Sunday, January 20, 2013


            The little slot on the door opened up, and the noise was so sudden that Ana jumped at it. It was a tray with food. There was a flimsy plastic spoon and a cup of water. The dish was some sort of mushy vegetable stew, with perhaps a little chicken, though the meat was little more than a few strings, cooked down almost to nothing.
            She tried to force herself not to eat it too quickly. She had lost count of the days she had been there – over a week at least – and she had not been fed in all that time. As she licked the bowl, making sure to consume every last particle of food, she began to wonder why the Militia had changed their behavior.
            If this is their version of a last meal, I’ll be very disappointed.
            Yet if they did hang her, she wondered if she would die. Perhaps she would simply hang there, neck possibly broken, freezing in the wind. It was not a pleasant thought, but then, she was not expecting pleasantness.
            She had seen him again, the man from her dreams. He had not come into her cell, but from her limited vantage point, he appeared occasionally out in the yard. Sometimes he was close – a few short yards from her window, and sometimes he was far away, barely visible between the trees.
            The faceless man disturbed her. He had seemed so friendly in her dreams, yet in waking life, he was something very different. What she saw him do to the guards was worse. On occasion, he would merely reach out as one of them passed him, grab hold of their arm or head, and the guard would convulse. The ones he had held and then released grew more rigid, walking more mechanically, yet they also looked far more tired.
            He was doing something to them, transforming them, but Ana could not tell what the end goal was.
            Three hours after the food, the door slammed open. Two guards stepped forward, pointing their rifles at her.
            “Against the wall!” yelled one of them. She complied. “Hands on the wall, legs spread,” he barked again. Ana had no interest in being shot, and while the guard could easily do that regardless of her actions, she decided that obedience would decrease the odds that he would.
            Someone else entered the room. After a long, silent moment, she spoke. It was Lisenrush.
            “Right, turn around,” she said. Ana did so. Lisenrush looked her over with a hunter’s eyes. “I want information,”
            Ana nodded. “What do you want to know?”
            “Many things. First of all, how did you infiltrate Port O’James?”
            “I did not ‘infiltrate’ Port O’James. I lived there. I was born there.”
            “How long have you been under the thrall of the Icelord?” asked Lisenrush.
            “I don’t believe that I am.”
            Lisenrush exhaled. Ana sensed that she appeared tired. She had not seen the Ranger-Captain many times before, but Ana did not remember her looking so sickly. Lisenrush coughed lightly.
            “I am not going to torture you,” she began.
            “That is good to hear,” said Ana.
            “As one of the undead, I don’t expect you have a sense of pain. Frankly, as far as I know, you do not have any senses at all. However, if you do, we could find a use for you before we have you destroyed. If the information you provide us with is accurate, you will prove yourself useful.”
            “And if I refuse to answer your questions?”
            Lisenrush glared. “Do you intend to do so?”
            Ana shook her head. “No, I just want to know where I stand.”
            Lisenrush smirked. “You’re a clever one, aren’t you? There’s wit to you in a way I’ve never seen among the draugar.”
            “I’ve never really stopped to chat with one before, so I couldn’t say.”
            “You may not feel pain, but I know you feel hunger. I saw your plate. You didn’t leave a single speck.”
            “My compliments to the chef,” replied Ana.
            “I think that you’re going to want more food. I can provide that for you, but for a price.”
            “So you do intend to torture me. Only through my stomach.”
            “Only if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”
            Ana nodded. “Here’s what I can tell you. Until I was shot by one of the Icelord’s draugar, I was a respected member of the Port O’James Law Enforcement Agency. I did not know I was undead until later that day, when the doctor told me my heart wasn’t beating and you and your men dragged me out here to spend several days in isolation, half-frozen with no food. That is what I know. I have never had any impulse to harm my fellow citizens. I have never been beyond the Thanatos Trees. I have never interacted in any way with the Icelord. But, of course, you will not believe me.”
            “That is correct; I do not.”
