Archive for June, 2010

June 27, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter VIII

by Mallard

The obvious first thing was to try all the doors leading from the chamber: three more besides the ones to the sewer and the university. I did this, racing from one to the other across that vast room, shucking off my coat as I ran.

I said earlier that the automat walked slowly, awkwardly. But now, with time against me, it seemed to be moving all too fast, racing forward at unnatural speeds so that I would glance away and it would have halved the distance to the door.

Robert took some prodding, but I got him to check the last door while I was examining the second. He seemed dull and almost lethargic, as if he had been poorly fed or hadn’t slept in the four days since his capture.

Which was probably not far from the truth.

Sometime in all this, I retrieved my pistol from where the kidnapper had thrown it. He had left it loaded, and I think he honestly hoped I would use it to give Robert a quicker passing.

I hardly ever use the weapon, but I felt better for having it back. It was a special-issue pistol for the Republic, designed for spies. It holds only two shots, in two side-by-side barrels, with an ivory grip embossed with the shield of the Republic. It’s not high-caliber, and hasn’t the range of most handhelds, but it fits anywhere. And as with all guns, it only takes one well-placed shot to do the job.

Though, there was no way I was going to shoot a nine-year-old kid. Even to save him. Was that selfish? I guess it doesn’t matter; I don’t think I could have pulled the trigger.

The exits were all locked, of course. More than locked; the combination dials to open them had been welded in place, so that one could enter or leave the chamber only by two doors: one to the sewers, and the other to the university. You’d think they would have remembered that when chasing my phantom, but maybe they thought I could just magic my way through it.

I checked in with the automat again and found that it was a scant dozen steps from the door to the university. Robert had slumped against a far wall and may have passed out, or just resigned himself to imminent death. Which phrase, when applied to a nine-year-old kid, is pretty disturbing.

I spun around, trying to take in the whole chamber at once, to see if I had missed anything. The doors, all impassable. The gas lamps could help detonate the automat sooner, perhaps, but would hardly help me. The automat itself…

There are times when I realize that I’m an idiot. The automat was heavily armored, and covered in high explosives. My mind had naturally shied away from it, from touching or getting anywhere near the thing. But that was the exact opposite of what I should have been doing. Armored though it might be, those who had built it were men, like myself. If it could be started by a solitary person, it could surely be halted by one.

I didn’t have time for more than a cursory inspection. The explosives were all attached carefully to the harness, with a common fuse attached to each, so that some internal mechanism could detonate the explosives at the right time. They didn’t seem the sort that would detonate on impact though, given the jarring steps the automat took. So I was only slightly apprehensive as I reached out to tug on the blast panels.

They didn’t budge, of course. The internal hydraulics held them tightly closed, waiting patiently until the moment they would deploy. I wished I’d paid more attention when the machine had been activated, but I had been too focused on not making any noise, and had not seen how it had been done. Probably there was a simple switch somewhere, but for the life of me I could not find it.

For the life of me. What an apt phrase.

“How in winter’s deepest hell do I stop you?” I muttered, tugging futilely on the panels yet again.

(It is a creature of fire,) a familiar musical tone caressed my ears.

“Kristopher!” I looked around wildly. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed the salamander’s constant presence until he was there, circling slowly above the automat.

“Er, don’t touch it, please,” I added a moment later, suddenly nervous. I was happy Kristopher had found his way back to me, but if he got too near the wrong part of the automat–the fuse, as an entirely random first example–I wouldn’t be happy much longer.

It took me a moment longer to remember that he had said something. “And what do you mean, a creature of fire?” I asked.

(It is a being of fire, like myself. Water harms me, therefore…)

I shook my head in frustration. As I’ve said before, Kristopher interprets and senses things differently than we do. To a human, an automat is clearly a non-sentient object, a machine and no more alive than a rock. To Kristopher, however, the automat was something that moved under its own power, that had a purpose and, in the loosest sense, a desire to fulfill that purpose. This made it as alive as any other creature to him. And since it ran on steam power, it was a “creature of fire,” no different from him.

But that wouldn’t help me. A glass of drinking water will just about do Kristopher in. The automat would just laugh it off.

Or would it?

It ran on steam, but to Kristopher, that would make it a creature of water. Its boiler, though, was powered by fire. And that was another story entirely.

The automat had reached the door by now, and I was momentarily distracted as it thumped into the steel panels, struggled for a few seconds, then was suddenly still. It stood motionless for a moment, then its left side rattled and the oddly-mounted drill began to extend, wobbling and creaking forward on a rusted steel truss. The drill bit spun up into a high-pitched whine, which turned into a sudden scream as it bit into the locking mechanism of the door to KAMA.

Upstairs, I knew, a dozen and one alarms would be going off. Faculty and students would be rushing every which way to figure out what was going on, who was breaking in where, or whether a student had just opened the wrong door. By the time they knew where to look, the automat would have fulfilled its purpose of hamstringing the university. And I wouldn’t be around to regret it.

“Quickly, where can I get enough water to drown it?” I asked Kristopher, who was still circling lazily above the automat. He didn’t respond right away, beyond taking on a slight wobble in his path, which could have been worry at my mention of water, or just his way of frowning in thought. I don’t think he understood my urgency. The automat had not yet done anything, after all, and as I mentioned before, salamanders are not very good with the concept of time. He might understand my distress right after the bombs detonated, but that would of course be too late.

He carried on above the machine for a few seconds, as the drill slowly penetrated the heavy steel door, then he shot up toward the ceiling.

A thick series of pipes flowed along the roof of the chamber, coming in from every which way like a bizarre fungal growth, converging in a sudden orderly conduit that penetrated the wall to the university some feet above the door.

There were at least ten or twelve pipes in that bundle, each of which could carry one of many chemicals. One would certainly be gas, to power the stoves and lamps and the hundreds of boilers inside the university. Some probably carried dangerous chemicals for experiments, while others might contain nothing but clean air, cycled down to the basements to keep the atmosphere fresh. But at least one of them carried water. Hot, cold, purified or not, it didn’t matter much to me.

But which one? It would have to be one of the wider ones, carrying the absolute essentials to the university. As I peered upward, trying to spot a label or symbol on the pipes, a droplet of water fell onto my forehead. I jumped, and then I smiled. Condensation, dampening one of the pipes, causing the surface to drip and reflect the light from the gas lamps, so that the pipe almost seemed to glow. That must be the cold water pipe. And it was indeed quite large.

A crash distracted me, and I pulled by gaze back down to see the automat’s rear disappearing through the door. The drill bit remained behind, skewered through the door where the lock had once sat, like a bee’s sting left as a memento of the insect’s final act in life. Like a bee, the automat would soon expire. It was up to me to determine whether it died on its terms, or on mine.

The door opened into another enormous chamber, a storage room of some sort. Boxes lined the walls, and stacks of wooden shelves held beakers and jars, some full of curious, luminescent powders or liquids, others empty and coated in dust.

