Sunday, December 23, 2012

Six Coins

            “It was you guys who fucked up,” said Four Eyes. His heart was pounding. This was the sort of thing he imagined a lot of people got killed over. This was a major operation. Four Eyes was not stupid. He knew more than he was supposed to know because in the House, that was what kept you from getting into deep shit. He knew Jaroka knew something about the Whites. She may have even known where Mr. Sands had gotten to.
            The House was supposed to be isolated – an Agent was not supposed to know anyone two links up the chain or more, but they must have figured out long ago that in Narcia or its neighbors, where the House was most vulnerable, the official rules had to be bent. Four Eyes recognized that this was not only a license, but an obligation to find out as much as he could about all the big things going down that he could.
            And everyone knew that Mr. Sands had dropped off that map. As far as Four Eyes knew, even the Diplomat didn’t know where Sands had gotten, and that meant seriously bad things.
            Six Coins put his hand up to quiet him. “There was a major miscalculation. You and your team will not take the blame.”
            If he was telling the truth, it was a hell of a relief, but Four Eyes remained on edge.
            Six Coins had come to meet him in a private room at an inn in Walderton, a small town nestled in the hills of County Corick, west of Ravenfort. He was a proper Retron gentleman, in his sixties, always dressed impeccably in a frock coat and always proudly displaying a Royal Arcane Society pendant, which depicted a key resting in the fold of an open book. He poured Four Eyes a glass of Redlander Whiskey.
            “Still, it was a real shitstorm out there,” he said. “I know you’re aware that there is something of a shake-up occurring above our heads.”
            “I had guessed that.”
            “It’s all this bullshit about Mr. Sands. Then of course there was the incident at Castlebrook Prison and the skirmishes between the Narcians and the Wastes… In all my years I have never seen the House make so many errors. Now, you might interpret that as the cause or the result of what is happening to us. Best we just keep our heads low, do what we’re told, and hope the ones whose orders we’re following are the ones who are left in charge.”
            Six Coins held his glass of whiskey in front of him, but did not seem to be drinking it. Just in case, Four Eyes followed suit.
            “Well, it’s out of our hands now. Let the Carathon chains deal with it. What I want to know is what your status with Nascine is.”
            “I think she trusts me. I had thought to pursue a romantic angle, but I think she would prefer someone older, so for the moment, I think I could manage a kind of apprentice, or surrogate little brother who needs protection sort of relationship. She does not seem to have any reason to doubt that I am who I say I am.”
            “And Thatch?”
            “Disposed. No chance they’ll find him. He was a deep cover agent. Only Kilarny knew who he was. Quite a bit of luck she was killed crossing the street. Saved me a whole lot of trouble.”
            Six Coins frowned like a disapproving parent. “You are an Agent of the House. You know there is no such thing as luck.”
            “Oh…” said Four Eyes. So Kilarny was killed by the House. But that would mean that there were other Agents operating in Omlos at the time. It was not unheard of for Agents of completely different chains to make small contributions to a mission they were otherwise uninvolved in, but to pull off an assassination with that degree of subtlety? Four Eyes felt as if someone was watching him.
            “I will not be in Retrein for long, Four Eyes,” said Six Coins. There was a hint of regret in his words. “This is a delicate time in Retrein, and frankly, we will both benefit from some distance in the coming days. You will make transmissions only out of the cabin in the Stag’s Wood. And do not go there unless it is an absolute crucial emergency. If I do not hear from you for the next year, I will consider everything to be going well.”
            “And if I am captured?” asked Four Eyes.
            “You’ll do your duty and keep your damned trap shut. You and I are not the only Agents in Retrein by far. And those others have not developed a sentimental attachment to you as I have.”
            Four Eyes nodded. He knew the harsh words were meant to encourage him to do his best work. Still, there was a nagging voice telling him that he could walk outside to be met with a sniper bullet.
            “May I ask where you’ll be going?”
            “Do you know who the Illuminator is?”
            Four Eyes shook his head.
            “Then you do not know enough to care about where I am going. I’d suggest you look into it yourself.”