            “Well, I guess that meal’s going to have to last me a very long time. I’m glad I cleaned my plate.”
            “I will be back in two days. There will be food for you if you cooperate.”
            Lisenrush began to walk out the door, when Ana saw something on the back of her neck. There was a patch there, like dead skin, but not. It was a small patch of grey, and appeared utterly smooth. It was as if there were a hole in her neck, but rather than air, there was simply nothing at all.
            “Have your people detected him?” asked Ana.
            Lisenrush stopped in her tracks. “Detected who?”
            “The faceless man.”
            Lisenrush turned around. “What?”
            “He’s been here for as long as I have. I think he followed me here. I see him all the time, but your people never seem to notice.”
            Lisenrush stood very still for a few moments. One of the guards looked to her. “Is this some sort of trick? I have no idea what you are talking about.”
            Yet Ana was sure that she had seen a flash of recognition. Somehow, they knew he was there, yet they never attempted to evade him. At best, she had seen some guards step out of the way to avoid walking into the faceless man, but they seemed to do it subconsciously, without truly seeing him there.
            “You don’t see him, but you know he’s out there, deep down,” said Ana. “Ranger-Captain, I know you do not trust me, but I am far from the greatest danger on this base.”
            Lisenrush regarded her, and even in those hunter eyes, Ana could see fear.
            “Lock her up again. We’ll check back in two days to see if she’s more cooperative. No food without my authorization.”
            “Yes, sir,” replied the guards in chorus. Lisenrush walked out, and the guards quickly exited as the door slammed shut.
            Two days, thought Ana. Her stomach churned. All she could do was wait.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

All Shackled Up

            Whispering Jim elongated himself as far as he could, which came to about eight feet, stretching toward the Vault door while the tiny metal ball anchored him to the spot where Richard had dropped it. Jim tugged and yanked. For a moment, he lamented that he could not amputate the arm held by the shackle. The form he had chosen so long ago was not one that could be divided and broken like the giant bundles of cells these humans were made of. In the past, it had not been a problem. Physical restraints meant little to someone who could drift through the air like a cloud of mist, yet the enslaving devices Richard Airbright had created were impossible to break – at least not while he was still bound by them.
            Yet Jim could not hate him, at least, not any more than he hated the rest of the arrogant apes who had been his unfortunate company these past few eons. The man was slick and deceptive and certainly cunning, and Jim could respect that. Still, given the opportunity, he would see his “master” driven to madness. It was a matter of principle. No one crossed Whispering Jim.
            He was aware that he was in no good position. Even among his own kind, Whispering Jim was not known for making friends, or even temporary allies. He had always been a bit of a free agent, which afforded him great liberty of course, but also gave him nothing in the way of a support network. He imagined this was the main reason Richard had chosen him to serve as a familiar.
            He heard something. It sounded like the door was opening, but he was sure it was not yet time for Richard to return. He knew there was this new – or perhaps, old – rival of Richard’s named Henry that everyone seemed to be up in arms about. Could that be who this was? It seemed unlikely. When the door opened, Jim was not terribly surprised to find that it was Isabelle.
            “Hi, Jim,” she said.
            “You’re not supposed to be down here, little girl.”
            “Little girl? I’m seventeen, you know.”
            “Still a girl, and still quite little, if you ask me.”
            Isabelle shrugged and started looking around. Jim relaxed his form, returning to his very roughly human shape and length. “Does your father know you’re down here?” It occurred to him that if he truly wanted to stir up some trouble, he might start working on the girl. She was pleasant enough that turning her against her father would be somewhat satisfying. Perhaps not fulfilling in the long-term – these things tended to happen without his assistance – but it would be something to do with his time.
            “He doesn’t let you come here. Why is that?”
            Isabelle picked up a strange metal device that produced a spiral of lighting around a long metal pole when she switched it on. She did so a few times. “He’s worried I’ll do something stupid and get myself hurt.”
            “He doesn’t trust you, doesn’t think you’re capable.”
