lord of the castle offense, and so he walked in the dark. Yet he was a learned man of Spire, and darkness was easily remedied. He cast a spell on his own eyes, and now they glowed green. The world around him had been monochrome before, and that it remained, but everything seemed illuminated once again. The dark figures that he had thought were only barely near enough to see now appeared immediately on his left and right, mere feet away.
         Thesh kept his pace, terrified but also excited. He gripped his staff, using it to steady himself as he climbed over another enormous root - or perhaps it was a rock. His hand began to ache, and he realized he had been gripping the staff so tightly that he had cut off much of the circulation.
         The dead eyes surveyed him, the bones now audibly clicking with each step. How quiet they had been! Yet now, knowing they were there, he felt as if there was a cacophony of bending sinew and grinding bone as the dead walked around him. He could not deny his fear now, but still he pressed on.
         It may have been night when he arrived at the castle, but it had been so dark during the day that he hardly noticed a difference. The castle seemed more like a ruin than a stronghold, half-buried, with a deep slope leading down toward the small iron gate that led within. He had studied every reference to it he could find in Spire’s libraries. Much of the castle was beneath the rocky hill that rose beside it. A nearly frozen stream flowed by the castle, hardly two feet across. The trees seemed to fall away, averting their gazes.
         Thesh might have felt disappointed had he not done his research. This was no dark tower, rising into the heavens, projecting terror across the land. Yet altogether it was more sinister than that. Truly, the castle was dead, as was the forest, and the very earth itself.
         As he approached, the gates creaked open, the dark and cavernous pit allowing him entry. He walked down into the castle, taking care not to allow his thoughts to linger on the bones that crunched under foot. He allowed the spell to fade from his eyes, for there was not a speck of light to amplify. He was blind.
         And yet, ahead, after several minutes walking very slowly through the tunnel, he finally spotted an orange flame. A torch – the Ice Lord had allowed him a torch! This boded well, but still, Thesh would not allow himself to feel relieved. The Ice Lord had him in his grasp, and this gift of light was no guarantee of safety.
         He climbed a spiral staircase. He was inside the hill now, of that he was sure. When he emerged in the castle court, what would have been an open yard in an ordinary castle but here had a ceiling of stone, he saw a hundred sets of glowing blue eyes staring back at him. As he approached, the dead receded from the light of the torch. In front of him, the double-door into the Great Hall opened. Here, he saw that two torches burned, and at the end of the table the Ice Lord sat.
         As Mogra Thesh walked in, he glanced behind him. He could see two enormous dead servants closing the door through which he had passed. They did not like the light, it seemed.
         The Ice Lord sat at his table. A dish of rare, delicious looking venison and a golden goblet full of wine sat at the place next to him. A chair had been placed there as well.
         “Sit, Bone King,” said the Ice Lord. Thesh did not think the Ice Lord could be referring to anyone else, so he sat. “Eat. Know that this meat is the flesh of the dead. So do you eat it and so you are dead as well. Drink. Know that alcohol is poison. So do you drink it and so your blood runs with poison.”
         The Ice Lord was ancient, a pale human-like form, gaunt and severe. Yet he sat upright, clad in ceremonial armor, all patterned to appear as if it were bone. Ice coated the armor. Before him, on the table, sat his helmet – a great steel skull, also covered in rime. To his side was an enormous executioner’s axe.
         “What is it you called me?” asked Mogra Thesh.
         “I called you by your true name. For when time has washed away all memory of Mogra Thesh, only bones will remain.” Thesh clung to each word like scripture. He looked into the Ice Lord’s eyes. They were grey and clouded, yet he was sure the being before him could see.
         “I have commanded you to eat, Bone King. This is my lesson.” Thesh did. As he bit into the meat, its juices running down his throat, it dawned on him that he had not eaten since before he had crossed the Thanatos Trees. He tore at it with his teeth, ripping it from the bone. When the meat was gone, he lapped at his plate like a dog, and he drained the goblet in one go.
