Friday, December 9, 2016

The Official Story

            Boss Man didn’t bother watching the car leave, taking Freya back to Kapla Furnace Village. There was risk in this action, but he was no stranger to risk. But he needed forward momentum. This was a revolution, albeit a secret one against an organization most people didn’t think existed.
            His circumstances were not ideal, but they were necessary. They would leave the desert eventually, but he had only just started to plant his seeds. They might not bear fruit for some time.
            The camp was oddly friendly, the people oddly warm. He had not intended that, and in fact it made him suspicious. Still, he would adapt. That was the key. The House planned. It planned extraordinarily well. But he adapted, and up until this point, it had kept him alive and free.
            Chaffi was an early recruit. When Boss Man had been in the House, he was high enough to understand that they had not had much luck recruiting among the djinn. Boss Man knew of Mr. Flow, but he was a rarity – a djinni who preferred living among the “jengu.”
            He had given the House’s pitch many times before, but with Chaffi, he had favored a different approach. He told him a story. The story of Boss Man. A man whose real name was Jac Epping.
            The camp they were in was really within the borders of Arizradna – even though the cities and towns didn’t reach this far into the desert, the borders of the world’s oldest country encompassed them. That was by design, actually, to take advantage of the defensive magic that kept the Arizi from needing a real military.
            But if you went a couple thousand miles east, you’d get into the Grimelands. Great metal structures rose from the ground as if they had grown from seeds, and the air was full of dust and smoke. In the Grimelands, if you spent much time near these structures, you’d start to get an oily residue on your skin. People avoided it, but a place that people avoid becomes very attractive to someone who wants to avoid people. Over centuries, the Grimelands became something of a country in and of itself, though no one could tell you where the capital was or who was in charge. And it was there that Jac Epping was born.
            He hadn’t really known his father. Ky Epping worked for the Imperial Rail Company, shoveling coal because back in the Grimelands, they still used that. IRC was a relic from a far earlier era, and its tracks were the skeletal remains of the Red Empire that had died centuries ago.
            Ky had been up at the engine when bandits blew the track. Forty men, women, and children died, including Jac’s father. It was barely considered news.
            So Jac and his mother Hope moved to a town called Bitter. She had been harsh and drank a lot, but she also made sure he learned his letters and math. She wanted good things for him, even if she was a difficult woman to live with.
            Jac helped on the Namrys’ farm to supplement the family income. The IRC barely gave Hope any compensation for Ky’s death, and they cheated her out of his pension.
            He was just a couple days from turning twelve when the Folstom Brothers came calling on Hope Epping. Jac was too young to understand what they wanted from her, though he suspected later it might have been something about debts.
            When Vin Folstom suggested that she could pay those debts through alternative means, she declined with vigor. Unfortunately, Vin had little compunction about taking with force that which he could not procure through other means.
            It was unfortunate for Vin because he had ignored the hand-cannon Hope Epping had in her kitchen, and when he made his advance, he was left with a fist-sized hole in his chest. It was unfortunate for Hope Gepper because there was more than one Folstom, and when Sal saw what she had made of Vin, murder filled his heart, and this time she was not quick enough on the draw. Jac Epping was orphaned.
            And he knew that this was what had happened because he had seen it. When the Folstoms came, his mother had instructed him to hide beneath the floorboards.
            He left Bitter and made his way to Smokestack, taking up his own job with the IRC. However, thanks to his mother’s lessons, he was able to get a better job at a desk, working out timetables and keeping the ledgers.
            It was during this time that a man Jac would only ever know as “Sootgrin” came to talk to him about scheduling. Sootgrin – a name Jac would never understand, given the man’s pearly whites – told him to change the schedule of two trains, ensuring that one coming into Smokestack would leave before the other arrived.
            At the time, Jac assumed that Sootgrin was an important person at the company. He had seen him on occasion, and he believed that Sootgrin matched the description of the company president – an older man, tall and thin with long white hair and a long white mustache.
            Jac figured out a way to change the schedules of the trains without upsetting all the other schedules and eagerly made it to impress this Sootgrin. It was only after he had submitted the new schedules that Sootgrin informed him that he did not, in fact, work for the company. And if Jac didn’t want his bosses finding out what he had done, he would have to do more tasks for Sootgrin.
            Jac was only thirteen at the time. He naturally did what Sootgrin told him to do. But Sootgrin did not simply make demands. He also instructed Jac. He taught Jac to forge a signature. He taught him how to lie convincingly. In spite of the fact that he was being blackmailed, Jac came to like the old man. In fact, it no longer felt like he was being blackmailed. Sootgrin started to feel like a grandfather.
            When Jac turned sixteen, Sootgrin gave the pitch. He was an Agent of the House. And regardless of the House’s agenda for trains in the Grimelands, Sootgrin’s main task was the training of a new recruit. In effect, he had already been a House Agent for three years, but now Sootgrin felt it was time to make it official. Jac got the codename Mr. Key.
            And for a time, life was pretty similar. Then, one day, Sootgrin abruptly announced that it was time to quit. The House was no longer interested in trains, or at least these particular trains that came out of Smokestack. So they left and traveled east to Gessan Province in the Redlands.