            Four Eyes nodded. With Six Coins leaving, he would truly be on his own. For now, he would attempt to be the best Rookery Thief he could be. In a few years, Nascine might recommend him for a promotion. In his most ambitious fantasies, Four Eyes imagined becoming Lord Crow, the secret head of the Rookery. Still, he had only been with them for a couple months. Perhaps being one face among hundreds would serve his purpose better.
            The ride was very quiet. The black car was electric, rather than steam-powered, and so other than the quiet, high-pitch squeal of the turning wheels and the occasional bump when a tire hit a pothole, there was basically no noise.
            There was a royal crest on the man’s lapel, which was the only reason Nascine agreed to get inside. Still, the silence was unsettling.
            “Where are we going?”
            “Moorspark,” replied the man. He was bald, and well-muscled, somewhere in his forties.
            They drove into the district, with its many warehouses and factories. After a few minutes, the car pulled off the road and drove directly into one of the warehouses. More frightening men stood guard outside.
            When the car stopped, the man got out and opened Nascine’s door for her.
            “Come with me,” he said, and led Nascine up a set of stairs to an office overlooking the building. He opened the door for her and gestured for her to go in.
            “It’s all right, Emily. Please, come in,” came a voice from inside. Nascine walked in and the scary man shut the door behind her.
            Queen Elona sat on a chair in the middle of the office. She looked far more youthful than she tended to on currency and postage stamps, and was dressed in a simple cotton sweatshirt – black, of course – and had her hair tied back in a very practical pony-tail.
            “Your majesty, it is good to see you again, though I wonder why we could not have met somewhere more pleasant.”
            Elona nodded. “It is unfortunate, but I cannot discuss this matter at the palace or the Rookery, or even your home. We are in an extremely delicate situation. There is danger, but we are also on the very edge of achieving a goal I have been working toward for a thousand years.”
            “What goal is that?”
            “Discovering the goals and intents of the House. I consider it my sacred duty to neutralize the House and prevent it from interfering in our affairs, or the affairs of any free people in this world. Your mission in Narcia was a greater success than you realize, Emily.”
            “Really? How so?”
            “Yasik, despite his double-cross, was true to his word. We have received some extremely precious information. The House is in the middle of a schism. There is a group – a kind of secret conclave near the top – that is attempting to take the reins away from the current leaders. They are known as the Whites, and I have reason to believe that their ascension would prove catastrophic. We are in an interesting position. If we play this right, we could make our former adversaries into grateful allies. But if we are to do so, first we need to eliminate any Agents – regardless of their affiliation – from the Rookery.”
            “I see…”
            “Do you pay Marker, Emily?”
            Nascine shook her head. “Not often.”
            “You should. It is good practice. It is very hard to bluff when your opponent can see your hand. Make no mistake, Emily. The House is better at spying than we are. Nothing in this world has come close to their ability to deceive and infiltrate. The very people I trust the most are the ones I know to be most suspicious of.”
            “And you trust me?”
            “Not very much,” said the queen. “Which is why I want you to be my eyes and ears in the Rookery.”
            “I see.”
            “There is at least one Agent there, but there might be more. I want you to work your way through your fellow thieves. Start with Tartin.”
            “He’s better-connected than you would expect. And he trusts you. Find out what he knows and work from there. Good luck, Emily. Either way it turns out, we are on the verge of an enormous change. Let us hope that fate makes it a change for the better.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Missing Report

            It was the second time in as many days. Lydia Lisenrush shook her arm to try to get the feeling to come back. She was in perfect health. Every day, she was out there with the boys, running four laps around Far Watch. She spent an hour every day in the weight room, had the physician give her a monthly exam. She knew that her health and well-being were crucial to the survival of Port O’James and indeed the entire North East Colony. After the destruction of Altonin, the danger was clear, and she was fully committed to making sure Far Watch stood between the Icelord and her people.
            She could not understand the hesitant attitude of the brass in Port Sang. General Toron refused to provide more men, and had still not ordered full mobilization, deferring to the wisdom of the civilian government.