         “You gave me blood to enter my house, Bone King, for blood is what you had. Look now, do you see blood?” Thesh looked down. No, he had licked all the blood clean.
         “Blood is fickle, and blood magic is fleeting. The rains wash the blood away, and the blood dries and flakes and scatters like so much dust. Blood will desert you when the fire comes.”
         These last words sent a jolt to Thesh’s heart. He shuddered and coughed slightly. The Ice Lord pointed to Thesh’s plate. “See what is left, what your hunger has left to time.”
         All that remained on the plate was a flat piece of bone.
         “Bone,” said Mogra Thesh.
         “Bone,” said the Ice Lord.
         Thus began the education of Mogra Thesh, Bone King of the Wastes.

         The memory of his first meeting with Hazhed-Funir was one that the Bone King had shared with Mraxinar before the envoy was sent to this town. There were other envoys, one sent to Port Sang and others sent to each of the major cities of the N.E.C.
         The Bone King had always been honest with them about what he had done in life. Even after living far longer than a human would, Mraxinar had never been able to determine if the Bone King’s honesty was his way of expressing regret. The Bone King had, of course, once been a human being, unlike Mraxinar or his kin. Mraxinar wondered if death and the expansion of his mind to encompass an entire nation had given the Bone King the perspective to see how heinous his actions had been.
         But as he contemplated his current position, Mraxinar now wondered if perhaps the Bone King had given them only what information would be needed to deal with the threat.
         He had not been authorized to tell the humans the nature of the god that inhabited the central forests of the continent, or that he knew the way in. Yet as Mraxinar played the memories over in his head – not mere information, but a perceived experience that Mraxinar could recall as if it were his own memory – he began to wonder if perhaps the story given to him by the Bone King was itself a call to action.
         He had been sent with the explicit directive to help the humans of Port O’James defend themselves against the undead menace, and that seemed straightforward enough at the time. But as Mraxinar had discovered the truth about Ana Sweeney, shocked just as much as any of the living to find out (well, except perhaps he was not as shocked as Ana herself,) it sparked a new concern – that perhaps everyone had had it wrong. Perhaps he had been given that memory merely to show how far things had changed from their natural state.
         Xirrik, one of his entourage, was pieced together to look more like a conventional human skeleton, though the bones had been warped and stretched to be larger than they had been in life, reinforced with metal, and placed within a suit of armor. He stood motionless, as did Gersic, the one built from primarily bovine bones. They did not breath, nor did they have blood to pulse through them, and so involuntary movement was far subtler amongst their kind.
         “What are you thinking about, Mraxinar?” asked Gersic.
         “The Ice Lord.”
         Gersic’s two bull skulls nodded. “He occupies a unique position in the humans’ culture. They barely remember him, but the shadow over the forests to the west looms large in the collective unconscious of their society.” Mraxinar wondered if Gersic’s lack of human bones made him a less threatening presence for the humans. He had spoken with many within the community during their time there.
         “He presses them with these incursions. They are worried about a sudden invasion,” said Xirrik, who, being a guard, always seemed to think in terms of combat.
         “An observation,” offered Mraxinar. “We all hear the voice of the Bone King – the rhythm that binds us to him.”
         Indeed, they all paused for a moment, and the soothing voice throbbed through their thoughts:
         I am with you. I am with you.
         The thought had been a constant for each of them since they were first created, the Bone King’s silent voice chanting this mantra of stability.
         “The Ice Lord was the one who taught our sovereign the great secrets of necromancy. The Rhythm of Will is one of those secrets. We know that the Ice Lord had his own.”
         “’To him,’ as I recall,” said Gersic. “Simple and effective, but one could hardly expect less from a god.”
         “Listen for it – the Ice Lord’s,” said Mraxinar. And once again they all grew quiet. If any had had eyelids, they surely would have closed them.
         “Nothing,” said Gersic, his voice betraying his astonishment. “Perhaps it does not reach this far?”
         Mraxinar shook his head. “Our own sovereign reaches us here. I would be shocked if Hazhed-Funir’s Rhythm does not reach every point on this planet.”
