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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