Illusion 1, Chapter IV

by Mallard

Traveling with a cop can have certain perks. They can use the station vehicles, many of which are fast and sturdy, and have loud, clanging brass bells to warn others out of the way and bright rotating lights. On the other hand, you could travel with Scott. He took out a four-legged spider walker from the station’s garage, a tall gangly thing that towered over me even, with two bucket seats and a boiler at the back like a giant tumor. Serah would have had fits at its construction. Too tall and unbalanced, she’d say, and four legs limits it to a speedy pace or stationary; anything in between and the ridiculous thing would tip over and spill its occupants onto the hard cobblestones. I was glad it wasn’t raining; there wasn’t even a canopy. The contraption was minimalism to its extreme, and smelled strongly of oil, to boot.

“I said,” shouting over the clanking of its many-jointed limbs as the walker lurched out of the garage and down the street. “Why did you choose this junker?”

“It’s fast, and no one cares if we break it,” he shouted back. A fly zipped past and I ducked out of the way before it smacked into my face.

“What, are you worried we’ll run into some rough business?” I almost wished we would; this piece of garbage had no business being on the streets, let alone in one piece. It’d look a whole lot better dismantled and stored in Serah’s enormous and varied scrap piles in her back room. It would at least be less hazardous then.

“Are you kidding?” Scott called, and I swear he was suppressing a laugh. “I’ve seen you around machines, Victor. You look at the buggers cross-eyed and they break. Where’s your autobike, by the way?”

“…You know? I think this thing is too loud for conversation,” I shouted and sat back. Kristopher gave a little musical tinkle that was almost certainly a snigger. I glared at him.

I’ll give Scott one thing: rude though he might be, he was right about the walker’s speed. It wasn’t so much that it could move any faster than an automobile or standard eight-legged spider, but being so narrow and tall, it could squeeze through small gaps in traffic, or just step over a car or person. Scott was a skillful driver, and no one had to jump out of the way of the walker’s thin limbs as they stabbed back down into the road.

Our route took us past Candlepark Station, the largest transport hub in the city. The station spans a space the size of a city block: a confused mess of buildings, rail tracks, and airship mooring spires. The station was once a railway station on the corner of Candlepark Avenue and Twenty-Second Street. It had grown as more and more rail lines crisscrossed above the hub, expanding out and up, so that it became a convenient airship docking station as well. The park had once occupied much of the rest of the block, but had been swallowed up as the station expanded like a virulent moss, growing over grass and trees, replacing them with steel girders, enormous gas and steam pipes, boilers the size of houses and maintenance hangers that could swallow the gigantic cargo walkers like they were flies.

The streets around the station were perpetually congested, and the walker slowed down as we passed by. Conversation became truly impossible as trains roared overhead constantly, a dozen of them arriving, departing, switching, and just barely avoiding collision. The station also handled much of the intercity traffic, and we could see a number of the much wider-gage tracks that spanned the spaces between cities, carrying enormous worms of steel that could–and sometimes did–carry seaships manufactured further inland to the port city of Kestral for their maiden launches.

As we wove slowly through the crowd, Scott working furiously to keep the walker from tipping over at the slow pace, I recognized a tall, domed shape in the distance: KAMA. The school was easy to spot, taking up more space even than Candlepark Station. It lay between Annabella’s and our destination near Emelia’s home, and occupied its own university district in the city, a sort of mini-town within Kestral proper. I couldn’t see any at the moment, but I knew that the tall spike atop the main dome of the university also doubled as yet another airship spire, reserved though for university traffic.

It was past five when we reached Emelia Withers’s neighborhood, though I admit that had we taken a larger walker or automobile, it would have taken us much longer to bypass the station. So score one for Scott, I suppose. The clouds still covered the sky above the city, but an orange glow was beginning to shine to the west. To the east I could see a light fog beginning to move in, melding with steam clouds that rose from a thousand points in the city, from walkers to autos to small businesses and most homes. The largest clouds hovered above Candlepark Station and KAMA, sending cloud signals into the sky that shouted Here Be Activity. Within a few hours, the sun would be gone and the city would be blanketed in a bed of nighttime fog, and these markers would vanish.

“They live on that street,” Scott called out suddenly, pointing down a narrow lane lined with identical single-story homes. This was a much more residential district than where I lived, and lacked the plethora of independently-run businesses and the ever-present street vendors. It was much less crowded as well, to the point of being a little disconcerting. I’ve never lived in such a neighborhood, at least not since I first came to Kestral. The flat I’d shared while attending KAMA had been only a few blocks from Annabella’s, and when I’d been stationed south during the war, I’d been either on the move or living in the districts the army had effectively claimed as their own. And one thing the armed forces was not, was quiet.

