Piercing A Veil
At dusk Manmidden Field, shadowy even at noon, spread a blanket of black. Choked fields of horsetail, milkweed, and nettles went dark, and alder trunks hid the orange sunset like fingers. A chill breeze carried the chirps of crickets, an owl's hoot, and the flutter of bat wings.
Padia thought for the tenth time, Why could we not wait until dawn? The nightmeal party began at Jessis in two hours. What if they lost the battle against the autrefect of the Cordial Guards? Who would survive to face Vilph? If only the magicians could have found Vilph earlier -- but finding the wary illusionist proved impossible.
In a small circle of torchlight, Padia and Thanyx stood at the lip of the ritual pit. It seemed to swallow the light. They could not see the obelisk nor the wall of stick figures. At any moment Padia expected to see a huge three-fingered hand reach up at her --
She shuddered. ``I still don't know them, Thanyx. All these days of study, and I still can't reconcile the Guards' behavior with what I've learned of their history.''
``Spirits hard to understand sometimes. Like people.'' The old woman gave Padia a motherly smile. Then, still holding the wizard's gaze, Thanyx solemnly spat on her own index finger. She bent and began tracing a circle in the earth around the pit, talking as she went.
``Apprentice, Katri, ask once, `When we die, do we turn into any strange spirit, random, because Death changes us? Or does our nature in life decide what Death makes us?' I tell her, `Is like asking, Is nature in life decided by heritage from parents, or by what happens to us?' She say, `Some of both.' I say to her, `There you are.' I remember way she smiles at that.''
Thanyx finished the circle, tracing around Padia. ``There. Guards have much trouble crossing this line.'' She groaned as she straightened. ``Too old for this. Must cross line myself soon, from this life to larger one.''
Padia smiled nervously. ``Not tonight, I hope.''
The nethermancer eyed her. ``Save hope for important things. Help me down in pit, please.''
They descended, bringing the torch. Its light seemed pale and dim in the pit, and it showed no details of the wall. The air felt much colder and smelled stale. Thanyx sniffed, then said, ``Need better light.'' She began the chant she had used at Katri's funeral. In moments glowing spirit-flies congregated, gathered in a central sphere overhead, and shed blessed astral light on the pit. The wall showed forth in perfect detail, and the air carried a new freshness.
``I stand guard while you work,'' said Thanyx. ``Hope guilds are ready, not arguing over who has nicer robes.''
Padia knelt and examined the wall. Deep within the grooves of each stick figure, she saw a grayish mist. It hurt her eyes to look at it, the sure sign of a dimensional gate. The wall itself was the Guards' portal. If she could dispel the wall's magic, she could return the Guards wherever they came from.
As the last ray of sunlight faded from the horizon, Padia hesitantly touched one of the grooves. At that moment she heard a voice from the lip of the pit.
``Good evening. We must ask that you not disturb the wall. We would appreciate your cooperation.''
She caught her breath and looked over her shoulder. Three soldiers, of the lowest rank of Cordial Guards, stood at the pit's edge, looking down at her with their bulbous white lantern-eyes. Their axes glowed brightly, but the light did not touch their triangular heads or angular black limbs.
Thanyx whispered, ``Be strong. Have circle to protect us.''
Padia turned back to her work, trying to control her heartbeat. One Guard raised its axe and stepped over the edge of the pit.
The circle flashed brilliantly, like constant lightning. The energy flickered up and down the Guard's sticklike limbs. The spirit made no sound, but the lower triangle that served as its mouth fell open. Its rubbery arms wavered, and it dropped its axe. As soon as the axe left the spirit's hand, it vanished. The Guard fell back, fell to the ground, quivered, and lay still.
The other soldiers looked blankly at their fallen companion. Then they stepped forward toward the circle.
Thanyx called, ``Back! Retire! Circle draws on power of a hundred worlds beyond your own. Axe cannot harm it, touch cannot hurt it. Spirits cannot pass.''
``We are deeply sorry to disagree,'' said one soldier. Nonetheless, they retired from the lip of the pit. Thanyx let out a breath. ``How goes study?''
Padia murmured noncommitally. She had identified the wall as a gate, but of what kind? What would make it fail?
The wall's secrecy bothered her. For all those millennia it had remained buried, perhaps exhumed from time to time but otherwise a dark secret. She could not reconcile the Guards' self-assured veneration of ``the real time'' with that need for secrecy.
Thanyx muttered, ``More trouble. Soldiers brought help.''
Padia glanced back and saw, beyond the lip of the pit, the larger triangle that marked the soldiers' superior, an antiphon. Then another bobbed up beside it. The two giant stick figures raised their axes in unison. ``Please leave the pit at once!'' one called. ``We must meet disobedience with strong measures.''
Seeing no cooperation, one antiphon crossed the circle, axe forward. White fire flashed again, but the axe absorbed it. The Guard faltered, then took one long mantis step into the pit. It rocked back and forward on its clicking joints, then ran at Thanyx.
Concentrating, Thanyx extended her right hand, then clenched it. The antiphon halted in mid-step. Its triangular jaw fell open, hanging free in space. The Guard collapsed like a tripod, but as it fell, it swung. The blade passed invisibly through the old woman's midriff, and she screamed in agony.
The Guard fell and lay still, dead of a constricted heart. The stick figure dissipated in heatless green flame. Thanyx stood panting. ``Wondered if they had hearts,'' she said, then fell senseless to the earth floor.
Padia felt sharp fear. She shouted, ``Thanyx is down!'' She dared not get distracted. She thought, What kind of mentality starts a secret cult that lasts ages, solely to re-establish the old times? An arrogant mind. Not one that buries itself in Manmidden's ruins.
At the edge of the pit, the second antiphon took a step across the circle. Another flash of lightning -- but this time a new flare joined it, a dome of fire that fell from overhead directly atop the antiphon.
The trapped Guard turned left and right in surprise, then tried to slash the flaming bars with its axe. A chorus of chants echoed from the darkness of the alder trees. Suddenly the antiphon's left leg exploded, then its the right arm, twin bursts like dry wood burning. An odor of decay filled the air. Still trapped in the fire cage, the antiphon looked around dumbly. ``Most regrettable,'' it said, and then its right leg, right arm, body, and head exploded simultaneously. What little remained dissipated in green flame.