            Jac’s work for the House got more interesting, but also more dangerous. He remembered in particular a time when he and Sootgrin had assisted in a bank robbery. They weren’t there at the time of course – the House preferred to keep its Agents somewhat removed from such overt acts. Still, they provided logistical support. They put the gang in touch with a safecracker and taught the robbers about the way that the bank’s security cameras could be bypassed. Then, when the day came, Mr. Key found out that the robbery had turned into a bloodbath, and that the robbers were all dead.
            To Jac’s shock, Sootgrin did not seem shocked at all. He indicated that this had, in fact, been the intended outcome of the robbery. Jac demanded to know what the purpose of such a thing was, but Sootgrin managed to explain it without explaining it in such a way that it was not until years later that Jac would think to question what they had done again. Essentially, Sootgrin reasoned, the House knew what it was doing. Did he know the specifics? No. But the House always thought thirty steps ahead. They had reasons, and Sootgrin had faith that they were good ones.
            Jac became more comfortable with their activities over time. His protests died down and he began to simply do his job. And apparently he and Sootgrin were showing a level of competence that was rare even within the House, because before too long, Jac found himself traveling the world, participating in delicate and important operations. He saw the installation of a House Agent to the Arizradna High Council. He helped to thwart a potentially disastrous Vistani invasion of the Wastes by leaking their invasion plans. He had the son of a general in Sarso committed to a mental institution, despite the fact that the young man was perfectly sane.
            The House was built on compartmentalization, and so it was difficult to trace its actions to motivations and causes. But as Mr. Key became more prominent within the organization, the silhouette of its larger form had begun to reveal itself to him. The chains – wholly separate and distinct at the House’s lowest levels, became tangled and interconnected the closer one got to the top. And looking down some of the chains that led back to the Grimelands, he made a fateful discovery.
            Sal and Vin Folstom were both House Agents.
            Jac thought it had to be a coincidence, and that their actions were probably not much more complicated than they had seemed. Though Mr. Key had become an exemplary Agent, the House was not devoid of ineffective brutes at its lower levels.
            When he approached Sootgrin with what he had discovered, however, he did not get the reaction that he expected. It was not surprise. It was not skepticism. It was not even worry that Jac had been looking in places he shouldn’t have been looking.
            No, it was guilt.
            Sootgrin was a talented liar. But Sootgrin was also the person who had taught Mr. Key how to lie, and also how to recognize one. The more he attempted to deny it, the more he attempted to divert the conversation, the harder Jac pressed, until finally, Sootgrin confessed.
            The House had sent the Folstom Brothers there. The Folstom Brothers had killed Jac’s mother on orders. And it was because of Jac. They had seen in Jac the potential to be a remarkable Agent. A potential, Sootgrin informed him, that Jac was fulfilling – exceeding every expectation. The House sought to create the ideal environment in which Jac could be recruited.
            All this, when Jac was not yet even twelve.
            He let Sootgrin live, though he felt now that that had been a mistake. But he cast off his allegiance to the House. He saw now just how deep its callous cruelty ran. Jac had his own subordinates, but he knew to be careful around them. The House had a practice called “Breaking the Chain,” in which an unsatisfactory Agent might be cut off from the House in varyingly severe manners. If an Agent was cut off, their subordinates might share their fate, but alternatively, the higher-ups might instead have one of those subordinates eliminate the Agent in question and take their place.
            In Jac’s case, it was a woman he had recruited designated “Sieve.” After leaving Sootgrin, he quickly called up his immediate subordinates (he was a prominent enough Agent that each of his subordinates had their own, and some of them had their own as well.) When he arrived in the basement of an Omlos grocery store to speak with them, he found that two of the five were on the ground with their throats slit, and a third, Sieve, was there with a bloody knife.
            He discovered Sieve’s presence when her knife slashed him along the face. They fought, but in the end he prevailed, leaving the knife embedded in her chest.
            He decided at that point that Omlos, and indeed all of Narcia, was no longer a safe place for him. So he smuggled himself out of the country on an airship bound for Damana. Then he traveled back to his homeland where he would begin to recruit this small force he had managed to put together. And in time, if things went well, he would destroy the House.
            Mr. Key had learned a great deal while under the House’s employ. He did not condone their ethics, but he could not deny the effectiveness of their methods. And so, Mr. Key became Boss Man, and he began recruiting his own Agents. But his Agents would get to know the story of Jac Epping. He would ensure that they understood the stakes of what they were doing here.
            But Boss Man had a secret. It was a secret he could not tell anyone, and in fact he tried not to avoid thinking about it himself. Compartmentalization was crucial in the world of cloak and dagger. It was a challenge, though not impossible, to do so within his own mind.
            The secret?
            There never was a man named Jac Epping. There was never an Agent called Sootgrin. There was never an Agent named Mr. Key. And Boss Man had never set foot in the Grimelands before the previous summer.

            Boss Man had his reasons for doing what he was doing, but for now, he would keep them to himself.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


            Nothing could have prepared Clara for the sensation. As the demon entered her, it felt as if a frigid mist were pumping into her veins. The cold seeped into her, but not just through her mouth or nose or even her skin’s pores. It came in through the spaces between every cell in her body, and it made her aware of just how permeable she was. Jim’s voice transitioned from external to internal, as if it were coming from Clara’s own mouth. For a moment she felt as if she were going to collapse, the strength sapped away from her. She took a breath, and then another, and she realized that on the contrary, she felt stronger than she ever had. Her entire body seemed to weigh a quarter as much as it did.
