(Part One here.)
The Alligecko shot up the side of the dome, his aura clinging to the wall much like the lizard he took half his name from. Momma Bear took the direct route, the dull rustic glow of her aura quickly building up into the form of a fifteen foot tall bear that leaped straight from one level of the spiral ramp to the next, heading straight towards the center of the room and the crackling portal there.
Unfortunately that left Galen alone at the bottom of the ramp – a ramp that he now realized was much higher than the outside of the building suggested. The inside of the building occupied at least twice the volume of the outside, which made about as much sense as everything else that had happened in the last few months. Galen gave it a philosophical shrug and went on.
With nothing but a voice in his head to carry him on his way he had no choice but to take the long way around and go up the ramp in a more normal fashion. Galen pelted up at top speed but, after all that time cooped up in a tent with no real exercise he wasn’t in the best shape of his life. Not that the best shape of his life was anything to write home about. Galen was out of breath before he was even half way to the top where the portal was located, cursing whatever brilliant mind had decided that they had to make getting up to the level of the portal so difficult.
The ramp wasn’t that long, the real problem was how out of shape Galen had gotten combined with all the walking of the past two days. He just didn’t have the stamina to go for long. About half way up the ramp he started wheezing and slowed to a walk, splitting his attention between gasping for breath and watching the action unfold on the platform by the portal.
The flagstones beneath his feet were shot through with metallic tracery in patterns that looked vaguely familiar. All sharp edges and sudden corners but built out of curving lines it looked kind of like a circuit board that had been partly melted like a blow torch. The patterns nagged at the edge of his mind like-
Infinite uniqueness in infinite regression.
-like fractals. That was it.
A spear crashing onto the ramp a few feet ahead and bouncing away towards the wall of the building got his attention back on the portal up ahead. Momma Bear had gotten up there only to be stopped in a cloud of the shards of light the portal guard wielded. It looked like she couldn’t take a step forward without getting sliced by them and, even as Galen watched, a trio of larger panes of energy slashed across her extended arm of her aura. The energy lost cohesion and then, to Galen’s amazement, seemed to flow into the blades of light.
For a brief second Galen got a glimpse of a spiderweb of lines connecting the shards of energy and the blonde man at the center of the vortex they formed, the entire matrix forming a fractal pattern much like that beneath his feet.
Wind. Wind on windows wielded by one beyond weariness.
It was weird that the voice was so chatty at such a lousy time but that didn’t bother him nearly as much as the bad attempts at alliteration.
Momma Bear looked like she was going to end up on the ropes but just as she started to give ground the ceiling above them shifted subtly and the Alligecko dropped down from it, teeth flashing. There was a shout from down by the door and the guard reacted fast enough to swing his cloud of light slivers up between himself and the Alligecko. The barrier bent in slow motion, like a sheet of plastic, giving the guard enough time to roll out of the way.
Galen looked towards the shout and saw three new men, all dressed in the ubiquitous white coats and wearing masks but armed with a grab bag of weaponry, one with a pair of hook swords, one with a spear and one with the heavy gauntlets, making their way up the ramp behind him. As he watched the one with the hooks reached up and snagged them on the next tier of the ramp then used them to half drag, half walk up the wall and cut a huge loop of his trip. Then he turned around and held one hook down for the one with gauntlets, who grabbed it with one hand and the third man with the other. In less time than it took to tell all three were up on the next level of the ramp and preparing to repeat the procedure.
That didn’t mean anything to Galen but he did realize that the three of them were probably going to cut him off if he didn’t do something about it. Drawing on reserves he didn’t know he had, Galen managed to get up to the third section of the ramp before the masked trio were ready to start trying to climb it. As the hook user snagged his weapon over the lip of the ramp at his feet Galen gave it a swift kick. Since the masked guard had been in the process of starting up the wall at the same time he wound up falling unceremoniously on his back side.
Just as Galen was congratulating himself the one with the gauntlets flicked his hands out and made a motion like he was twisting a doorknob. The weird riot of lines and shards of light flickered between them for a split second, then the light sprang forward like a striking snake.
“Skata,” Galen whispered.
The curse had barely left his lips when the torrent of light hit him. Or rather, it broke on the sides of a bubble that sprang into existence as soon as the curse was spoken.
Of course being in a little bubble of light didn’t completely void the laws of physics. That would have been too convenient. Instead of knocking him flat the impact knocked him up the ramp like a stray ball. On the bright side he was close to the top and skidding in his barrier brought him almost all the way to the top. The floor of the portal platform was at waist height when the shield dissolved and deposited him unceremoniously on the ground again. He’d have to figure out what the heck was going on with that.
In the mean time he needed to get through the portal and out of trouble fast. Galen jumped up onto the platform and started towards the center, ducking under the swaying tail of the Alligecko before he even realized he’d heard it coming, rather than seen it. Beyond them the guard was wrestling with Momma Bear.