Scott kept the walker going another block or so, to a five-way intersection where the narrow streets opened up by necessity into a pentagonal region, currently devoid of all but the occasional foot traffic. The walker lurched to a halt, and tilted alarmingly before its internal gyros compensated and it settled in place, its many-jointed limbs slowly folding in on each other until the main body of the spider rested on the ground. Collapsed like that, the blasted thing didn’t look nearly so rickety, but I wasn’t looking forward to climbing back aboard later.

“So this is where they were playing?” I asked. Scott nodded, and pulled a lamp from a tiny cargo box under the front seat of the walker. The lamp was a small enclosed metal box with a compartment for oil and a number of mirrors that directed the light through a focusing lens, producing a bright light that could be shuttered or allowed to shine full strength. A second compartment at the top held magnesium shavings, which could be dropped into the flames to create an incredibly bright flash, suitable for temporarily blinding or at least startling a suspect. Scott pulled out a flint striker, but Kristopher beat him to it, darting into the lamp and emerging a second later, the wick alight with a gentle yellow glow.

“Thanks, spook,” Scott said, pocketed the flint and lifting the lamp by its handle.

“What’s the light for?” I asked, a little miffed. If it’s light he wanted, I don’t see why he needed a lamp. I specialize in illusion, after all, which is just applied light magic.

“To see things in the dark,” Scott said, frowning. Then he blinked in understanding. “Oh, I see. Habit, then. Not everyone makes light of out nothing, Victor. And this way you can concentrate on what I’m showing you, not on your hoodoo.”

I could have told him that just making a general light takes next to no concentration, but I didn’t bother. Let him do things his way, and I’ll do things my way. It’s the differences in our approaches that make us work well together, not conforming to each others’ expectations and preferences.

Scott led me away from the walker and down one of the five streets that led off the intersection. Street lamps were starting to come on around us, as the gas began to flow more copiously to the pilot lights in their glass bulbs. By their light, and the much more directed beam of Scott’s lamp, we examined the steel garbage bin Robert had hidden in. It was half full of rubbish and smelt like rotten fruit, but there was nothing about it that gave any clue as to where a little boy could have vanished to. The automobile Robert had hidden under had since gone, and left behind no clues. There was a storm drain grill set into the cobblestones near there, but without tools, Robert couldn’t have gone through. And I doubt many kids in this neighborhood walked around with spanners and crowbars. The railway support truss was the third and final place Robert had hidden, and though we found some footprints in the dirt within the truss, we had no way of knowing if they were Robert’s or not.

“And you’re sure he didn’t hide anywhere else?” I asked Scott as we returned to the square. Well, the pentagon.

“Well, no, I’m sure he did hide somewhere else,” Scott returned. “But where? I can’t tell you. Which is the problem.”

I sighed. I didn’t know what I had been expecting to find, really. But finding absolutely nothing was still a let-down. We were left with no more than we ‘d started with.

Scott glanced at his pocket watch. It was past six. “What’re you thinking, Victor?” he asked, shuttering the lamp so that we stood in a pool of semi-darkness in the middle of the intersection.

Before I could answer, Kristopher drifted from my side and floated toward the center of the intersection, circling around as if sniffing for something.

“What is it, spook?” Scott called. He unshuttered the lamp and cast a beam of light in the salamander’s direction.

The cobbled surface of the intersection sloped down slightly toward the center, ending in another grill like the storm drain, but a round one that was not bolted down. A maintenance access cover, then.

“Did you–” I asked, and Scott answered before I finished.

“Of course we checked. Robert ran right over it a couple times, but he never went down. No one’s gone near that thing in weeks, from what we could tell. Nice try though.” He shut off the light and began to turn away.

I frowned. Kristopher never had hunches; if he thought there was something worth looking at with the manhole cover, then there was something worth looking at. “Hold on,” I called after Scott and walked closer to Kristopher. Scott followed me, letting the beam loose again.

“I thought you said spook here couldn’t sense anything any better than we can,” Scott said, though he sounded slightly hopeful.