            It was intimate. Yet Jim no longer had a real physical presence. She did not feel crowded out of her own body, even though she now shared it with the demon.
            In the back of her mind, she sensed the history stored within the demon. As if the memory were her own, she could glimpse a vast disc of ethereal dust in a dim expanse, brown and blue wisps slowly revolving around a sphere that was so perfectly black that Clara thought it looked more like a hole in space.
            “What is this place?” she asked, and because it was Jim’s memory she had recalled, she did not need to describe it.
            “An old memory of home,” he said, though Clara could not determine if there had been a sound audible to anyone else or if the words had simply been in her head. The vision abruptly disappeared. “Let us set these things aside for now.”
            “What about your body?” she asked. When Jim had entered hers, the smoky frame that had been strapped to the chair had started to break apart and float away, as if it were evaporating.
            “My body is not one of matter, Sweet Clara, I-“
            “I will call you Jim and you will call me Clara. No need for ‘formalities,’ I think.”
            Jim was silent for a moment, but he could not hide his general tone of thought. He considered it and approved of the decision. “My body is not one of matter, Clara. The substance does not fall into the classical categories of matter or energy. It is something else. Something alien to this universe.”
            “And when you leave my body?”
            “If I am able,” he corrected her. They had discussed it at length, when the faceless men were absent and Thall was out. “Did you know that humans replace every atom in their bodies roughly every seven years?”
            “There is a philosophical concept. I don’t know what its name is in this universe, but in a different one it is called the Ship of Theseus. Theseus is a great hero, and thus his ship retains a great deal of cultural value to his seafaring people. But ships need repairs. A rotten plank is replaced here, a tattered sail is replaced there.  Every year the people sail the ship of Theseus around the harbor in celebration of his actions, but after centuries, there is not a single splinter of wood within that ship that Theseus ever saw in his lifetime. So the philosopher asks – is it the same ship?”
            “I suppose not,” said Clara.
            “Then is Clara dead, and am I inhabiting some imposter? You are, I would think, older than seven years.”
            “What is your point?”
            “The point is that the body is irrelevant when you have, or perhaps more precisely: are a spirit. I shed that body like you might shed a dress. Albeit a little more permanently. The difference between us is that it is far easier for me to shed it all in one go, whereas you do it gradually.”
            “And so you could easily find a replacement?”
            “In a sense I have. Your body is my replacement.”
            Something in Clara’s mind lurched. Jim sensed it. “A condition I intend as temporary. We must return to my master, as I suspect he might have some theories on how to find a new vessel for me. He will be far more pleased to find me than you, I should think.”
            “I won’t grow horns, though? Cloven hooves, a tail?”
            “Would you like to?”
            Clara shuddered. Not long ago she had professionally allowed strange men to enter her body, but in a far more temporary and physiologically conventional sense. She immediately began to second-guess her decision to allow Jim to possess her, but the door, as it were, had slammed shut behind her. It was time to move, and quickly.
            “This will go more easily if you give me control for the time being,” said Jim, and suddenly Clara’s right leg stepped forward. But it overextended and she nearly fell over.
            “Really?” asked Clara.
            There was no hiding his embarrassment. Surely most demonic possessions allowed the demon to read the host’s thoughts, not the other way around.
            “You’re right. You handle the meat stuff.”
            “Meat stuff?”
            “Bodies. Meat. You’re far more familiar with it than I am. And I must confess that this is my first time possessing someone.”
            “Very well. I will be gentle then,” said Clara, trying to suppress a smirk.
            Clara and Jim had talked about a plan. Clara was free to come and go as she pleased when there was no business that needed attention. But they had both guessed that Jim’s exit of the building – or indeed the chair – might alert Mr. Thall, and so time was of the essence.
            They walked back toward the kitchen, where there was a door leading to the garden in the back. They got three feet from the chair to which Jim had been strapped when Jaquis walked into the room, carrying a telephone on a platter.
            “Mr. Thall for… you… m’am…” he said, his eyes falling on the chair’s empty straps and his usual professional deference shifting inexorably toward a kind of superior disdain.
            “Jaquis, I… I am afraid that I will be unable to-“ and then a different voice erupted from her mouth: “Y’SHAAG NURSTRASSH EE-JUURE!” and her hands, now raised up as if she were preparing to box the septuagenarian, began to glow a shimmering dark red. Strange, fleshy-looking ropes appeared around Jaquis’ mouth, wrists, waist, and ankles, binding him in place where he stood as the platter and phone clattered to the ground.
            “Jim, what did you just do?” she asked, internally.
            She did, and suppressed a wave of nausea as she realized that they not been ropes, but some sort of cephalopod-like tentacles. “It will wear off, right?” she asked.
            “Uh, probably.”
            Thankfully Jim did not feel such an impulse when they passed Pauline, the cook, as they crashed through the kitchen and slammed the door open. Pauline merely gaped at them as mixing bowls and utensils tumbled off a prep table.
            “You know how to get to Airbright’s house?” asked Jim.
            “Yes,” she said.
            “And you can keep running?” he asked.
            “I think so,” she said, leaping into the air with Jim’s borrowed strength and clearing the twelve-foot brick wall behind the building with two feet to spare.
