Archive for November, 2012

November 19, 2012

Interlude: Darkness Under the Sun (part iii)

by Mallard

After a time, the reinforced concrete walls of the tracks gave way to damp wooden shorings and abandoned excavation equipment. A stairwell led from the tunnels to the inside of an apartment complex, and Jedediah’s wolf followed the trail up the steps to a hallway just below the ground level. It was long disused, the stairs that had once led further up now cemented off. This floor officially no longer existed, the furniture all moved out, the carpet long since rotted to mulch.

Still, the rooms were serviceable as shelter, and it was to room one-fifteen that the trail led. The wolf’s nonexistent ears perked up to listen to the chatter within, muted and angry.

“That damned mage stopped it somehow,” a heavy, slurred male voice said.

“No, look, I heard an explosion–”

“We’ve heard about your damned explosion! The academy is still standing isn’t it? So whatever you heard, or thought you heard, wasn’t the bombs going off.”

“But maybe they went off too early, or–”

“Oh shut your mouth before you embarrass yourself,” a woman retorted. “I designed the timing system of the minewalkers in the wars; I can damned well ensure the bombs did not go off early.”

“Well, something–”

A door creaked open somewhere in the room and the bitter voices fell silent. There was a pause, and a flat male voice spoke. “Why is this conversation continuing? I said it was over. The academy still stands. The automat was constructed correctly. The illusionist had something to do with its failure. That is the end of the debate.

“Our primary task now is to recover the automat and determine the cause of failure. This will prove difficult, as the police no doubt have custody of it by now, but we are fortunate in that none of the components nor construction can be traced to any of us.”

“But, if that mage still lives…” the slurred voice began.

The flat voice continued, footsteps sounding in a regular fashion as he began to pace. “The mage presents a problem. We must assume he escaped and has reported this to his superiors. They will place a guard on the academy, and we will not be able to take such a chance again.”

“The hell we can’t,” a voice younger than the others spat. “We storm the academy, raid it like I first proposed. We just need to get in, plant the bomb, and–” A loud crack sounded, and the voice broke off in a cry.

“That idea was merely idiotic then, and is impossible now. You will not give it voice again.” The leader continued with no change in tone. “The mage is a problem, but by himself is not a threat. Illusion magic is deceptive, but not dangerous. We will find him and determine what he knows, and how he stopped the automat. The academy is off-limits for the foreseeable future…but a public execution will serve our purposes equally well.”

This brought silence.

“I, uh, don’t want to be disobedient, sir,” a previously unheard voice said, his speech slow and hesitant. “But, uh, he’s not really a bad person, right? He told us to take the kid, and he was just trying to stop a criminal act–”

“Criminal.” The footsteps stopped, as if the man had halted directly in front of the one who had challenged him. “Not a bad person. Do you know what the armband he wore means?”

“Uh, that he is, uh, a Peace Worker–”

“It means that he is a member of the Republic. A mage of the Republic. The Republic that ruined Roderick’s face and limbs. The Republic that caused Aller to have three hands. The Republic that turned your leg to lifeless stone.” His voice grew soft. “The Republic that took my daughter from me and turned her into a beast. Look me in the eye, Sandre, and tell me what is criminal.”

The room was deathly silent. Everyone’s attention would be focused on the leader and his hapless lackey, foolish enough to voice his mind. No one would be watching the door.

The sabre-toothed cat burst through the rotted wood in a cloud of splinters that rained around and through its bones. It inhaled into lungs it did not have, and its roar shook dust from the ceiling. The men froze, their minds shut off at the terrible roar, the cry of the hunting beast that was said to sometimes stop its prey’s heart before the cat could even move in for the killing bite.

Behind it, the wolf’s howl was almost a relief.

Jedediah strode into the room and stood between his pets, examining through the necromancy’s gray veil the five men and the woman he had come to harm.

To frighten, to take into custody, he corrected himself. The shadows grew a shade less stark.

Nothing moved. Even the man in the gray suit stood motionless, still crouched in front of a terrified young man slumped against the wall. The dean cleared his throat.

“My name is Jedediah Millston,” he said in his calmest voice. “I am the dean of the Kestral Academy of the Magical Arts. I understand that, earlier this evening, you six were responsible for an attack on my school. An attack designed to bring down the academy, to end the learning of magic in this city.” His voice rose to a growl, seeming at once to emanate both from his own throat and that of the undead cat. “An attack on thousands of innocent, defenseless students.”