Taundis Boyhan stepped out of the darkness and dismissed his flaming cage. The other elementalists of Geocosm followed him: Gideon, Simon, Ramiel the elf, and Forleau the Gleaner. ``Well handled, nethermancers,'' said Taundis to the six approaching magicians of Oneiros.
They met at the lip of the pit. Morlin and Hendon climbed carefully down to tend to Thanyx while Ghantrem, Xylona, Logro, Daimon, and the others waited solemnly. They examined her, then looked up. ``Very bad,'' said Morlin. ``Healers must tend to her soon.''
Ghantrem said, ``We can spare no one here. There is nothing for it but to wait until after the battle.'' He nodded tensely to the Geocosm magicians. ``We have practiced that concerted shattering effect, but never so well as that. You note, Boyhan, that our spells actually destroyed the thing.''
Boyhan replied coolly, ``We were glad to leave you that honor, though your delay surprised us.''
Ramiel added, ``I am told that working with astral vapors injures the eyesight. Therefore we took pains to immobilize your target.''
The temperature seemed to drop a few degrees. Both guilds watched as Morlin and Hendon carried Thanyx from the pit. She looked pale and ill.
In the silence Ramiel said, ``Landswoman Villandry, how goes your work?''
Padia waved away the question. Why a wall? she thought. Why not an amulet or wand or shrine? She felt frustrated that she could not identify the wall's central purpose, the emotions that lay behind its creation. Her own recent emotions had guided her disastrously. Now she meant to use her wizard's mind to solve a problem intelligently.
The magicians left her to her concentration. Dispelling magic was wizards' work, not theirs. ``What do we know of this autrefect?'' Gideon Lant asked the Oneiros magicians. ``I understand it to be quite large.''
Xylona Xanthis, the deformed mad crone, scratched at her warty face with one distorted finger. ``Eee-yes, you might say that. Large! I do say. Heh heh.''
``What a pleasant laugh,'' said Gideon with a strained smile. ``May I therefore assume we shall see it coming from afar off, and have time to erect appropriate defenses?''
``It is not quite that simple,'' began Daimon Angelicon Dimitrio. Suddenly they heard a metallic shrieking, not from the surrounding field but down in the pit itself. Long-buried memories rose in the magician's minds, juvenile terrors and apprentice pranks and early adventures. Shocked, they looked down.
Padia smelled the thick sweet aroma of devotion biscuits, and she recalled strange memories of Alban. She looked around. Three paces behind her, a pool of green light whirled in the air. She knew that light. The autrefect's gigantic three-fingered hand reached out from the dimensional gate.
``Manacle!'' shouted Ramiel Sandstorm as he pointed at the hand. A shimmering sky-blue ring locked around each stick finger and the wrist. Held fast, fingers as long as Padia's height writhed just behind her shoulders.
She shut away the thought and kept working. In the blessed light of Thanyx's spell Padia noted an inscription in some strange dead alphabet of overlapping circles and dotted curlicues. She concentrated, trying to divine its meaning magically.
From high above came a still louder screech of torn metal. Three more pools of green light formed, marking the points of a long triangle that enclosed Oneiros and Geocosm.
Simon Weald said distinctly, ``Oh, no.''
From one pool extended a grasping hand; from the other two, mantis legs, tall as the alder trees. All three reached to grab or stamp out the magicians.
The din of their desperate incantations almost drowned out the screeching. Airy fog spirits coalesced, smelling of dew. Earthen walls rose rumbling from the ground, and fire lit the scene. Combined, the powers of the two guilds barely held back the spirit. Cold sweat beaded each magician's forehead.
The autrefect's attacks ceased. A silence fell. Then a larger pool of light formed directly overhead. A wide triangular head began to emerge, upside down.
``Passions help us, I believe we have finally earned its respect,'' said Ghantrem. He sounded dismayed.
Logro the Skinworker tried to appear calm. ``One only wishes this autrefect respected one's spatial orientation. This business of a hand here, leg there, head overhead, will put a strain on one's neck.''
A head emerged -- much wider than those of the antiphons and soldiers, almost an equilateral. Horn-like spikes protruded from the top two points. Patterns of color washed across the huge white eye-globes. The head tilted back to look down at the frightened magicians.
The triangular jaw dropped and lifted slowly. The autrefect spoke in a cavernous, echoing bass.
``Pardonnn. I innntroduuuce mmmyself. Tennntho-o-onis, servannnt of huuumannnity.''
The head and its pool of light drifted downward, flipping upright. The limbs, including the manacled hand in the pit, withdrew from their pools of light and reappeared in new pools that formed below the head. With fascination and alarm the magicians looked into the black night sky and saw the autrefect whole: not a unified physical body, but a webwork of gated limbs ten times a human's height. The hands and legs moved back and forth weirdly. Stunned, the magicians thought, This was human.
``This is mmmy ho-o-ome realmmm. I restore reality. Please unnnderstannnd: You have nnno powwwer to stop mmme.''
Taundis Boyhan composed himself. ``We shall, well, we shall see about that. Geocosm.''
The elementalists closed around him as he drew a steel thimble from his sash. The plain thimble held a pinch of earth, a drop of spittle, and a scrap of dry leaf. Igniting the leaf with the smallest possible flame, Taundis breathed lightly across the fire, and the others followed him.
The thimble shook, rose slowly in the air, and drifted away from the magicians. The elements within it seethed, merged, and expanded. Tendrils of rock and grassy earth grew from the ground to form a man-shape, and wind whistled around its tree-root limbs. Acrid green mold crowned its head, and fire burned bright in its five eyes. Opening a gaping mouth and roaring, it lumbered toward the autrefect.
In the pit Padia at last felt the magical shift in her mind, and the inscription's meaning became clear. ``Let us hold firm and resolute against barbarism. Let the forces that guide us increase our courage and promote our fortune.'' She thought, An invocation of courage. Natural for human warriors, and yet these Guards hardly seem to need it. Her line of thought broke as debris showered into the pit. Rocks, root chunks, and five flaming eyes fell across a wide area.
