Thursday, July 25, 2013

Instrumenta Sapientes

            Isabelle was careful to be as discreet as she could be while her father spoke to his people down below. Richard had taken them into the Raven’s Fort, which was distinct from Ravenfort, despite the fact that it sat entirely inside the city that shared its name. Thousands of years ago, when Retrein was a Narcian colony, the elderly witch Meriah had had her men build a fortress on the Lockey River to defend against the hostile “wood-folk,” who had deep ties with the Wild Spirits. Meriah, who prized her raven familiar Irric dearly, flew banners with a black raven on a grey field, and this gave the fortress its name.
            Meriah had been the Royal Observer for the King of Narica in this expedition, and had the equivalent rank of an army general. The fortress had held out against attacks for several years before a second wave of colonists founded Canwick nearby. Canwick began to grow, and people began to refer to the settlements between the fortress and Canwick as “Raven’s Town.” Eventually, Raven’s Town expanded, absorbing Canwick and clearing away much of the forest, and the city came to be named after the fortress.
            The odd consequence was that even after Retrein amicably seceded from Narcia, Raven’s Fort was still considered Narcian territory, by the right of the King. Then, of course, Narcia became a republic, which might have been the end of it, but the Raven’s Fort insisted that it remained the last true remnant of the Kingdom of Narcia, despite the fact that, through treaties, it was under the protection of the Queendom (but not the Queen) of Retrein and bound by the Royal Laws, with a few complicated exceptions (for instance, the Raven’s Fort made no distinction between theft and larceny, which were two very different things in the eyes of most Retrons.) To this day, the Observer was considered the ruler of the Raven’s Fort, and even Queen Elona officially had to request permission to enter.
            Despite the fact that it was only about a square mile in size, the Raven’s Fort had developed its own unique culture, and was governed by four guilds, each representing the forces under Meriah’s command, or so the legends went. These were the Macer Guild, the Foster-Lumbers, the Trapsman’s Guild, and the Witch’s Coven. Only the last of these still had anything to do with its original purpose (the Macers, for example, had been soldiers, but now were effectively a bank.)
            The Coven kept the oldest library in Retrein, and possibly the entire continent of Ganlea. The base of the building was made of thick stone, and much of its size was fairly box-shaped, but a precarious-looking tower – one that made Carom’s Hight look as stable as a pyramid - rose out of it. From a distance, an observer might assume that the tower – which at one point along its length did actually twist in a corkscrew shape, among its other undulations – was rather small. In fact, the bulbous peak of the tower was the size of a large house, and it was in this place that Isabelle had managed to wander off while her father was speaking with the Coven’s Matron.
            She had no idea what to look for, but Jim had suggested this area for her to check. She still did not know what to make of the demon. Her father described him as one of the most evil and dangerous beings she would ever meet, but so far, Jim had seemed practically friendly. She knew this could be an act, but for whatever reason, she felt more comfortable talking about magic with him than with her father. Richard had always been reluctant to discuss the practice with Isabelle, and made no secret of the fact that he hoped she would choose another profession when she was an adult. Yet in recent months, she seemed to be learning to perform magic completely by accident.
            She had very little control over her strange brand of magic. Occasionally, she would sense something that was not there, perhaps seeing a little glowing shaft of light or feeling something like a gossamer string. They were easy to push aside or blow away like dust. She had not even realized that her father’s Vault was so thoroughly enchanted until Jim told her.
            As Jim explained, magic, by its strictest definition, and the only one accepted by rational people, was essentially the substitution of another universe’s laws in a limited space or time. Knowing which universe to tap into was a key to being successful in the practice of magic. There were only a handful of these useful universes that students of the arcane had catalogued, and while they did not have names, they had clear uses.
            So, Isabelle walked down the aisle marked “Compendia,” while a sweet-looking old lady dressed in black sat at the desk and sipped some sort of strange tea and stroked the adorably affectionate cat that stood on her desk.
            It was difficult work. One book referred to another, and at one point she had to go to the woman at the desk to unlock a huge tome that required a key. There seemed to be hundreds of descriptions that only half-matched what she had done.
            Finally, two books after the one that needed a key, she found what she was looking for: “Aetherial Awareness Without Augment.” That seemed to fit her best. Unfortunately, after the description of the ability was described, rather than an index of affiliated gods and practical disciplines that followed all the other types of magic she had seen, there was simply a note that read: “I. S.”
            Isabelle approached the old witch, who was now scratching the chin of the sprawling cat, much to the feline’s delight. “Excuse me,” she said.
            “I found this note here. ‘I. S.’ Do you know what it means?”
            The witch frowned thoughtfully and pulled out a gigantic reference book, which she let thump down on the desk, scaring the cat away. The witch flipped through the pages eventually coming to the right part of the glossary. “Let’s see here. ‘I. S.’ There we go. ‘Instrumenta Sapientes.’”
