Posts tagged ‘Jedediah Millston’

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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July 25, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter II

by Mallard

I stared, and Serah laughed and flushed red. Which only made me stare harder. Serah does not blush. Or perhaps I just never notice it, as her face is ruddy from sunlight and welding, and always covered in a thin layer of grease. Seeing her freshly bathed, with her hair brushed out and flowing down her back, dressed in a midnight blue gown I had never seen before, well, it was like seeing another woman entirely.

“Are you quite finished?” she asked after I had remained silent for some time, frozen outside her door. Her face was a delicate pink up to the tips of her ears.

I coughed and blinked. “Right. Yes.”

She laughed again, a little uncomfortably. “Why, I ought to be upset, Victor. It’s almost as if you don’t normally think of me as a woman.”

“Oh that’s too much!” I sputtered, the moment of surprise broken, but she snickered and stepped forward to hook her arm through mine.

“It’s only fair,” she murmured. “You surprised me, too.”

Which was reasonable. After all, I rather surprised myself.

The suit I wore was a dark charcoal, with a lighter gray waistcoat over a pearl white shirt, finished off with a black satin bow. My hands felt strange in pristine white gloves, doubly so when I laid them on Serah’s, clad in thinner gloves of powder blue. It was strange to find two layers where normally there were none.

I couldn’t really take credit for the suit, though, and said as much. It had been Kristopher who had found the shop, tucked away in some corner where no one could find it. The tailor had been almost embarrassingly glad to see a customer, and had brought out his best work for me, performing in one evening what would have taken a busier or more popular shop several days at the least.

I hadn’t worn a tuxedo in years. Not since my college days, in fact. I just never had the opportunity. During the war, it was the uniform, unless I was traveling incognito–a euphemism we used for spying. And afterward . . . Many of the places I go just don’t lend themselves well to a suit. Imagine me, walking through Kestral’s sewer system in a silk tailcoat and a top hat. It doesn’t work, does it?

The coachman waited silently through our exchange, though the midnight steed in front stamped and puffed in impatience to get moving. It had been raining off and on most of the week, but the puddles around Serah’s warehouse had mostly dried, and we didn’t have to worry about her gown dragging in the mud. I helped her into the carriage and stepped in after, sitting on the opposite bench to face her. The coachman whipped the reins and his horse started into motion, jolting the carriage forward before settling into an even pace that sent us rumbling across the cobblestones.

Dark had fallen by now, and the lamplighters had been about their business so that shadows alternated with glowing orange from without the dark coach. An uneven emerald teardrop hung on a silver chain from Serah’s neck, and the gem caught and played with each bit of passing firelight. She saw the direction of my eye, and smiled fondly.

“It was a gift from my father,” she said. “One of the miners gave him the stone as a thank-you gift last year. It was still rough, so he polished it into this shape, set it on a chain, and gave it to me on my birthday.” She reached up and rubbed the stone fondly with her thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but smile. It fit my memory of the old man perfectly. He had grown up poor, and though he now ran a profitable business repairing mining equipment on-site, he had never grown out of his old habits. Why buy a fancy necklace when he could make something unique and meaningful by hand, paying nothing but his own time? He had a creative and active mind, and it was he who had taught Serah all she knew about machines, instilling in his daughter his own deep love for them.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, and Serah glowed at me.

 * * * * * * * *

Hattie stood by the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest, tapping her foot impatiently as the carriage slowed to a stop in front of the mayoral mansion. She didn’t look happy, but then, she rarely does.

“Specialist,” came her curt greeting, which startled me almost as much as her manner of dress. Her lack of a dress, rather. Despite the evening’s purpose, Hattie Morrison looked every inch the sergeant major, from the tips of her highly polished leather boots, to her brown hair done up in a tight bun that allowed no single strands free will. Medals glittered across her chest, commemorating a dozen recognitions. I hadn’t known she was so decorated, and frankly it surprised me a little. The most I’ve ever seen Hattie do is sit behind her desk and give me orders. The military saber at her waist was the closest I had seen her to a weapon. But she wore it well, as if used to the weight, and that disturbed me more than it should have.

I suppose I knew Hattie had been an active soldier. She hadn’t gotten to be head of the Peace Workers without being someone of note in the army. I had just never thought about it. She had very possibly fought against some of my comrades in battle, and I had no doubt that she had tousled with the Patchwork Folk at least once. Anyone in a uniform during that war, whether of the Republican Guard, or one of the Royal Army’s many divisions–such as the Kestral Armed Forces–had fought against the Patchwork Folk.

“Why are you late?” Hattie asked after I had helped Serah out of the carriage. My superior’s eyes roved over my suit and her mouth turned down in a frown. “And why are you not in uniform?”

I blinked. “It’s a ball, Hattie,” I said. “You don’t wear a uniform to a ball.” I paused. “Well, you do, I guess, but–”

“It’s ‘sir,'” she barked. “Show some respect, Haas.”

I frowned, and felt Serah tense beside me. “What’s going on, Hattie?” I asked slowly. “Have I done something to upset you?”