“Abomination,” whispered the man in gray, his face as ashen as his suit. In one smooth motion, he pulled a rifle from the wall, leveled it, and fired twice in rapid succession. The sound was deafening in the enclosed space. The bullets flew into the cat’s side and, rather than passing through the empty rib cage to strike Jedediah, embedded themselves in the flesh that only the necromancer could see. The great cat roared in anger, but no pain, and a heartbeat later, the bullets remembered that they were stuck merely in air, and fell to the floor with a dull thump.

The room was too small for the cat to maneuver, but in a flash the wolf was on the man, crushing him to the ground, bony jaws wrapped around his throat. None of the others moved.

“Sorcerer,” whispered the man in gray. “Abomination.”

Jedediah took a deep breath, resisting the urge to tear out the man’s throat, to rip the remaining five to shreds. “You have all attempted to harm me and mine,” he continued. “You failed, and for that reason alone, I do not plan to kill you tonight.”

None dared breathe a sigh of relief, eyes riveted on the skeletal impossibilities before them.

“This will never happen again. You will leave this city, leave this country. You will never return. If ever I see you in Kestral again, I will kill you. Instantly, without explanation or warning or fear of reprisal.

“Hate magic if you like. Seclude yourself among those without it. I don’t care. But you will not return. Agree to this, and I will spare your lives. Lie, and I will kill you.”

The man who the leader had been berating, who had defended Victor, was the first to agree, nodding hastily and limping on his stone leg to stand against the wall. The man with three hands, the woman whose malady was not immediately visible, agreed next. Jedediah watched them through gray-tinted eyes; he could not actually know if they lied. The mysteries of the mind were opened only to the third and rarest branch of magic. But the point was fear, to drive such terror into these people that they would never think of setting foot inside his city ever again.

As the fourth babbled his agreement, Jedediah caught sudden motion out of the corner of his eye (or was it the cat’s eye?), as the enormous man with boils all across his face withdrew a mangled hand from behind his back and flung something at the dean, something small and black.

It was a bomb, one of the explosives the group must have reserved from the automat. In this small space, it would kill everyone, and possibly collapse the upper level, jarring some unsuspecting family into the middle of a horror.

Jedediah watched through three sets of eyes as the bomb left the man’s hand, and he leapt with the wolf, up from the gray man, to swallow the explosive in midair.

The roar was deafening, the flash blinding, and Jedediah threw up his arms to protect his face from shrapnel that never came. The pile of bones that had been his wolf flew against the wall, carried by the momentum of its leap, and clattered to the ground. The bones were blackened and shattered by the fires of the bomb. But the explosion had been contained by the memory of its body, strengthened beyond anything the real wolf had ever enjoyed in life.

Jedediah lost all gray as the great cat roared again, and the big man with the mangled hands did not have time to shout as the cat’s jaw opened and closed, driving foot-long fangs into his chest and crushing his torso. Hot blood flooded Jedediah’s mouth, warm meat tore on his fangs. He crushed down with his massive jaws, and bones creaked and broke beneath his bite.

It was a struggle to pull himself back from the cat, long years of discipline warring with the darker emotions coursing through him. Slowly, the feel of his jaws closing around dead meat faded, and grays began to bleed back into the spaces between the blacks and whites.

The man in gray must have seen something of the battle on his face, and his voice was thick with disgust when he spoke. “Look at you, mage. Taking the moral high ground, saying you will kill none of us. Yet your abomination kills without a thought, and you fight not to revel in joy at the death. I see it in your face, mage. I have known your kind, have seen them gone mad with power, their own comrades forced to gun them down in self defense. I watched your kind raise one of my companions and turn him against us, and he laughed as my ally’s corpse slew us. It was the laugh of a madman.

“The magic drives all of you insane, taints everything it touches. You’ll kill me now, too, of course. Oh, you may spare the others, but you daren’t let me free, not the leader, not the mastermind. You’ll even justify it to yourself, I’ll wager. It had to be done, you’ll tell yourself. It–”

“Shut. Up,” Jedediah’s voice was hoarse, and he felt the cat growl as he spoke. He could still taste the dead man’s blood in the cat’s mouth, hot and full of power. He could smell the death, and it rang in his mind as joy. It was the euphoria of the hunt, remembered by this long-dead cat who knew nothing of mercy or second chances.

“You know nothing,” the dean rasped.

The man laughed, a hollow, empty sound. “But yet you will still kill me.”

Jedediah nodded. “Yes. Because I cannot trust you to keep your word. Because your hatred of me overrides your fear of what I can do. Because no matter what promises I exact from you, you will never keep them, and you will never relent in your pursuit of me and mine.”