            Wisdom, indeed.
            Lisenrush concentrated on her arm, shaking it and flexing it. Doctor Hansen had proven unhelpful in explaining the loss of sensation, suggesting that she had perhaps leaned on it without realizing it. He was a civilian, one of the soft masses who strove to do the bare minimum.
            The body was still in its holding cell. She knew she would have to decide what to do with it. It would be wisest, she thought, to merely destroy it, which was the usual procedure with draugar, but at the same time, instinct told her to wait.
            She could not afford to humanize the body. It had fooled the entire Enforcement department in town, and Lisenrush was convinced that if she had not intervened, they would have set it loose, which would have of course been disastrous.
            She checked the clock. It was already noon. Buck and Jorgensen were late with their report. There were only a handful of rangers left, and late reports made her worry. She pulled on her coat and hat and walked out to the Comm. Station.
            “Sir?” asked Perkins. Lisenrush had never really gotten to know him. He was the son of foreigners, and had very dark skin, which made an odd contrast with the snow-filled landscape of the forest. Still, he did his job well, so she saw no reason to actively dislike him.
            “Anything on the radio from Buck or Jorgensen? I’m waiting for their report.”
            Perkins frowned, looking confused. “I’m sorry, sir, Buck and Jorgensen?”
            “Yes, is there something wrong with your hearing?”
            “No sir. Buck and Jorgensen got back over an hour ago. I thought they had gone straight to you.”
            “Where are they now?”
            “I don’t know. Should I summon them?”
            Lisenrush shook her head. “They’re probably at the mess. Stay sharp, Perkins.”
            “Yes sir.”
            She made her way to the mess, passing by the one window of the cell where they were keeping the body. It was a disturbing notion, to be so close to the undead. She would have to make a decision soon.
            Buck was sitting with some of the other men when Lisenrush entered the room. He only noticed her when she reached his table.
            “Lieutenant, on your feet!” she yelled. Buck nearly choked on his stew. When he had recovered, he stood up and saluted.
            “Sir, yes sir.”
            Lisenrush glared at him and spat as she spoke – an affectation she had learned from her predecessor, a tough-as-iron old berserker with a wild white beard named Krieger. “I have been waiting for your report all morning, and I only find out now that you and Jorgensen have been back for over an hour? You had better have a fucking good explanation, lieutenant.”
            Buck stared back at her in horror. “I… uh… sir, I…”
            “Spit it out, Buck.”
            “Sir, we did give you our report. You dismissed us at 1020 hours.”
            Lisenrush could feel her blood boil. “Do you think that’s funny, lieutenant? You think that’s a funny?”
            “No, sir.”
            “Well, I’ll tell you what is. You and Jorgensen are on latrine duty for the next month.”
            “Sir, I…” but Buck could see the fury in her face, and merely replied with a dutiful “Yes, sir.”
            “And I expect a written report on my desk by 1300 hours from both of you.”
            Lisenrush stormed back to her office. She sat down at her desk and rubbed her arm. She could still hardly feel anything. She went to her computer to make a new log, recording the disciplinary action for Buck and Jorgensen. Yet when she looked at the screen, she found something very odd.
            The report from the two rangers was right here, entered in at 1025 that morning. All the details of an uneventful patrol were there, with everything entered by the book.
            She suddenly recalled a very old memory. She was nine years old, and her sister, Elsa, was playing with her in the snow. Lydia had climbed one of the trees, but the wood had rotted during the mild winter, and the branch she had stepped out on crumbled away. She fell nearly fifteen feet, her leg folding under her in an excruciating way, cracking the bone. She called out for help, but Elsa was nowhere to be seen. She had never been so angry in her life. Even to this day, nearly thirty years later, she still thought she had never felt angrier. The anger had helped her. It dulled the pain, and it took away her fear.
            She felt that same kind of anger now – a kind of pained frustration, but the cause of it was a mystery. It was as if she were screaming out, trying to get someone’s attention, but she knew neither the content of the message nor to whom she was screaming.
            The draugr should be interrogated.