Her frown remained in place for several seconds, then she sighed and glanced skyward. “I apologize, Victor. I’m a little nervous tonight.”

I didn’t laugh. I truly didn’t. But it was a close call. Hattie Morrison, nervous? Of a fancy ball, of all things? Don’t get me wrong; I was nervous too. But that was largely because I haven’t been to such an event in years, and because I had this beautiful creature on my arm who claimed to be the same Serah Villifree I had led around a machine shop just the other day, but who couldn’t possibly. After all, I’m supposed to feel comfortable around Serah.

Hattie glanced at me sharply. “Is something funny, Victor?” At least she was back to calling me by my first name.

I shook my head quickly. “No, sir.”

“Good.” She paused and fixed me with a stern gaze. “And inside, for the sake of appearances, you should continue to call me sir. Or at least don’t act so damned familiar.”

“Me, familiar with my superior? Never.” I kept my voice as deadpan as possible, but still earned a glare from Hattie.

“Better not be,” Serah muttered by my side, and I blinked in surprise. I’ve never heard Serah express any hint of jealousy or annoyance at my interactions with other women. It was as if the gown, in addition to changing her appearance, was also changing her attitudes. If she started simpering, I would probably have to leave.

Hattie nodded once, turned sharply, and stalked inside, her heavy combat boots striking a loud beat upon the tiled entry hall. A butler in a finer suit than mine greeted us at the door and directed us down a short hallway. It was lit brightly with ornate gas lamps, and richly carpeted in some thick red fabric that I imagined would feel amazing were I barefoot. Several doors led off the hallway, all closed, brass handles shining in the gaslight.

The hall ended in a cross hall, but another butler stood there to direct us past a darkened staircase, around another corner, and through an opened set of teakwood doors, carved into abstract patterns of swoops and swirls. Through the doors, and suddenly we were standing at the top of a short entry staircase to the ballroom, and everything else paled to insignificance.

The ballroom must have taken up most of the rear of the enormous mansion. The ceiling soared to the skies, and I could have thrown a rock and still not hit the far windows. The walls were carved much as the doors had been, some depicting scenes from myth or history, others merely space-filling trifles. Filigreed glass doors lined the far wall, leading out into the garden, lit by further lamps outside. Music filled the air, and I looked to one side to find a string quintet of golems playing on a low stage, mechanical fingers dancing delicately across strings and keys, small puffs of steam escaping in time to the music. I glanced at Serah, certain her eyes would be upon the musicians, but she as staring at the floor with an expression akin to panic. I looked quickly to see the cause of her alarm.

Large as the room was, it seemed almost too small, crowded to the walls with elegantly clad figures. Various shades of gray and black intermingled with brilliant colors and patterns. Gowns sparkled in the bright yellow ambient light, some long with flowing trains, others slim and short. Lace and ribbons, silk bows and feathers adorned every woman in the room, accenting jeweled tiaras and exotic precious stones hanging from chains of gold and silver.

I felt Serah step back in astonishment at the sheer display of wealth and extravagance, and her gloved hand rose to finger her own single emerald. Next to many of the women in the crowd, her dark blue gown looked plain and poor, her necklace cheaply made, and I could well imagine what she was thinking. I said before that Serah does not care about appearances. But it seemed the gown had worked its wiles on her once more.

“How . . . excessive,” she whispered, but I could see her face fall ever so slightly.

I forced myself to laugh heartily, and Serah turned a stricken eye to me. “Absolutely,” I agreed boldly. “Extravagant, excessive . . . and unnecessary. If you had dressed like that, why, I wouldn’t be able to find you amid the perfumes and lace. Besides, you don’t have to worry. I’m the one who will have to deal with every man’s jealousy when he turns his head our way and spies the midnight-clad beauty on my arm.”

Serah rolled her eyes, but she smiled and tightened her grip on my arm, and her eyes lost their frightened cast. Behind us, I heard a gagging sound.

“I thought we were being professional tonight, sir,” I said without turning.

“Yes, well, it’s hard to be professional when you’re pouring sap down my throat, Haas. Now move your bulk out of the doorway; you’re not the only ones trying to get in.”

Serah and I stepped forward and descended the short flight of steps to the dance floor proper. No one was dancing just yet, as the ball had not officially begun. Many were simply milling around, or standing in clusters of friends and acquaintances. I recognized several members of the army, though none were Peace Workers and only a handful bothered with the full uniform like Hattie. There were also several members of the Mayor’s cabinet, though I didn’t know their names, and many of the most influential or wealthy merchants in the city. It wasn’t the sort of crowd I tend to associate with socially, but I could still recognize many of them by sight. The Peace Workers interact with all manner of people, from the beggars on the street to the wealthiest men and women, and I’d spoken with more than a few of the guests at one point or another.

Several of these glanced my way and waved or nodded, but most didn’t acknowledge me. Which suited me fine. Though, there were a few who I would have preferred to leave me in peace.

“Oh dear, surely it isn’t Victor Haas? Please, assure me you are not here to protect the mayor’s home and assets. I fear none of us will survive the evening if that is the case.”