            “What does that mean?” It had the sound of one of the secret languages. In Invocative Magic, these strange, foreign tongues were used to reach out to gods and spirits, who would act on behalf of the conjurer. Likewise, in Aetherial Magic, words such as these were often used in conjunction with the proper equipment as psychological tool to allow the magician to attain the right state of mind to interact with the hidden energies they wished to manipulate, though some arcane physicists had hypothesized that in these cases, the invocations functioned on the principle of a placebo effect.
            The Librarian-Witch responded. “Tools of the Sages.’ Here, take a look.”
            Isabelle looked through the fine, fine print of the glossary. There it was, “Instrumenta Sapientes.” The entry read:
            “Tools of the Sages. See: Aetherial Awareness, Telekinesis, Timewalking, Path of Aeoes. See also: Non-magic Arcane Phenomena.”
            Non-magic? The revelation sat like a heavy stone in her gut.
            The old witch smiled up at her. “Did you find what you wanted, love?”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Kiva of Tishtan

            Tall Man entered Towatki early in the morning, as the sun was just beginning to come over the horizon in the east. The city was its usual self, the sprawling downtown area just beginning to buzz with activity.
            Towatki was not a huge city, but it was old enough and large enough to have actual history. There was a rocky hill that rose up in the south, and it was upon this hill that the Temple of Tishtan stood. Tishtan was a bit of a favored deity in these parts, but as was the Arizradna way, there was less worship and more a kind of reverence, not too different from the way that historical figures were looked upon with respect. Tishtan himself only appeared on occasion. The Meteor God would attend the opening for the annual Space Festival, but in recent times, it seemed that he had taken a page out of Kerahn’s book over in Narcia, and was making himself more and more scarce. Still, unlike Kerahn, Tishtan had not completely withdrawn from the people, though he always insisted that the term “god” was not really applicable to him, or anyone, for that matter.
            Tishtan had actually been a founder of the Temple of the Machine. When the Temple was founded, its tenets essentially boiled down to a notion that the universe could be explained in its entirety in rational terms, and that the gods themselves were not fundamentally different from mortals. Over the centuries the growing mysticism and the outbreak of violence on the part of the Machinists had forced him to distance himself from what had become one of the most aggressive and zealous religions in the world. Still his convictions stayed mostly the same, which made the entire presence of a Temple dedicated to him somewhat ironic.
            Still, the Temple had existed long before Tishtan had co-authored “The Great Machine,” and even if it was not precisely a place of worship, it held great cultural importance.
            Tall Man walked past the attendant priest, who bowed to him as he entered the temple, which was carved into the stone of the hill. The actual entrance of the temple was smaller than one might expect, though the carvings in the rock were ornate. The door led to a small cave-like space. Here, there was a ladder leading down through a hole (though a few centuries back someone had been thoughtful enough to install an elevator for the elderly or the handicapped.)
            At the bottom of this ladder, one found oneself in an enormous kiva, with a circular wall and a dome ceiling. There was no need for electrical lighting here, because hanging in the air were thousands of balls of what appeared to be frozen starlight, and nestled together on the ground were little thickets of those odd, naturally occurring lamplights that grew in the desert.
            Thus, inside, there was a beautiful quality to the light, like a cloudless night in out in the Sarona, with the Path of Aeoes and all the stars providing plenty of illumination.
            Likewise, the air was very cool, and still. The stone walls were dark, representing the blackness of space, and there was a calm, mineral scent in the air that came up from the fine white sand on the floor.
            Tall Man wished that he could pause to appreciate it all. He had grown up in Telavi, a much younger city, far too modern to have these sorts of wonders. But Tall Man was here for the House, and there would not be time.
            The chain was breaking down significantly. Tall Man had been out of contact with the agent two links up from him for months now. His own superior, an old crone who lived in a little mud-brick house overlooking the ocean and went by The Other Witch (presumably there was some other agent who was called “The Witch”) had disappeared, her house ransacked.
            Tall Man was what he understood to be a “gatherer.” Officially, there was no ranking in the House – every member was an Agent. Yet some people specialized, and Tall Man, who joined the House when he was only a small child, had made it clear to his recruiters that he abhorred violence. A lesser organization might attempt to mold a young boy into a more dangerous person, but the House only recruited those they felt could serve as agents in their own right. Tall Man had never before felt in any danger in his work. For years all it had meant was reading newspapers. Later, when he was given subordinates, he was allowed to do some cursory analysis of their reports, and occasionally he would travel to a town to just “take the temperature”, talking to the locals.
            Professionally, he worked as a photographer, often providing pictures for the very newspapers he was to read. Cameras had been his passion since he was young, and the profession was ideal to give him an excuse to look into the important stories around the country in greater detail.