            It could prove pointless – a draugr was a puppet of the Icelord, not an enemy soldier who could feel pain or remorse. To assign such attributes to this one just because it looked like a living woman was probably a foolish thing to do, yet on the other hand, there was little that Lisenrush imagined she would lose by doing so, if proper precautions were taken.
            She read through the Buck/Jorgensen log entry once more to make sure it was complete. She would have to find a way to explain her outburst in the mess hall. Perhaps Buck had misinterpreted what she said – not that they had failed to deliver any report, but that their report was unsatisfactory.
            As she read through it, correcting the occasional spelling error and typo, she came across a strange phrase. Was it something Jorgensen had disagreed with Buck on? The phrase came out of nowhere, though, with few context clues to figure out to what it was referring.
            “It’s standing there, even now, and you still refuse to see it.”
            Her arm went fully numb again.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dinner at the Meteor Lounge

            The Meteor Lounge was on the eastern edge of the city. Despite its large size, there was an air about Towatki that suggested it as somewhere on the outskirts, in the middle of the desert, with only the highways with their bright lights connecting it to the rest of the country. The white-blue light of the artificial streetlamps on those highways contrasted starkly with the incandescent yellows of the mysterious, naturally-occurring lamps of the desert.
            One of the local legends was the story of alien visitors who had come from the stars. The story went that long before the Rain Bird Eriziando came to grant his boon to the Arizradna people, Towatki was its own little city-state. The chieftains of the city claimed to be descended from beings who arrived in great metal spheres from the sky.
            For centuries, the academic consensus was that one of the Red Ships of Arashka had actually landed near Towatki, somehow separated from the others that would land in what was now known as the Redlands. Yet despite this attractive explanation, genetic testing had shown that there was very little Redlander DNA among the inhabitants, not to mention that the description of the flying spheres bore very little resemblance to the remains of the Red Ships, or, most damningly, the fact that the stories dated back farther than the actual arrival of the Red Ships.
            It was certainly not inconceivable that a third planet might have had human inhabitants, yet aside from these legends, no one had come across any evidence to support the notion.
            It was this mystery that the locals had latched on to. The enigma of these stellar visitors inspired a culture of wild imagination. Many pseudo-scientists had flocked to Towatki, but the place also attracted legitimate academics thanks to the presence of the Deep Field Observatory in the hills to the northeast.
            Space was big in Towatki.
            The Meteor Lounge itself was surprisingly fancy inside, given the kitschy bold neon lights and odd, sweeping architecture outside. Tessa had provided Milton with a nice suit, and she was dressed in a flattering dark-blue dress. “We have a reservation under Milton,” she told the host.
            They were seated in a booth just as a jazz trio began to play on the other side of the room. Tessa exhaled luxuriously. “I love this place.”
            Milton nodded. “It’s quite nice.”
            “I try to get here once a month if I can. A little date I make for myself.”
            Milton found his eyes drifting to an elderly couple a few tables over. They had finished their meal and were having coffee. The smell made his skin crawl. He attempted to ignore the sensation.
            “Are you all right, Jack?”
            “God damn it, yes” Milton snapped back at her. Tessa’s face froze, stunned. Milton rubbed his right temple as a pretense to block the elderly couple from view. “I’m sorry. I’m ok.”
            Tessa was quiet for a moment, then spoke again, this time quietly. “You must not draw attention to yourself like that, do you understand me?”
            Milton nodded. “Again, I’m sorry for raising my voice. I’ve had a very rough… it’s been difficult for me.”
            “I’m aware of that. And Jack,” she said as she reached across the table and touched his hand. “I understand. You’ve made it clear that joining us is not what you want to do. We cannot force someone to become an Agent. Do you know what my chief directive is right now?”
            “It’s making sure you are kept safe. Aragoth is not going to harm you while I’m around.”
            Milton snorted in laughter. Tessa recoiled in confusion.
            “What’s so funny?”
            Milton could see the old couple get up and leave, and slowly, the smell of coffee was fading. “I had nearly forgotten about him.”
            “Then what has you on edge so much?”
            “The faceless man.”