I rolled my eyes and turned. “Evening, Jedediah.”

The dean of KAMA smirked and stuck out a hand, which I took with some trepidation. “And you must be Ms. Villifree,” he said, turning to Serah and holding out his hand once more. She reached for it, but he twisted her wrist deftly and brought the back of her glove to his lips. “A pleasure to meet you,” he murmured. “Your beauty rivals that of the Lady Autumn herself.” The dean is likely old enough to be my grand-sire, but he’s still a charmer.

Serah flushed and I quickly stepped in. “Jedediah, have you met Hattie Morrison? Head of the Peace Workers division of the army.” I gestured and Hattie stepped forward, though she shot an irritated glance my way.

Jedediah nodded and reached for her hand, repeating his previous routine. “A pleasure, Ms. Morrison. I’ve heard quite a lot of your work, and you have my utmost admiration.” He glanced at me and frowned. “Though your boy here causes me no end of headaches.”

“Jedediah Millston,” Hattie said, nodding in recognition. She paused, then her mouth curved up in the tiniest of smiles. “Believe me, your headaches are nothing next to mine.” The two shared a loud laugh at this, and even Serah sniggered quietly in a very unladylike fashion. I rolled my eyes again.

“Truly good to meet you, but I am probably keeping you from the mayor,” Millston continued, to which Hattie nodded. “Then I will bid you a good evening.” He turned and looked me up and down once, then nodded. “It’s good to see you doing better, Victor,” he said, before turning and meandering off. The last time the dean had spoken with me, I had been nearly passed out, covered in soot and smoke, chafed by manacles, and worn out emotionally and physically from having narrowly escaped death in the basements beneath his school. It was nice to know that the old bastard cared, in his own gruff way.

The mayor and his wife were not hard to find, surrounded as they were by a knot of well-wishers and friends, both political and social. His wife hung on his arm, practically glowing with pride and pleasure. Her pregnancy barely showed, pushing out her belly only the slightest bit through the thin fabric of her gown, but it was enough. She stood half a head shorter than her husband, who was on a level with me: a tall thin man dressed in a white suit, with his black hair slicked back behind his head. He was in his middle forties, but could have passed for someone quite a bit younger. His wife was at least a decade his junior, but she held herself regally beside him, her hair flowing in waves down to her waist. One hand rested on her husband’s arm, the other on the tiny bulge in her belly.

Hattie didn’t bother to stand in line to congratulate the mayor, but stepped confidently to the front. The party-goers separated before her, unsettled by her manner and appearance, and Serah and I stepped easily into the gap behind.

“Ms. Hattie Morrison!” the thin man said in a delighted voice, always deeper than I expect from his thin frame. “A pleasant surprise!”

I found that hard to believe, but said nothing. The mayor bent his tall frame over Hattie’s hand and kissed it delicately, as he had no doubt done a hundred times already during the evening. He straightened up and pulled his wife a step forward. “I believe you’ve met my wife before. Rachel, you remember Ms. Morrison, I trust?” The tall woman smiled and greeted Hattie warmly.

“A pleasure, as always,” she said in a soft voice. “I have heard much of your activities from my husband. You are quite the inspiration to the women of this city.”

Hattie smiled thinly. “It pleases me to hear you say that.” She turned back to the mayor and motioned me forward with one hand. “Mayor Downing, I would like to introduce you to Victor Haas. A reformed member of the Republican Guard, as are many Peace Workers, and one of our top agents. He was very recently involved in foiling a plot to destroy our great center of learning in Kestral, as you may recall.” Mayor Downing smiled and nodded, and I stifled a snort. It had not been a Peace Worker mission–as I had been reminded when I had submitted a reimbursement request–but I was not surprised to see Hattie take credit all the same.

I stepped forward, unsure whether I should bow or shake the mayor’s hand. I didn’t particularly want to do either, but he made the choice for me, sticking out his hand and grasping mine with a surprisingly firm grip. He shook my hand vigorously for several seconds, and I withdrew the instant he let me. I wanted to rub my palm on my pants to clean it, but admonished myself not to be so petty. “Victor Haas,” Mayor Downing said. “I have indeed heard much of you, especially after this incident at the university. And this must be the infamous Kristopher the salamander.” At this last, he reached tentatively for Kristopher, but the salamander darted out of the way.

(You do not like this man,) Kristopher observed. I smiled. “He says it is a pleasure to meet you, sir,” I said.

The mayor laughed. “I am glad to hear it. And please, don’t bother with ‘sirs’ and ‘madams’ this evening, Victor. Call me Joel. And please, allow me to introduce you to my wife, Rachel.”

I had nothing against Mrs. Rachel Downing, and my smile was honest as I greeted her and congratulated her on the pregnancy. She took the compliment with the tired smile of one who has heard the same thing a hundred times already, and not for the last time, either.