Five elementalists stared, their mouths hanging open, as the autrefect's hands scattered the last remnants of the elemental creature. ``The realmmm of nnnature cannot stannnd before humannnity. This is mmmy realmmm of power.''
Ghantrem shouted, ``Oneiros! The dusts!'' The six nethermancers reached into pouches, vials, and censers and brought forth handfuls of sparkling gray-white dust -- bone dust. Throwing the dust high at Ghantrem's signal, they all chanted furiously.
The dust drifted against the breeze and surrounded each of the autrefect's disjointed limbs. As it drifted, each grain of dust became a tiny spirit, flickering up and down the color spectrum. The horde set upon the stick limbs and head, gnawing like termites.
The autrefect waved its limbs dismissively. The fingers and legs passed through the prismatic clouds, and the spirits died by hundreds. No one heard their screams except as a grating vibration felt in the teeth. In moments all had vanished.
``The powers of other realmmms, of past and fuuuture, cannot stannnd before huuumans innn their ownnn,'' said the autrefect with certainty.
Hearing this, Padia finally understood. All those years ago, when he built the wall, Tenthonis the autrefect had felt fear. He had built a wall against the progress of history. Those ancient people before the Scourge felt haunted by looming chaos -- by change.
Padia's insight connected that time with her own. Barsaive faced precisely the reverse problem. The legacy of the Scourge still haunted Merron past its appointed time, in the person of the Composite Form and the Egregore behind it. She herself feared the past, the haunting return of the old Alban from across a gap of ten years. Her stubborn reaction, her building of walls, had led to disaster, just as it has with the autrefect.
Looking at the black stone wall, Padia realized that as long as she shared the autrefect's fear of other times, she could not hope to defeat it. Hauntings by the future and by the past -- the key to abolishing the fear, she knew, lay in accepting the moment. In this world of change, any attempt to hold onto something, anything, invited disaster. Looking out of the pit at the autrefect, developing contempt for what it represented, Padia tried to formulate her insight in a word.
She turned to the wall. Earth had entombed it for millennia, while fireflies, people, forests, and empires grew and died in unceasing flow a fathom overhead. Its builders had embraced that suffocating darkness where nothing changed, driven by a terror they would not name. She knew its name. She saw with clarity.
Casting her counterspell in a spirit of courage and confidence, she whispered, ``Impermanence.''
The wall imploded. A harsh wind, loud with many voices, rushed past her into the wall's collapsing space. For an instant Padia saw behind it a vista of strangely garbed soldiers and distant citadels against a setting sun. How many had entered the wall and buried themselves in that time, abandoning this mutable world? In a second it vanished, leaving only the earthen embankment of the pit.
The autrefect had vanished as well, along with all the Cordial Guards in every borough of Merron. The magicians of Geocosm and Oneiros stumbled in mid-spell, then cried out in joy and relief.
``Well done, Villandry!'' Daimon called, and the others echoed him. Padia hardly heard them. She began murmuring her flight spell.
``How reassuring, Ghantrem,'' Taundis said grandly, ``that nethermancers, too, feel uneasy around the spirits they summon.''
Ghantrem smiled thinly. ``Indeed. We, too, take comfort that even the unlettered can appreciate the terrible power of the spirit world.''
Forleau the Gleaner, ordinarily so quiet, spoke with a bitter smile. ``To say nothing of the terrible skill of its magicians.''
``You rainmakers hardly showed up better with your overblown golem!'' -- ``Were those mosquitoes intended to actually harm the autrefect?'' -- ``What use were your spells, then?'' -- ``Or yours? You might as well have stayed home!''
The bickering grew louder, until Padia flew up out of the pit. ``Enough! Will no one care for Thanyx?''
The magicians lapsed into shamed silence as she flew to the fallen nethermancer's side.
One magician already stood there, the last anyone would have expected: Ramiel Sandstorm, elf elementalist, master of the condescending slight. He had stood apart from the quarrel, chanting an incantation. Now he spread his arms, and with a high, musical hum, iridescent silver membranes appeared at his shoulders. They angled back like a chimney swift's wings.
He knelt to lift the wounded woman in his arms, then rose and stared coldly at the guilds. ``Among my kind we do not bicker in victory, nor find fault while comrades lie unattended. I shall fly the nethermancer to the Garlen shrine on Waymaster Street in Hempline. Landswoman Villandry, will you join me?''
``I'd be honored,'' Padia said, looking down at Thanyx with a curious mixture of affection and detachment. The old woman already knew what Padia had learned; save hope for important things, she had said. ``-- But I cannot,'' Padia continued. ``I can do no more for her than you can, and I must lead the others to Jessis. Go with good fortune.''
The wings hummed as they launched Ramiel into the night.
Padia turned to the guilds. ``Now, we must cross the river to Oldtown. Those who can fly may carry those who cannot.''
Taundis Boyhan said forcefully, ``Vilph Axehandle is mine to kill. No one else's.''
Ghantrem said, ``Before talking of murder, let us first hope we can even stand against him.''
Taundis, on the verge of a caustic comment, bit it back. ``I, um, I intended to say earlier -- Geocosm thanks you for standing with us against the Guards.''
Ghantrem searched for sarcasm in these words, found none, and said guardedly, ``We of Oneiros thank you in turn. I admired your fire cage.''
``The, er, dust spirits were quite pretty,'' said Simon Weald amiably.
While the two guilds made stiff displays of friendship, Padia noticed two turquoise blurs overhead. She flew up and found the twin illusionists, Kharisha and Pluonus, floating on a carpet much like Vilph's. Padia could not tell them apart. Their pale, blurred features resolved only around the mouths, which showed broad grins.
``Lady went to the wall,'' said one.
``Windstorms and skeletons dance together,'' said the second.
``Good thing you stopped all that rebuilding,'' said the first.
Padia asked, ``Why did you help me against the autrefect? More to the point, why have you not helped otherwise?''
High giggles. Both sets of lips pursed as though whistling. Bright turquoise butterflies fluttered from their mouths on puffs of air. The butterfly glamours flew around Padia's head, and she had to restrain herself from swatting at them.
``Will you help us against Vilph Axehandle?''
``Lady wizards and gray orks --'' began one.
``-- Look alike in the dark,'' the second finished. The twins vanished.