            Clara ran faster than she had ever run before, but as she pumped her legs and felt her heart race, she also realized that her wrists were feeling cold – icy, even.
            She stopped for a moment and pulled back the sleeves of her coat.
            There were broad bands around her wrists, made from a dark, tough metal that was almost blue. They were positively frigid. Cold Iron. She had seen these shackles before, but they had been on the body of Whispering Jim. A body that had evaporated into the ether.
            “I was afraid of that,” said Jim. “But it looks like these things stay on my body, whichever body that happens to be.”
            “What does it mean?” she asked.

            “It means that you and me, we’re both Richard Airbright’s slaves now.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Lollipop Man

            Ana was at a loss for what to say.
            This funny little man was the reason she was still breathing. But he had also ensured that she had lived nearly half of her life dead. After Arthur died, her parents had grown distant and seemed to jump when she walked by them. She had assumed that it was because of the trauma. She had assumed that it was because she had lived when her brother had not. She had assumed that all of this was typical and that its effect on her own personality was in keeping with the grand tradition of family dysfunction as a result of grief.
            But she hadn’t survived, had she? Her parents had lost both of their children, and then they got one of them back. Ana remembered the fights she had had with her mother when she told them she had a girlfriend instead of a boyfriend. They had been so loud and angry. She had told herself that that was why they grew apart. Perhaps it had been about something else.
            But it wasn’t fair, because Ana had been missing a crucial piece of information. She had been at a disadvantage, and her parents had allowed her to stop talking with them without providing the real reason they had grown so distant.
            It had taken two days for Lisenrush to wake up. She was concussed and had suffered fractures in her vertebrae, though they believed her spinal cord was still intact. They were keeping her braced so that she could not move her back for fear that doing so might worsen the damage. They said she would walk again, but not soon.
            Ana had expected to be burned at the stake when she got back to town. Instead, Max Harrick himself had come to her at the station, accompanied by Mraxinar, the towering skeletal construct who was, despite his ghastly form, warm and polite as ever.
            Mraxinar had taken a blood sample and looked visibly relieved – not that it was easy to tell, not having muscles or skin on his face to express nuanced emotions – the moment he saw the bright red in the vial.
            In fact, after he drew the blood he nodded to Harrick.
            “Ana…” Harrick spoke quietly. It was an unusual tone of voice for him. “We… we should have…”
            “It wasn’t you. It was the militia. Lisenrush was the one who dragged me out of the hospital” It was easier to forgive him. She had decided on forgiveness once she was convinced that the town – or at least the leadership of the town – wasn’t interested in destroying her. She, of course, was internally screaming and crying and entertaining thoughts of getting on a ship and sailing for somewhere no one knew her. A peaceful place, like Arizradna. She wondered if the bright sunlight would burn her skin there.
            When she saw Harrick, she saw two men – one the man who had been like a father to her after she stopped speaking to her own father, and who had, as an example of contrast, greeted the revelation of her sexual orientation with a calm, almost indifferent acceptance sadly atypical of their country, and the other man the stupid and frightened coward who had let her be taken away by the military unchecked.
            It was easier to forgive him. She felt short-changed, to be certain, unable to exact the price in rage to which she felt she was entitled. But it was easier to move ahead, to move past. Lisenrush owed Ana her life, and she had the Ranger-Captain’s support about her stories of the strange things that now lurked in the forest. With Lisenrush’s corroboration, the town would be forced to believe her about the faceless men and that she was not some mindless servant of the Icelord.
            And it turned out that she did not need the Ranger-Captain to vouch for her on that point. Because now there was this strange little bald doctor she had not seen since she was a teenager explaining everything.
            She wished he were dead. Not out of anger. She had not even begun to unpack her feelings toward this Doctor Meldi. But if he had been dead, she could avoid anything like a confrontation.
            Instead, she sat in the living room of the house that Meldi had rented for his stay in town. It was a nice house, and she wondered where he got the wealth to set himself up so comfortably for this visit.
            “Can I make you some coffee?” he asked.
            “Ok.” She shifted her weight on the sofa. It was overstuffed, making the cushions stiff and the upholstery taut. It was not a very comfortable piece of furniture, selected presumably more for appearance than anything else.
            He came back in a few minutes with a tray on which sat two teacups and a glass coffee press. He placed it on the coffee table and sat in the chair to her side.
            He was a rather short man, only about five and a half feet, with hair above the ears and in the back but a perfectly shiny scalp above these salt-and-pepper (more salt than pepper) tufts. His goatee was carefully sculpted, and she suspected it was even subtly waxed.
            “Do you remember me, Ana?”
            She did. He had been her doctor when she was a teenager. Despite her age, she remembered and unashamedly enjoyed that after each visit, Dr. Meldi would give her a lollipop.
            Not long after her parents found out about her and her first girlfriend, Elsa, she also stopped seeing Dr. Meldi. Her parents never bothered to find a replacement, and so she had gone for all this time without one. In a sense, Meldi was still her doctor.
            “I…” he began, and then crossed his legs. “I’m sorry, do you mind if I smoke?”
            “Depends on what you’re smoking.”
            Meldi frowned apologetically, but then his face straightened, projecting authority and he waved away his initial request. “Ana, your parents were the ones who kept my mouth shut on the matter. They are the ones that decided that you would no longer see me and they forbade me from contacting you.”