The mayor opened his mouth to say something further, but nothing came out. His eyes focused on something in the distance over my shoulder and they lost some of their sparkle. “Oh dear,” he sighed, and motioned to the crowd to make way. I turned, unable to help myself, though it was probably poor etiquette. At first I saw nothing out of the ordinary, and was about to turn back when the woman stepped into view, and I wondered how I had not seen her before.

She was dressed as extravagantly as the richest of the women in the room, but it was coordinated well, and suited her perfectly. The lace about her neck was complimentary rather than gaudy, and the pearls of her necklace were of a pleasant sheen and tasteful size.

She was shorter than I by a good foot, but she held her head high, curly blond hair framing a face full of good humor and relentless determination. It was a face I knew very well. All the Peace Workers did. Without it, most of us would not still be alive.

I smiled warmly, as the mayor recovered his own mask.

The woman stepped forward and nodded at him, and though her lips were turned up in a smile, her eyes were cold. “Mayor Downing. A pleasure to see you again.”

“Likewise,” the mayor said, his expression no more genuine than hers. “It is always a pleasant surprise when Mrs. Martha Chorice, the Minister of Internal Affairs, graces my home with her presence.”

* * * * * * * *
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July 4, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter IX

by Mallard

The dean brought himself up short when he saw me, slumped against the far wall. He blinked in surprise and looked around the room for anyone else. When he saw no one, he sighed and relaxed out of his ramrod-straight posture to his more usual slouch.

“Victor,” he said by way of greeting, shoving his hands in his pockets and glaring at me. Jedediah is a short and stocky man, half as wide as he is tall, and nearly bald but for a few stray hairs combed carefully across his pate. He wore slacks and a plaid waistcoat, and had an unlit pipe hanging out of his mouth. He sighed. “What have you done to my university, Victor?”

I snorted. “I saved it, you great lout. Fine show of thanks you give me, too.”

Millston made a great show of turning over his shoulder and examining the misty, damaged storeroom. “Mm, yes. You’ll forgive me if I delay the award ceremony. What did you say you saved it from? The monotony of a quiet and event-less evening?”

That seemed a little rich. “What, are you blind, man? Surely you don’t think I had–”

Millston waved a hand, dismissing my retort. “Of course not.” He started across the room in his usual hasty stalk, always as if in the greatest hurry to get where he is going. He stopped in front of me, staring down at where I was sitting, before dropping to a comfortable squat.

“All right then. Explain. Why did every alarm in the building go off in a gods-awful clatter a few minutes ago, and why did I come down to find one of my storages destroyed, and a machine that looks like the idiot offspring of an army tank and a particularly ugly insect? And how are you involved?” He shook his head. “I wish I could say I am surprised to see you, Victor. But I’m really not.”

Robert stirred next to me, partly roused by Jedediah’s rough voice. The dean glanced over at the child. “And what brain-dead fool entrusted you with a child?”

“That all, then?” I asked, a little frustrated. I wanted to shout at him, but I consoled myself by merely raising an eyebrow. He had every right to be on edge, after all.

“It’ll do for now. So talk.”

I sighed, and talked. I started from the beginning, giving him an abbreviated account of Emelia Withers’s predicament and her request, of my conversation and search with Scott, and of our descent into the sewers. Millston listened quietly for the most part, but when I started describing the kidnappers, he interrupted me several times, making me go back and repeat portions, asking me specific questions about their appearances and attitudes.

“Look, you want to tell this story?” I asked finally. “I’ve told you all I can remember about these people.”

“‘All’ hasn’t been very much. Where’s that famed illusionist memory, Victor?”

“I had a few other things on my mind at the time, beyond what the buggers looked like,” I blew out, exasperated.

Robert stirred again, and Jedediah’s frustrated frown eased slightly. “I guess you did,” he said, and motioned for me to continue.

The rest of the story went fairly quickly. The dean snorted when I described shooting the wrong pipe, then shrugged. “It’ll be hell to fix, but probably better over all. There’s no way that thing will be getting up and walking again any time soon after a shower like that. Couldn’t you have stopped it before it entered my storeroom, though?”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”

Jedediah nodded. “Fair enough.” He fell silent for a moment, frowning in thought. “You know who those men were, do you?”

I shook my head. “Who they were? Just malcontents, as far as I could tell. Obviously war vets, hurt by magic and full of wrath against it.”

He nodded again. “Malcontents, yes, but not ‘just.'” He was silent for a few moments, staring of into space. Robert settled back into a deeper doze. “They started during the wars, after the Patchwork Folk were driven back, and our armies were turned on the Republic. The second war lasted less than a year, but the Republic were fierce fighters, and much more willing and able to employ the arcane arts in battle. More and more of our soldiers were harmed or permanently transfigured by magic. Some of them formed a sort of support group. They called themselves the People for the Abolition of Weaponized Magic.” Jedediah shrugged irritably, his face lined with frown lines as he recalled the events, less than three years previous.

“The group started out tame enough, but their purpose changed over time from peaceful protest to actively opposing magic users. I don’t recognize the descriptions you gave me, but judging by their actions and the rifles, they were likely members of this organization. I thought it had mostly died out after the wars, but it appears I was wrong.”