            Tall Man snapped a few photos in the kiva. Despite how it looked with adjusted eyes, it was dim, and even with his steady hands he expected the pictures to turn out blurry with such a long exposure, but professional clumsiness aside, the pictures were just for show until the two Narcian tourists were ready to leave.
            He had met Mr. Flow only once before, when the middle-aged djinni had announced that they were doing some restructuring in the face of the current crisis. The problem, as Mr. Flow explained it, was that while the chain system worked perfectly in an ideal situation – the information feeding directly upward and the instructions flowing directly down – in this state, the gaps left by dead or missing agents were wreaking havoc, and the House was just barely struggling to keep hold of southern Arizradna, let alone succeeding in any operations.
            Tall Man could smell the strange “cigarettes” Mr. Flow smoked even across the kiva from him. They smelled sharp and overbearing, even though Mr. Flow was not currently enjoying one.
            Finally, the Narcians climbed up the ladder and left. Tall Man walked forward.
            “Hey, Joseph,” said Mr. Flow. That wasn’t Tall Man’s name.
            “Adewale,” responded Tall Man, using the first djinn-sounding name he could think of.
            “How was your trip? Not too much traffic, I hope?”
            “No, it was pretty smooth.” Tall Man had not encountered any trouble on the road.
            “How’s your mother?” asked the djinni.
            Tall Man took a deep breath. “She’s out of the hospital,” meaning that his superior was missing, presumed dead.
            “And your grandpa?”
            “On vacation.” Likewise, he had not been in contact with the Other Witch’s superior, a stern Retron man called High Hill.
            Mr. Flow nodded grimly. Things were really falling apart. “Did our girl get her package all right?”
            “Yes, she sends her regards.” The Prisoner was still up at the DFO with Dust. Tall Man had no idea why there had been such a fuss made over the man. Normally, an agent was given permission to recruit their own subordinates, but in this case, this “Jack Milton” was chosen by someone far higher up, and then given to Dust, who was a lovely person, but, like Tall Man, was a gatherer, and thus probably not prepared for any seriously dangerous situations, for safe keeping. In recent weeks, Tall Man had kept Dust out of the loop. It had been Mr. Flow’s orders, but Tall Man concurred. The Prisoner was clearly a high priority, and keeping him insulated from the current shitstorm seemed wise.
            Mr. Flow walked over to the elevator and pulled a key from his pocket. He turned the key and a red light appeared on the control panel saying “Out of Service.” The only remaining entrance to the kiva was the hole in the ceiling. The djinni spoke now very quietly.
            “Ok, here’s the deal,” he said. “There’s at least one of them in town. They’re sniffing around.”
            Tall Man kept an eye on the hole for the ladder.
            “Someone has been asking about the DFO,” said Mr. Flow.
            “Do you think they…?”
            “It’s one of two things.”
            “One of two? What’s the other one?” Tall Man imagined The Prisoner was a high priority, and that’s why he had been hidden all the way out here, but such a plan would seem to break down if the DFO actually had anything of import.
            “Sinret,” said Mr. Flow, and gave Tall Man a meaningful look.
            “Sinret?” The enemy was interested in an astronomy project? “What do they care about…”
            “Sinret was always their project. We just didn’t know until recently.”
            “What do they want from it?”
            “We don’t know.”

            An old priest watched as the tall man with the camera made his way out of the temple. The priest was small of frame and the deep red of his skin had faded in his old age. The light was beginning to beat down harder now. Soon he would retreat into the kiva, where it remained pleasantly cool all day.
            He would have to wait for the djinni to leave though. They could not suspect that they had been watched. The priest had not heard what they were saying – the djinni had cleverly picked just the right part of the room to be acoustically obstructive, and the priest’s surveillance equipment could not be installed in such a magically radiant location.
            Still, straining his large, sensitive ears, the priest could hear the mention of the Sinret Project, which meant that they knew, or at least they were beginning to suspect.
            Three nights. The information that had come down to them said that within three nights, the telescope would be pointed in the right direction, and they would have the information they needed.

            In the café that sat two blocks from the hill, the Diplomat sipped at the sweet, nearly-frozen tea they served and took a bite of the complementary bread, which itself was oddly sweet, with a hint of cinnamon.
            The priest was just a brown pillar up on the hill when viewed from that distance, but his presence confirmed that things had gone according to plan, or rather, things were going according to the new plan. The DFO situation was a crisis, to be certain, but the Diplomat remained skeptical that the enemy would find the information quite as useful as they expected.
            Really, though, this was phase two of what he considered “The Prisoner Project.” Phase One had worked out in the end, though the Diplomat worried that he had been too anxious and jumped the gun in giving Milton the coffee.  Perhaps, Milton would have been better off if he had had a chance to prove himself capable of standing on his own, as it were. The Diplomat had been an agent for a very long time, though, and this sort of second-guessing was far from unusual.
