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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