         “Then we are not attuned to it. We already have our sovereign’s Rhythm. Perhaps that is why we are unable to hear…”
         “What was that?” asked Xirrik. “I think I heard it. Or… no…”
         “You hear the Ice Lord?” asked Mraxinar.
         “No. It’s the wrong Rhythm,” he replied.
         “What do you hear?”
         “’We are one…’ but it’s strange. I think there’s more to it, but it doesn’t sound like words. It is hard to explain.”
         Mraxinar listened. He could not pick up anything. He glanced out the window. The vagrant he had seen down below was no longer there. It was a detail that in retrospect, he would regret having ignored.
         “’We are one’ is a perfectly decent phrase for a Rhythm. A bit hive-mindish if you ask me,” said Gersic. “But I suspect the Ice Lord has never quite shared our sovereign’s respect for individuality.”
         “It’s not just ‘We are one,’ though,” said Xirrik. “And it’s… it’s very odd.”
         “Odd?” said Gersic.
         “Disturbing, actually, like the words don’t even form properly. It is like the idea of an idea, without any word or voice to communicate it.”
         Gersic gave a gesture, rocking his heads back and forth, which Mraxinar had long ago come to associate with a kind of frustrated dismissal. Indeed, Gersic had always dismissed what he deemed Xirrik’s paranoia. What had been a fun intellectual exercise had now been dragged into dour threat analysis.
         Xirrik held up a hand. “Wait, I… I think I can hear more of it. Like it’s getting louder.”
         “Why would it be getting louder?” asked Gersic, though Mraxinar could tell from his tone of voice that Gersic was now interested in moving onto a different subject.
         Mraxinar took a step toward Xirrik. It was highly unlikely that hearing some other necromancer’s Rhythm could override their sovereign’s, but the Ice Lord was not your typical necromancer. Mraxinar began to wonder if it would be best if they stopped all this experimentation.
         “It is getting louder. ‘We are one… in…’ Ok, let me see if I’ve got it. ‘We are one in the… machine?’ ‘We are one in the machine,’ isn’t that what those odd mortals from that Machinist sect are always chanting?”
         There was a knock at the door. Mraxinar surprised himself with how relieved he was to see Xirrik distracted from this subject. Xirrik looked up. “Yes, who is it?”
         There was no answer, except that there was soon another knock. Xirrik looked up to Mraxinar, questioningly.
         “How can I help you?” asked Xirrik, not yet moving to open the door. The entourage had not experienced any direct violence after the bombing of their ship shortly after they had arrived. But that event had encouraged caution.
         “Mayor’s office. You’ll want to come with me,” said the voice on the other side of the door. It was an odd voice, low and… Mraxinar detected something that almost sounded like gurgling.
         “Bit early for that,” said Gersic. “But I suppose duty calls. Very well, Xirrik, if you’d get the door?”
         Mraxinar listened again. He heard the Rhythm. It was coming loudly from just behind the door.
         (We are one in the machine.)
         Mraxinar put up a hand. “Wait, Xirrik, don’t-“ but Xirrik had already opened the door.
         Mraxinar immediately recognized the man standing there. It had been the one in the thin jacket down on the street. Now he looked at him – the man’s skin had grown a sickly grey, and dark fluid dripped from his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The fluid looked something like petroleum oil, a substance the Bone King had produced to fuel the industries of the Waste.
         And the man had a vest rigged with explosives.
         There was no time to react. Xirrik stared at the man in confusion, and Gersic was still cheerfully trotting toward the door when the man detonated his vest.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2018)

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A New Pantheon

            We’re still figuring it out ourselves.”
            Jack Milton, who had been going under the name Jack Cart for a good while now, found himself walking down the hallway of his childhood home, back in Eliot, a suburb of Entraht, the capital of Narcia. Their house was nice, though perhaps not any nicer than the average Narcian home. There were three stories and the only eccentricity to the architecture was a small room that rose above the third floor with large windows that allowed for a relatively unimpeded view of the night sky. Of course, being so close to the capital meant there was a fair amount of light pollution, so only the brightest stars in each constellation were visible and the Path of Aeoes was so faint you could never be sure if you were not merely imagining it.