I didn’t say anything. What would I say? I hadn’t known such a group had ever existed. I couldn’t help but wonder if this group I had encountered were the bulk of the remaining members, or if they were only one small branch of a cancer we could not entirely see.

At the moment though, it didn’t matter.

“Guess that’s one more thing to keep an eye out for, then,” I said and yawned and stretched. I shook Robert lightly, and his eyes fluttered sleepily open. “Come on, kid,” I said, and stood, pulling the boy to his feet. “Time to go.”

I turned to Jedediah. He was standing as well, and now I was the one looking down at him. “I should get the kid back to his mom. You think cleanup can wait until morning?”

Millston snorted. “Of course not. But I hardly need you here. Go home, get out of my university. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you and not had some trouble right before or shortly after.”

“Hey now, that’s not fair,” I started to protest, then thought better of it. I shrugged. “Okay, so maybe it is. I’m sure I’ll see you soon, anyway. Old grouch.”

“Just don’t make it too soon,” he grumbled, and led the way back across the room, through the still-icy grave of the automat, and to the elevator that would take us back to the surface.

 * * * * * * * *

Sergeant Major Hattie Morrison frowned at me for several long moments from the business end of her spartan oak desk. She had a good frown. A deep, commanding frown that took over her face, wrinkling her brow, thinning her eyes, turning her mouth into an upside-down U. Had she worn glasses, she would have been the spitting image of every school-child’s worst nightmare. “What are you playing at, Victor?” she asked at last.

I said nothing.

“Victor,” she sighed. “I can’t authorize payment for this. It’s good work, but we didn’t assign it to you.”

“True,” I said, slowly. I was standing on the other side of the desk, to one side of the proffered chair. I kept my coat close around me, as a sort of barrier between myself and the sergeant major’s discontent. “You would have though, if you’d known about it.”

The sergeant major waved that away. “We don’t deal in ifs here, Victor. You know that. When we assign you a job, we pay you. When we don’t, we don’t.” She picked up the typed list I had handed her a few minutes previous, and scanned through the items. “And what is some of this, anyway? Expenses for a train ride, dry cleaning charges, a single replacement bullet? A single bullet, Victor? Is this a joke to you?”

I fought not to smile. “Not at all, ma’am.”

Hattie put the list on the table and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Gods I hate working with you, sometimes. What are you playing at? I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, because you’re a good worker. You’re probably one of our best, to be honest. So if this is some big joke, then laugh laugh, well played, and get going. But if you have any legitimate reason for this farce, out with it.”

I grimaced. “All right, I’ll level with you. But you’ll hear me out?”

“I just said I would, didn’t I?”

“Okay. You’re right: the Peace Workers didn’t assign this job to me. I did it on my own time, and my own dime, and I’m not strapped for money.”

“You make a compelling case for why we should pay you,” Hattie interjected, sardonically. She was tapping the list with a thick forefinger, a sign of her impatience.

I ignored her. “Have you ever dealt with kidnap victims? Especially ones as young as Robert Withers?”

Hattie frowned at the seeming non-sequitur, and her tapping finger paused. She nodded, slowly. “A few, yes.”

I swallowed, remembering my own experiences. “Well, they aren’t happy kids. Something like that happens to you when you’re nine? It sticks with you for life. With proper care, you can get over it, work around it. But that kind of care costs money. Quite a bit of it. And, well, I don’t think the boy’s mother is hurting, but she shouldn’t have to pay for her son’s therapy, shouldn’t have to worry and struggle to make sure she can manage that and make a living.”

Hattie spoke slowly. “So, this bill…”

I nodded. “I did some checking around. That’ll cover a good chunk of the initial expenses. She doesn’t need to know who it came from. But I think she needs it to come.”

The sergeant major said nothing for a while. I could almost see it in her head: the battle between what her job told her to do, and what her heart said.

“Nine years old, Hattie,” I said quietly.

“You’re a bastard, Victor,” she said. “And you know I’m going to do it.” She tapped the paper with a finger in idle thought. “Officially, this is an advance payment on your next job. You used all your funds on drink and drugs. I’ll make sure the paperwork gets lost somewhere, so you’ll get your next paycheck in full, when the time for that comes.” She suddenly turned the full force of her frown on me again. “This happens only once, Victor. This isn’t going to become a normal thing.”

I nodded, and turned to leave. “I sure hope it isn’t,” I said agreeably. “Thanks, Hattie. I owe you one.”

“You’re damned right you do,” she muttered, but made no more protest as I showed myself out.

 * * * * * * * *

There was an enormous tarpaulin-covered bundle in front of the bakery when I got back. It sat on a wooden pallet easily eight feet to a side, and blocked much of Lowering Way. I could see traffic backed up a good bit as autos and walkers crept by in single file, many directing disgusted looks and rude gestures at the enormous package.

A boy stood on the corner of Lowering and Second, directing customers to Annabella’s bakery around the bundle, as it sat entirely in front of the door, leaving only a narrow alley through which customers could enter and exit.