            “Yeah, well, I don’t have much contact with them these days either.”
            “I see.”
            “But…. Couldn’t you have contacted me after I turned eighteen?”
            Meldi looked down. “That was a failure on my part.”
            Ana shook her head. Just like Harrick, she saw in this man two men – one the professional authority, one the little rat who had been too much of a coward to tell her what she was. “I still don’t even know what this means.”
            Meldi took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Well, I assume you have the main point.”
            “I’m dead.”
            “But…” she held out her arms. “I don’t… do I look like a draugr?”
            “To be precise, you are partially undead. You are, precisely, brain dead. Your body still functions, and the procedure that I performed restored enough conscious control over your body that further deterioration was halted.”
            “My heart stopped for several hours. After I was shot.”
            “I know.”
            “And that didn’t cause further deterioration?”
            “Most likely it did. But your heart is, I understand, beating again?”
            Ana nodded.
            “This is… not exactly familiar territory, medically speaking. If we are to be precise, it may in fact no longer fall under the category of medicine at all.”
            Ana nodded, though her mind was beginning to wander. Had she really escaped Far Watch intact? What horrific things might be going on underneath her skin at this moment?
            “It is most likely that your body has managed to recover, or will eventually recover, from this trauma. You – the very essential you – are in control of your own body. Your brain does not need to function for this to be the case. That is one of the first principles of necromancy.”
            Ana shifted again in her seat. She had not had any of the coffee yet. She suspected that it would remain there and get cold. “That word… is not exactly a comforting one.”
            “Believe it or not, necromancy was once a rather neutral term. A thousand years ago, when Vansa was just Vansa, the doctors of Spire used the term to refer to anything from magically reanimating dead tissue to surgically performing organ transplants.”
            “I think it tends to be used more for the former these days.”
            “Indeed, but figures like Paul Airbright, Mogra Thesh and this Icelord have perverted this school of study into something quite abominable.” Meldi had transitioned strongly into his professional authority form. “Ana, I have asked you here first to beg your forgiveness for keeping this secret from you. No matter how the medical rules tied my hands when you were a minor, I was under an ethical obligation to tell you, and I failed to do so.”
            It was easier to forgive. But for now, she withheld it.
            Proceeding, though clearly having noted her silence, Meldi said “Secondly I want to ask if I may examine you. Conventional doctors will be unlikely to be able to navigate around your individual condition. You suffered a terrible injury that would have killed you had things been different. We need to ensure that your body has not suffered any serious long-term effects.”
            He seemed surprised at this quick and easy answer. “Very well. I’m afraid I don’t have any sort of examination room here. I will attempt to secure one at the hospital. May I contact you once I’ve done so?”
            Meldi took his own cup of coffee and finally took a sip. “Well, I will let you know then.” He set his cup down. “Ana, is there something else troubling you?”           
            She looked up. “Necromancers don’t just raise the dead. They control the dead.”
            Meldi stared at her for a second, as if this notion had not even occurred to him. He looked her in the eyes, placing his hand on hers. “Not you. You are in full control of your will and your actions.”
            Ana nodded, and she believed him. She realized now all the doubts that had been swimming in her head. She had worried, when she found out what she was, that any number of aspects of her personality might have been the product of Meldi’s procedure. Was her career, her sexuality, her very demeanor all the product of this strange magic?
            Yet now, she did see Meldi once again as the lollipop man, the man who had done for her something that no other doctor would have been able to. He had saved her life. He had given her the life she had.
            They chatted about more mundane topics for a few minutes and then Ana began her walk back home, past neighbors who could not help but stare. Tomorrow she would have lunch with Harrick at the Unnamed Shack, get drinks with Nick and George and perhaps, after some time, there would be a return to normalcy, or at least the establishment of a new normal.
            Meldi watched her walk down the street until she could no longer be seen out of his window. He noticed that she had not touched her coffee. He took the tray to the sink and poured the cold liquid down the drain.

            His hands were shaking. He nearly fell as he dropped himself back into the kitchen chair, holding his head in his hands.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


            Henry put the little pat of cheese in his mouth. He chewed it and swallowed it. He had come to this shop many times when he was a child. The Thalls were only barely patrician, and far from aristocratic, and so as he grew older he recognized that the many things he had thought of as luxurious and refined as a child were actually his family’s misguided attempts to display extravagance that were absent true taste.
            He had gone through several phases during his teenage years after discovering this about his background. He had rejected it for a time and tried to adopt the persona of a down-to-earth proletariat, only to grow bored of that joyless existence that seemed to regard aesthetics and indeed intellectual nuance as untrustworthy. Then he had tried to persuade his parents to cultivate true refinement. When that failed, he decided instead that there was an odd sort of dignity in being an eccentric. He may not be one of the society’s elites, but if he were to focus on some esoteric profession, he might become a distinct enough individual to earn his place in society as the object of curiosity among his social betters.
            The Arcane seemed like the appropriate direction for this study. It was unconventional, yet steeped in tradition occupying that sweet spot between respectable and esoteric, and so when he went off to university, he chose that as his specialization.
            Despite its simplicity, he had always liked this type of cheese – a cold and crumbly Kelishire. It was salty and sharp – or at least it had been in the past. Now the taste was mostly absent. Instead, he had merely the texture.
            The price of power, he thought.