            The Diplomat created plans within plans, and accounted for many possibilities, always being careful to lay the track for contingencies should they arise. Sometimes, the older tracks had to be abandoned, but he had cultivated an instinct, during his tenure, to know when to keep the ideas and resources he had collected and use them for other purposes. Thus, second-guessing was not the weakness that some others might believe it to be. The Prisoner had been given a crutch in Phase One, but now the Diplomat had seen what he might do with such an advantage. The madness to which he left his torturers had been edifying, both in regards to the nature of the faceless men and to the character of Jack Milton.
            The theory went that if Milton had already “awakened,” he should have seen the faceless man the moment he woke up in his cell. Perhaps events might have played out entirely differently. Yet, there were still some doubts that Milton would ever truly do so, that perhaps the analysis had given a false positive.
            What the Diplomat had was the hearsay of hearsay, but if it proved to be true, Milton could just be the key to the survival of the House.
            Phase One had ended, and the groundwork was now laid. In three days, Phase Two would begin.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Civilian Watch

            Nick Sydow was in his civilian clothes. After his suspension, they had de-prioritized the results of his test. Despite this, he felt fairly confident that they had come back negative, given that he had been allowed to return to his home.
            He lived with two old friends, Julia and Marcus. Julia was a writer, and Marcus a teacher. The tests had only just started for the civilian population, and while Julia was fairly unworried, Nick had needed to reassure Marcus on a regular basis.
            “How much blood do they take?” Marcus would ask on multiple occasions.
            “Like three milliliters.”
            He had still heard nothing about Ana. He’d tried to contact Karin, but since the incident, she had moved back to Port Sang. Nick had been surprised at this abandonment. The two had not been together very long, but Karin seemed to have dropped any feelings she had for Ana the moment she heard the news.
            Nick had a few people on his side, even if he sometimes wondered if they were merely humoring him. Humor or not, though, Nick was certain that Ana was the same woman she had always been, and whatever her physical state, she was a loyal and upstanding citizen.
            Nick walked home from the store with two bags of groceries. They said it was spring, but the days were still quite short, and with the dense clouds overhead, the streetlights were a necessity.
            There was that guy again. He was a little chubby, with a puffy face that was in desperate need of a beard. In fact, the man seemed to affect a clean-cut look that seemed incongruous with his nervous shifting and bored expression. The effect was a disconcerting creepiness.
            He had been there when Nick first went out, and that was nearly an hour earlier. Nick approached him.
            “Hey, man,” he said.
            The man jumped with shock and his hand shot to what Nick could clearly see was a concealed weapon. However, when the man saw who had spoken, he relaxed slightly. “Evening,” he said.
            “Been out here a while, I see. I’m Nick, I live just down the road there,” said Nick. The man followed his gesture and nodded. There was an awkward silence as Nick waited for a response. Getting none, he said “You looking for a house or something?”
            “Oh, no. I’m just doing my patrol.”
            Nick furrowed his brow. “You’re part of that new Civilian Watch?”
            “That’s right. Just doing my part.”
            “Well,” said Nick. “Take it from a beat cop, you want to keep walking around. Stand on this corner and you’re just going to get frozen.”
            “You’re a cop?” said the man, visibly relaxing.
            “Yep. Sergeant Nick Sydow.”
            “Cory Inman,” said the man. He shook Nick’s hand.
            “So, they tested you yet?” asked Nick.
            “Yep. Living human, hundred percent.”
            Nick nodded. That this guy would have his results already, but he did not, was a little disconcerting.
            Nick put the groceries away but decided it was too dark inside, and went out for an additional walk. Cory Inman was still out there, still looking like the exact wrong person to be walking the streets with a gun. Nick could see in his mind’s eye some news headline of a dead teenager and this idiot’s face in a bewildered mug shot next to it.
            Nick got a few blocks toward Glass Lake Circle when he heard sirens. An enforcement car barreled down the road. It looked like Balgar’s.
            Nick followed after it, and in a few minutes, he found where the car had parked. Balgar and Monhansen were outside of a house, and a whole bunch of what he assumed were civilian watch people were standing outside, along with that Bergen woman and the great big bone-construct, Mraxinar.
            Monhansen pounded on the door. “Mr. Nerring, this is Lieutenant Monhansen of the PJED. Please open the door now!”
            The man Nick assumed to be Mr. Nerring shouted something from inside, but it was too muffled to be heard from a distance.
            There was a lot of discussion going on among the Watch. Balgar was on the horn, but clearly keeping a close eye on the civilians. Nick approached him.
            “Balgar,” opened Nick.
            “Sydow, hey,” said Balgar, clearly distracted.
            “What’s this?”
            “Uh… this guy’s refusing to take the test.”
            “Uh huh.”
            “Hey, listen Sydow, could you keep an eye on these jokers? They look like they’re about to break out the pitchforks and torches.”
