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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