            It had been in university that Henry met his good friend Richard Airbright. After sharing a few compelling post-seminar discussions with the scion of that ancient house, Henry had briefly experienced a romantic infatuation with him, though this ended mere days later when Henry met Chloe, who frankly made Richard seem quite underwhelming by comparison.
            He had told Richard, Chloe, Esmeralda, and the others about his variable romantic preferences, despite the fact that among the ruling class, this was simply Not Done. It had been quite the relief to find that none of his closest friends at university seemed to mind much. Still, he had always kept his brief infatuation with Richard to himself. He had had no interest in complicating what had become a rewarding platonic friendship.
            The odd thing is that he remembered these feelings, but he could not conjure them as a truly recalled experience. The very thought of being physically intimate – with a man or a woman – had become hollow. He was neither repulsed nor drawn to it.
            It was like the cheese.
            A great deal of time had passed in that strange period when he was bound to that tomb in Faewatch. He had been aware of the passage of time, but his thoughts had been locked in such a way that he had been unable to count the days.
            It was not the first time he had experienced such a finite eternity. The process of his transformation had been similar, or rather, it had been something on a far larger scale. Richard had forced him to experience the second eternity because of the effects of the first.
            He was sitting on a bench on the street. Men and women passed by him. His sense of smell had been the first to fade when he underwent his transformation. Scent was something most notable in its absence. The people passing him surely had scents that wafted off of them at all times, and he could analyze these in a sort of intellectual way, but he could not call upon the actual sensation of experiencing them. He could merely account for them, process them. It was as if he were reading a book that described their sweat and perfume. He remembered that he knew what those smelled like, but the actual phantom sensation he might have conjured for himself when he was a human never came.
            He did not hate them. That would have defeated the purpose. The goal, as Henry Thall saw it, was to create a world in which there was no hatred. That was, admittedly, one side of a fairly heavy coin, but he was convinced that it would all be worth it.
            There had been a voice in his head in the earliest days, when he had still been at University, when Richard was only beginning to piece together why Henry’s skin had gone chalk-white. The voice had questioned what the White King truly represented.
            The doubts had not gone away, exactly, but he knew them as irrelevancies. The White King would come, with or without his help.. His doubts were moot. The Royal Arcane Society was lending its assistance, quite unwillingly, one dead arcanist at a time. And among them was a high-ranking member of the House. The faceless men even communicated to him that some astronomers in Arizradna had discovered the location of Arashka, putting the entire plan one step farther along, though there was some ambiguity as to whether the Agents had been able to record the data before the observatory was sabotaged.
            Perhaps he had overestimated Richard Airbright’s ability to interfere. His relationship with the warlock had perhaps skewed his priorities. But Richard had entered the field of play, and something would have to be done about it.
            You can’t save him by turning him, came that old voice.
            He had been over it several times. Richard had rejected his offer decades ago, and there did not seem to be much of a point in trying to get him to change his mind. The man had summoned a demon to safeguard him from such things. But then, Richard had always been the reckless one.
            Strange to think he had fathered a child. His greyed hair and wrinkled skin had been expected. Time had passed – several decades, Henry had quickly discovered. Yet somehow he had never considered that Richard might have had offspring. There was a whole new generation of people walking this world. Sweet Clara could not have been much older – perhaps ten years at the most – but somehow the notion of a young prostitute willing to make a desperate deal had an eternal quality to it, and so he had not even really thought of her as belonging to any particular generation. Clara existed to him merely as a concept outside of time. Only just now did he consider that if his life had gone in a very different direction, someone like Clara might have been his own daughter.
            Yet he did not feel sorry for this life unlived. Perhaps he felt sorry that he was bereft of wistful thoughts, but the entire thing was such an abstraction that he could not, even if he tried, conjure up some sort of emotional response to the whole thing.
            In those late nights at university, in their studies of esoteric legends – stories passed on by golems out of the Redlands who had long since ground themselves into dust – there had been a burning passion to discover this new form of power. Henry had been the one to achieve it. And now? Perhaps maturity was learning to be satisfied with the achievements one had attained.
            Perhaps that was what Richard had discovered over his years as a true adult. Maybe that was why Ravenfort had not burned to the ground to make way for the great Richard Airbright’s glorious future. There was some disappointment in that, even if Thall could plot an imagined trajectory that Richard’s life had taken since binding his best friend like some paltry demon – a life in which the goal of being the most powerful man in the world had faded and his concerns turned to the practical challenges of adulthood.

            But Henry Thall was ageless. He had not lost his ambitions. The White King had given him a purpose. It was time to stop hesitating. Time to act.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


            Six Coins arrived in the morning by airship, but getting back to his home in Exbrooke would take potentially two more hours, pushing his arrival to afternoon. His codename would not suffice anymore. After the catastrophe in Arizradna, he had only one of his enchanted coins left. The others had been stolen, disenchanted, or broken entirely by the sheer force of will of his opponents.
            He had come to try to restore some semblance of order to operations there, but it was clear that the Schism had spilled over to the other continents. Something called Templar One – previously believed to be a Rogue Agent, but that mystery had only deepened – had taken one of the most exemplary branches of the House and turned it into a slaughterhouse. The chains had broken almost entirely, and the kind of trust that one learned as an old-school House Agent had evaporated. He had given the most superior surviving agent in the country, a djinni called Mr. Flow, license to reorganize due to the emergency, but Six Coins was hearing reports that he had been killed as well somewhere in the south.