            “Ah.” Tessa smiled. “Well, my associates want you safe. I’m sure they have someone who knows what to do about that.”
            “But you know absolutely nothing about them.”
            Tessa reluctantly shook her head “I had never even heard they existed until you asked me about them.”
            “I was kind of hoping your bosses might give me an idea of who they were. Or, preferably, that they could tell me there was just one of them and I would never see it again.”
            “Well, I wish I could tell you, but I don’t think I know any more than you. Less, actually. You’ve seen them.”

            The night cooled quickly, and soon Towatki was an island of light, projecting its faint orange glow into the sky, reflecting off of desert dust, rather than clouds.
            A single iron streetlamp grew out of the ground a few miles away, past the observatory and deeper into the Jagged Hills. The streetlamp had grown in a twisted way, curling around and branching about six feet up. One of the branches was so twisted that the lamp was entirely upside-down, yet it still glowed just the same.
            Mr. Flow lit a cigarette. There weren’t a lot of them in this world – for whatever reason, tobacco had not appeared here on its own. There were other plants that people smoked, but tobacco was a rare commodity indeed. Thankfully, as a Djinni, the effects of the smoke itself were not harmful to Mr. Flow’s lungs, though he was aware that a lot of the added chemicals would one day exact their toll.
            It helped with the waiting though. It calmed his nerves and gave him something to do.
            Mr. Flow was not accustomed to waiting. He had twelve different subordinates, and each of them had no less than five, and so on. All together, Mr. Flow had over a thousand Agents under his control. His superior used a light touch, which was fine by him. In the past year alone, he’d managed to prevent a war in the Redlands, start one in Hanzhou, prevented a potentially disastrous Akozona candidate from entering the race, and had nearly twenty Lost Ones captured or killed. To be out here, in the desert, waiting for the Illuminator to arrive, well, it made him feel like a fresh Agent in his twenties.
            He took another drag – the cigarette had already burned itself halfway out – when the streetlamp flickered. Mr. Flow looked up at it. He wondered for a moment if he had blinked without realizing it. The streetlamps of the Sarona were not, of course, normal streetlamps. They did not flicker. They did not ever go out. He had nearly convinced himself that he had only imagined it when the light flickered again.
            And then, there was a sound like someone exhaling loudly into his ear. Mr. Flow spun around. Standing there was a wisp of a man – extremely thin, so much so that it seemed he should not be able to live. When he spoke, Mr. Flow expected to hear a high, tinny voice, yet what he heard was tremendously low, and it seemed the ground shook with each word.
            “Mr. Flow,” said the emaciated man.
            “Who the hell are you?” asked Mr. Flow. Almost imperceptibly, the air grew hazy, and a strange sweet smell surrounded him.
            He’s the fog, not the man, realized Mr. Flow. He stopped looking at the emaciated man – whether the thing was a ghoul or an illusion, or some kind of projection, Mr. Flow was certain that the figure was meant as misdirection.
            “I’m here to give you new orders, Mr. Flow. There has been a bit of a shake-up, you see. I know that you’ll understand. You’re a brilliant Agent. One of the finest.”
            Mr. Flow could taste the insincerity wafting in the air. Still, he decided to play along. “What do I call you?”
            “That is unimportant, Mr. Flow. I have a directive for you.”
            “Oh yeah?” Mr. Flow let his cigarette fall to the ground and stamped it out before pulling out another and lighting it. “What is it?”
            “Just one. And it’s a simple one. The Prisoner is to be eliminated. Likewise the Flatfoot, Tall Man, the Juggler, Dust, Red Tail, Ms. Whiskey, and the Hanged Man. The Prisoner is priority one. The rest you may deal with at your leisure.”
            “Uh huh. Can you tell me what happened to the Illuminator?”
            “He’s dead.” The emaciated man never blinked, never seemed to breath, and never changed his expression. He was like a ventriloquist’s doll – he seemed to lip-synch rather than speak.
            “You didn’t have me break the chain?”
            “We knew you were very busy.”