The automat ignored the shelves utterly, and I winced a little as it crashed through them, the sudden breaking of glass echoing from the distant walls. The room was dark, but the gaslight from behind us illuminated a wide column at the back of the room. One of the foundation pillars of the university.

The pipes ran in a straight line along the center of the chamber, the occasional branch springing into existence to rush some important resource off to another part of the university. The water pipe branched several times, but the main trunk of it kept straight along the automat’s path. Perfect.

I pulled my pistol from my pocket and hefted its small weight in my hands. It felt familiar to have it in my grip again, like an old friend. Or an old enemy that you can’t get rid of.

The automat must have sensed that it was near its destination–perhaps a pace counter somewhere among its innards–and its skin rippled suddenly as blast panels rose up and locked into place. The automat was primed and ready, and less than a minute from its goal. Near as I was to it, I could feel the heat from the boiler within as it struggled to move the enormous bulk of the machine. A dose of cold water would do it a world of hurt.

It would make for a rather more dramatic story if I missed with my first shot, and had to sweat and worry over the final bullet. But the range to the pipe was laughable, and without bragging, I am a very good shot.

I had expected the pipe to spring a leak when my bullet struck it, pouring a steady stream into the automat’s innards. Instead, it exploded violently and showered its contents over the automat’s back. I jumped back as a wave of sudden cold enveloped me, and a few droplets splashed up and struck my arm and face.

The liquid burned like fire and I raised my pistol in a reflexive action, though there was nothing to defend against. The temperature in the room continued to drop, and as the automat took another step, one of its spindly legs snapped clean off, the broken ends encrusted with frost. It took another step, and something cracked loudly within. A third step, and a muffled boom sounded as its boiler exploded, enveloping the automat in a sudden cloud of hot steam. The cloud expanded, filling the room with a dense and rapidly cooling fog, so that I could not see more than an arm’s length in any direction. I felt a sudden stab of worry.

“Kristopher!” I shouted. Steam is far less dangerous to him than water, but so much of it, in such an enclosed space…

He didn’t respond, and though I scanned the misty darkness for his telltale orange glow, I couldn’t see him. I gritted my teeth. No time. Was the automat truly stopped?

I held up my hand, and forced my mind away from my missing friend. It took a second of concentration, and a cold blue flame flickered into being in my palm, cutting through the fog just a little. The flood of liquid nitrogen had slowed to a trickle as some control valve up the pipe noted the drop in pressure and shut off the flow.

In the aftermath, the automat stood motionless and lilted to one side, unbalanced by the missing drill bit and its broken legs. The armor plates had bulged outward from within, stretching and stressing the chains that held the bombs in place. No glow of fire shown from inside, and my light revealed the jagged edges of a thick cylinder that had once been the boiler. Below it, the fire pan had shattered under the thermal stresses, strewing dark coals everywhere. Not a single spark remained. The automat was dead.

I backed out of the room, shivering, and looked back from the doorway. The fallen machine looked like nothing so much as the carcass of an impossibly large beetle, found in the early morning in some dark forest, shrouded in mist and cold. It had been a beautiful machine, really. I rather think those mechanics could have made something of themselves, if they were able to take such a haphazard collection of parts and create this monstrosity that had yet functioned so well. That it would have succeeded in pulling down the university, I had no doubt now. I turned and left it to its grave, to be dealt with by someone else.

“Kristopher!” I called, blinking as I stepped back out into the light. “Kristopher!”

I couldn’t see him anywhere in the chamber, but a tiny voice from the far wall said, “Here,” and Robert held out his hands, encasing a warm orange glow.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Of course. Kristopher was attracted to pain; it was what had led him to finding Robert in the first place. Naturally he would gravitate toward the boy. And Robert could use the comfort, small as it was.

I staggered over to Robert, retrieving my coat from where I had dropped it earlier. I was suddenly exhausted, as if I had run a marathon, drained physically and emotionally after the excitement. I dropped next to Robert and leaned back against the wall, throwing an arm around the kid and pulling my coat over us like a blanket. He leaned into me as if it was perfectly natural, the salamander still cupped warmly in his hands.

Robert soon fell into a gentle sleep, and it was like this that Jedediah Millston found us half an hour later, storming out of the destroyed storage room with eyes ablaze, the fury of a thousand hells upon his heels.

* * * * * * * *
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June 19, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter VII

by Mallard

Mallard’s note: thanks and apologies to China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station, for this chapter. Those who have read the book may notice that I stole a certain small concept.

* * * * * * * *

I wasn’t the only one made nervous by the sewers. The kidnappers bunched up around the automat, as if taking shelter in its bulk, staying only far enough to avoid being speared by one of its ungainly steps. Those I could see kept their fingers on their triggers, and I wasn’t sure if I was more nervous by where we were or by the thought of the men behind us having the same reaction.

No, I shouldn’t lie to myself. At least with guns, you know exactly what you’re in for; I was far more frightened of the sewers.

Even Jedediah Millston, dean of KAMA and one of the most practiced life mages I know did not venture to the sewers lightly. It wasn’t a matter of strength. Anyone, from child to strongman could be taken by some of the nastier creatures in the sewer, or poisoned by the strange, semi-sentient lichens that grew all along the walls. And to slip and fall in the water could be just as bad, if not worse, as chemicals mixed and melded in ways that had never been intended. There’s that old, most likely apocryphal, story of the Paper Man that every child is told, either by parents to instill caution or by bullies to instill fear. Probably a newspaper deliveryman, the Paper Man was carrying a stack of newspapers beneath the city. Why he was delivering papers in the sewers is unknown, and irrelevant. Unbalanced by his stack, he slipped on a patch of mud and fell into the water. Almost at once, his skin began to turn to parchment, his blood to ink. His eyes became nothing more than ink drawings, and though he was no longer human, he was still fully conscious. When he tried to climb out of the water, he simply fell apart, as his skin tore like the thin paper it was. He died screaming, and left behind nothing but a mass of soggy scrip and a spot of dark ink that slowly dispersed.

Apocryphal maybe, but given what I’ve seen and heard of the sewers, and what I’ve seen in some of the research laboratories at the academy, I wouldn’t put it outside the realm of possibility.

To my relief, and that of my captors, we only spent a total of maybe twenty minutes in the sewers before we took another side tunnel. This one was much better constructed than the paths we had taken before, a proper concrete tunnel rather than a rat’s highway through random structures. It ended in a heavy steel door, the solidity of which was reassuring until I got close enough to see the enormous dents and gouges in the solid chunk of foot-thick steel. Something had clearly tried to get through, and despite the shear mass of the door, had come a lot closer than was comforting.

We had several tense moments while the leader of the group manipulated the door, and I heard a quiet chittering behind us as we filed through. I was all too happy when the heavy door slammed shut behind us, bolts as thick as my leg driving into the stone walls on all four sides of the door.