The man regarded him for a moment. “You are right,” he said at last. “I hate you. I hate all of you. And if you let me go I will come back and kill you in your sleep. I will destroy your precious academy to save the next generation from your taint. And you’ll kill me for that promise, and you will be no cleaner than I.”

Jedediah said nothing as the cat opened its jaws once more and placed them around the leader’s head, almost gently. Three of the other four looked away, though the woman watched in stoic silence. Jedediah wondered what the man was to her, or if she simply refused to show fear.

“You are an abomination,” the man in gray whispered once more. “Your kind took my daughter from me. Turned her into a monster. Forced me to kill her with my own hands to save her from her fate. You hate me, but you are the real beast here. Corrupting those children in that academy, to become like you.”

Jedediah nodded, suddenly tired. His head hurt from the constant struggle to keep himself separate from the cat. “I won’t pretend to understand you, and I won’t pretend to apologize. You are simply too much of a risk.”

The man sneered. “You are a coward.”

“If it was merely my own skin, I would let you free right now,” Jedediah said, and the man peered at him through the jaws of the sabre-tooth, as if unsure whether he told the truth. “But you would kill my children. You of all people should understand why I do this.”

“Those children are better off dead than become like you,” the man said, but there was no longer any rancor in his flat, empty voice.

“And that is why I cannot let you live,” Jedediah said, and with a twist of the cat’s massive skull, he tore the man’s head from his shoulders.

Jedediah stared at the two bodies before him, all the anger gone from his system, his vision a flat, dull gray. “You should go now,” he said to the four, and when he looked up, they had gone, running down the hall of the abandoned apartment floor to disperse into the subway tunnels, running for their lives.

* * * * * * * *

Jedediah had the sabre-tooth drag the remains of the two terrorists down the subway tunnels, walking well behind so he would not smell the blood. Not that it mattered; he could still taste it in the cat’s mouth. They reached the sewers and the cat dropped the bodies in without ceremony. That done, Jedediah began the long trek back to the academy, and the underground storeroom of the dead.

Once there, the sabre-tooth folded itself neatly back into the box and became at once no more than a pile of bones. Jedediah stored it back on the shelf and, after a moment’s thought, shoved the empty wolf’s box back as well. He would find another someday.

As he left the rooms, he glanced at the door to the next chamber, mentally following the chain to the fourth and final room, which housed only a handful of boxes. These were long boxes, marked not with descriptions, but with names. Names that he knew all too well. Names that, had he his way, would remain undisturbed, the boxes never to be opened by his hand.

He locked the heavy steel doors to the chambers and slide the intricate key back into his coat pocket. As the necromantic powers drained from his limbs, he felt the chill of the underground seep in, the fatigue of the long night settle on his shoulders. The twinge in his knee promised a long and difficult climb back to his rooms.

He grunted as the trappings of age and mortality cloaked him once again. He was simply Jedediah Millston now, dean of the academy. No longer the necromancer; no longer the wolf nor the cat. The taste of blood did not linger on his lips; the smell of sweat and fear did not clog his nostrils.

But the memories would never fade. He raised his foot to the first of many steps, the pains in his body aching for the caress of his bed. But he knew he would never see it, would stand instead at his window, gazing out across the fog-blanketed city, watching the trains and the airships and the great cargo walkers. He would smoke cigar after cigar, coffee growing cold on the table beside him, keeping the nightly vigil of a man who hated sleep for the dreams that would haunt his mind.

* * * * * * * *

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November 11, 2012

Interlude: Darkness Under the Sun (part ii)

by Mallard

Most people would have called someone, he knew. The police, perhaps, or a good friend; someone who would know where to find him should he not return. But the police would just get in the way, and there were not many anymore that he considered good friends. Those who did hold that distinction, he didn’t want anywhere near this side of his life.

Jedediah lit a second cigar on the long walk down the exterior steps, spiraling around and around the outside of the academy. He preferred this staircase to the noisy and oft-crowded one inside. It let him look out over the city, sweeping foggy vistas slowly being lost to sight as he circled the girth of the building.

At last, he reached the ground floor, the cigar long out, his coat damp from fog and perspiration. He dropped the stub of the cigar and ground it beneath his boot before unlocking the green-tarnished door that prohibited access to the lower floors. The stairs continued on the other side, a set of switchbacks now. His tread on the steel steps echoed off the pale stone walls, accompanied only by the faint hiss of the gas lamps that lit his way into the depths. This was a service stairway, not meant for widespread use. It lacked the elegant ironwork on the handrails of the interior stairs, and the sweeping views and low stone walls of the outer. It was purely functional, utilitarian.