            The area got winters with some snow, but as he walked through the house, he could not reconcile the powdered street outside with the humid summer heat he felt indoors. Oddly, it was not this discrepancy that convinced him he was dreaming. It was instead the fact that Tessa was standing next to him.
            Jack had two sisters, both younger. Gwen was only two years his junior, and he had always thought of her as one of his best friends. She was artistic in a way he always admired and envied, and lived in Omlos, working in independent film. The youngest Milton kid was Sandy, who had gone straight from college to law school and had somehow beaten both of her older siblings to settling down with a spouse and was a year away from starting her own law firm. Sandy had always been far more competitive than her older siblings, which bred not exactly animosity, but a slightly greater distance than any of them would prefer. Jack and Gwen were a unit, of sorts, and while Jack had only the faintest memories of Gwen as a bump in his mother’s belly, the two of them had had four years together before Sandy came along to be this strange entity: a third Milton kid.
            They walked past Sandy’s room and Jack had a moment of dissonant emotion: he saw Sandy, not the ambitious young woman in her mid twenties with a wife and house and a future all kicked into high gear, but the little eight-year-old who used to draw pictures of spaceships and cute aliens.
            “Am I ever going to be able to show this to you?” he asked Tessa.
            “Do you want to?”
            “I think I do. Is that insane?”
            Tessa shrugged. “You should probably talk to me about it when you wake up.” There it was: that was just his own words coming from her mouth. He felt the frustration of having accomplished something only to realize it was merely in his imagination that he had done so.
            Play-acting as a couple with Tessa had been an odd experience. Staying in Kapla all this time, they had not really talked about it. He was no mind reader, but he suspected his feelings were reciprocated. On the other hand, there was a nagging thought at the back of his mind – Tessa’s role had been, initially, to recruit him. But with the House collapsing all around them, that mission had to be on hold.
            Hadn’t it?
            She had told him how she was recruited – the awful man who had married her mother, the strange gentleness of the man who had killed her stepfather. It was a surreal story, but sounded genuine. Gwen would have called it Jack’s “Knight Complex,” but the story had enhanced his protective instincts toward the agent called Dust. The nagging doubt was whether that had all been by design. Perhaps, Jack thought, it was the design of her superiors, though he could not help but worry that Tessa herself was interested in manipulating him.
            And yet…
            He had torn that faceless man apart. He still did not understand it, but he did feel as if there were something within him that had come online, waking up for the first time. And he had no clue as to what it was.
            He walked with dream-Tessa up the stairs into that observatory at the top of the house. But as they climbed far too many stairs, he realized that they were actually walking down – down, down, down into the Lower Block of Castlebrook Prison. Maybe that was why there was snow outside.
            It was winter when his team came to the ruins of the White Citadel and found the remnants of what seemed to be a battle. There were as many as twenty bodies, some torn apart as if by a huge beast, others sporting burns from some kind of arcane spell effect, but most sporting gunshot wounds from one hell of a powerful firearm.
            When they searched the area, they spotted a blonde woman carrying a sword, standing over the body of an extraordinarily pale man, his wound and the weapon both dripping with colorless grey blood. Jack was the first to spot her, and his hesitation gave her a chance to escape. There was something about the woman that awed him. The best he could ever do to describe it, even to himself, was that he felt as if he had been looking at some kind of religious scene – something that would one day be made into a stained glass window, that artists would strive to portray.
            She ran, and it took another week to finally track her down. When they did, she had been oddly cooperative. Never, even with several enforcement officers holding guns pointed at her, did Jack ever believe she was in any danger – at least not from them.
            She was arrested, awaiting formal charges, but they had a judge grant a special dispensation to have her held in the Lower Block, believing that she was likely a powerful enough arcanist that a mundane holding facility would be unable to contain her.
