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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