With the entrance to the sewers sealed off, everyone relaxed somewhat. All except the two guarding Robert and I put their pistols into holsters or rested their army-issue rifles against a wall. One of them took a lantern and moved off a little into the distance, and a moment later, gaslight flooded the area as the wall lamps glowed to gentle life. These were the first working lamps I had seen since entering the sewers, and I wondered whether these wild mechanics had repaired them or whether they were regularly used.

The lights revealed a large tiled chamber, with several other doors also sealed off with steel doors. One caught my eye in particular, emblazoned with the all-too-familiar crest of KAMA: a stylized branching tree, winged on one side by a bright sun, on the other by a dark moon. It was a symbolic representation of the three general fields of magic: naturalism, life magic, and mentalism. For the curious, I fall under the first group, though several layers deep. As an illusionist, I am a practitioner of light magic, which is a subset of fire, which of course is a subset of naturalism. Most mages are naturalists of some sort, once you dig deep enough.

The presence of the crest meant that the door led to one of the many deep basements of the university, where dangerous chemicals and books were stored, where they held labs for the advanced students, and where some particularly shady business was conducted. Not officially, of course. Jedediah Millston wouldn’t stand for it. But not all of his faculty had the same moral backbone, and there is quick money to be made in peddling various potions and papers among the criminal underground, and it was an ongoing problem for both the university and the police.

Robert and I were unshackled from the chains welded to the automat’s back, and led to sit in a corner. The leader–who still showed no obvious magical malady though every member of his little band had some visible injury–told us in a bored voice that if we moved, we would be killed. It was unsettling. I have found that the captors who appear to care the least are often the most dangerous.

Once again I was surprised by the efficiency of the little band. The sled was unloaded in record time, the wooden boxes stacked once again to one side, and the band got to work dismantling the harness. No one bothered to cover the boxes now, and I was not at all surprised to see the word “DANGER” stenciled in red on the side of each crate. Explosives, perhaps, or poison. The automat was clearly designed to drill through the outer wall of the university–or, more likely, to drill out the locks on the door–and carry the contents of those boxes inside. Ultimately it didn’t matter what was in them; it could hardly be flowers and puppies. Though, releasing a pack of curious pups in some of those labs could certainly cause a lot of damage…

But I digress.

No one paid attention to us now, focused as they were on the automat. Whatever they were doing would probably go quickly. If I was going to do anything, it had to happen now. I leaned against the wall, bringing up my knees and resting my manacled wrists on them. No one glanced our way. I was just shifting to a more comfortable sitting position, not getting ready to rush them, after all.

Now the tricky part. I know exactly what I look like, having spent much time studying my appearance in the mirror. It’s not vanity, but necessity, if I’m to make a realistic illusion of myself. But I didn’t know what I looked like at just that moment. I’m sure my face was dirty, my clothing rumbled, my hair unkempt. I couldn’t duplicate it exactly.

But then again, I didn’t have to.

One thing that few consciously realize about illusion is that most people don’t expect it. At least, if you do it right. If a slobbering fantastical beast suddenly appears in a room, people will get startled, but unless that’s your only goal, they’ll soon realize that it can’t be real and will dismiss it as an illusion. But, however impressive such monsters might be, I’ve found the best illusions are the most subtle. Like making a comrade in battle appear two steps to one side, so that well-aimed bullets fly harmlessly past. Or making a bayonet look a few inches shorter, so the enemy reacts just a hair slower, and dies instead of dodging. Or, making it look as if you are sitting still against a wall, resigned to your fate, when you are in fact inching slowly to your right to get to a position behind Robert.

The boy started when he felt my fingers on his head, but he made no noise and soon I managed to loosen his gag just a little, despite the manacles. Enough so that he might talk. He turned, and his eyes widened in surprise as he saw only stone wall, and myself apparently sitting a couple feet away, staring off into the distance.

“What–” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. I shook my head, but of course he couldn’t see me. I bent forward, bumping against his bound hands with my head. He jumped, but managed only a thin squeak that didn’t carry far. I hated to think it, but it was probably fortunate that he had been bound and gagged for the better part of four days. The less noise he could make, the better.

Credit where it’s due though: the kid was no idiot. It took him a few seconds to find the knot on my gag, but he knew what I wanted and managed to untie it without too much trouble.

“Thanks,” I hissed. He merely nodded, staring several inches to the left of where my head actually was, seeing only the blanket of stone wall I had pulled over myself. If he concentrated, he might see ripples when I moved, but could not see my features any more than the kidnappers.

“Are you well enough to talk?” I asked. I hated what I needed to do, and I would much rather have let the boy rest, but I didn’t have a lot of choice. Again, Robert nodded, though his face looked gaunt and drawn.

“What do you know about these people?” I whispered. The more I knew, the more options might be open to me. More than the zero I had at the moment, anyway.

“They hate magic,” he said instantly, as if that was their sole defining characteristic. Which was a succinct beginning, and nothing I hadn’t expected. “It’s all they talk about. I think they want to hurt everyone who uses magic,” he continued. Which was also not surprising. “They’re going to blow up the foundation pillars in the university,” he finished.

They were going to what the what?

My first response was that it was ludicrous. The product of clearly deranged minds. The foundation pillars were solid stone and as wide as I was tall. A single automat could never…

Could it?

And if it could, what would that mean?

KAMA, like all of the city, had grown from humble beginnings and to no particular direction. The basements had been added some time after the main aboveground structures, and in order to keep the building from collapsing in on itself, enormous columns had been put in place to support the incredible weight of the building. Destroying them was an unlikely proposition, but if the automat succeeded…if even one pillar were taken out, great swaths of the aboveground structure would collapse, causing irreparable damage and killing or injuring hundreds. It wouldn’t destroy the university utterly. But it wouldn’t need to. Acts of terrorism never need to. It was a statement to these people. Harmed by magic in the war, hurt in ways that should have been impossible, they were lashing out in the most direct way they could. It was a statement, and a terrible one.

I didn’t bother questioning Robert further, and he volunteered no information. I worried that he was so quiet and withdrawn, and I knew he was going to be in for some intensive therapy if I ever got him back topside.

When. I meant when.

The anti-magic group worked diligently, oblivious to our whispered conversation. I moved back to take the place of my illusion, so I wouldn’t have to hold on to it any more. If one of them looked my way right during the transition, they would have seen my outlines shift slightly as my real body took the place of the fake image. But that could easily be mistaken as a trick of the light, or a full-body twitch on my part, or fatigue on theirs. Like I said: no one expects to be fooled. Illusion capitalizes heavily on this.

The sled that had carried the explosives was taken apart and put back together, as a sort of saddle or harness that gripped the back of the monstrous automat. Chains dribbled from the fixture all across the automat’s back, and I realized their purpose as the group began to unpack the wooden boxes, taking the small explosive spheres from within and securing them carefully to the automat’s back.