Few people knew how deep beneath the surface the academy’s basements went. The elevators went only as low as the sewers. Further down, the subbasements sunk deep beneath the city, spreading out as well as down. Unbeknownst to the residents near the school, a network of storage rooms spread deep beneath many of their homes, well below the sewers.

As he descended, the air grew cold and stale, and Jedediah’s breaths game out in rasping clouds of white. Ancient circulation pumps kept the air breathable, but hardly fresh this far down, laboring to pump clean air from the surface. Moisture beaded on the iron handrail, flaking it in rust and running down the stone walls in thin rivulets.

“Winter-blasted stairs,” Jedediah muttered, feeling a twinge in his knee that he knew would make the return climb unbearable.

He came to a stop with a grunt at the bottom of the twentieth flight and fumbled for the key in his coat pocket, fingers numb from the chill, wondering what he would do if he had left it in his desk. His fingers closed on jagged metal, and he sighed in relief. The space beyond the door was pitch black, but a dial on the wall caused gas to flow and a spark to ignite, bringing light to a short hallway.

The hall was bare, tunneling through the earth to one of the lesser-known storage chambers beneath the academy. At the end of the hall was a second door, larger and more intimidating than the first. Constructed of solid steel, inlaid with elegant runes (which did nothing, but would ward against the ignorant), with no visible handle or window. Bolts the thickness of a man’s leg drove into the surrounding stone, rendering the door an immovable obstacle, nearly one with the tons of earth weighing down above him.

The security of the door did not indicate anything especially dangerous beyond it; all the entrances to the academy’s underground rooms were similarly sealed. Too many dangerous creatures and unsavory individuals could be found in the underground, though he was currently well below the sewers and the old subway lines. In fact, he was deep beneath the city, far below the lowest basements, on a level with the sunken steel-and-concrete foundations that kept the airship spires standing against earthquakes and coastal storms.

Jedediah withdrew a second key from his pocket and held it up to examine in the gaslight. The key was old and tarnished, wrought steel in a delicate filigree, none of which was decorative. The lock he inserted the key into was like no other in the city, and read not the teeth of a key, but the entire intricate shape. A jeweler would have more luck accurately duplicating the key than a locksmith.

He turned the key several times, and with each twist, something within the door click and spun, the steel shuddering as the bolts withdrew from the stone walls. Leaving the key in the lock, the dean pushed hard, and the door slowly swung inward, well-balanced despite its weight. The chamber beyond flickered into light once the door hung fully open, illuminating rows of long and narrow clay boxes, laid on stone shelving that sloped slightly downward. It was a small room, but a door in the rear led to other chambers further in. He looked around the room and once again was overcome with the feeling that maybe this was the province of a younger man.

The room smelled of death. To him, only; no one else would notice anything amiss. He wanted to hold his breath, but fought the impulse. It was a novice’s mistake to hide from the unpleasantness; to demonize the perfectly normal traits that those in his field endured. To demonize the entire field. Plenty of others had done that already. It was one reason these rooms were hidden away so deep beneath the academy, and why only one key existed.

Jedediah walked along one of the walls, his eyes examining the careful labels, handwritten in indelible paint on aluminum slabs and affixed to each stone box. He had started the collection as a lark when he was young, and had only later realized its true worth.

“#22: Bloodhound,” read one of the placards. “Age: Approx. twelve years. Cause of death: Advanced age. Sex: Male, neutered. Description: Approx. 25″ height at shoulder, reddish brown with black saddle, approx. 90 lbs.” Some of the placards had more detailed descriptions, for animals he had known personally or spent significant time in autopsy. Other dogs filled the shelves, next to cats, birds, snakes. Everything one might keep as a pet that he had managed to get ahold of. He patted the box labeled “Ambrose” with a fond smile, a box he never opened, then continued into the next room.

Further in, the boxes grew larger, made of stone and reinforced with steel bands. Deep in the rear was one labeled “#104: Bush Elephant,” though there was no practical way of extricating it by himself. Jedediah had no reason to go that far, however. In the second room, he took quick stock and chose a pair of boxes. They slid out easily onto a low wheeled cart, and with a grunt and a burst of enhanced strength, he lifted the heavy lids and set them against the wall. His breathing quickened, as it always did at this point, and he felt the creeping charcoal at the edge of his vision. The first signs. He fought it, instinctively, as always, a visceral reaction to the unnatural magics. He clenched his fists, then forced them open. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and let the darkness in.