Alone among the city's boroughs, Hempline straddled the Byrose. The western half held rotted ferry wharfs for Twopenny workers, deserted airship pylons, low-rent warehouses, carpentry shops and ropeworks, and smokeweed dens. At night sane name-givers left it to the thugs and their victims.
Morinnan's thugs -- or, as he thought of them, his army -- assaulted Bandobar Pier an hour after dusk. They fought for the last seaworthy boats left on the west shore, the city watch's eight six-oar skiffs.
Morinnan had intended to bribe the guards with goods from the Tormathis warehouse, but with Alban beside him, he decided to simply take the pier. ``We hit Hempline,'' the troll had told his ministers, ``an' draft all the boats inta the new navy. That's our what-yer-call invasion force.''
Early in the battle, he climbed on a stack of empty cargo crates and surveyed the field. Oil lamps on high poles cast a yellow light across the scene. His gang -- his army faced tough opposition from the watchers, but all looked good so far. Tonight, six days after the flood ended, the Byrose current had finally slackened, and so Morinnan could hear the shouts along the pier. Three of his men had taken the dockhouse and closed the wooden gate out to the dock, separating seven watchers from their fellows on shore. When the seven tried to climb the gate, Morinnan's men shot at them clumsily with stolen arrows.
On the wharf and the adjoining quay, fifteen watchers in chain armor fought hard against the rest of Morinnan's tiny army. The watchers had the advantage in arms and shields, but Morinnan had Alban. The troll foresaw victory within a few minutes, and then an easy seizure of High Hill.
The troll considered cabinet appointments. Werrin knew how to write, so he would become official secretary. One-Eye Jurcki could add and subtract: minister of finance. Reg would take the ministry of defense. No, wait, Rogox had killed Reg. Pity. Reg had that big, threatening look that Morinnan wanted in a minister of defense. Rogox could do the job, except if he never said much but his name, he couldn't negotiate treaties.
Morinnan watched Alban with pleasure. The gang had stolen -- confiscated a pair of loose black trousers for the warrior, but he wore no shirt. At the moment Alban faced two watchers, a burly ork on one side, a human spearman opposite. Alban drove a fist into the ork's face, throat, chest, and groin, four blows faster than Morinnan could follow. The ork stood stupidly, his tongue protruding slightly.
Dodging the second watcher's spear thrust, Alban leaped up and drove his knee into the ork's head. As the ork fell, the second watcher tried again to spear Alban from behind. Alban flipped backward over the spear point, kicked back with one heel into the watcher's face, grabbed the spear, drove the shaft into the guard's throat, and fell lightly to the ground. Spinning the spear around his body with dazzling skill, he looked for new opponents.
The warrior magic within Alban knew nothing of Morinnan's goals or strategies. It simply took advantage of Morinnan's penchant for finding enemies. The magic judged anyone who attacked its vessel an enemy. Morinnan had exploited this without knowing it.
Morinnan looked around at the wharf gate behind him. The clatter of swords had drawn a mob of onlookers, Twopenny starvelings and criminals. At first they stood behind the gate and cheered indiscriminately for both sides. Their attention gradually centered on Alban, and for a time they simply stared, lost with wonder.
The crowd had no clear notion of heroes and villains in this battle. Had Alban fought there among them, or faced opponents more popular than the city watch, or even worn a sinister-looking outfit, the crowd might have feared him and judged him a menace. They would have fled him as the Antimere inmates fled. The flutter of a sparrow's wing, the pebble-toss that brings an avalanche, the rock thrown in a rapids that changes the current far downstream....
As it happened, the crowd began to cheer with each blow and kick Alban landed. With his every victory they shouted louder.
Between gales of laughter an old gray-bearded sailor called through the gate to Morinnan inside. ``'Ey, troll! How d'ye call thet little bald 'un?''
``Name o' Rogox,'' said Morinnan proudly. ``Official bodyguard ta Merron's new Supreme Magistrate.''
``Soo-preme Magistrate? Who's 'at?''
``Yer lookin' at him. Gonna start rulin' the city fer the people who do the real work! Throw out them bloats in High Hill, make 'em work fer their bread like honest folks, an' start treatin' people fair!''
The crowd broke into confused mutterings. Morinnan's impromptu campaign speech had taken them by surprise. Reading the crowd closely, Morinnan shouted, ``I'm Magistrate Morinnan! Rogox is with me! Are you?''
At that moment Alban made a spinning high kick between two watchers. He felled them both with simultaneous kicks to their chins. The crowd gasped, and then someone struck up a chant of ``Rogox!'' Morinnan smiled to hear the chant. When people chanted, they didn't think, and that suited him.
All the city seemed within his grasp. After killing or enlisting the token opposition at High Hill, he would rapidly plunder the Oldtown and Keystone mansions, distribute loot to the watch and the magicians in Schools, win them over, and then no one in the city could threaten him. He could kill or enslave anyone he disliked, and he would. The euphoric sense of power hit him like a drug.
In Morinnan's ambition I saw a threat to Merron's safety as great as the Affliction. Yet without the Composite Form I could do nothing to alert the guilds. Desperation brought me an idea, based on Padia's suspicion that an illusion masked me from name-givers' senses. I did not know the truth of this, but I had to try something. Here on Bandabar Pier stood the only name-giver in Merron likely to penetrate the illusion.
While I marshalled my forces, Morinnan turned and saw a huge armored troll bearing down on him, pole-ax raised. This was Kriast, the High Hill sentry. Morinnan saw that this troll, the only one on the dock, could present a real threat to him.
Kriast said, ``I heard of you, Morinnan! This is your doing, ain't it?'' Without waiting for an answer, Kriast swung at the other troll. Morinnan fell back and drew his lash.
``Give up now an' I'll save yer life!'' Morinnan told the watcher contemptuously. In answer, Kriast's axe blade sliced down, and Morinnan barely dodged it.
``Right, yer done!'' he shouted. ``Rogox, kill this bloat!'' Morinnan retreated again with a confident smile.
Kriast pressed his attack, swinging low. Startled, Morinnan sprang back, stumbled on a coiled hawser, and fell on his back. He rolled aside as the guard's blade sank deep in the wood planks of the wharf. The crowd stared breathlessly.