            And yet, even Castlebrook Prison opened for her like a wet paper bag. The reports said she simply opened her locked door – a door warded with about fifteen layers of magical protection – stepped right past the silver golem who guarded and cared for the prisoners, and walked up the stairs and out the door as if the building were not a prison at all.
            So it was perhaps inaccurate to see her down here, in the Lower Block. But he figured it was forgivable, as that had been the last time he saw her.
            “Commander Milton,” said the woman. “Long time no see.”
            “Jack’s better.”
            “Jack. Ok.” Even in the moment, Jack thought it strange how much their words lacked that typical dreamlike surrealism.
            Tessa walked across the room and sat on the bed. The prison cells in the Lower Block had to be granted some exemptions to the ethical guidelines for incarceration, primarily access to windows and sunlight, not to mention outdoor communal areas for exercise and socialization. Generally, the kinds of creatures they kept in the Lower Block did not miss such things. Still, while subterranean, the cell was rather well-appointed, with elegant landscape paintings in a far more respectable style than you’d expect in a motel. There was even a little fireplace that the more responsible prisoners were allowed to light. Milton recalled the history of the prison, which was that it had been built over a mansion owned by a man named Paul Airbright, whose horrific crimes lost his family this property. Airbright had been the prison’s first prisoner, which was perhaps a little odd in that it was a sort of house arrest.
            Still, Milton reasoned that the cells, particularly here in the Lower Block, were probably part of the original mansion, which could explain the luxurious design.
            “I’m sorry I left,” said the woman. “Well, not sorry that I left. Sorry that I did so without answering your questions.”
            “Too bad you can’t answer them. This being a dream, and all.”           
            “Well, not really.”
            Jack cocked his head to the side. “What do you mean by that?”
            “Well, as I said before, we’re still figuring this all out for ourselves. A dream is just a kind of healthy hallucination, right? Like, your brain interpreting all these random impulses that happen while you sleep? It’s like, the stimulus is just random, but it lets your brain sort things out.”
            “So I’m imagining you so that I can sort out all this stuff about the House and the faceless man and this… thing that I’m becoming?”
            “No, I told you, it’s only partially a dream. You and I are talking.”
            “Right now?”           
            “I mean, I think. Either that or you’re my dream.”
            “I’m talking with you right now?”
            Jack nearly woke up from surprise.
            “Stay calm. Stay loose. I bet it’s way harder to do this if you’re awake.”
            “What are you?” asked Jack, though he had meant to ask “who?” He felt his control drifting, this lucid dream threatening to sink back into an uncontrolled, drifting one.
            “We’re humans.”
            “From where?” he thought about the stories of the Redlanders coming to Sarona-Ki in massive ships from another world – the very ships that his sister Sandy would draw.
            “Boston. I mean, I grew up in L.A., but Sky here grew up just outside Boston.”
            The names meant nothing at first, but then he thought of something. “Is that near New York?”
            The woman smiled. “Yeah. Same country. Closer to Boston than L.A.”
            “So it’s real. New York. Central Park. Those are real places.”
            “Yes, they are real,” said a low, masculine voice. They were not in the Lower Block anymore. Now they were sitting on smooth rocks somewhere in a large desert – presumably the Sarona, though that hardly narrowed it down, given that the Sarona was the size of Asia, though as he thought of the comparison, he also puzzled over the question of just what Asia could be.
            He turned to face the owner of the voice. The man’s age was hard to place – the shape of his face was that of a young man, probably under thirty. But young as he might be, the man was weathered. He was thin – not sickly, but sinewy. He was dark, both in skin and hair, the latter of which had grown into long dreads that were tied back. If this man were less than thirty, it seemed as if he had seen enough for ten men in their 90s. The man’s eyes were a piercing, icy blue, slightly magnified by a pair of round-framed spectacles.
            It was odd, now, looking at the two of them, somehow youthful and yet also primordial. He was more convinced than ever that he was looking at the beginnings of a new pantheon.