As they fitted the explosives on the harness, several of the mechanics lifted armor plates on hidden hinges, raising them up and down, as if testing a mechanism. I had thought the plates were all solidly welded together to protect the machine, but they weren’t armor at all, I now saw. They were blast plates. And though they looked random and childish while they lay flat on the automat’s back, once the men raised them into position, they formed a crude but effective shield behind various explosives, designed to reflect and direct the explosive energy in one direction only. Not all the plates lifted properly on their hidden hydraulics, and I realized that this final stage must have been what they were working on when Scott and I had caught them in the act. It wasn’t optimal now, but then, it really didn’t need to be. It would work. I was more and more convinced of this fact as they continued to unpack boxes, stacking explosives all over the automat, one layer deep, then two, then three, so that it looked like nothing so much as a dust-covered mite blown up to ridiculous size.

It was only when the empty boxes were being stacked to one side that I noticed the two chains welded to the plates of the automat had been left empty. They weren’t meant for explosives.

The group turned toward us, their intent obvious now that I knew the plan. There was no time for finesse. I took a deep breath and pulled in the lamplight around us, then sent it forth.

“Don’t say a word,” I hissed at Robert, and a second later, two crude clones of us burst into being and began to run along the wall toward the nearest door, one that did not lead to the sewers.

Sudden gunfire filled the stone chamber, deafening me in the enclosed space. Bullets struck stone harmlessly, and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief that all the guns were aimed at my phantoms, and not at us.

“Grab them!” the leader roared, the first show of any emotion I had seen from him. The others continued to fire, the slightly softer explosions of multi-shot pistols alternating with the ear-shattering booms of the rifles.

My phantoms turned the corner, as I pulled Robert awkwardly in the other direction. We couldn’t move fast, hobbled as we were by the shackles and the need to make no noise. But we moved.

They realized the ruse when one of the men, out of bullets, ran after the the two illusions through the door they had just “exited” into a dark tunnel. Which meant that he ran headlong into a solid steel door. He roared in pain and grabbed his face, temporarily drowning the gunfire.

“Magic,” one of them spat, and at the moment I couldn’t blame them. Not exactly. Their reaction might be wrong, but could you really fault such a group, harmed by the arcane arts as they were, for hating mages? I know what it’s like to be full of righteous feeling, and it’s easy to want to harm someone to pay for your own hurts. Wrong, but easy.

“Enough,” the leader said, his voice as flat as before, the earlier anger choked out of his tone. “Guard the exit. You two, start the automat.” His men scurried to obey, keeping one hand on their pistols, and a moment later the automat shuddered to life, chains and explosives rattling alarmingly. It took a hesitant step forward, then another, regaining its stumbling gait from before.

“We are leaving.” He overrode the shouts of anger that this prompted and directed the group toward the door to the sewers. I realized what he was doing, and couldn’t help but feel a flash of respect. Rather than chase an effectively invisible enemy around the room, he would just leave and lock me in to die.

And Robert.

“Take the boy!” I shouted, and as one the group raised their guns, pointing them into empty space.

“I would have,” came the calm reply. “Only you need die, mage. The boy was innocent, until you took him. He holds no responsibility for the harm that was done to me and mine by the Republic. But because of your actions, he will die. Perhaps you will feel something for that, in your last moments of life.” He seemed to hesitate, to struggle with something internally, and as he did so his band filed out through the steel door behind him. “He deserves to die no more than she did. In doing this, perhaps I become no better than you. But I have no choice now.” He withdrew, then hesitated again. He reached into his pocket and pulled something from within. A pistol. My pistol, I realized a moment later.

“Do the child a favor, mage,” he said, and tossed the weapon into the room. And then he was gone, and the only sound was that of the laden automat, lumbering slowly toward the door to KAMA, and the foundation pillars.

The chamber was big, but not big enough. In an enclosed area, if the bombs did not kill Robert and I outright, they would suck away the oxygen and we would merely suffocate to death. I needed to stop it. But how? I am an illusionist. A very good one, too. I can fool any human alive, any living thing almost.

But an automat is metal and steam and clockwork. It has no mind to trick. There was nothing my magic could do. And Robert and I would die for it.

* * * * * * * *
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June 13, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter VI

by Mallard

When he needs to, Scott moves fast. Before the footsteps had traversed the half dozen or so strides to our hiding place, he had moved to one side of the door, shuttered lamp held in one hand, his police truncheon in the other. I moved to the other side and drew my pistol from inside my coat.

The muzzle of a rifle poked into the room cautiously, followed by a short-haired woman in overalls, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She turned and caught a glimpse of Scott crouching against the wall. She shouted and brought the rifle to bear, but didn’t have a chance to use it as Scott leapt forward, batting the muzzle aside with one hand and smashing his truncheon into her skull with the other. The rifle went off with a deafening roar in the tiny room, and I had to fight not to pull my own trigger in wild response.

The movement outside in the hall stopped abruptly at the sound of the rifle, and that was all Scott needed.

“Come on!” he shouted, and jumped over the prone woman and through the door. I followed, hunched over behind him, and our appearance was just sudden and startling enough that no one shot at us for about half a breath too long.

“Eyes,” Scott called curtly, and I turned quickly and squeezed my eyes shut, just as he pulled out the plate that separated the magnesium flash from the oil flame.

Light filled the hall like he had summoned the sun, and the kidnappers cried out in shock and pain. Even though I had prepared for it, I could still see dark spots dance in my vision after the flash faded.

The kidnappers recovered remarkably quickly and brought their weapons to bear, but we were up and running. Scott threw the heavy lantern behind him and I heard a grunt as it struck one of our pursuers. A shot went off, chipping the wall too near my head, and then we were out and into the sewers, racing alongside the river of sludge.

Though the lamps on the walls were dark, our pursuers had their own lights, and beams shone around us, reflecting crazily off random pipes and the surface of the water. Another shot broke a rusted pipe from the wall, but nothing spilled out.

We passed several dark openings, but without knowing where they went, it was too much risk to take them, as the sewer was likely riddled with dead ends. Though it was also too much risk to keep going, we realized as a motor coughed to life behind us. I didn’t know exactly how far it was to the ladder we had descended, but there was no chance we would make it on foot.

We rounded a corner, and I nearly ran into Scott as he skidded to a stop. “Not gonna make it at this rate,” he said, putting voice to my own thoughts. He grimaced. “Follow me,” and then he was running the wrong way, toward the center of the tunnel, and jumping foot first into…whatever was flowing in that water.

“Are you insane?” I hissed at him, aghast.

“Are you?” he retorted, and the motor sputtered louder as if to punctuate his remark. With a contorted expression of disgust, Scott held his nose and sank out of sight.

It wasn’t a bad idea, to be honest. It was hard to see him if you didn’t know to look, and as long as he stayed motionless, he could hide for a good long while. But he was moving, crawling along beneath the shallow river, and the ripples that caused might draw attention.