            Nick walked up to the crowd, which was gathered around Captain Bergen. There was a palpable sense of panic among them, and only Bergen seemed calm, reading the list she had in a clipboard. Mraxinar was standing off to the side, very still.
            “Hi, I’m Sergeant Sydow,” he said.
            “Currently under suspension,” replied Captain Bergen. She spat these words out without a moment of hesitation. Nick took a moment to gather his thoughts again.
            “Yes, that’s true. May I ask what the Watch is doing here?”
            “The Civilian Watch’s purpose is to safeguard the community. The man in there is resisting the test, so it stands to reason that we should be more cautious than usual.”
            “Your suspicions have been raised?”
            “Have yours not been? Oh, but I forgot, you don’t see the undead as a threat to our city.”
            “Captain Bergen, I think you are jumping to conclusions here.”
            Monhansen came back from the door. “Hey Nick,” she said when she saw him. “Ok,” now turning to Balgar. “I think we’re going to need a warrant.”
            “Hey!” came a shout from the house. It was Mr. Nerring. “Hey, you tell your people to stay away from my house!”
            Nick looked over, and indeed, one of the Watchmen had snuck around the back of the house, apparently trying to get in through a back door.
            “Come out, you draugr bastard!” shouted one of them.
            “Fuck you,” yelled back Mr. Nerring. The old man’s voice cracked as he did so. Mr. Nerring was only just five feet tall, and had a body that seemed tight and hunched. He was probably in his eighties.
            “Officers,” said Captain Bergen, insistently.
            “In a moment, Captain,” said Balgar, who was trying to listen to the radio in the car. “We’re getting a warrant from the courthouse as we speak.”
            “Warrant? This could be a draugr. We can’t just sit around here and wait.”
            More of the Watchmen were approaching the house. Nick was somewhat impressed by how gradually they had crept toward it, but now some of them were looking in the windows, tapping on the glass. Monhansen stepped forward. “Hey!” she yelled at the Watchmen. “Get away from there!”
            There was a collective shout as the back door of the house opened and little Mr. Nerring ran out.
            “Hey!” shouted Balgar. He dropped the radio receiver and gave chase. Mr. Nerring was hardly a competitive sprinter, but before Balgar could catch him, one of the Watchmen – this one a wiry man in his fifties with white hair, and with whom Nick shared a barber – tackled him.
            Mr. Nerring sprawled on the wet grass outside his home, yelping in pain.
            “There,” said Bergen. “Mraxinar?”
            Mraxinar scuttled toward the man, who was now quaking in fear. The bone construct opened his little bag and pulled out the metal web with the crystal. “If you’ll allow me, Mr. Nerring, I’m just going to place this on your head.”
            Nerring was too paralyzed by obvious fear to refuse, and so Mraxinar let the metal tines slide around the old man’s head. He gave the crystal on top a thoughtful look, and then removed it.
            “Thank you, Mr. Nerring,” said Mraxinar, and began to stand upright when Captain Bergen walked forward.
            “The blood test too,” she said.
            Mraxinar opened his jaw to speak. “I don’t think that will be…”
            “Do it,” she said.
            Mraxinar put the metal web back in his bag and removed a sterilized needle. “This will just sting a little,” he said to Mr. Nerring, who was staring, unblinkingly, into Mraxinar’s glowing eye sockets.
            Mraxinar examine the vial of blood and put it into his bag. The Watchmen had mostly moved on at this point, returning to their various patrols. When Mraxinar had taped the small wad of gauze to the man’s arm, he gave a friendly nod. “Thank you, Mr. Nerring. That is all we need.”
            Balgar helped the man to his feet.
            Captain Bergen checked her clipboard. “Right, next we have Kelly and Darrel Fitzwalter, two doors down. We’ll have to pick up the pace if we want to keep on schedule.”
            Mraxinar nodded and began to turn away.
            “Give him his result,” said Nick.
            Bergen turned back. “That is not our procedure.”
            Nick glanced at Mr. Nerring. He was still shaking, and the grass had stained his pants.
            “No,” said Nick. “You give him his result now.” Nick caught Balgar giving a glance to Monhansen. Yes, they knew he was dead serious.
            Mraxinar tilted his head. “The result is negative, Mr. Nerring. You are a perfectly normal, living human being.”
            Bergen glared at the bone construct. He returned her gaze. If Mraxinar’s expression was contrite, none of them could tell.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Burglar's Throne

            Elona rarely spent any time in the throne room. There was an elite corps of cleaning staff, of course, who kept the cavernous room free of dust. The floor was slate, rough-hewn, dating back to the days when Retron Kings came and went every few decades. From the walls hung ornate, ancient tapestries, though they had been repaired so often that it was unlikely any of them retained more than a few of their original threads. The ceiling arched upward like a cathedral’s, and was painted in such a way to fade darker and darker, making it seem higher than it was.