``Rogox!'' Morinnan called. ``Where are ya?''
Alban had retreated to the edge of the battle, down on the dirt quay north of the wharf. The remaining watchers saw him there, but they left him alone, preferring attacks on other gang members instead.
With its vessel's true sight the warrior magic had detected an observer. Until it judged the observer ally or enemy, it would not fight other opponents. Under the light of a single torch, Alban bent down, and the magic saw the observer -- me.
In more than four centuries I had never tried to coordinate my points of awareness, for I had no sense of self. Even now, with the awareness born of Vilph's enchantment on the Composite Form, I found it difficult. I worked only by Alban's perceptions. I cannot sense my individual points of self, any more than a name-giver senses single brain cells when thinking.
Through Alban's eyes I saw myself: a wavering circle of hundreds of ants. As I gathered my forces, more ants streamed into the circle, forming mosaic designs. The warrior magic watched alertly.
``Rogox!'' Morinnan's calls grew desperate. ``Anyone! C'mon, you bloats!''
Kriast pushed him hard, and he had only his lash against the other troll's pole-ax. Of the rest of the gang, seven still stood, against four watchers. Without Alban on the thugs' side, the balance of battle had shifted. A block away Morinnan heard shouted orders and the sound of many feet. Another watch patrol had arrived to reinforce the wharf. ``Rogox! Someone! Help me!''
A clarion trumpet sounded. The watchers who still stood cheered, and Morinnan's thugs looked at one another in panic. At that moment Kriast viciously swung his pole-ax. Morinnan dodged, not fast enough, and the long downward swing sliced away a piece of his thigh. Morinnan howled in pain. At the sound of his scream, Morinnan's army, his future cabinet ministers and ambassadors and security officers, broke and ran for the water. Pulling off their chain shirts, they dove into the muddy current and splashed away into the darkness.
With reckless energy Morinnan charged Kriast. The watcher's pole-axe caught him glancingly on the shoulder, and pain drew a red haze across his vision. All his plans, gone in a moment! Anguish and anger hit him like a drug.
In Merronese society few occasions matched a nightmeal party for showy grandeur, and of all nightmeal parties, the two hundred guests in the Jessis ballroom pronounced Padia Villandry's party the finest in living memory. They could hardly fail to think so, inasmuch as they received this idea directly from their ``hostess,'' Vilph Axehandle.
Illusion magic permeated the room. ``Ah, my friends,'' Vilph said silkily in Padia's voice to each group, ``I trust that tonight you are having the best time you have ever known.'' The Founders and their companions stared dumbly as the magic took hold, and then with glazed eyes they responded, ``Why, yes, Padia, the finest party in living memory!''
The ballroom needed no illusion to accent its glories. An immense bronze speculum mirror, incised with owl designs in black niello, dominated one end of the room. It reflected a huge fireplace halfway down the east wall and the roaring fire in it. The mirror also reflected the ceiling-high windows on the opposite wall, and the darkened grounds beyond. Vilph thought sourly, Night at one end of the room, night at the other, and pointless bright activity between. If these drones only took that as a metaphor! Thinking on it himself, he felt a chill, quickly hidden behind a lowering flat of idle contempt.
Between mirror and darkened windows stretched four long rows of tables. Embroidered cloths of linen and lace covered the tables, and giant everburning candelabrae covered the cloths. Brass and pewter services held thirty courses of food: meats from chicken to alligator to crakbill, sage and cilantro and a dozen more sauces of exquisite delicacy, blowfish and mackerel broiled in the prized t'skrang spice astendar, deviled lamb kidneys, poached eggs in mushroom sauce nested in noodles, avocado halves vinaigrette and rampion, scallions fried in sesame oil, golden raspberries with spearmint leaves in spun sugar cages, and wicker baskets of steaming poppyseed rolls two minutes old.
Servants crept deferentially down the aisles, carrying golden bowls filled with pippin apples, yellow plums, salaks, rambutans, and blood oranges with owl designs carved in the peels. What could shake these unflappable servants? With perfect composure they offered warmed fingercloths and six vintages of wine to the illustrious Founding Families of Merron.
Only the occasional glimpse of an ant crawling on a table leg or, perhaps, on the illustrious neck of a Founder, could shake these stewards. They left the Founding necks untouched, but with a curt nod sent footmen with brushes to discreetly remove the ants. Yet a thousand footmen with a thousand arms could not find and brush away all my millions of ants, which crawled every street and every wall and ceiling in Merron. For centuries, with soft tread and silence, they had infiltrated the city and brought me the thoughts and patterns of every name-giver in it. The combined mass of my viewpoint ants may have outweighed all Merron's citizens together.
The ants compose my mentality, and so I saw the party as if seated with its celebrated guests. Beside me sat Earlene and Insquiss Nurnwood, she thin and short with bulging eyes, he thin and short with bulging nose. Beside me at another table sat Delia Styche-Mudd, heiress to the Styche water-dowsing fortune, dressed in a crinoline extravaganza that shapelessly shrouded her body from neck to ankles. At a third table I sat beside the magistrates Kittague and Carush and a dozen of their predecessors, a gallery of pourpoint coats and yellow sashes, who talked politics endlessly with Zlatko, a plenipotentiary from Throal.
Elsewhere I eavesdropped on the words and thoughts, such as they were, of Parrsytes, Frey-Lowdens, Trucklers, Leyches, Moaches, and all the society flotsam of Merron. History and chance had carried their ancestors high, and that current still lifted these descendants. They rose without effort, like a sodden wood-chip afloat on a rising tide.
The matriarch of Merronese society, Landswoman Bulrutha Barghill-Bhurn, held court at a table near the fireplace, where she could see and be seen by everyone. The dwarf woman sat on a high spindle-back chair with her green frilled gown arrayed around her like a bed of endive. She wore a flat-topped green wimple, a cloth that covered her head, cheeks, and throat. A green lace veil covered her face.
``Lovely, lovely.'' Landswoman Barghill-Bhurn nodded her official approval of the nightmeal. She spoke to a respectful audience including Earlene and Insquiss Nurnwood and others. ``Padia has excelled herself,'' Bulrutha said. ``In all the parties I have attended at Jessis, all, I have not found such fervid enjoyment. It seems a shame she lives in this lovely large home in solitude. We must see about getting our Padia married off. I cannot imagine why I did not think of this before.''