It was too late to call out to him to stop, and it was too late to jump in myself. And I was too tall, besides. And who knows what horrid diseases might be festering in that moving cesspool, diseases that might be harmless to Scott but lethal to mages, or to soldiers, or to men in long coats.

This is perhaps a good time to mention that I have some problems with water. And this wasn’t even water; water would be bad enough, but this was about as worse than water as was possible, and clearly there was a better course than me jumping in.

My phobias aside, there are also very legitimate reasons to be nervous in the sewers. Everything drains into them. Everything. From the usual waste products, to expired chemicals or excess ink, to even corpses and baby lizards that had grown too large to keep. Some of those lizards survive and grow enormous, feeding on the rats and the garbage that gets flushed down into the sewers. I’ve actually ran into one such, and I can tell you: it doesn’t matter how heavily armed one is; a lizard the size of a man, with armor-like scales and needle-sharp teeth, is not something to be sneezed at.

And they aren’t the worst. Out here in the residential neighborhood, the sewers were fairly tame. But in the more industrial areas, and especially around the university, strange things can be found. There have been numerous unconfirmed reports throughout the years of great beasts that stalk the sewers under the school, of the giant rats that congregate beneath Candlepark Station, or the enormous boar so large it is confined to the biggest of the sewer lines, with a hide like boiled leather, covered in scars and weeping wounds from a thousand failed attempts to slay it. Whether these creatures get so large naturally, or because they feed on some strange alchemy or magic leaking from the city proper, I don’t know. But given my choice, I’ll never be near enough another one to hazard a guess.

Scott raised a filth-covered hand and made an urgent “come here” gesture, but I moved in the other direction, pulling myself close to the wall. I didn’t have time to get a good view of what it looked like, but I knew in general what image to use. It was just concrete, after all, like the rest of the tunnels. I pulled an illusion of the wall over myself like a blanket, and did the same for Scott beneath the water, smudging and smoothing his features out so that no one could tell at a glance that anything was there.

The vehicle rounded the corner only seconds after these preparations, sudden light from its headlamp flooding the tunnel. It was a autobike, older even than my antique, coughing and sputtering like it was on its last legs. The rider took no notice of either Scott or I and blew past, ruffling my coat in the wind of his passing but leaving us otherwise undisturbed.

I breathed a sigh of relief. We would still have to wait out the ones who would follow on foot, but–

The bike skidded to a stop further down the tunnel and the rider stepped off. He wore no helmet, but had a scarf wrapped around his face. It wasn’t the leader, I could see, or anyone who had been in the room before. I wondered if the scarf was to filter the smell, or to hide some hideous disfigurement that seemed to be a mark of membership in their little band.

He paid no attention to the water, for which I was thankful, but scanned the walls as he walked, as if looking for something he had spotted in his passing.

Which could only be me. Which meant I had messed up.

It was about then that I realized I was leaning not against concrete, but brick.

Through my own illusion, I could see Scott raise his hand out of the water, a six-shot pistol held aimed toward the man’s side. The criminal might not be able to see the cop, but a shot would bring the others racing down the tunnel, and our already thin cover would be blown. Maybe we could fight our way out, or run fast enough to escape. But maybes are thin hooks to hang the lives of your friends upon.

“Winter take it all,” I muttered, and stepped out from the wall.

The biker must have known I was there, but he jumped back in surprise all the same. To his eyes, a section of concrete wall had suddenly turned into a person, standing with his arms in the air as if in surrender. The gesture was both so he wouldn’t shoot me on sight, and to keep his attention fully on me and away from the water. I kept my eyes on the man’s face, while behind his back I wrote in glowing violet letters the word, “GO.”

Scott didn’t look happy. But he went, moving slowly through the water away from us and toward the ladder we had used to enter the sewers. I kept the illusion on him as long as I could and thanked him silently. After all, he had really done the hard part.

And that just about did it for me. I was made to stand against the wall, hands on my head, while the man searched me and took my pistol from its pocket inside my coat. Then we waited, until his companions caught up and I found myself staring down the barrels of half a dozen guns.

* * * * * * * *

Maybe this is strange, but it hadn’t occurred to me until then that they might actually shoot me. I mean, I knew they all carried guns, and they had no qualms about kidnapping little kids, but…

Well, maybe that was just it. They had kidnapped Robert, but they hadn’t killed him. Even though it would have been far easier than trying to keep him alive and captive as long as they had. Men and woman of questionable morals though they might be, they weren’t cold-blooded killers.

In any case, no one shot me, though they kept their guns trained on me for the long and slow trek back to their hideout. Robert was sitting in much the same position as when Scott and I had spied him earlier. His wrists were chafed red by the manacles, and a spit-dampened gag was shoved into his mouth. I felt a stab of anger at the sight. Or maybe it was regret. Regret that, rather than rescue him and return him to his waiting mother, I had instead let myself be captured alongside him. Some hero.

The kidnappers sat me roughly next to the boy and bolted a pair of crude steel manacles about my wrists and ankles. A rag went around my eyes, another in my mouth. Neither were clean, and I tried not to gag at the taste of oil and dirt and sweat.

I suppose I should count it as a small blessing that Kristopher had managed to vanish. He may be a member of a mystical and poorly-understood species, but he’s still fairly vulnerable. A glass of water might not kill him, but it can come damn close. I didn’t know where he had gone to, but it was a small comfort to hold on to that he had gone.

It was only after I was properly secured that the leader of the band spoke to me. I couldn’t see him through the blindfold, but I recognized the voice well enough from before. “I don’t know who you are, copper,” he began in a bored tone. “And I don’t care. Your buddy may have gotten away, but we’ll be long gone by the time he brings your squad down. Whoever tipped you off was too late, so it truly does not matter.” I think he actually yawned at this point. “So you just sit tight and don’t make noise, and we won’t shoot you yet. Sound good?” He waited a moment and seemed to took my silence as a yes. “Good.”

And that was all the attention given me. Once the leader was no longer speaking to me, his voice took on a livelier tone. He spoke quickly, barking out orders in rapid bursts that sent the rest of his team–five besides himself–scurrying around the room like nervous rats before a fire.

 * * * * * * * *

To their credit, the group was fast. When they took my blindfold half an hour later, the room was stripped bare. The wooden boxes that had been stacked against the wall and covered with a tarpaulin were now stacked on a sled behind the automat, still covered by the tarp so that I could not read any label that might have been printed on their sides. The tools lying haphazard around the room had been packed away in one of several large metal chests.

Most impressive though, was that the room–to my eyes at least–looked untouched. The floor had been swept clean and scrubbed of oil, and from outside wafted the abrasive smell of ammonia, no doubt used to destroy their scent trails in the sewer tunnels.

Which meant that, beyond this point, Scott would have no way to track the group, to find me and Robert once we were taken away.