            The room was grey and black, which made the glistening, jewel-encrusted throne all the more radiant. With every great theft, blacksmiths would attach new jewels and bits of gold, silver, platinum, and cold iron. In Retrein, victory was not measured in shattered swords, but in broken banks, and thus, the throne was the ultimate trophy. The Burglar’s Throne, as it was called, was excessive in its glamour.
            Elona sat on it. In three thousand years, it had never been comfortable, but her immortal behind had never molded itself to its contours. It was an eternal struggle, and she hoped that one day it might end with the whole thing being melted down and redesigned by someone who had heard of ergonomics.
            This was not an official event, so Elona wore only her customary grey hoodie and comfortable athletic pants. Still, in the presence of the throne, she felt it appropriate to at least wear her crown.
            The crown was a thin band of iron, unadorned. It was really more of a circlet than a crown, yet it had been her symbol of power since she had received her gift, and she wore it as a sign of respect to her secret friend.
            Harren came in by the side entrance – a thief to the core. The throne room was, ironically, the ideal room for such a meeting. It had been built when electrical wiring was still considered a magic of the Arizradna. The walls were solid stone, and it was extremely simple to sweep for any electronic bugs. During the Narcian Civil War, Elona had had cold iron dampeners installed to prevent other forms of surveillance.
            “She’s disappeared.”
            Elona sighed. She knew that already. Lady Crow had informed her in the pre-dawn hours. “I am still unconvinced.”
            “The House trades in convolution. We have Nascine’s word on what happened in Narcia. We have Thatch’s. And we have the Narcians’ assurances. Did this not go exactly as I said it might?”
            Elona was forced to agree. When Nascine heard Harren’s improbable accusation, she had disappeared. There were other explanations – that she might assume Harren was an Agent, or that she might have actually believed him (something Elona doubted, from what she knew of Nascine, assuming Nascine was the person she had claimed to be.)
            Harren believed that his accusation would be, essentially, a message to the House. One that let them know that the Rookery was on to them. In a thousand years, though, they had never been able to fully create a profile that described the psychology of a House Agent. University Spies, Arizradna Watchers, even Stag’s Head assassins all had patterns. The House was inconsistent. Sometimes, they were reasonable, approachable, willing to make a deal. Sometimes they were ghost-like, merciless, and deadly. And on occasion, they were amateurish, naïve, and completely out of their depth.
            So had Nascine gone back to her superior? Message understood? A complete rollback of her operation so that they may take another tack? Harren was convinced. He was a talented thief, but she wondered if his self-confidence were not the product of some species of delusion. It had served him well in the Rookery’s internal politics, but Elona had cultivated millennia of instinct, and she remained of the opinion that Emily Nascine was a loyal subject to her garish throne.

            “Let me rephrase,” said Barclay as Nascine flailed around, trying to get out of the bed. “When I say we are technically the House… you should know that the House has become two very different things.”
            “You ‘eople ‘ried to…” Nascine fought for her voice. “You tried to kill me!”
            Barclay shook his head. “That was not us. You have to listen to me. There is a rift. A schism within the House. The people who tried to harm you are part of the faction within the House that has lost its way.”
            Nascine sat up, pulling the wool blanket up to cover herself. She felt incredibly weak, and her lungs burned with the foulness of the river water. “Why should I trust you?”
            “You’re alive. Do you think that if the other faction had gotten their hands on you they wouldn’t have already killed you? Who do you think tossed you in the river in the first place?”
            Nascine could feel her heart pounding. The various drugs pumping through her veins were like a solid presence that could be felt, and her body seemed to be on fire as the poisons and antidotes fought while her immune system went mad.
            “We know a great deal about your mission in Omlos. We know they killed Kilarny. We know that they killed one of Yasik’s people. They are evil, you understand? Without sympathy or remorse. They stand for nothing, only seeking to grow more powerful. They have perverted the purpose of the House to serve themselves. Our people are few in number, but we are fighting back against them, attempting to restore the House to its original purpose.”
            “And what is that?”
            “To keep this world from plunging into chaos and darkness.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

King Will Devour

            This one was new: two dead in the Finger’s Market down in Ravenfort. Same sort of pattern. The words were written out on the ground, surrounding the bodies like a forensics team’s chalk outlines. He supposed that was to demonstrate that they had taken the time to write it out after the murder.
            Whispering Jim was pretty sure it was a “them” and not a “he” or a “she.” There had been a similar murder only the night before all the way out in Errister, so unless there was one very well-traveled serial killer, it would seem that there was actually a group of them. Jim admired their industriousness.
            “It’s Thall,” said Richard, taking a bite of toast. Things had relaxed after Jim had gone a month without wreaking any particular havoc. Jim was older than the sea in which Retrein stood. A month did not seem like such a long time, but apparently Richard had decided to allow him out of the basement after this very brief period of penance.