            Mr. Flow leaned against the streetlamp, the cold metal was nearly painful to touch, but he hardly noticed, his mind racing. “This is hardly proper procedure. If you weren’t cutting me loose, you should have come to me first, and you sure as hell should be giving me a name.”
            The emaciated man slowly began to fade – Mr. Flow had made it clear he was not fooled. “I am Templar One. The Illuminator was willfully interfering with orders and subverting the will of the House.”
            “Templar One? That’s an unusual codename.”
            “I’m an unusual Agent. Do I have your cooperation, Mr. Flow?”
            “Absolutely. I am an Agent of the House, nothing more.”
            In an instant, the fog blew away, and the light coming from the streetlamp suddenly seemed intensely bright.
            Templar One, eh? thought Mr. Flow. He doubted the Illuminator was still alive, but he would check in on him nonetheless. It seemed the rumors coming from his Agents in Narcia were proving true after all. Mr. Flow hoped that he was considered an important enough Agent that the two sides would try to woo him, but he was faced with the grim conclusion that they were just as likely to both want him dead.
            And if the Prisoner was priority one for Templar One, that meant he’d have to make a decision fast, and live with the consequences.

            “You’re very quiet, Jack.” Tessa said.
            “I’m sorry.” Milton pushed a clump of potato around on his plate.
            “You still view me as an unknown. A random factor in a very unpredictable series of events. I am here for you, Jack. I know that trust takes time, but I’ll do whatever I can to earn yours.”
            Milton looked up. Tessa’s eyes met his. She never broke off, which was somewhat unnerving. Even the thin woman could never look him in the eyes when she was torturing him.
            “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
            Tessa nodded. “My default directive is to keep an eye on the stars. Do you know about the Deep Field Observatory?”
            Milton had heard of it. “Yeah, there was something in the news a couple months ago…”
            “Ashtor’s Bleed. The Sinret Project out in the Redlands were the ones who confirmed what it was, but it was us at the DFO who actually found the thing.”
            “Wait, us?”
            “Yeah. I was part of the team. I told you that I was staying at the Observatory, didn’t I?”
            “Well, yes, but… I thought… They’re having you fake being an astronomer?”
            Tessa sat back, with an expression Milton almost thought seemed hurt. “I am an astronomer.”
             “But, you’re an Agent…”
            “And you think I can’t be both?”
            Milton had never really considered it. “I thought you’d be too busy.”
            “Jack, do you think my bosses just want people who do nothing but skulk around and spy on people all the time?”
            “Kind of, yeah. I mean, when I think of… a person of your organization, I think of, well, shady people skuliking around all the time. I think of the kind of people that the conspiracy nuts in towns like this obsess over.”
            Tessa finished her bluewine. “Frankly, it’s not hard being an Agent. Sure, you have to do some odd things now and again, like lying your way into a hospital and pretending some guy is your husband, but normally all I do is make a copy of my research notes and hand them off to my superior.
            “And what does your superior do with them?”
            “No idea.”
            Jack took a sip of his beer. “So you’re really an astronomer?”
            She nodded. “Yep. I’m about a year away from getting my PhD.”
            “Really? What’s your thesis about?”
            Tessa sat up, a proud look on her face. “The exotic chronological dynamics of generative matter at the terminus of the Path of Aeoes.”
            Milton nodded enthusiastically. “I have no idea what that means.”
            “Well, it sounds complicated, but let me try to give you a layman’s explanation…”

            Tessa then attempted to explain her thesis to Milton. They were still talking two hours later when Mr. Flow made it back to the city.
            He walked into the front lobby of his building, nodding politely to an elderly neighbor as they waited for the elevator. The ride up was slow, and the woman took a long time exiting it when she reached her floor. Mr. Flow hit the “door close” button several times before it had an effect.
            He checked his door for all the small signs – the small piece of tape at the bottom, that would tear if the door was opened, the slightly off-center door mat that an intruder might attempt to right should he mistakenly believe he was responsible for its displacement, and a fine layer of dust he sprinkled on the knob that even a gloved hand would rub off. Everything was still there. Barring an exceptionally skilled intruder, the door had not been opened.