Somehow, my hastily executed plan of surrender no longer seemed like a good idea.

Robert’s and my leg manacles were partially undone, to allow us to walk at least somewhat normally. The men strung chains between us, and when I followed them with my eyes I found that the chains were welded to the body of the automat.

“Where are we going?” I tried to ask, and of course all that came out was a garbled mess, and I got a fresh tongueful of grease.

The leader seemed to understand me though, or at least he anticipated what someone might ask in my situation. “You don’t need to know,” he said curtly, and gestured with his head to two of his men. They moved behind us, the one with the boils and the single woman of the group, each holding a rifle with the Kestral insignia upon it leveled at Robert and I.

Which seemed unfair. I could understand them wanting to shoot me. I’m a big man–or tall, at least–who had been armed and had spied on the group with obvious ill intent toward them. Robert, on the other hand, was a kid. The worst weapon he had ever handled was probably a slingshot, and he’d only been trying to hide for a game, not for purposes of spying. They could probably have left him alone until he ran back topside, and they would have never been found out, would never even be in this predicament of having to move to escape police scrutiny.

Oddly enough, that thought comforted me a little. They could have ignored him, and they hadn’t. Which meant these people were either sadists of the worst order–unlikely, as Robert appeared largely unharmed–or they had made a stupid mistake. And if they could do it once, they could do it again. If I knew Scott, he would find us, and he would watch and wait for just such a mistake. It would only take one. And in any case, it wasn’t as if I was entirely helpless, either.

Though, shuffling behind the grossly built automat through dark hallways under the city, a rifle leveled at my back, I couldn’t help but feel a little helpless.

It was a small distraction to watch the automat move. It was every bit as awkward as I had expected, but there was a certain grace to it. No, I take that back; grace isn’t the right word at all. It was about as graceful as a diseased bear in a dance hall. But it worked, which was surprising enough to make me rethink my opinion of these men.

The legs all moved in different rhythms, so that the machine did not have a gait so much as a drunken stumble. Yet the rates of movement were all synchronized, such that the machine never actually stumbled, though it looked like it might at any moment. The head bobbed around wildly, up and down, left and right, but the machine was designed such that the weirdly placed drill stayed perfectly level, its tip moving only an inch or two laterally as it walked forward. Viewing it from behind, I saw what looked like a collapsed truss apparatus behind the drill, which might extend the bit forward and past the automat’s head, such that it could actually tunnel further than I had originally assumed.

Steam came in uneven spurts from the various vents, seeming to match up with no external movement. It dripped oil behind it, and creaked in alarming fashions, but it moved, and that was all it needed to do. Perhaps its construction wasn’t a function so much of inexperience and madness, but simply an unavailability of standardized components. For such a cobbled-together monster, I couldn’t help but be impressed.

I would have been rather more charmed by it, however, if I hadn’t been welded to the beast.

Our path took us away from the sewers, through another hallway of the sunken house, and then through what had once been a picture window and into another building. We progressed in this fashion through several disused sections of the undercity before we emerged into a wide open concrete tunnel. For a moment I thought we had intersected another branch of the sewer, until I realized that it was not water that ran along the center, but two parallel rails of rusted iron.

We had entered part of the abandoned subway system. The tunnel was in surprisingly good condition, though it had clearly been cannibalized over the years to remove iron from the tracks, or to take pieces from the unfinished switching boxes and other mechanics of the underground rail system. We passed several skeletons of early cars, and I realized that much of the spider automat had probably been salvaged from these wrecks, picking and choosing the functioning parts from each to piece together something that had never been intended.

We followed the tunnels for some time, moving at a crawl. The automat could not move quickly, and the sounds it made as it walked echoed wildly from the concrete ceiling, so that the group glanced nervously around throughout the entire walk. My muscles refused to untense at the thought of a nervous finger pulling a hair trigger and sending a bullet into my back. The leader might berate the man, but I doubted he’d care.

Worse, they might shoot the boy.

The tunnel ended abruptly, in a wall of stone and dirt that had once been attacked by great digging machines. Most likely, the drill on the automat had come from one of these machines, several wrecks of which I saw lying around the end of the tunnel. The walls were damp here, and much of the wooden support structure was wet through and well-rotted.

A low and narrow tunnel, scaffolded by more rotted supports, led us from the rails and to yet another concrete tunnel. The sewers, I knew at once from the smell.

It wasn’t the usual smell you’d expect from the sewers, though. It was a heavy, almost perfumey stench, thick in the air like fog. The water was black in the dim lamplight and moved oddly, heavy and slow like mud in some places, at others flowing far quicker than it should have. Occasional colors gleamed from the surface, like oil slicks or concentrated dyes. It was obvious the gas lamps lining the walls had not worked for years, but still a dim light was provided by the damp mold that coated the walkway and crawled up the concrete walls. It pulsed gently.

The tunnels were huge here, much wider than the one Scott and I had first ventured down. It was easily large enough for the Boar to come upon us, or any of the dozens of other horror stories lurking down there. The pipes overhead rattled and shook at random intervals, occasionally raining a fine dusting of rust onto the surface of the liquid. Something swam upstream, disturbing the surface but remaining unseen, and further down the tunnel, the surface of the water glowed a gentle blue for half a minute before fading.

There was only one place in the city that looked like this, only one place the kidnappers could have led us. We had entered one of the most dangerous locations in all the undercity: the sewers beneath the academy of magic.

* * * * * * * *
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June 6, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter V

by Mallard

Scott and I had a disagreement at this point.

“We need to go and get backup,” Scott hissed at me from the darkness to my right.

“We need to find out who these people are, first,” I returned. “We don’t know anything–”

“Yes, exactly! We don’t know their numbers or capabilities. We’re just two men, Victor–” Kristopher whistled softly. “Fine,” Scott said. “Two men and a singing firefly. We need the police down here to back us up.”

“I thought you were the police,” I returned, and moved a few steps further down the tunnel. The voices were still going while Scott and I held our whispered argument, but they could stop at any moment. And once they did, it’d be near impossible to find them. Though we had been following one of the main concourses of the sewer, smaller tunnels branched off at random intervals, snaking under the city in a wild and unmapped mess. Unmapped to me, at least–it was a fair bet that whoever was down here probably visited more often than Scott or I, and it’d take only a marginally better knowledge of the sewers to leave us, well, up shit creek.

Not even Kristopher would be able to follow. At least, not quickly. He could probably track Robert, if indeed these people were holding the kid, but it would be uncertain at best.

“I’m serious, Victor. We can’t charge in there without knowing what we’re getting into.”

“I know,” I said, nodding though he couldn’t see me. “And that’s why I’m going to go see what we’re getting into. This is–was–my job, if you’ll recall.” Scott didn’t say anything to that. He didn’t know me when I worked for the Republic, but I had told him the barest details when we’d first met, after he had seen and recoiled from the blue-and-green armband I wore.