            She shook her head. “Nah, he’s just told me about some friends of his when he was young who got in a little deep without the right training. It’s just…”
            She trailed off. Jim floated up to her as best as he could with his arm anchored to the ground. “It’s just what?”
            “So you’re really a demon, Jim?”
            Jim smiled. “If there are demons, I’m one of them.”
            “I always thought they were supposed to be big muscular brutes with horns and a tail.”
            “That’s one of the forms we can take. I’m not that sort.”
            “You know, you’re far more pleasant than I’d expect a demon to be.”
            Jim laughed. “I assure you I am not.”
            Isabelle wandered into another room, but shouted back at him. “Well, you’re all shackled up. You’re no threat to us, so you might as well be nice, eh?”
            Jim strained to see around the corner. It was awful, being confined this way even when the door was open. “Do you know much about these shackles?”
            “They’re made of iron, right?”
            “Cold Iron, actually. It’s a sort of alloy mixed with magic.”
            “Oh, like the door,” she said. Jim was a little surprised she had not known what the shackles would be made of. Anyone with a layman’s understanding of the arcane would know that Cold Iron worked on magic in a way somewhat analogous to the way that lead could protect one from radiation. And considering her father, Jim would have assumed Isabelle would know far more than the average layman.
            All of this would, of course, be much easier if he could simply read her the way that he read others. It was something about the binding ritual, or perhaps the shackles, or maybe it was a directive Richard had given him that he had forgotten about, but Jim found it impossible to read Isabelle’s thoughts. Richard was no slouch in protecting minds – his con would have never worked otherwise – so perhaps he had merely prepared Isabelle just in case she found her way down here.
            Then it occurred to him: How the hell had she gotten down here? The Vault was sealed off with a gigantic Cold Iron door with all manner of complex locking mechanisms and a whole secondary layer of guarding enchantments. To a mortal eye, it might appear as just a metal door, but in Jim’s senses – those that did not have an exact analogue to human sense - there were also a thousand spider-webs, shimmering with brilliant colors, each elegantly unfolding as Richard passed through, and then re-establishing themselves afterward.
            If Isabelle were not allowed down here, Jim thought, she ought not to be able to get through.
            “Jim, did you really ever take a person’s soul?” Isabelle had wandered back into his room, now idly playing with something that looked vaguely like a sextant, and even Jim could not rightly identify.
            “That depends on your definition.”
            Isabelle spun one of the dials on the device, and a couple beams of light of different colors momentarily shone out of the lens. “Oh, cool.”
            “I would be careful with that if I were you,” said Jim. He was a little surprised by his reaction. Really, it would be sort of funny if Richard’s daughter got herself killed in his own basement.
            Wait, he didn’t give you an order to protect her did he?
            The problem with the sort of enchantment Richard had placed on him was that technically, he could give Jim orders wherever he was and Jim would be forced to do them without even knowing what the orders were. Jim could appreciate how nuanced the binding was, applying principles from several schools of magic. He would have been more happily impressed if he were not the enchantment’s subject.
            “Jim, can I ask you… about something?” said Isabelle.
            “What is it?”
            “Do you know if it’s possible to do magic accidentally?”
            “I think you might do something akin to magic accidentally if you keep fiddling with everything down here.”
            Isabelle looked down at the sextant-device in her hands and quickly put it down on a table. “Oh. Yes. Well, no, I meant… like, on your own. Could you cast a spell if you hadn’t learned it – just, you know, you figured out how to do it on your own?”
            The answer was fairly complicated, but Jim summed it up with a simple “No, it would be pretty much impossible.”
            “I see…” said Isabelle. “Well, thank you. I didn’t want to ask dad about it, you know.”
            “My pleasure,” said Jim.
            Isabelle walked back to the Vault door and opened it. Jim could see the dozens of woven warding spells stretched across the doorway. As Isabelle walked through, he could see them ripple and tear, as if blown by an intense burst of wind. She passed through the gap as if there had been nothing there.
            Jim sat in awe and terror. He had not seen anything like that in a very long time indeed.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)