            Regardless, he checked the unit, searching every possible hiding place or anything that could be put out of place. Everything appeared to check out. His eyelids drooping, he finally collapsed into bed and allowed his eyes to close…
            But there was someone. Right there, at the foot of his bed, standing over him. He sprang up, pulling the gun from under his pillow and turning the lights on with a single motion.
            But there was no one there. His heart was pounding, and his fiery blood seemed to be frozen cold. He stared at that space, where the person he had imagined would have been standing. Nothing there.
            He was exhausted. He reasoned it was probably a hallucination. Unable to fight his fatigue anymore, he fell back to his pillow.
            As he drifted off, he swore he could smell the scent of coffee drifting in the air.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Carom's Hight

            The Old Campus of the Royal Academy was on the west coast, set upon a rather dramatic cliff that overlooked the misty ocean. An ancient stone tower rose above it, a seeming anachronism while most of the buildings looked more like grand manor houses of the Imperial style. The tower was called Carom’s Hight, and predated the reign of Queen Elona by nearly two centuries. Below, the waves crashed against the cliff, the sound only muted by distance.
            Dense fog perpetually surrounded the Old Campus. It was here that the Fog Wall had first been created, providing Retrein with the protection it needed from the routine Sardok incursions throughout the ages.
            Richard stepped from the cab and then extended his hand for Isabelle to hold as she stepped down herself. Whispering Jim required no such assistance, and freely drifted along beside them.
            “Was it always this dreary when you were here, dad?” asked Isabelle.
            Richard took off his glasses and wiped the fog from them with his handkerchief. “The dreariness outside only compelled us to stay indoors and study more. Every aspect of this place is designed with purpose.”
            Isabelle looked up at Carom’s Hight. “That tower looks like it is about to fall into the ocean.”
            Richard nodded. “Also by design. That is where the arcane physics department resides. The notion is to warn off anyone who is controlled by fear.”
            “What about a very practical concern for adherence to building codes?” she asked. Richard smiled.
            “I remember when this place was a pig farm,” said Whispering Jim. “Hundreds of pigs, as far as the eye could see. They used to raise them like sheep here, letting them roam about. I recall a girl of about thirteen who would beg her father to let her kill the pigs when it was time to slaughter. Now, she led a very, very interesting life, which I can tell you about…”
            Richard cut him off. “Do not, Jim.”
            Jim smiled sheepishly. “Just trying to give a give a sense of the history of this place.”
            They made their way across the campus and into the library. The building was one of the largest on the campus. The lobby was floored with marble, with a huge grand staircase leading to the upper floors. The area was alive with students bustling through.
            “I will meet you back here in an hour, Isabelle. See what you think of the place.”
            “Where are you going?” asked his daughter.
            “I have some business to attend to.”
            “Can I come with you?” asked Isabelle.
            Richard shook his head. “No, you cannot.”
            Richard walked away, with Jim trailing behind him. Isabelle exhaled a half-growl. Her father had made it very clear, growing up, that he did not want her to go into study – much less practice – of the arcane.
            It was not something she discussed with her friends, but the Airbrights did not want for money. Thanks to their one particularly infamous ancestor, Paul Airbright, whose Castlebrook Manor was seized by the Narcian government after his crimes had come to light, few people made much inquiry into their family’s affairs. The source of the family fortune was actually quite mundane – Paul was not the only Airbright, and the wealth that the family had was not all seized along with the manor. That money was simply invested in many companies and also held in bond by the governments of Retrein and Narcia – the result was that between all of their properties and investments, the family had enough income to live lives of leisure, especially given how few remained.
            Still, it was one thing to have means and another thing to have something to actually do with one’s life. Isabelle found it difficult to understand why her father was so adamant about keeping her from pursuing what she had always considered (and the history books supported her) the family trade.
            She resolved to find the arcane section of the library, and get a head start on her education.

            Carom’s Hight smelled of mold and wine, as if the two scents had mingled and soaked into the wooden beams that stood inside. The tower was still traditionally lit with candles, which gave everything a yellow tint.