The lights in the chamber, faint orange through his eyelids, lost their hue and turned white. Power coursed through his veins. The cold, the pain in his knees, vanished, and he felt suddenly younger, more powerful. Strong. Invincible.

He smiled. “Always the same,” he murmured, and let the power flow out and into the bones that lay carefully piled in the boxes before him.

Necromancy is a complex and dangerous magic, involving as it does the manipulation of the deceased. It was considered by many to be a dark magic, and who could blame them? To what gentile purpose could this be turned to, a power that manipulated the bodies of those laid to peaceful rest?

Most of necromancy came down to the manipulation of dead muscles, in mimic of life. A novice would require a recent corpse, with all its parts in working order, needing only to add impetus to the existing components. It was like driving a fully-automated vehicle, requiring only minor direction from the driver in terms of speed and direction.

But a true master could cause the bones themselves to remember what it was like to be alive. To recall the long-dissolved attachments of muscles and ligaments, skin and sinew. A pile of bones could be made to remember their proper shape, how they had once moved, and it was these phantom memory muscles that the necromancer manipulated. It was more akin to driving an old and finicky jalopy, requiring detailed knowledge of its quirks, a firm hand on the gearshift, and constant concentration to keep the machine functioning smoothly.

There were, of course, many misconceptions about the field; so little known, so poorly studied. It took a highly focused concentration to control a reanimate. The most skillful necromancers could control only a handful at a time, and those that fell outside his control would merely collapse back into lifelessness. The legends of an evil necromancer raising vast armies of the slain, or losing control of a monster, were likely no more than just that: legends, fiction. It was, in fact, exceedingly rare for a necromancer to raise a human body at all; the corpses of animals were both easier and more legal to come by.

Jedediah watched through colorless eyes as the bones in the boxes before him shifted and began to piece themselves together, the power he poured into them causing them to recall old configurations, long-disused connections. First one, then the other crawled out of its box, still only half assembled, the containers too small to hold the full size of the beasts. In only seconds, the reanimates were complete, the wolf standing at just shy of three feet; the top of the sabre-tooth’s skull on a level with Jedediah’s chin. The dean was somewhat proud of that skeleton, having had to ship it from the far southeast. It turned to him and snarled at this tiny creature that dared raise it, but it knew its master and would not attack.

The easy part done, Jedediah bade the creatures escort him from the storage rooms, stopping only to resecure the door to the chambers of the dead. There was power in bones, as the Patchwork Folk had proven to terrible effect. And though only another necromancer could raise the bodies he had locked away, any practitioner of life magic could use the inherent power in the bones to devastating effect.

Jedediah barely noticed the long trek back to the level of the sewers, the power in his veins washing away pain and discomfort. At its heart, the primary act of necromancy was to cause muscles–either real or phantasmal–to move in an unnatural manner. The same principles could be applied to living muscles, and for nearly any necromantic use, some little bit of the power bled into the user, rendering him stronger, less susceptible to pain. It was not unlike a continuous adrenaline rush, and could be just as addicting, and just as damaging if overused.

A second key opened the steel doors into the chamber where the automat had been set against the academy. Immediately upon entering, the skeletal wolf bounded into the room, phantom muscles bunching and stretching in Jedediah’s charcoal vision. The wolf’s bony snout sniffed at the gouges in the stone floor near the storeroom, at the locked door to the sewers. Though in life, it had been little more than a dumb animal, it was now an extension of Jedediah’s mind. Through their connection, he could smell the faded scents of oil and smoke, of hot metal and gunpowder, of sweat and musk. Mage the wolf focused on the latter smells, cataloging the differences, unraveling the tale of eight separate bodies in the chamber, and a dozen more inside the storeroom. Victor had described six terrorists, and he and the boy made up the eight. The others were no doubt the students Jedediah had led to clean up the mess, and he ignored them.

The freshest of the six scents led to the sewers, and sensing they had a trail, the great cat yowled, an unearthly sound emanating from a throat that no longer existed, echoing off the stone walls. Had Jedediah been anyone else, he would have shivered. But he was connected to the beast; he was the beast, and its cry merely excited him. The gray fog across his vision thickened, rendering the world in starker contrast, turning the chamber black and white. Jedediah took several deep breaths–through his own nose, not the wolf’s–and the grays returned. It was the danger of performing necromancy while angry. The most volatile of the magics, it could spiral out of control on a stray thought, an errant whim, and the first thing any student of the necromantic arts learned was to control his emotions, lest they kill him.