I saw no labels on the bundle, but there was little doubt in my mind who it was for. I walked up to the bakery a little apprehensively, running through the list of possible culprits, and coming up blank. Who would leave such a large gift–if gift it was–at Annabella’s? Should I be worried about bombs or other dangers?

The boy, I saw as I neared, was none other than Rudolph, who gave me an enthusiastic wave when he spotted me coming through traffic.

“Mr. Haas! Mr. Haas! Package for you!”

I snorted at his childlike understatement. “Thanks, Rudy,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Mind telling me where it came from?”

Rudolph shrugged. “I don’t know! A bunch of men came and dropped it off not half an hour ago. It came on a great big sled pulled by a truck. You going to open it?”

“Yes, please do,” another voice chimed in. I winced as Annabella herself came around the corner, arms folded across a floury, aproned chest, a look of half amusement and half exasperation across her face. “You’ve caused ruckus enough in this neighborhood, Victor, gods know. But I believe this is the first time your mail has made me problems.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “No idea who it’s from, then?” I asked her.

She nodded. “Oh, I know exactly who it’s from. Came with a letter and everything.” She fished around under her apron and pulled out a folded piece of heavy card stock, embossed with an all-too-familiar crest of a tree, sun, and moon.

My laughter died out as I took the card. “Victor,” it started. “This is rightfully yours. Or maybe it isn’t, but I surely don’t need it cluttering my storage room. So have a pleasant birthday, or autumnal equinox, or whichever bloody holiday is near enough to justify a gift. Sincerely, Jedediah Millston.” A series of titles and honorifics followed, only half of which I recognized.

I looked at the bundled automat–for that was what it no doubt was–and silently cursed Millston. What was I going to do with this great big useless machine? I’d have to hire someone just to haul it away, which wouldn’t come cheaply.

“Oh, and Serah sent a message with Rudy here,” Annabella added, as an afterthought. She patted Rudolph on the back. “Go on, son, tell him.”

Rudy beamed at me. “She said your bike is ready, and you owe her dinner.”

I blinked. Then I began to smile. And laugh.

“Oh dear,” Annabella said, and turned with a sigh to return to her shop. “I know that look well enough. Nothing good ever comes of that look.”

 * * * * * * * *

“You have,” Serah Villifree said, staring at the automat. “Very possibly discovered the ugliest machine ever built by mortals or gods.”

“I know,” I said, grinning. “Do you like it?” We were standing in her warehouse, the back room of her shop where she stores spare parts and works on her own projects. The space isn’t very large, and the destroyed automat took up much of the clear floorspace remaining.

It hadn’t been cheap to get it to her shop, but it had been worth the look on her face when I arrived on a great cargo walker in the late afternoon, dragging behind the enormous and ugly shell of the beetle-like automat. Millston had, fortunately, stripped off all the explosives before sending it my way.

“Like it?” she said, walking around the automat. “It’s ugly as sin, and built on the most chaotic school of mechanical engineering I have ever seen. The legs are all wrong, the boiler is far too small, and none of the gear teeth inside mesh properly at all. There is absolutely nothing mechanically or logically sound about this monstrosity. And you say it actually functioned?” I nodded, and she smiled. “I love it.”

I laughed. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“But,” she said, turning away abruptly. The windows to the warehouse were beginning to glow orange, as the late afternoon sun began to slant across the floor. “This can wait. You, I believe, owe me dinner.”

“Well,” I said, and offered her my arm. “I can’t have an outstanding debt on my record, can I?” Serah laughed and hooked her arm through mine as if we were at a fancy ball, though I was dressed in my old and worn coat, and she in oil-stained overalls and heavy leather work boots.

I led my lady out into the waning sunlight, away from the broken shell of the automat, away from the madness and danger of the last day, and back to some small semblance of a normal life.

At least for an evening.

* * * * * * * *
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June 27, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter VIII

by Mallard

The obvious first thing was to try all the doors leading from the chamber: three more besides the ones to the sewer and the university. I did this, racing from one to the other across that vast room, shucking off my coat as I ran.

I said earlier that the automat walked slowly, awkwardly. But now, with time against me, it seemed to be moving all too fast, racing forward at unnatural speeds so that I would glance away and it would have halved the distance to the door.

Robert took some prodding, but I got him to check the last door while I was examining the second. He seemed dull and almost lethargic, as if he had been poorly fed or hadn’t slept in the four days since his capture.

Which was probably not far from the truth.

Sometime in all this, I retrieved my pistol from where the kidnapper had thrown it. He had left it loaded, and I think he honestly hoped I would use it to give Robert a quicker passing.

I hardly ever use the weapon, but I felt better for having it back. It was a special-issue pistol for the Republic, designed for spies. It holds only two shots, in two side-by-side barrels, with an ivory grip embossed with the shield of the Republic. It’s not high-caliber, and hasn’t the range of most handhelds, but it fits anywhere. And as with all guns, it only takes one well-placed shot to do the job.