            “You know, I once corrupted a student here, in this very room,” said Whispering Jim as they entered the foyer. There was a suit of armor that stood in the center of the circular room, and no apparent method with which to climb up the tower. “I helped him gain entrance to the tower and in exchange he allowed me to convince him to seduce his professor – suggesting it would help him get better marks, if I recall. He was kicked out of the school and drank himself to death. The professor, as far as I knew, just went into a quiet retirement.”
            “Jim, as fascinating as these stories must be to someone out there, I’d prefer that you keep to yourself.”
            “What would you prefer that I do?”
            “I need you to be a silent witness. I know your kind’s power – to gaze into unguarded minds, to become the dreams of men. I wish to make use of only that first skill, for now at least.”
            “Who are we meeting with here?”
            “I am meeting with Esmeralda Locks. You will merely be observing.”
            Richard approached the suit of armor. There was a strange sound, like distant howling wind, coming from the helmet. “There is only one truth,” he said. “Everything else is inference.”
            There was a sound of grinding stone, and then a disk descended from the ceiling. Richard stepped onto the disk and said “Professor Locks.”
            With that, the disk rose, and Whispering Jim quickly flew to Richard’s side so as not to be left behind.
            They seemed to move in many different directions, always surrounded by a tube of strange, shining stone, like obsidian. If this were an ordinary tower, they would have been somewhere above the ocean when the disk finally came to a stop, yet when it did, they found themselves in a fairly ordinary-looking hallway with linoleum floors and several office doors with fogged glass windows.
            Richard came to the door labeled “Esmeralda Locks, Professor of Projective Dynamics.” He knocked.
            Richard stepped in, taking off his hat and holding it in front of him.
            “What the hell are you doing here?” asked Locks. She was the same age as he, her greying hair tied back in a tight bun. She had a stack of papers on her desk. The office smelled of the strange mushroom tea Richard remembered she was fond of. It was strange to see how old she had become, but of course, he imagined the same was true of him.
            “Ezzy. You look well.”
            “I cannot believe that they let you on the campus.”
            “I’ve made my amends. My daughter is here. She’ll be going off to university in a year, and I think she might like it here.”
            “You have a daughter?”
            “Isabelle. She is sixteen.”
            Locks remained seated. The two had not parted on the best of terms, but beyond that residual conflict, he did not get a sense she was hiding anything from him. Richard sat in the chair across her desk.
            “So why are you here?” asked Locks.
            “You remember our friend?”
            “Our… you don’t mean…” She sat up very straight, the color draining from her cheeks.
            Richard nodded. “I do.”
            “Richard, tell me. He’s… he’s not back, is he?”
            Richard nodded. “I’m afraid he is.”
            Locks stood up. She was visibly shaken by the news. “We need to prepare. I must tell the dean at once.” She began to pace.
            “That would be wise,” said Richard.
            “When did you find out?”
            “Not long ago. I came to tell you first.” He did not mention the familiar he had gained. He made a special effort not to look at Jim. While Locks could not see Jim, a wayward glance might stir up her suspicions. For now, Richard preferred to play close to the chest.
            Locks slowed her pacing. “That was kind of you.” There was a reluctant tone to the statement. The last time they had spoken, over twenty years earlier, she had berated him for his selfishness. “You know that my first responsibility is to the students here. If Henry is really back…”
            “Consider yourself warned.” Richard stood up. “And do try to get some air in here. This place reeks of your disgusting mushrooms.”
            They descended again, exiting Carom’s Hight and striding out into the yard. The wind was blowing very hard now, and it had begun to rain. Richard pulled his collar up higher, his glasses becoming hard to see through, clouded with condensation and speckled with raindrops. Jim’s body whipped wildly in the gale like a ragged black cloth, though from the expression on his face one could tell the sensation was not painful – or rather, if it was painful, he did not mind it.
            “I doubt he will be coming here, but it seemed prudent to give them some kind of warning.”
            “Who is Henry?” asked Whispering Jim.
            “He is my best friend,” said Richard, and then began to walk toward the library.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)