``Perhaps some High Hill official,'' said Earlene. ``An ambassador, or one of the magistrates.''
``Not to seem stupid, I hope,'' said Insquiss with a simpering grin, ``but seems to me, and please correct me if I'm wrong, Padia's manner is a hair on the headstrong side. Those adepts, you know. Anyone notice she hasn't invited a single other adept tonight? Even those who can pass in society, don't you know. Not Lansu the troubadour, nor --''
Bulrutha snorted. ``Adepts! Troublemakers, I say. Trouble and nothing else. Adepts and proper society: oil and water, water and oil!''
Ordinarily Bulrutha showed more tolerance. Above a certain unspoken level of wealth and decorum, most dwarfs earned the Landswoman's approval, and she socialized with wealthy obsidimen, humans, and t'skrang. Bulrutha had talked in civil tones to elves and orks and even, once, a troll. Nothing had yet forced her to speak to windlings, and neither she nor they cared to change this. Adepts, with a few exceptions, ranked even lower on her scale.
She pointed out one exception to Insquiss. ``How anyone can call that dear woman `headstrong' is a blank and inscrutable mystery. Look at her!'' She indicated Vilph, who carefully tended the fireplace. ``Padia has behaved nothing short of enchaaantingly tonight. This party will give all the best society a great deal to talk about for some time.''
Vilph paid great care to the blazing fire. The Noesis spell would begin soon, and he felt anxious and guilty. A bell-like inner voice reminded him that he had felt this attack of conscience before all the past Affliction spells. No, no, what nonsense! He had felt secure in his plans then, as he did now.
New scenery fell as the backdrop of Vilph's thoughts. How boring, this society talk! Vilph mused pleasantly on the spells he could cast, should he wish to stir things up. Illusory fire to burn those ridiculous dresses. Melted butter dripping from the ceiling to stain the gentlemen's fine waistcoats and hose. Lines of dancing horses on the tabletops, and storks playing aerial ball games across the high ceiling. Fleas -- no -- a single flea, narrow and brown and hard-shelled, its bristling legs bouncing it from table to table, and at each leap it would grow larger, first the size of a watch fob, then bigger than a butter dish -- jump, a dinner plate -- jump, a candelabra, and now the guests would scream, the flea bounding merrily among them, nipping here and there at an exposed forearm or neck, a thrillingly repellent sight -- at last it leaps out through the window, a shower of broken glass (how pretty!), and still growing as it crosses the lawn, growing bigger than a coach, than a house, and all Oldtown cringes in fear of the immense mysterious flea's inscrutable movements, that take it now here now there, its massive weight crumpling roofs like parchment, leaving well-deep holes in pristine lawns, while traumatized socialites cower inside beneath their opulent ill-gotten paisley-print armchairs -- the enraged plutocrats demand solutions, and High Hill magistrates, after much bickering and indecision, put forth a call for all dogs in the city, nay, throughout the countryside -- city guards haul in whole barking cartloads of sheepdogs, schnauzers, dachsunds, terriers -- the finest artisans labor day and night, cannibalizing the wooden beams of Oldtown roofs, to build an enormous trestle, broadly canine in shape, with ledges inset on every massive oak joist, platforms ranged up and down each beam -- bureaucrats subdivide all captured dogs by color and size, herding each black spaniel onto a nose shelf, every brown mastiff onto the broad ribs, a few reluctant poodles clinging to tenuous perches on the uplifted tail -- a clamorous assemblage of dogs forming, together in toto, a colossal meta-dog -- and the city's archers crouch with indrawn breath, its wealthiest elite watch goggle-eyed from hiding, waiting, waiting for the flea to seize this tempting bait....
Ah well, things will pick up soon enough.
A few diners, having finished the meal early, banded around the fireplace to chat. Conversation began with the Twopenny riots. ``Bad business,'' said Zlatko, the Throalic ambassador. ``And bad for business, I needn't add.''
``Temporary,'' said Hogen Spohnge-Dobbit, a doughy man in a badly tailored black suit with buckled spatterdash leggings. A red cummerbund circled his bulging waist, its amazing tightness a source of fascination to onlookers. ``Starve the rabble a while, get 'em back in line, and they'll work all the better from now on. Opportunity, I say, for the sharp business mind.''
Everyone conveniently forgot, or neglected to mention, that Padia had originally proposed this nightmeal party as a benefit for the flooded borough. No one cared to help Twopenny now.
``I do say,'' Spohnge-Dobbit continued, ``that things might have gone quite nasty if the rabble had made their way over here. Good move, the magistrates blowing up the bridge.''
``Oh, come, what nonsense!'' said a Keystone merchant. ``Now I must bring my workhouse goods across the river a boat at a time. There are not enough boats on the whole Byrose to serve the merchants in just my borough, never mind Oldtown.''
``All worth the sacrifice. Mark me, those Twopenny scum simply must be made to see the world as it is. Yes, the bridge is a loss. But we still have a solid foundation here. We can rebuild from the ashes.''
Vilph tended the fire, smiling to himself.
Outside the ballroom but not far away, Haerlam the Diviner, leader of Noesis, screamed and fell to his knees. The stout wizard clutched at his forehead, where a bloody Theran rune had just erupted: ``betrayal.'' Haerlam had refused to take part in casting the fireworm plague, and Hodrick had invoked the oath.
``Aaah! No, no!'' Haerlam said in agony. ``I'll, I shall help you, stop, stop!''
Long seconds passed. No more runes erupted. One by one, the other five wizards looked relieved. Old Master Wohlnoth gasped as if he had run from the other end of the mansion. Eustachia Munt and Norria Longtooth helped Haerlam to his feet. Ludvic the Red boiled with pent-up fury, wanting to attack Hodrick but foiled by the Form's protection. Even Jorzz, who cultivated an air of supercilious detachment, looked more pale than usual.
Hodrick, too, showed relief, though he had caused the injury. ``Very good,'' he said uncomfortably. ``As you have repented, I believe that the wound will heal. Take your place, please.''