Though, there was no way I was going to shoot a nine-year-old kid. Even to save him. Was that selfish? I guess it doesn’t matter; I don’t think I could have pulled the trigger.

The exits were all locked, of course. More than locked; the combination dials to open them had been welded in place, so that one could enter or leave the chamber only by two doors: one to the sewers, and the other to the university. You’d think they would have remembered that when chasing my phantom, but maybe they thought I could just magic my way through it.

I checked in with the automat again and found that it was a scant dozen steps from the door to the university. Robert had slumped against a far wall and may have passed out, or just resigned himself to imminent death. Which phrase, when applied to a nine-year-old kid, is pretty disturbing.

I spun around, trying to take in the whole chamber at once, to see if I had missed anything. The doors, all impassable. The gas lamps could help detonate the automat sooner, perhaps, but would hardly help me. The automat itself…

There are times when I realize that I’m an idiot. The automat was heavily armored, and covered in high explosives. My mind had naturally shied away from it, from touching or getting anywhere near the thing. But that was the exact opposite of what I should have been doing. Armored though it might be, those who had built it were men, like myself. If it could be started by a solitary person, it could surely be halted by one.

I didn’t have time for more than a cursory inspection. The explosives were all attached carefully to the harness, with a common fuse attached to each, so that some internal mechanism could detonate the explosives at the right time. They didn’t seem the sort that would detonate on impact though, given the jarring steps the automat took. So I was only slightly apprehensive as I reached out to tug on the blast panels.

They didn’t budge, of course. The internal hydraulics held them tightly closed, waiting patiently until the moment they would deploy. I wished I’d paid more attention when the machine had been activated, but I had been too focused on not making any noise, and had not seen how it had been done. Probably there was a simple switch somewhere, but for the life of me I could not find it.

For the life of me. What an apt phrase.

“How in winter’s deepest hell do I stop you?” I muttered, tugging futilely on the panels yet again.

(It is a creature of fire,) a familiar musical tone caressed my ears.

“Kristopher!” I looked around wildly. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed the salamander’s constant presence until he was there, circling slowly above the automat.

“Er, don’t touch it, please,” I added a moment later, suddenly nervous. I was happy Kristopher had found his way back to me, but if he got too near the wrong part of the automat–the fuse, as an entirely random first example–I wouldn’t be happy much longer.

It took me a moment longer to remember that he had said something. “And what do you mean, a creature of fire?” I asked.

(It is a being of fire, like myself. Water harms me, therefore…)

I shook my head in frustration. As I’ve said before, Kristopher interprets and senses things differently than we do. To a human, an automat is clearly a non-sentient object, a machine and no more alive than a rock. To Kristopher, however, the automat was something that moved under its own power, that had a purpose and, in the loosest sense, a desire to fulfill that purpose. This made it as alive as any other creature to him. And since it ran on steam power, it was a “creature of fire,” no different from him.

But that wouldn’t help me. A glass of drinking water will just about do Kristopher in. The automat would just laugh it off.

Or would it?

It ran on steam, but to Kristopher, that would make it a creature of water. Its boiler, though, was powered by fire. And that was another story entirely.

The automat had reached the door by now, and I was momentarily distracted as it thumped into the steel panels, struggled for a few seconds, then was suddenly still. It stood motionless for a moment, then its left side rattled and the oddly-mounted drill began to extend, wobbling and creaking forward on a rusted steel truss. The drill bit spun up into a high-pitched whine, which turned into a sudden scream as it bit into the locking mechanism of the door to KAMA.

Upstairs, I knew, a dozen and one alarms would be going off. Faculty and students would be rushing every which way to figure out what was going on, who was breaking in where, or whether a student had just opened the wrong door. By the time they knew where to look, the automat would have fulfilled its purpose of hamstringing the university. And I wouldn’t be around to regret it.

“Quickly, where can I get enough water to drown it?” I asked Kristopher, who was still circling lazily above the automat. He didn’t respond right away, beyond taking on a slight wobble in his path, which could have been worry at my mention of water, or just his way of frowning in thought. I don’t think he understood my urgency. The automat had not yet done anything, after all, and as I mentioned before, salamanders are not very good with the concept of time. He might understand my distress right after the bombs detonated, but that would of course be too late.

He carried on above the machine for a few seconds, as the drill slowly penetrated the heavy steel door, then he shot up toward the ceiling.

A thick series of pipes flowed along the roof of the chamber, coming in from every which way like a bizarre fungal growth, converging in a sudden orderly conduit that penetrated the wall to the university some feet above the door.

There were at least ten or twelve pipes in that bundle, each of which could carry one of many chemicals. One would certainly be gas, to power the stoves and lamps and the hundreds of boilers inside the university. Some probably carried dangerous chemicals for experiments, while others might contain nothing but clean air, cycled down to the basements to keep the atmosphere fresh. But at least one of them carried water. Hot, cold, purified or not, it didn’t matter much to me.