His key opened the chamber’s other door, and he followed the wolf as it padded along the sewers, feeling no fear. He had spent much time in the underground, and was intimately familiar with its inhabitants. And active necromancy had the same effect on beasts as it did humans; mortal beings would keep well away in instinctual fear at the unnatural.

The trail was mixed, old scents crossing under new, but it was not difficult to pull out the most recent odors and follow them through the tunnels and along the river of filth and strange magics. Though the tunnel was only dimly lit by the faintly glowing fungus on the walls, Jedediah saw through the skeletal cat’s eyes, smelled through the dead wolf’s nose, and his steps never faltered.

The new trail followed the old, passing through a damp and rotting tunnel to an old subway station, and there the trails separated. Though the subways were never completed, long stretches of tunnel remained at various points underneath the city. The men and woman of the terrorist group had followed the tracks of this one in their retreat, past an opening into a sunken storefront where the old trail peeled off.

Jedediah tracked his quarry along the tunnel, reflecting on the times past when he had done the same, though rarely with such large companions. When he had first been chosen as dean–among some scandal, due to his field of study–there had been occasional trouble with black market trades of rare chemicals. Sold to criminals as ingredients for drugs and potions. He had done his best to stamp out the trade, and in doing so, had tracked down and summarily expelled professors and students, and sent more than a handful of black market fences to the police. Cases like that, he could leave to them, to those who made it their job to enforce justice.

This case, however, he could not.

This was personal.

* * * * * * * *

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November 4, 2012

Interlude: Darkness Under the Sun (part i)

by Mallard

Jedediah Millston hated elevators. He hated having to share a space with other people for any length of time, with nothing to do but stare at each other. Or worse, talk. He wouldn’t have minded the rides so much if he wasn’t expected to talk, but people seemed afraid of the silence in the machine, broken only by the clicks and thumps and whirs of the academy, relegated to a distance by the enclosure of the elevator car. So they would talk, about nothing at all, for the interminable ride from the tallest floor where his office sat, to the deepest basement.

Worse yet was when he knew he should speak, and had not the slightest idea what to say.

He glanced again at Victor and the little boy, both slumped against the polished mahogany siding of the car, the taller man leaning his rear against the shiny brass handrail. Jedediah frowned at that, but said nothing. Part of him wanted to ask if they were okay, but he quelled the idiotic impulse; he could plainly see the answer for himself. Victor had told him the story, how members of the underground group known as the People for the Abolition of Weaponized Magic had built the beetle-like monstrosity in the basement and loaded it with explosives, in order to bring down his–HIS!–academy. His fists clenched tighter on the brass handrail, and his eyes glared unseeing at the needle that counted the floors, one by one.

“What are you going to do, Millston?” Victor asked, his voice a breathy whisper of exhaustion. Jedediah shot a glare at the younger man, but Victor hardly flinched. They’d known each other too long, and Victor was no longer the green kid he had been eleven years ago, fresh from a small town and staring in stupefied awe at every new sight the academy offered.

Jedediah looked down at the kid, who had once again passed out. His fingers clutched Victor’s long coat, and he remained standing only because Victor kept an arm protectively around the boy, holding him close. Just who was taking comfort from whom?

“What do you think I’m going to do,” Jedediah growled, but softly. His fingers were white on the brass handrail. “Someone tried to take down my school. Tried to harm my students.” The brass beneath his fingers creaked and began to buckle as energy flowed through his muscles, responding eagerly to his unconscious call. Jedediah frowned and forced his fingers to relax, but the imprint of his grip remained in the brass tube. It was always thus: the life magics were the most fickle, the most dangerous when the user lost control. It was the same magic the Patchwork Folk used in their savage blasphemy, to such horrid effect.

If Victor noticed, he said nothing.

“I will find them,” the dean said. “And they will pay.”

Victor nodded, too tired to spew his usual rhetoric about second chances, sparing life, and all his other wishy-washy epiphanies after the war. Something tinkled in the air, and the dean glared at the floating spark that was Victor’s constant companion.

“Don’t you start,” he grumbled, though he had no idea what the salamander had said.

The elevator slid to a smooth halt at the ground floor, and the doors opened with a conspicuous absence of sound. Jedediah hated unnecessary sounds; no one with functioning eyes needed a bell ringing to alert them that they had arrived.

He accompanied the pair to the doors and lit the door-side lamp to signal a cab, but did venture out into the foggy night with them. He rarely left the grounds anymore. His apartments and office were both within the school; he had porters deliver meals and coffee; and with his position, he could requisition any items he needed, could call in favors from the vast list of those who owed him.