            “Why are you contacting me?” asked Jack.
            “Is that what’s happening?” asked the woman. Sky was not looking at him, apparently scanning the horizon, a look of cold pragmatism on his face. “I thought maybe you had contacted us.”
            “I’d never heard of Sky before,” he responded.
            Sky let out a puff of air that might have been a chuckle.
            “I told you, we’re still figuring it out. I’m not sure I’ll even remember this when I wake up.” She then slapped Sky on the shoulder. “Hey, Sky, one of us should mention the dream to the other so that we’ll know it’s real when we wake up.”
            “Ok,” his voice was quiet, as if he had not expected he would need to speak and had thus not given his vocal chords enough air. “Except I’m not asleep right now.”
            “What?” said the woman.
            “I’m on watch right now. Tarra’s resting her head in your lap and Ec’s out hunting. It’s like four in the morning. The sky is getting that faint hint of blue before the sun actually rises. There’s a light rain, pretty cold, but we’re taking shelter under a really big fallen tree.”
            Jack stood back. Around them it was a sun-blasted desert, but he could now smell the faint scent of rain and trees. “Who?”
            “Friends of ours,” said Sky. “Yeah, June, this guy is pretty far away.  Somewhere in Arizradna is what I’m getting. But yeah, he’s real.”
            The woman turned back to him. “You got all that?”
            “I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have, June. You’ll get the hang of it.”
            “And this guy, you think he’s awakening?”
            Now Sky leaned in and looked closely at him. Jack felt his breath grow shallow. Nothing in this experience had dispelled the notion that this woman, or indeed this man, were gods. But as Sky’s piercing gaze fell upon him, he reflected that even the most benevolent gods were capable of terrible deeds.
            “Never seen one of us from Otherworld before. But, you know, first time for everything.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2018)

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Faithful Servant

            It had been too fucking long. Richard Airbright had lost patience and decided that it was now time for him to assess matters directly.
            The whole point of binding such a foul and spiteful creature to his service was that he could hang back and keep a low profile, focusing on the protection of his daughter.
            The RAS could hang for all he cared. Thall had sent his “femme fatale” to provoke Richard, and the latter believed he had been clever in sending his familiar in response. It had been reckless and foolish and it was time for him abort the mission.
            The townhouse was a cobweb of protective wards. He had even consented to instruct Isabelle in the basics of their workings so that she would know if something were amiss.
            Meanwhile, the killings had slowed, but not stopped. Most prominently, Sir Roderick Candel had been slain in something that looked like a botched job – forensics had had a difficult time piecing together the sequence of events from the mangled wreckage of the cab and the two corpses. Only after about a week of investigation did they seem to discover that half the driver’s head had been sheered off by what any halfway decent arcanist could easily identify as a frostfire bolt. There were no runes surrounding the body. Presumably the ritual that Candel would fuel would have been performed post-mortem and the old bastard had attempted self-defense (pity he had been on such a high road at the time.)
            There was an article about some foreign spy being discovered at the Rookery the same day – just another sign of how chaotic things had been lately (he had even seen something about a string of violent incidents in Arizradna, of all places.) He had spent enough time reading newspapers and so he began tweaking his summoning spell.
            Whispering Jim was bound to him: bound to obey, but also bound in the sense that they shared a connection – one that Richard knew would be difficult for even him to break. And so the fact that Jim had not come when called after Richard had tired of what he was beginning to feel would be a fruitless task gave the old warlock pause. Now, days later, Richard had begun toying with the nature of his spells, not yet willing to imagine the nightmare scenario: that Jim had somehow escaped his binding and gone on to sow murder and mayhem across Ravenfort, as was his wont.