            Six Coins himself had been shot and stabbed twice, the second time by an Agent called Greenthumb, whom he had recruited personally – loyalties be damned. Whatever this was, it had to be larger than the Rogue operating out of the Sarona Desert. This was something far stranger and exceedingly dangerous. He only hoped that the Diplomat was keeping himself safe over there – assuming, of course, that the Diplomat was not the one behind all of this in the first place.
            He arrived by coach – a conveyance that was hardly inconspicuous, but surely less conspicuous than allowing someone in Ravenfort to see Sir Roderick Candel sneaking about in an ordinary cab. Exbrooke was a comforting sight after hot deserts of Arizradna. Some nice rain, and some tea followed by something stronger would help him begin to put himself together after his travels.
            He stepped out of the coach and gave the driver a crisp bill after he unloaded the luggage. Crimms, good man as he ever was, had already come down with an umbrella. He took up the bags and held the umbrella over the two of them.
            “I hope your trip was productive, Sir Roderick?” said Crimms.
            “Unfortunately no. A damned bloody mess, actually.”
            “I have some tea brewing, and a bottle of 20 year Glenwhaye on ice.”
            “Well done, Crimms.”
            They entered the house and Six Coins removed his glove, hat, and coat, handing them to Crimms. “Sir, your coins?” said the old footman.
            “Yes, well, as I said, a bloody mess over there.”
            “Will you be safe, sir? With all the RAS members being killed?”
            I’d forgotten about that, thought Six Coins. He had been so consumed in the machinations of the opposing faction within the House – they had begun to call them the “Whites” for lack of a better term – that he forgot about the serial killings that had been going on. “Rest assured, Crimms. The coins were only for my personal protection. The residence should be impregnable.”
            “I only worry for your safety, sir.”
            “That’s kind of you to say, Crimms.” Six Coins believed it. Crimms was the sort of old-fashioned servant who looked to his master as something greater than human. It would certainly shatter some illusions if Crimms could see that Six Coins’ direct superior within the House was a mousy little grandmother with a foreign accent from the Sagrean Sea (though anyone who knew who she really was might bow down to her as if she were a Queen.)
            Crimms was walking toward the closet to put coat away when he stopped short. “Sir, I just remembered. That younger gentleman was by here earlier today. The one with the glasses. You instructed me not to ask him his name?”
            Four Eyes. Of course he had been here. He was meant to wait until Six Coins arrived. “Oh, is he not here?”
            “No sir, but I did relay your message to him.”
            “Message, what message?”
            “I received a call earlier today from Dowdry. That I was to convey to the young gentleman.”
            Dowdry? Dowdry had been his valet when he left for Arizradna. Three days after arriving, several gunmen had attacked their hotel room. Dowdry had been shot at least seven times, at least one of which had been unambiguously fatal. He had forgotten all about Dowdry – a recent hire given that Crimms’ advancing age made travel too difficult for him.
            “What was the message?”
            “I don’t entirely recall, sir. Something about a bog, I think?”
            A bog. “Not Murleg’s bog?”
            “Yes, I believe it was. Something about a hole dug up there. I had no idea what it meant, but I never wish to pry, sir.”
            It was the bog where Four Eyes had dumped Thatch’s body, back before the Jaroka mission. Someone had known how to draw him out. Four Eyes was a powerful asset, a mole within the Rookery. And now he was being set up.
            “Crimms, I’ll be going out again,” he said, and without waiting for his coat, he ran out the door. Six Coins began furiously casting scouting spells to try to track down where Four Eyes had gone. Absentmindedly, he held out a hand to hail a cab. He would figure out where to go along the way.
            The cab pulled up and Six Coins stepped in. “Start heading downtown. I’ll tell you more when I know where we’re going.”
            “You’ve got it, partner,” said the cabbie with a hint of a Redlander accent.
            They turned down Kellihan’s Overlook toward Bishop’s Bridge. With a high perspective on the rest of Ravenfort, Six Coins attempted to map out possible locations where Four Eyes might have gone and where the Whites might have dumped Thatch’s body.
            If the Whites had gotten their hands on the real Thatch’s body, where would they put it? Would they just show it to the Rookery? No, that would expose them. They’d only use it to make sure that Four Eyes would make a mistake. He might have gone to the safehouse in Exbrooke – which was oddly convenient, given his proximity.
            That was when Six Coins heard the sound of metal scraping against leather.
            He looked up. The cab driver was familiar. Six Coins did a quick mental search and realized that it was Jeremy Ford. He had never dealt with the man personally – the House did not often need outside contractors for wet work – but he was familiar.
            “Mr. Ford. I hadn’t recognized you,” said Six Coins, preparing a spell in his hand. “I assure you that whatever they are paying you, we can do far better. But only if you leave me alive.”
            And then Six Coins noticed that there were grey hand-prints on the man’s head. The hair and skin had sort of melted together into a colorless mass. Ford smiled, stretching the grey non-flesh in disgusting ways. His teeth had become stained with something that smelled oddly like coffee, only entirely unpleasant.
            “They’re not paying me anything, Six Coins. That’s not how Mr. Thall operates.”
            Six Coins tried to recall who Thall was, but came up short. “The House will kill you for this, Ford.”