When Victor and the boy were away, the dean returned to the elevator, contemplating his next move. The first order of business was to completely disarm the automat in the basement. He had seen what Victor had done to it, and there was no danger of it resuscitating any time soon. Or ever. But it was still draped in explosive devices–most likely home-made, which meant they could be anything from complete duds, to unstable compounds that might go off at any moment.

He thought for a moment after the mirrored doors slid smoothly closed, then smiled grimly and punched a brass-and-ivory button.

* * * * * * * *

“Dean Millston, I must protest!” The professor of chemistry was no shorter than the dean, but considerably thinner, such that the dean seemed to dwarf the man as he took hurried steps to keep up. He wore thick glasses, and his dark hair was cropped short to reveal a receding hairline and brows furrowed in consternation. The dean ignored him as he led the crowd of confused but eager third-year students down the wide stairs that spiraled down the center of the academy, a staircase wide enough for ten abreast. To their left as they descended, the wall opened up to each floor in large stone archways. To the right, the central column of the university was open space, filled with cables and winches, and the occasional paper airplane, lofted across the column to deliver messages to friends on lower tiers.

The chemistry lab met late, both because of scheduling conflicts, and because it tended to be a messy class, with explosions both intentional and accidental, chemical burns that needed immediate attention, and the varied student projects that occasionally erupted spontaneously into a poisonous chemical fog.

All of which made them uniquely suited to handle the situation at hand, but Professor Kingsley did not share the dean’s view. Not that his opinion mattered.

The stairs ended on the lowest floor, opening out into the vast open lobby. A metal door at the end of a short hallway in the rear led down into the basements, typically bolted shut, accessible only by the professors and some few of the upperclassmen working on unique projects. Halting in front of the door, Millston turned to address the group of two-score students, all staring at him with rapt attention. Kids, really, though of course they saw themselves as mature young adults, ready to face the world in a year or less. It was hard to remember when he had been that age, but one thing he recalled well was the sense of entitled immortality. Nothing could strike him down at that age, surely? Too early, too much left to do, too many things left to see. And it was exactly this reason students weren’t typically allowed below the academy without supervision.

“Now, to reiterate: the automat in the basement may be harmless, but it is strung with numerous home-made explosive devices. I don’t have to remind you how unstable those can be. How’s your arm, Jimmy?” A wave of nervous laughter tittered through the group, but the young man with the angry red burn down his left side looked deadly serious. “A number of chemical stores were damaged or spilled as well,” Jedediah continued. “None of them should be harmful by themselves, but there is no telling what secondary reactions will take place among such a varied collection.”

There was, of course, and he was well-versed in the interactions of the chemicals in the storeroom. He had organized the storerooms specifically so that, in the event of an incident such as this–though he had been anticipating quakes at the time, rather than sabotage–there would be a minimum of harmful interactions between the substances. But a little fear would keep the students honest.

The students appropriately cautioned, Jedediah unlocked the heavy steel doors and led the group down a set of stone steps to the basement. Nearly everything from the ground floor down was constructed of stone rather than metal. Metal tended to react in curious ways with many substances both arcane and ordinary, so stone was chosen for its more neutral properties. Earth was the most passive of the elements, making it an ideal choice for housing dangerous materials.

The automat lay where it had died, no longer limned in frost, though the stone storeroom remained like an icebox. Jedediah glared at it, and at the shattered pipe that had destroyed it. He made a mental note to halt the cryo labs in their research until he could route a new liquid nitrogen source.

The students shivered and hugged themselves, both from the chill and the haunted look of the patchwork automat. Resigned to his fate, the professor of chemistry set about grouping his students, setting several to the task of disarming the bombs, others to untethering them, still others to cleaning up the strange mix of fluids and powders that lay scattered among shattered glass, splintered wood, and broken slate. Jedediah left them and went to examine the door, the destruction of which had set off alarms enough to wake the dead…figuratively, at least. He glanced behind him at the crowd of hesitant but eager students, and his thoughts turned to below, to what he knew lay deeper in the ground than this basement storage. One of the academy’s better-kept secrets.