The heat in the room had grown stifling. The bonfire in the brick firepit reached almost to the vent in the charred stone ceiling. Ashes floated around the fire, circling closely. Hodrick and the Noesis wizards stood in a circle around the pit, each holding various items Vilph had procured from the Old Families.
Ludvic expressed his hostility in a bitter remark. ``Hodrick, you coerce our physical cooperation, but you cannot make us wish that this spell succeeds.''
``It will succeed,'' said Eustachia Munt thoughtfully. ``The Old Families are all vulnerable. They lack self-awareness. This may help restore it.''
Shocked, Norria said, ``You seem to endorse this awful spell!''
``There is no self-awareness without memory,'' Eustachia replied calmly. ``The culture of wealth is an attack on memory. To participate in that culture, these people's ancestors, all those centuries ago, surrendered not only their ideals but their memories. They forgot themselves. These descendants have never known themselves at all. They can't. No one ever taught them.''
"Well, this will teach them if anything can," said Haerlam, massaging his bloody forehead. ``And may history forgive us.''
They began their chant. One by one the wizards consigned their items to the blaze: A malachite cameo carved with an elderly Frey-Lowden in profile. A mother-of-pearl chalice that Hogen Spohnge-Dobbit had drunk from nightly for twenty years. A statuette of Jaspree, particularly prized by Earlene Nurnwood. A girandole candlestick, a barrette of onyx, an ancestral portrait in oil, and a dozen more went to the flames. Their ashes, still burning, floated upward.
``Fireworms,'' Hodrick whispered fearfully.
Simply by manifesting, I had inadvertently stopped Morinnan's plan to conquer Merron. Now another danger loomed, and I thought of a way to lure Alban to fight it. When I had gathered sufficient forces on the dirt quay, I looked through Alban's eyes and shaped the design. Here twelve rows of ants marched in formation on an arcing path, there a swarm clustered at a spot just so, widening here, narrowing there, an oblong path around the jutting left tusk --
In moments I had it. On the ground lay a wavering, writhing portrait of Vilph Axehandle.
Alban could not perceive the face, but it lingered as the only image in his point-like awareness. The warrior magic recognized that face. ``Rogue ox,'' it said flatly.
The excitement I felt! I thought of spelling out JESSIS, but the warrior magic knew nothing of Jessis. Instead, I sent a line of ants from the picture streaming away north along the Byrose shore. Alban followed slowly into darkness. Encouraged, I began gathering ants across Hempline and Oldtown.
The city watch on Bandabar Pier, now reinforced, had chosen tactics. Kriast the troll led, torch in one hand and pole-axe in the other. The spike of his polearm bore Morinnan's bloody head.
Fourteen watchers closed in on Alban, five on his left with swords drawn, five on his right with pole-axes ready, and Kriast and three others on the landward side. Behind Alban flowed the cold Byrose.
Kriast shouted, ``Lie face down and spread your arms and legs wide, or we'll gut you!''
Far up the shore, the crowd at the wharf gate shouted in anger. ``Gangin' up!'' -- ``Whyn'tcha fight fair?'' -- ``Bloats oughtta leave 'im be!''
The warrior magic spared the watchers one glance, then returned its attention to the line of ants. The vessel needed light to follow the ant trail. At once Alban made a feint of running down to the water. The ten watchers to his left and right broke their lines and pursued. At the water's edge, still with his back to them, Alban bent low and leaped backward.
The watchers craned their necks as he sailed over their heads toward Kriast. Behind the gate, the crowd gasped. Alban twisted smoothly in the air and landed facing Kriast, ten paces from the water. The startled troll stepped back as his three fellows rushed forward with swords swinging.
Alban fell to his hands, under the swords, and kicked out to his right. His feet landed squarely on one watcher's ankles and knocked the man over. Alban scissored his legs over and drove them straight into the midriff of the man opposite, toppling him. The third watcher, an ork woman in chain mail, cut downward. Alban rolled toward her, and her blade sank in the dirt. Alban reached up past the ork's sword hilt, grabbed her wrist, and snapped it cleanly. Then he pushed the ork back into Kriast. The woman hit the troll and fell screaming.
Kriast kept his feet. Looking at Alban, who seemed calm and had not broken a sweat, the troll snarled. ``C'mon, you bloats, there's only one of him!'' He threw his torch high over his shoulder and readied his pole-axe.
As the other watchers rushed him, Alban flipped to his feet, grabbed the ork's sword, and leaped over Kriast. Alban caught the spinning torch at the height of his arc. The troll turned to follow the leap, just in time to take a blow from the sword's hilt at the base of his left horn. The blow staggered the troll, but he swung his pole-axe.
Alban jumped over the axe swing and stayed in the air. He kicked once, twice, a flurry of kicks with both feet, all landing on Kriast's lantern jaw. Five days earlier Kriast had casually slung a fat magistrate over his shoulder and thrown him out of the High Hill courthouse. Now, with equal casualness, Alban knocked the broken-jawed troll to the ground, where he lay unmoving.
The crowd at the gate cheered. Again they struck up the chant. ``Rogox!''
The warrior glided up as the other watchers attacked. Out of their reach, he moved with a graceful skimming stride back to the water, holding the torch low. He descended, picked up the trail of my ants along the muddy shore, and followed it north, with the angry watchers pursuing. At one point Alban fell back and dropped the two nearest guards. Thereafter the rest followed at longer range.
The crowd had gone hoarse with cheering and chanting. In their enthusiasm they pressed against the wooden gate, injuring some in the crush. The gate's hinges cracked and burst, and the mob flowed after Alban in the same way the inmates had pursued him in Antimere.
They reached Alban and overran the pursuing watchers, toppling and trampling them by sheer force of numbers. They streamed after their new hero, their chant echoing through the dark streets of Hempline and Twopenny. ``Rogox! Rogox!''
Others on dark side streets heard the chant, saw the torchlight, and gazed in wonder at the warrior loping along. They had never heard of Rogox, but the chant and the crowd drew them like a magnet. As Alban traced the line of ants that only he could see, the mob grew behind him.