(Someone suffered here,) Kristopher sang, and I shivered. Salamanders are attracted to suffering and trauma, in the same way that will-o’-the-wisps are attracted to the lost, and puddle jumpers are to innocence and joy. It’s what brought him to me in the fire swamps in the first place, curious and hungry to see who or what was feeling such pain so near his nest.

“You’re sure nothing has disturbed the cover?” I asked Scott in a hush. I don’t know why I was whispering. There wasn’t anyone else nearby to hear. Somehow it felt appropriate.

“Certain,” he replied, his frown heavily shadowed behind the lamp he held. “The dogs didn’t smell anything nearby, and we even went into the tunnels a bit. No scent trails anywhere.”

“Well, Kristopher says something happened here recently,” I said. I didn’t even think to question Kristopher. A salamander is as infallible in matters of suffering as a dolphin is in matters of the sea. It wasn’t a question of if he was right, only whether the pain he detected was related to the missing boy.

“How recently?” Scott asked.

I shook my head. “Salamanders don’t do time the same way we do. A day doesn’t really mean anything to Kristopher any more than a minute does.”

(Recently,) Kristopher sang. (It’s still strong.)

Which still didn’t mean much to us humans. It could have been a pricked finger a minute ago, or a mass slaughter a year previous, and it’d feel the same to him. Though, the time and location fit the case of the missing Robert Withers a little too well for me to believe either of those scenarios.

“Well,” I said, turning to the cop. “How do you feel about an evening stroll through the sewers?”

He grimaced. “Lydia will kill me when I get home.”

I grinned. “I’m sure she’ll understand. Just bring her some roses to balance out the smell.”

Scott snorted and set the lamp on the ground to roll his pant legs up. “Clearly, Victor, you are a man who knows women.”

The cover was lighter than it appeared, enough for a boy to pull it up and out of the way if he was determined enough. The ladder was cleaner than I expected, spotted with rust but relatively free of grime. Scott couldn’t turn the lamp on its side to shine down into the tunnel, so I called up a soft blue flame to light his way while he climbed. He’d insisted on going first, and since these would be my last clean breaths for some time, I was all too willing to let him.

About twenty rungs down, the shaft opened into a wide tunnel ten feet in diameter, with two narrow walkways lining the sides. The center of the tunnel was a wide river of water and filth, only a foot or so below the cobbled walkway. A mass of rusted pipes of varying sizes ran along the top of the tunnel, carrying water, gas, oil, and any of a dozen other substances around the city. Some of the pipes had clearly been patched numerous times, and it looked like a minor earthquake would rattle them apart, spilling their contents into the sludge below to flow out to the bay.

The state of the pipes and the build-up of sludge near the edge of the walkway made it clear that no maintenance workers had been down there for some time. I opened a valve on the wall, but heard no hiss of gas, and the lamps that lined the wall remained dark.

Scott shone his lamp first one way, then the other, illuminating the dank tunnel, a sight that really should have remained in darkness.

“You’re sure something happened here?” he asked, doubt creeping in his voice. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s been down here in ages.”

I frowned. I was a little less confident myself. Could it be that Kristopher had just sensed some old but powerful hurt that had happened here, completely unrelated to the current case?

But the salamander took no notice of our doubts, and after circling in place for a few moments, he began to drift along the northward span of the tunnel. I looked at Scott and shrugged, then followed Kristopher. Behind me, Scott sighed and swung the lamp around to light our way.

(Here,) Kristopher said suddenly, stopping at a section of wall that looked like any other.

“Here, what?” I asked. I tapped on the wall, but it sounded as solid as the rest of the concrete that lined the pipe.

(The first pain was here,) the salamander clarified. I frowned. First?

Kristopher kept drifting along, moving slower as he savored the taste of whatever he sensed. It was a little disturbing, to be honest. Salamanders aren’t evil or sadistic, despite the stories you hear about them. They’re simply attracted to pain in the same way a buzzard is drawn to a corpse, or we’re attracted to the smell of a really good rump roast.

The sudden sound of voices stopped us cold, and Scott’s light snapped off instantly. We stood frozen in the darkness, the only light the red glow of Kristopher making figure-eights in the air. I couldn’t tell what the voices were saying, but I had no doubt that they belong to no-one we wanted to see us. Who hangs about in a sewer at dusk, but maintenance workers and shady folk?

I was convinced we’d found what we were looking for. That they had nothing to do with Robert’s disappearance seemed unlikely, given Kristopher’s senses and the timing. The only question remaining was just who had we found, and in what way were they related to the missing boy?

* * * * * * * *
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