            All told, Jim wished he could forget the whole thing. It was a silly and desperate move that was beneath his abilities. The neighbor had come, one Mrs. Tharby, a middle-aged lady who aspired to live above her station and was a member of the very most local government she could participate it, namely the neighborhood council. No, it did not get capital letters. Jim refused to treat such a thing with that dignity. Jim had seen Empires, true grand Civilizations, and watched them fall, too. To consider what amounted to a dozen bored adults meeting in the community center basement on plastic chairs a “government” was just silly.
            Mrs. Tharby held ambition within her, even if she had never done much with it. It had been a simple thing, subtly encouraging her to enter the house and try a simple summoning spell that honestly would not do much to actually bind him to the will of Mrs. Tharby, but could, theoretically, overwrite the very complex incantation that had left Jim so inexorably linked to Richard Airbright’s.
            Unsurprisingly, the spell had backfired and it was to Richard’s credit that he had been thoughtful enough to design a spell that would only kill someone if they intentionally meant to break it – admirable, especially considering how difficult binding Jim in the first place had to be, to then add this little “just in case” caveat on top of a security measure. Mrs. Tharby was knocked right out, and slept in a coma for three days before she awoke, with no memory of the events.
            It was not as if Richard had ever been exactly “friendly” with Jim, but the Tharby Incident, as he had taken to calling it, had left his relationship with the master even colder than it had been before.
            “How do you know?” asked Jim. Isabelle was off at school. She was usually up long before her father rose. Richard was a night man, and what Richard called breakfast could be mistaken by most as a late lunch.
            Even when Jim enjoyed freedom of movement within the house, Isabelle’s room was off-limits. Jim had no problem with this. A teenage girl’s room had no need of demons to be a realm of chaos and pain. And besides…
            No. She is a human. She is the enemy.
            He repeated the mantra in his mind. It was important to retain one’s vigilance.
            “Most of this is simple, ordinary Standard.” Richard said, pointing to the words that were visible from the newspaper’s photo. “But these letters,” he said, pointing to a few words that were set apart from the bodies’ outlines. “These are an obscure variant on Kerahn’s Tongue. Here, this one says… ‘vasilias tha katavro… chtisei,’ I believe. Do you have any idea what that means?”
            King will devour, thought Jim immediately. The magic languages were always unsettling to him. He imagined it was what a human would feel if they could hear the voice of a long-dead relative.
            “It speaks of the White King,” said Jim.
            “Well, that would reinforce my notion, then.”
            Jim found himself shuddering at the words there. It was below a demon’s dignity to shudder like that, but the mention of that… being (if you could even call it that anymore) made Jim feel terribly uneasy in what, if he had had a physical body, would have been his stomach.
            “This latest one was in Ravenfort. Yesterday was Errister, the day before Wolfsmouth,” said Jim.
            “You think he may be creating a pattern? A remote-form sigil that covers the entire country? It would not be outside his capabilities, and certainly within his ambitions. I simply don’t know what he might be hoping to accomplish. A summoning? Unlikely. Even the Stag’s Head managed to summon and bind Gutop for several years using a symbol no larger than a barn. Though admittedly, if this really is Thall we are dealing with, he may intend to summon something far more powerful.”
            Jim would have pointed out that Gutop was hardly something to be dismissed as a minor creature. The Antelope Goddess had held sway over the entire continent for thousands of years and was still worshipped by nearly a third of Hesaia.
            However, on the other hand, if Thall was trying to summon the White King to Retrein, well, he hardly thought that a sigil the size of the country would be nearly large enough – if the White King could be summoned at all. The White King was not, after all, a god. In fact, Jim believed that he was quite the opposite.
            And besides, Richard had missed the point Jim had been trying to make. “Thall must have people working for him. These murders were planned carefully. Notice the victims? All of them members of the Royal Arcane Society, and all of them have been members for over thirty years. These were not randomly chosen victims. How did he get the victims to their locations? Yesterday’s death, Vivian Corlatti? She wasn’t even supposed to be in Retrein. She was scheduled to give a lecture in Carathon this afternoon.”
            “I see your point.”
            “And that’s only the victims the police have found. Who knows how many Thall has had killed?”
            Richard sat back, taking his glasses off to rub his eyes. “This certainly complicates matters.”

            When the message was written out, Macha and Ouphe bolted out of the alleyway and onto Hill-Thorne Avenue. The Woman had provided them with a special gun – made out of some kind of odd, flaky material like the lead in a pencil. After they had killed the old wizard, Ouphe pulled back a lever and the gun crumbled apart, blowing away in a wind that neither she nor Macha felt.
            It wasn’t the first time she’d killed someone, but it was strange to see someone who looked older than her granddad bleeding out of a big red gunshot wound. That wasn’t how old people tended to die, was it?