He returned his attention to the door. A mining drill bit as long as his arm lay embedded in the lock, having drilled through both the tumblers and the bolt in one go. He frowned disgustedly at it. “You had to skimp on the lock, did you, Millston? Thought you could rely on the main doors into the chamber, eh? That you didn’t need two layers of solid defense?” He shook his head and, with a surge of power, ripped the drill bit free of the door jamb and threw it to one side. He caught several wide eyes at this show of strength, and ignored them. Most people knew little about his magical skills, as rarely as he used them. Everyone knew he practiced life magic, much less common than the natural magics, though a talent for mentalism was still rarer yet. But the intricacies of his particular specialty were spoken only in rumors and whispers, and never to his face. At times he found it amusing. At the present, mostly annoying.

“Come on then,” he growled, stomping over to the crowd of students clustered around the machine. “What’ve we got?”

* * * * * * * *

In all, nearly sixty bombs were removed from the automat and stored in a dozen steel drums, spread around the large antechamber. Jedediah would figure out what to do with them later. For now, he wanted them far enough apart that, should one go off, its damage would be relatively isolated.

The automat itself was half-carried and half-dragged across a hastily-cleared floor to the cargo elevator in one corner, after which the students completed the much more monotonous task of sweeping, scrubbing, and vacuuming.

Jedediah called in a favor and got a cargo truck to take a detour and swing by the academy. The trucker traded crude jokes with the students while they wrapped the automat like a package and set it on sleds behind the many-wheeled vehicle.

The dean refused to admit he was tired. The possibility never entered his head, in truth. Jedediah rarely slept more than a few hours at a time, and ignored repeated insistences from his staff that he was running himself into the ground.

“Don’t be stupid,” he would growl. “Too damned much to do to waste time on sleep.” There were always repairs to oversee, scheduling conflicts to resolve, shipments to receive and deliver. He didn’t have to do it all personally, of course, but who else would ensure it was done correctly? And the work kept him awake, which spared him from the dreams that haunted him while asleep. Not that he would ever admit it. Even to himself.

“And besides, sleep’s a damn poor substitute for coffee,” he muttered to himself as the steel-and-brass machine in his office sputtered and whistled, a thin stream of black pouring into a large mug. He sipped the coffee–nearly strong enough to stand up and walk–and stood by the window of his dome-shaped office, near the top of the main academy tower. Through a thick glass window, supported in a spiderweb network of iron, he could watch out over his city and think. To one side, the airship spire of the academy rose, higher than his own office, housing little more than a cargo elevator used to load and unload the airships. Through the night fog he could see the faint haze of the other nearest airship tower in the city, the one at the station. Where every rail line connected, and where simply walking was a suicide sentence, so thick were the automats and vehicles trying to get in or out or around the station at every hour. Jedediah snorted; he hated the place. The noise, the stink, the crowds.

In the distance, a hidden clock tower boomed, an ancient iron bell tolling the time for a city that never truly slept. He sipped his coffee, no longer scalding, and reached into his coat pocket for a silver tin. As if I’m not heading to the grave quickly enough, he thought to himself as he unwrapped a cigar and slid it into his mouth, igniting it with a match from the table by the window.

It was late, abominably so. The prudent thing would be to sleep, to deal with the anti-magic group in the morning. By then they could be anywhere, but he would be able to find them. If they were alive, he could find them. And in the morning, his methods for doing so would frighten the students, even have some of the professors hugging the safe, stone walls. Jedediah sighed. He could wait. For another night, for the police, for age to kill the intruders. If they had attacked him directly, he might have. Not worth the trouble of hunting them down when so many others would do the job for him.

But they hadn’t attacked him. They’d attacked HIS. His school, his students, his friend. The fury returned, tempered by the intervening hours, so that it smoldered cold and deep. They had attacked his. And nearly succeeded. And for that, he would find them. There was nowhere in Winter’s deepest hells they could hide from him, nowhere anyone could hide when his rage was up. Life magic was the most unstable of the magics, the most susceptible to emotion, to sensation. And his particular specialty was triggered by the darker emotions, strength growing from fury.

Jedediah’s vision began to bleed charcoal, colors washing away from the dappled marble of the windowsill, from the colored lights above Candlepark station, from the cherry-red glow at the end of his cigar. His mug crumbled beneath his fingers, splashing hot liquid across hands that felt no pain.

He took a deep breath, and relaxed his grip on nothing. The black-and-white vision was the first sign of danger, and he held to that thought with the tenuous threads of sanity remaining to him, forcing the ink away, forcing himself to see the colors, to smell the burnt ash of the cigar, to feel the heat as his skin turned red from the spilt coffee.

“I’m getting too damned old for this,” he muttered, and snuffed out the cigar in a brass ashtray. He turned, hands in the pockets of his suitcoat. Walking hunched over, as if always in a hurry, he headed for the stairs.

* * * * * * * *

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