In more stable times, the city watch would have mobilized a whole company to fight and arrest Alban. Onlookers would not cheer nor chase him, because it would serve no purpose; he offered no prospect for change. As Britham Boyhan had told Alban seven days before, the river flows smooth on a flat plain, and one rock cannot change the current.
In these turbulent days people congregated around any likely figure. A leader who said little could become the blank slate on which a thousand adherents wrote their thousand separate wishes: advancement, stability, revenge. The mob might have chosen Morinnan, until one pole-axe swing went wrong. Now chance had brought the mob into Alban's wake, as one rock can change a rapids.
The torchlit man and the dark company behind him ran out of Hempline and north along Tincopper Way. This street marked the northern reach of the Twopenny sprawl, which reaches to the Byrose above and below Hempline.
The Cordial Guards had restored Tincopper magnificently, widening the narrow street, paving it, and lining it with tall, stately buildings. Their simple lines, red brick fronts, peaked shingle roofs, and understated trim had given them a pleasant domestic look, at least briefly. Rioters had burned most of these buildings. Their broken windows gaped like jaws.
The warrior magic pursued my line of ants up the street and around a curve. Alban came to the Byrose. Across the river, against a black horizon, stood the lighted slope of High Hill and Oldtown. The wavering column of insects led him up an incline, and then he stood at the end of the line, the jagged end of Dovetail Bridge.
At Jessis, as the guests finished their meal, the ballroom fireplace flared brightly. Burning ashes, fireworms, drifted from the flames and floated out over the hall. The Founding Families looked up and gasped with delight, thinking this some clever after-dinner entertainment of Padia's.
Vilph stood beside the fireplace, his thoughts at war with themselves. Tracking the fireworms as they moved smoothly around him, the gray ork worked hard to convince himself he had triumphed.
No eye could tell the fireworms apart save mine. Reading their patterns, I saw how the ashes of the malachite cameo drifted directly to the cameo's owner, Astoria Frey-Lowden, whereas the burning remains of Hogen Spohnge-Dobbit's chalice floated, serenely, straight at him. Earlene Nurnwood, staring with her bulging eyes, could not know that the fireworms that moved so gracefully toward her had once been her statuette of Jaspree.
Ashes spread across the ballroom. People's delight turned to wariness and then to alarm, as the fireworms descended toward them. They flailed at the ashes or rolled aside, futilely. The fireworms alit.
The Founders screamed. Wherever the fireworms landed, on arms or neck or stomach, bright yellow flames blossomed. Clothing curled and peeled back, and then the flesh beneath also peeled back. On shoulders and thighs and chests, the blackened edges of each wound opened like lips, revealing twin rows of sharp teeth. Behind the teeth lurked a dark redness the color of dried blood. A thin slithery tongue flicked from each mouth.
The nightmeal guests went stock still in terror as, one by one, the mouth-wounds began to speak.
A mouth at the side of Earlene Nurnwood's neck shouted in a lecher's deep, gravelly voice. ``I feel so dull-witted and silly around you all. I hate you for the way you make me feel.'' With her own voice stammering, Earlene whirled like a trapped animal. Her hands fluttered stupidly.
Her husband tried to jam a fingercloth into the mouth-wound, but he dropped it in shock and revulsion as a mouth opened on the back of his right hand. ``I have betrayed you a dozen times, with every woman who would have me,'' it said in triumphant, cruel tones. ``I regret ever meeting you, and I will sigh with relief when you finally die.''
They looked at each other with wide eyes, as if seeing for the first time.
A new mouth sprouted on Landsman Hogen Spohnge-Dobbit's ample cheek. ``My business is floundering because I squandered my fortune. I would sell my family into slavery to recoup.'' The Landsman slapped frantically at his own cheek, but the mouth bit his hand. Those around him shook their heads and tried not to stare.
A babble of alien voices arose in the ballroom. The plague had infected everyone, even those who had not given pattern items, even the servants. Magistrate Carush told of past and current blackmail, Kittague of the violence he inflicted on his wife, and Zlatko of frequent temptations to treason. The guests could not move until their new mouths had made their confessions. Thefts, adulteries, perversions: Everyone, it seemed, had awful secrets to reveal. Everyone except Vilph, who kept his secrets even from himself.
The ork walked among the tormented guests, listening. His emotions changed with every step: gratification, guilt, satisfaction, despondency, revenge, bewilderment, and under all a seething anxiety. He had done this simply because he could, for he knew it did not matter. Nothing mattered. Then why this disquiet?
He justified himself time after time, but rejected each rationale. My vengeance against Villandry. This plague would not just turn the Families from her, it would destroy them all. These people deserve it. Why, if justice was a nonsensical illusion? My power validates my beliefs. He concealed those beliefs, and so who could learn his lesson?
Amid the complete triumph of his plan, Vilph's argument continued to a steady accompaniment of inward bells. Only in these moments of success did he dimly realize that none of his schemes or ideologies made him content. Then what could? He had no notion. No mouths appeared on Vilph's body, but still he knew something of the Old Families' torment.
He stopped before the fireplace. Landswoman Bulrutha Barghill-Bhurn lay collapsed at his feet, her veil torn away, her eyes glazed in an ecstacy of terror. Fanged mouths dotted her whole body, babbling endless secrets from as far back as early childhood. A large mouth had erupted on her forehead. ``I own you all!'' it said. ``You must behave yourselves and do exactly as I say!''
A smile of disbelief stole across the gray ork's lips, and then he began to laugh, loudly and with his whole heart. His inner conflicts vanished as he laughed hysterically, while the dwarf woman floundered in fear.
At that moment Vilph felt a new thought intrude in his mind, his own voice saying, Intruders at north end of east wing.
An hour before the guests arrived, Vilph had walked the perimeter of Jessis, placing alarm spells. Now someone had triggered a spell. No guest or servant had any reason to visit that part of the house. Vilph naturally assumed enemies, and at once he began a new spell.
Chanting drifted in from the hallway outside the ballroom. The double doors, at one corner of the west wall near the speculum mirror, shook in a sudden hurricane wind. The cypress doors slammed open, revealing Padia Villandry. The six nethermancers of Oneiros stood with her, and four elementalists of Geocosm.
``Come in,'' Vilph said with a smile. ``I see the party has only begun.''