Scott sighed. “Fine,” he said after a moment. “But looking only; don’t touch.”

I grinned. “Come on, Scott, you know me.”

“You’re damned right I do,” he grumbled, but followed behind as I continued down the tunnel.

Kristopher glows, but his tiny light doesn’t do much to illuminate things around him. I summoned a dim red light that floated like a mist around my ankles, the better to see where I was stepping. The sewer walkways were mostly clear of things that would make much noise, but all I needed was step on a discarded tool, or slip on a patch of mud, and any sound I made would echo down the tunnel to warn our quarry. They hadn’t heard us so far, which was a good sign, but there was no sense in taking any chances.

The sudden light that burst out from my left was shockingly bright after the darkness, and I was sure someone had flashed a lamp at us and was about to start shooting. I leapt backward and crashed into Scott, who grunted but managed not to curse aloud. Which saved us, as I realized a moment later what I had seen.

A side tunnel had opened to our left, a smaller offshoot of the sewer. And off of that tunnel, hidden until we had passed the corner, was yet another opening. Not a sewer, but some sort of underground walkway that ended in a rusted-open steel door at the side of the sewer tunnel. The light shone through that door, wan lamplight that wasn’t nearly as strong as it had first seemed.

When no one appeared in the light to challenge us, we crept closer and saw that the tunnel was barely larger than the dimensions of the door that fronted it, a narrow corridor of concrete with pipes jostling each other for space at the top, so that I felt I’d have to duck if I walked under them.

Some distance down, yet another opening led to the right, and it was through this that the gentle glow of a gas lamp spilt. The light that had so startled me in the tunnel had been twice reflected, and would been nigh invisible in daylight.

I let my eyes fully adjust to the light and started through the door from the sewer, only to have Scott grab my arm. “Wait,” he hissed.

I turned, frowning. Were we going to have this argument again? Then, as I opened my mouth to respond, I realized that we were close enough to make out the occasional words the group was speaking. I closed my eyes and strained my ears, not for the first time wishing I knew any sound magic, or at least had one of those brass horns for the elderly.

“–told you, we’re not gonna do anything of the sort,” a voice said in an weary tone.

A lower and softer voice responded, ending in a slightly higher pitch as if asking a question.

“We’ve had this discussion, Rod. It’s over. Don’t bring it up again.”

Well, winter blast it all. Why couldn’t they repeat that conversation now that Scott and I were in a position to hear it?

Rod grumbled a reply, but must have complied because the other voice–the leader, I assumed–made no more comments. There came the sound of metal clanging on metal, a lot of scuffling of feet, or maybe the moving of heavy boxes, and the occasional garbled phrase. I couldn’t tell how many people were in the room. Two at a minimum, but from the noises they were making, it was either a very active two, or a group of at least four or five.

I itched to get closer. I hated being so near, but still knowing nothing. I was certain that we had found the people responsible for Robert’s disappearance, but for all I knew it was just a bunch of guys having some beers and banging on pipes with spanners. Admittedly, the location was a little strange, but . . . well, you hear of odder things in my profession.

I stepped through the doorway from the sewers, ignoring Scott’s hissed protest. There was another, dark opening leading off to the left a few yards down that I could duck into, as long as no one decided to pop out of the lit doorway while I was moving. From there, I figured I might be able to see a little into the other doorway, or at least hear more clearly.

Scott followed me a second later, and we made a beeline for the door, ducking into the darkness and the relative safety it provided. It wouldn’t help us if someone decided to look into the room, but I was banking on them expecting no visitors.

Once we were sure no one had heard us, I took a quick look around, and though I couldn’t make out many details I realized at once that we weren’t in the sewers at all anymore.

“This is part of the undercity,” I whispered to Scott in surprise.

“Obviously,” he returned, focusing intently on the room across the narrow hallway. Which was, I had just realized, exactly that: an old hallway in the ground floor of a building some decades in Kestral’s past.

Remember how I said that, in the early days of the city, parts of it sank below the surface of the marshlands? Many of those sections sank whole and solid, though horribly water-damaged and sometimes tilted at crazy angles. Now that I recognized where we were, I realized that the floor sloped slightly downhill, away from the sewer lines, though no doubt it had been built level.

No one used the undercity for anything anymore. Or I should say, no one used the undercity for official, legitimate purposes. There were still plenty of access points, from buildings stacked on top of the sunken floors, to doors like the one we’d found. The sewers had been built much more recently in Kestral’s past, and whenever the walkways intersected the sunken basements of the undercity, they just opened up into them. No doubt the city planners had thought it might be useful to someone, but you usually only hear of criminals, the homeless, and madmen using the undercity. I think the only legitimate use I’ve heard of was when the city tried to install subways. They’d planned to use some of the larger sunken rooms that were still in decent condition as subway stations, since it saved having to mine out a whole new space. But that project had been abandoned like so many others, and now the undercity was home to rats and those who didn’t fit in the city proper.

Now that we were closer, I could understand more of what the group was saying to each other. Much of it was along the lines of “hand me that drill,” or “careful, you dolt!” There was also the occasional, “this is gonna be great, boss,” a sentiment often met with boisterous approval. I didn’t know what they were planning, but I couldn’t help feeling it would be rather less than great from my side of things. That feeling intensified when, during a more prolonged period of silence, a muffled nasal sound pierced through the occasional grunt. At first it was unfamiliar to me, but then Kristopher did an agitated figure-eight in the air and I recognized the sound as about the only noise a gagged child could make.

Scott started next to me, and I knew he recognized the sound as well. There was a sloshing sound as the oil in his lamp shook, and he put it down quickly. I couldn’t blame him; the man has a wife and a daughter. The latter of whom, I realized suddenly, was nine years old, the same as Robert. No wonder he was a little shaky.

I wasn’t feeling too steady myself, but for different reasons. While Scott found the sound frightening because he was imagining his little Kelley in Robert’s place, I was remembering.

It wasn’t little boys or girls that I had bound and gagged and stowed away in some dark bunker. But some of the soldiers I had captured hadn’t been much more than kids, many of them younger even than I at the time. I had been an . . . “information specialist” for the Republic. My job was to gather intelligence, and I did so. Using any and all means at my disposal.

Like I said earlier, I’m not proud of my part in recent history. No, that’s not right. “Not proud” is a passive state, a sort of “ho hum, I could have done better.” I was ashamed. Angry. Sickened. I hadn’t killed, at least not outside of battle. But I had been responsible for many deaths all the same. For many pains, for–

Kristopher whistled sharply, and I jerked my head up in surprise.

“Shh!” I hissed at him automatically, and with that my mind snapped back to the present. “. . . Thank you,” I added after a moment. I didn’t look at Scott, but I could feel him staring at me.

When he spoke however, he was all business. “I think it’s time we left, Victor.” It was just not the business I had been expecting.

I blinked. “What?”