But which one? It would have to be one of the wider ones, carrying the absolute essentials to the university. As I peered upward, trying to spot a label or symbol on the pipes, a droplet of water fell onto my forehead. I jumped, and then I smiled. Condensation, dampening one of the pipes, causing the surface to drip and reflect the light from the gas lamps, so that the pipe almost seemed to glow. That must be the cold water pipe. And it was indeed quite large.

A crash distracted me, and I pulled by gaze back down to see the automat’s rear disappearing through the door. The drill bit remained behind, skewered through the door where the lock had once sat, like a bee’s sting left as a memento of the insect’s final act in life. Like a bee, the automat would soon expire. It was up to me to determine whether it died on its terms, or on mine.

The door opened into another enormous chamber, a storage room of some sort. Boxes lined the walls, and stacks of wooden shelves held beakers and jars, some full of curious, luminescent powders or liquids, others empty and coated in dust.

The automat ignored the shelves utterly, and I winced a little as it crashed through them, the sudden breaking of glass echoing from the distant walls. The room was dark, but the gaslight from behind us illuminated a wide column at the back of the room. One of the foundation pillars of the university.

The pipes ran in a straight line along the center of the chamber, the occasional branch springing into existence to rush some important resource off to another part of the university. The water pipe branched several times, but the main trunk of it kept straight along the automat’s path. Perfect.

I pulled my pistol from my pocket and hefted its small weight in my hands. It felt familiar to have it in my grip again, like an old friend. Or an old enemy that you can’t get rid of.

The automat must have sensed that it was near its destination–perhaps a pace counter somewhere among its innards–and its skin rippled suddenly as blast panels rose up and locked into place. The automat was primed and ready, and less than a minute from its goal. Near as I was to it, I could feel the heat from the boiler within as it struggled to move the enormous bulk of the machine. A dose of cold water would do it a world of hurt.

It would make for a rather more dramatic story if I missed with my first shot, and had to sweat and worry over the final bullet. But the range to the pipe was laughable, and without bragging, I am a very good shot.

I had expected the pipe to spring a leak when my bullet struck it, pouring a steady stream into the automat’s innards. Instead, it exploded violently and showered its contents over the automat’s back. I jumped back as a wave of sudden cold enveloped me, and a few droplets splashed up and struck my arm and face.

The liquid burned like fire and I raised my pistol in a reflexive action, though there was nothing to defend against. The temperature in the room continued to drop, and as the automat took another step, one of its spindly legs snapped clean off, the broken ends encrusted with frost. It took another step, and something cracked loudly within. A third step, and a muffled boom sounded as its boiler exploded, enveloping the automat in a sudden cloud of hot steam. The cloud expanded, filling the room with a dense and rapidly cooling fog, so that I could not see more than an arm’s length in any direction. I felt a sudden stab of worry.

“Kristopher!” I shouted. Steam is far less dangerous to him than water, but so much of it, in such an enclosed space…

He didn’t respond, and though I scanned the misty darkness for his telltale orange glow, I couldn’t see him. I gritted my teeth. No time. Was the automat truly stopped?

I held up my hand, and forced my mind away from my missing friend. It took a second of concentration, and a cold blue flame flickered into being in my palm, cutting through the fog just a little. The flood of liquid nitrogen had slowed to a trickle as some control valve up the pipe noted the drop in pressure and shut off the flow.

In the aftermath, the automat stood motionless and lilted to one side, unbalanced by the missing drill bit and its broken legs. The armor plates had bulged outward from within, stretching and stressing the chains that held the bombs in place. No glow of fire shown from inside, and my light revealed the jagged edges of a thick cylinder that had once been the boiler. Below it, the fire pan had shattered under the thermal stresses, strewing dark coals everywhere. Not a single spark remained. The automat was dead.

I backed out of the room, shivering, and looked back from the doorway. The fallen machine looked like nothing so much as the carcass of an impossibly large beetle, found in the early morning in some dark forest, shrouded in mist and cold. It had been a beautiful machine, really. I rather think those mechanics could have made something of themselves, if they were able to take such a haphazard collection of parts and create this monstrosity that had yet functioned so well. That it would have succeeded in pulling down the university, I had no doubt now. I turned and left it to its grave, to be dealt with by someone else.

“Kristopher!” I called, blinking as I stepped back out into the light. “Kristopher!”

I couldn’t see him anywhere in the chamber, but a tiny voice from the far wall said, “Here,” and Robert held out his hands, encasing a warm orange glow.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Of course. Kristopher was attracted to pain; it was what had led him to finding Robert in the first place. Naturally he would gravitate toward the boy. And Robert could use the comfort, small as it was.

I staggered over to Robert, retrieving my coat from where I had dropped it earlier. I was suddenly exhausted, as if I had run a marathon, drained physically and emotionally after the excitement. I dropped next to Robert and leaned back against the wall, throwing an arm around the kid and pulling my coat over us like a blanket. He leaned into me as if it was perfectly natural, the salamander still cupped warmly in his hands.

Robert soon fell into a gentle sleep, and it was like this that Jedediah Millston found us half an hour later, storming out of the destroyed storage room with eyes ablaze, the fury of a thousand hells upon his heels.

* * * * * * * *
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