            “Kill me? Six Coins, I’m already dead.” He pulled the gun out and fired, but not before Six Coins grabbed him by the wrist. The bullet missed, shattering the rear windshield instead. Ford’s grip was amazingly strong. He pulled back the hammer on the revolver once more. Six Coins released the hand and cast his spell.
            Tine sioc!” he cried out, and a four-inch-long missile of ice that blazed with light blue flames shot out from his hand, shearing off half of Ford’s head with it. The other half was flash-frozen and Six Coins could see a trail of frozen mist going out the massive, but cleanly circular hole in the windshield.
            The cab veered off the left, and before Six Coins could react, they skidded into the guardrail. They collided with an oncoming lorry, which gave the cab the last push it needed to go over the edge, down to the point where the Vinely River joined the Lockey on its way through the center of the city, two hundred feet below.
            Nascine took a knife from the kitchen. It wasn’t the sort of thing that was designed for combat. In fact, the cheap things that the Rookery would pay for weren’t really all that good for cutting bread or meat. Still, it was more of a weapon than she was likely to have.
            It had definitely been Tartin – she knew the voice almost as well as her own. She held the knife with the blade flat against the palm side of her forearm, able to stab or slash with it should it come to that.
            The House had made it there first. They knew about the building, and somehow they had tracked her through the forest… or they knew that she was going to come this way.
            Violence did not come naturally to her. She was a thief of the old school.
            The basement was dark. She peeked at the light switch, finding it in the “on” position. She made a sweep through the ground floor, her shoes left behind to reduce the noise of her steps. She did not see anyone.
            The basement stairs were old wood, and likely prone to creaking. It was a feature – making it harder to be snuck up on if someone should find the safehouse.
            Still, she had trained with the Rookery for almost half her life. She slid through the door and landed on the basement floor next to the stairs.
            It was almost pitch black – only a little light had been able to cascade down from the hallway. There was a wall that obscured the stairs from the main basement room. If the people in there had heard her, they made no mention of it.
            She could hear Tartin breathing. He made no attempt to quiet it. Faintly, she could hear another pulse of breaths. Tartin moaned. He sounded woozy and in pain.
            Nascine crept forward, grateful for the porous concrete floor that disguised steps far better than the hardwood above. She was careful to keep the blade of her knife sandwiched between her arm and her hip, just in case there was some beam of light that the knife might catch.
            There was a very low hum, like some sort of electrical appliance. That meant that it was probably the light bulb that had been removed and not the breaker that had been flipped.
            She lowered herself to the ground, almost to a crawl. Tartin continued to vocalize. She peered around the wall, hoping to catch a glimpse in that darkness. That was when she noticed that there was a basement window.
            The window was bright, with blue-shaded sunlight pouring in. The room should have been perfectly visible, but it wasn’t. In fact, the light bulb that hung from the ceiling radiated a yellow glow, but somehow it did not seem to illuminate anything except for her retinas.
            Her stomach seemed to plunge as she realized that whoever was there could probably see her.
            “All right,” she said, dropping any pretense of stealth. “I can hear you breathing. Don’t think I can’t throw this knife just from that.”
            “…Emily?” moaned Tartin.
            “Yes, Gil, I’m here.” She pushed forward into the inky darkness that filled the room. She closed her eyes, hoping that it would turn off that part of her brain enough to enhance the other parts.
            “Emily, he’s…” and then Tartin gasped, whispering “ok, ok.”
            Nascine held the knife at the ready, hoping desperately that her ability to throw it would surpass her confidence in doing so. She moved forward, toward Tartin’s voice, trying to focus on the second pulse of breathing.
            Her foot brushed something. She felt it with her free hand. It was smooth, with hard right-angle edges.
            A glint of something to her left. She turned and ducked. She could hear Tartin moving along with someone much quieter.
            “Emily, they killed Chris Thatch!” yelled Tartin.
            There was a click – the mechanical sort of sound that could be that of a revolver’s hammer being pulled back or a pistol’s safety flicked off. Her knife flashed and there was a shot. She charged forward, barreling into the spot where she had seen the explosion of light.
            In an instant, the darkness blinked away. She slashed with her knife and the tall man she had tackled cried out in pain as his gun clattered to the floor. She held the knife to the man’s throat and then gaped in shock.
            It was Chris Thatch – the man who she had thought of for so long as James Tarson. He was bleeding from his wrist where she had slashed him and she could see blood on the concrete under his head. He was still conscious, though he groaned in pain.
            She shouted back. “Gil? Are you all right?”
            “Almost,” he said. She glanced back to see that he was on the ground, clutching his leg, which was bleeding. “I think it was just a graze, but it hurts like hell.” With his uninjured foot, he kicked the gun to the far corner of the room.
            “Thatch,” she said. “What the hell were you doing?”
            Four Eyes answered only with a moan.
            “That isn’t Chris Thatch, Emily,” said Tartin.
            She looked back. Tartin shook his head.
            “What?” she asked.
            “Thatch is in there,” he said, and pointed to the Ice Chest.
            Nascine spared a moment to glance over. She could see an arm hanging out of the chest, blue with frost.
            “What the hell?” she asked, but before Tartin could say anything, she understood.

            “You’ve been looking for a House agent within the Rookery? I think you just found him.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)