“We need to get more help. We don’t know if these men are armed, and I don’t trust the two of us to take them on.”

“Exactly,” I said, frowning. “We don’t know anything yet. The only thing we’ve learned is that they have Robert, and I thought we’d already come to that conclusion. There’s no point in going back up until we know what we need backup against.”

“And how do you propose we find out? Just waltz in and look?”

“Um,” I said, with my usual eloquence and forethought. Scott waited patiently. “Well, maybe if one of them comes out, and if we can knock him out without alerting the others, and if I can pass myself off as him . . .” I stopped when I realized I was spouting nonsense.

My memory is very good. It has to be, to make an illusion with any sort of realism. I need to hold every aspect of the image in my head, in three dimensions, concentrating constantly to make an illusion that’s both consistent and realistic. There’s no way that, just briefly glancing at an unconscious man, I could mimic his appearance well enough to fool his companions for more than a few minutes at the outside.

(Can’t you see around corners?) Kristopher sang softly, making lazy circles in the air.

I blinked in surprise, then groaned and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m kind of an idiot,” I said to Scott.

“Certainly,” he agreed amicably. “But why this time?”

If there’s one problem I have, it’s that I sometimes make things more complicated than they need to be. It’s not that I can’t make myself look like someone else temporarily. I used to do it on a fairly regular basis, after all. It’s hard, but it’s a remarkably effective way to get information, as long as you can keep up the facade. Just, it’s not always the simplest approach.

Illusion is, as I mentioned, just applied light magic. And light magic is all about creating and manipulating light. Making it brighter, changing colors, focusing or dispersing it, and bending it. The periscope effect is one of the earliest skills a light mage masters, and for a while it’s the greatest new toy. You can peer around corners before you reach them, or cheat at cards, or follow the intricacies of a gopher hole or anthill, or peep through a girl’s bedroom window while she’s changing.

Er, that last of which, of course, I never did. Never. Not at all.

Well, maybe once.

It was a simple trick to reach out and grab on to the light pouring out of the room, and to pull a section of it toward me, bending it such that, instead of impacting on the far wall like it should have, it curved in a wide arc and opened to a small circle floating in front of our faces. Scott whistled approvingly, and together we peered through the opening in the air.

The room rippled slightly as if we were watching a reflection in a bowl, but it was plenty clear for all that. It was as if the door had been shut and we had somehow cut open an eight-inch hole without being detected.

There were four men in all, three dressed in dark shirts and pants, one in overalls. The clothing of all four was covered in grime and grease stains, so that it was hard to tell the original colors. The reason for the mess was fairly obvious: taking up much of the cramped space was an automat, but unlike any I had seen before. It was insect-like, standing easily as tall as a man, with six legs that each seemed to have been pulled from a different source. Some were thick hydraulics with many joints, others barely more than hollow pipes with a single elbow, and all were different lengths, so that it was a wonder the machine stood level. I couldn’t imagine how it might walk.

Plates of various metals, from copper to steel to what might have been brass, covered most of the machine, with steam vents rising from random and unlikely spots. The boiler, it appeared, was entirely internal, shielded by these armor plates which were riveted and welded crudely together.

Though the construction of the machine would have made Serah–or any legitimate mechanic–cry out in anguish, at least one of its functions was obvious. Supported by struts, and by the two forwardmost legs on its left side, the automat sported a great drill that looked salvaged from a disused mining vehicle. Clearly, whatever this group planned, it involved making large holes in something. Though, the construction of the machine would make it horribly inefficient to use the drill for any length of time, or to drill anything very deep. Given the haphazard build of the rest of the thing, I almost wondered if it wasn’t ornamentation. Maybe these people were just mad but harmless gearheads, cobbling together mechanical nonsense in this disused portion of the undercity.

Except that, seated against the wall and half hidden by one of the spider’s mismatched limbs, arms and legs clamped in steel manacles and a blindfold and gag covering much of his face, was a boy who could only be Robert Withers. He wriggled and shivered, and occasionally let out quiet whimpers that seemed more audible now that we could see him.

We watched for several minutes, as the men bustled around the enormous machine. A pair were working underneath, calling out tool requests to the one other man who was doing any work. The fourth just leaned against the wall, supervising, and I felt certain that this was the man who had told Rod that their discussion was over. He said little now, watching the progress and keeping what almost looked like a nervous eye on both the boy and on a stack of wooden crates against the far wall, mostly covered by a large canvas tarpaulin thrown casually over.

As my surprise at the sight of the automat lessened, I looked more closely at the men and began to realize that there was something very off about them. One of the men under the machine had only one functioning leg, the other transitioning at the knee into a perfect stone facsimile. The other appeared to have two hands on at least one of his arms, both sprouting from the same wrist, both scarred and burnt horribly, though all ten fingers seemed functional. The man in overalls, standing and handing the other two tools, had horrible red boils across half his face, and he gripped the tools with hands that were little more than clubs, several fingers on each hand melted together like wax. He limped when he walked, and blinked constantly though the room was not overly bright.

The leader looked fairly normal, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he, too, harbored some terrible disfigurement. I felt sick at the sight; those wounds and mutations had not been caused by ordinary weapons. They were almost certainly caused by magic, which meant . . .

I looked closer and saw that both the leader and the man with the boils had pistols strapped to their sides. A pair of rifles leaned up against the wall, and though they were covered in mud and filth, it was not hard to make out the insignia of the Kestral Armed Forces emblazoned on the stocks. Which, given the nature of their injuries, meant that these men had almost certainly served in the Mage Wars, on the opposite side as I.

Before I could fully wrap my mind around the implications of this, the leader of the group turned his wandering gaze toward the door, and I remembered all too late the reason I didn’t use the periscope technique anymore.

When I bend light, it’s not a one-way effect. Let’s assume–hypothetically, of course–that I had once peeped at a girl changing in her bedroom. I would have thought myself oh-so-clever, since I could sit at the base of the wall and look straight forward, and find myself peering into a room on the second story. But if that girl were to look at the window, she’d see, just as clearly, an image of my lecherous face peering at her from somewhere amid the window panes. She might think it a ghost, and she might recognize the magic for what it was, but either way, she would know she had been seen, and she might throw her shoe at the face, shattering her window and causing shards of glass to rain down around me.

It was the same in this case, sans shoe. The man would have seen my and Scott’s faces, clearly illuminated by his room light, peering at him from a patch of stone wall. I released the magic, shrinking back into the dark room Scott and I had hidden ourselves in, and at once our faces were no longer poking out of the wall. But the damage had been done.

“A spy!” the leader roared, and was answered in an instant by the shouts of the other three members. No, by five shouts at least. From the far end of the hallway, a door banged open as what must have been two more kidnappers burst in.

The sound of pounding feet and angry yells filled the small space, and I saw that our clever, sneaky hiding place was now little more than a cramped barrel, with Scott and I the fishes to be shot.

* * * * * * * *
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