            He had invested months in securing Jim as an asset. He imagined this Clara woman had been Thall’s in one night. Despite himself, he had almost enjoyed their verbal sparring session, at least until she saw Isabelle. He was amused at the time that Thall thought a pretty face would set him off balance, and yet that was exactly what she had done, though not with her looks. There was a part of Richard that looked forward to performing violent acts on the young woman for shaking his sense of paternal security. The thought disturbed him, though. She was, after all, not that much older than Isabelle. And violence toward women had always left an especially bitter taste in his mouth - call it sexist if you cared to. After seeing what Thall had done to Chloe after he transformed, the specific and pointed cruelty toward the person who had been kindest and warmest to him, Richard could not help but feel that in even the direst circumstances, a man should reserve some degree of practical mercy for his female enemies.
            He would kill her if he had to. But he would make it quick and easy. Indeed, whenever violence was called for, that was his general policy. But for Clara, he would not allow Whispering Jim to tear her apart like those people at the law office in Wolfsmouth.
            “Dad, do you need help?” Isabelle had come downstairs. She was getting another cup of chamomile, dressed in her pajamas.
            “No, thank you, dear,” he said. The less she was involved in demonic summoning the better. He also doubted that she could understand the complexity of the spells he was performing, given that he barely understood them, so customized and twisted they were.
            “Is it Jim? Is there something wrong?”
            “Nothing, dear. I just need to concentrate.”
            Isabelle watched him as his hands went through the motions. Richard’s beard began to itch. Isabelle took a step forward. “Dad?”
            “Isabelle, give me a moment, please!” he said, catching himself before he could raise his voice.
            “I only think… You’ve got some tangled arc-lines, between your left ring finger and your right thumb.”
            He looked down. Indeed, the configuration of his hands had been in error. He had lowered his right thumb in order to push the range of the spell outward, but that had interrupted a gesture that searched for altered demonic frequencies in the right hand. He corrected his gesture and not only did the magical energy feel more solid, his hands also felt less cramped.
            “Bell, when did you learn about that?”
            “Just watching you for the past few days.”
            Damn, he thought. The child has talent. Now, of course she did. She was an Airbright. But his nonmagical ambitions for her seemed to be gradually disappearing off in the distance.
            And then he felt a tug. It was not that much unlike fishing (or so he imagined, having never gone fishing himself,) and it seemed he had caught a big one. He continued to make the gestures, whispering an incantation to draw on latent energies nearby to boost the signal, as it were.
            “What the hell was that?” Isabelle exclaimed. It had come from upstairs.
            Certainly not Jim. Whispering Jim was, after all, a being made of magical smoke, and did not tend to thump.
            Shit! thought Richard. In all of his experimentation to summon Jim had he inadvertently summoned some other demon? He was not prepared for a binding, and he was not eager to slug it out with some infernal monstrosity in his own living room.
            This time it had come from the neighbor’s house. That did not bode well. Just what in the hell had he summoned? Richard began to think back through the, in retrospect, insane number of rituals he had performed in the last three days, desperately hoping that there was no careless mention of Sadafeth, who had given him nightmares when he was a small child (he had not repeated his father’s mistake of training children in demonology before they had stopped wetting the bed.)
            This one was very close. In fact, it seemed to have come from the front walk.
            “Isabelle, did you lock the door when you came home from school?”
            He glanced back to catch a slow, guilty shrug from his daughter.
            Before he could perform a quick telekinetic snap on the door lock, the door was opening.
            And standing before them was Sweet Clara.
            Before he even knew what he was doing, balls of dark purple flame were forming in his hands. His mind began rattling off which wards would protect against this woman, a woman he had been so sure was a simple, mundane human being, but now…
            “Uh…” said Sweet Clara. “Sorry, this isn’t what it looks like.”
            Richard’s heart was pounding and he could feel his entire body grow hot (not from the nightfire in his hands, which consumed but did not generate heat.) “Tell me one good reason I should not burn you alive right this moment,” he said, immediately wishing that he had told Isabelle to avert her eyes.
            And then Sweet Clara opened her mouth, but it wasn’t her voice that came out. “Because it’s me, master,” said Whispering Jim. And then Sweet Clara (or was it Whispering Jim?) smiled widely and held out both hands as if she had just performed a magic trick. “You rang?”

Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2018