            Macha had drawn all the stuff in chalk, using a little cheat-sheet The Woman had provided for them, along with the gun. It was another one of those magic languages – this one seemed to be made entirely of straight lines in kind of boxes, and the letters flowed down instead of from left to right.
            Macha was a better artist – had a steadier hand when it came to writing. Ouphe could shoot a gun, but her handwriting was often illegible even to herself.
            They hopped on the bus bound for Vinebarrel Street.
            “You got bug-eyes,” said Ouphe. Macha was staring out at the rainy city that scrolled past them through the windows.
            “No I don’t,” said Macha.
            “You don’t have to come. I can talk to The Woman for us.”
            Macha shoved Ouphe back. “No way in hell. I’ll not let you take all the money.”
            “I won’t cheat you,” said Ouphe.
            Macha scoffed. “Like you didn’t cheat me on that skunk I got for you?”
            “Fuck you, chavvy,” replied Ouphe.
            A woman, perhaps fifty, stood up near them. She looked them up and down. “Excuse me, but shouldn’t you ladies be in school?”
            “Fuck off, grandmam,” yelled Macha.
            The woman bristled, but quickly went back to her seat.
            After ten minutes, they arrived. Ouphe led the way up to the luxurious townhouse out of which The Woman operated. Ouphe banged on the big eagle-headed doorknocker. After a few seconds, the door opened, and an old valet regarded them with the stiffest of upper lips.
            “We’re here to see The Woman.”
            The valet nodded. “Yes, she has been expecting you. If you would follow me, ladies,” and he turned, leading them into the house.
            The entrance hall was palatial, with a marble floor and a grand staircase. A thick Arizradnan carpet was spread over the floor, and it appeared immaculately clean and soft. The valet led the two teenagers through a large double door on the left and into a drawing room. Everything here was green and charming, and it all looked extraordinarily expensive.
            The Woman sat in her chair, legs crossed, a pair of glasses dangling from her mouth by one earpiece. Her hair was held up in an impressive tower with what Ouphe imagined took fifty pins.
            “Hello, girls,” said The Woman.
            Ouphe nodded in greeting. Macha opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself.
            “You’re in my home. We can speak freely. Mr. Prenticott is dead?”
            “Yes, m’um,” said Ouphe.
            “And the pistol was disposed of?”
            “Yes, m’um.”
            “Do you still have the diagram?”
            Macha nodded. The Woman held her hand out. Macha brought the sheet of paper over to her. The Woman reached over to the table at her side and picked up a lighter. The paper burned and The Woman watched as the words on it crumbled into ash, only blowing out the flame when a tiny blank corner onto which she had been holding was all that remained.
            The Woman nodded approvingly. “Good. Once my employer has confirmation, we will make the full transfer. For now, take those.” She pointed to two leather satchels – both would fit within the girls’ bags. Each contained twenty thousand tolls in cash. The remaining hundred would be put in trust until each of them was eighteen.
            Clara watched them out the window as the two girls made their way back to the bus stop. Certainly they could have called a cab, but old habits, etc.
            Clara stood up, eager to take the pins out of her hair and to get into a more comfortable dress, but she expected receive the man from Wolfsmouth in an hour, and it wouldn’t do to slip out of costume only to have to put it back on.
            “Jaquis,” she called. The valet came in.
            “Yes, m’am?”
            “Bring me some coffee. And the paper.”
            Clara lounged back in the chair, unfastening the top button on her dress. The thing was rotten to wear, but it looked incredible on her, and so she endured the pain when she was entertaining the contractors. In the meantime, though, she preferred the ability to breathe.
            It had taken weeks to get used to sleeping on a soft mattress, but the cooking staff was an easier adjustment to make. Jaquis, she adored. Yes, now that she had seen what it was like to have money, she had come to fully understand the appeal.
            Jaquis came with the paper and handed it to her. She scoured the headlines. Yes, there was a bit about the Finger’s Market killing. She skimmed that one to see if the enforcers had come up with anything. She made her methodical search, first of the Arcane, Science and Technology section, then Art and Culture, then Business, and finally even Sport, but there was not a single mention.
            Clara sipped the coffee and picked up the phone on her table. She watched out the window as the rain began to bombard the bus stop where the two girls had gone.
            “Clara? Anything?”
            “Prenticott is dead.”
            “Good. And?”
            “Airbright is remaining quiet. Do you think he understands that this is you?”
            “Do you think he knows what you are trying to do?”
            “That depends. What do you think I am trying to do, Clara?”
            Clara paused. She preferred it when Mr. Thall kept her out of any of his greater philosophical motivations. It made her feel exposed. “You are… taking revenge on these people?”
            There was an audible chuckle from the other end of the phone. “That would be a perfectly logical deduction.”
            “Is it true?”
            There was silence, but somehow Clara could imagine Mr. Thall was smiling on the other end. “Thank you, Sweet Clara,” he said. And then the line went dead.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)