To Galen’s amazement the massive ursine aura she took her name and power from had shrunk until it was barely larger than she was, and it had grown transparent enough that he could see her through its outsides. The Alligecko’s tail swung back and slammed into the matrix of lines and shards of light that stood between him and the guard but the defensive wall just bent and popped back into shape. In the mean time energy kept draining out of Momma’s aura, trickling out in wisps and dribbles before being absorbed into a whirling collection of glowing orbs that swirled around the guard’s left hand.
On a hunch Galen yelled, “Charon take him!”
It was the only directed curse he could think of at the moment but it worked. As the words left his mouth a river of power formed, rushing towards the guard and slipping through the cracks in his wirework wall with almost no resistance. It swept him up and dashed him to the ground, which was good. It also hit Momma Bear and swept her down as well, which wasn’t quite what he’d been hoping for.
The weird mess of light and lines that had been between them broke up as the guard went down and the Alligecko shifted as if to go and grab Momma Bear but almost as soon as he did the three masked guards were up on the platform. The first guard made to get to his feet but Momma tripped him and yelled, “Go through! I’ll get back!”
Galen started to protest but the Alligecko grabbed him with his tail and dashed towards the portal. When the giant reptilian aura came into contact with the tear in reality there was a moment of resistance, as if it didn’t want to let the two of them through. For a split second Galen saw what looked like an identical room on the other side then suddenly the portal seemed to spasm, folding in gut wrenching ways, and the two of them spilled through the portal into a back alley that looked a lot more like home than anywhere he’d been in months. The Alligecko’s aura faded almost as soon as they were through.
Galen wound up landing hard in an undignified heap so he wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem like the Alligecko even lost his feet. All Galen knew for sure was that the other man was dragging him to his feet almost immediately. “Welcome home,” the Alligecko said, dusting him off. “What do you think?”
“Somehow,” Galen said, catching his breath, “this is not what how I expected heroes to start out.”
The other man just laughed.
“Did you work out where the portal led after it was diverted?”
“Yes, my Doyen. Or at least, we know what the general characteristics were, if we wanted to cross the horizon there again.”
The cartographer handed Dmitri a scroll with the exact details written on it in the usual notation then folded his hands behind his back. To his left, the Regulus for the instillation cleared his throat. “Forgive me, my doyen, but are we sure that the information is trustworthy?”
“I had ben-Gideon keeping an eye on the recording team right up until the moment the intruders arrived,” Dmitri said absently, peering over the information on the scroll. “If he didn’t notice any tampering I’m sure there wasn’t any. I have every confidence in the accuracy of this information. And it looks like they went to a sleeping world – no functional magic there at all.”
“That was our conclusion as well, my doyen,” the cartographer said, pulling a small book out of the bronze folds of his robe. “In addition, their world matrix suggests that-”
“Thank you, but I was only really interested in the magic potential of their destination.” Dmitri rolled the scroll and handed it back to the cartographer. “Now. We’ve clearly determined that the portal was being used by outsiders, not people from the camp. It seems to me that the cartographers and the Throne of Locke have little to gain by sending total strangers there repeatedly.”
He took a moment to look up at the ceiling of the portal chamber, now much lower since the energy of the portal didn’t warp the shape of the room. “Particularly since the portal collapses every time it’s used this way and takes them a week to reset. Nor do I see any reason for the guards to be complicit in sending small groups of total strangers to a world without magic as part of some strange plan to annex it into the empire. Terra Eternal hasn’t annexed anything in almost a century and we’re better for it, plus a world without magic is of very little benefit to us. Are there any objections to that assessment?”
An uncomfortable look passed between the cartographer and the guard captain. Finally they both said, “No, my doyen.”
“Excellent. Then I’ll strike your mutual accusations of treason from the records and pass a recommendation up to Palatinus Sollenburg to do something to tighten security even more.” Dmitri gave the ramp beside him a rueful kick. “You can’t be calling in specialized forces every time something goes wrong in a portal chamber, after all. Someone should look into toning down the magic sapping properties of these places.”
“I notice you and the intruders did just fine,” the guard captain said suspiciously.
Dmitri held up the pendant that doubled as his power source and badge of office. “Just a reminder but I have a full strength core tap. You’re not going to be able to siphon off all the power here with just a portal chamber. And our friends were using bruja magic. No telling what kind of results that will have. Speaking of which, where is our prisoner?”
“Your Blade of One has her over there,” the cartographer said, nodding towards the wall.
“Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” Dmitri said, bowing slightly with his hands spread slightly and palms out. The two men returned the gesture, bowing much deeper, and waited until their doyen turned away before departing themselves. Dmitri found Solomon ben-Gideon about half way around the circumference of the room standing guard over the attractive, powerfully built woman he’d found under the spectral bear he’d fought with earlier. At some point they’d decided it was more expedient to slap irons on her than just hold her down all the time so now her wrists and ankles were chained together in front of her, giving her an almost piteous look. The fierce defiance in her expression kept Dmitri from feeling any pity, however. That and the fact that she’d tried to twist his head off like a lid.
As soon as he got up to them Mons handed him a necklace of flat silver plates and said, “She was carrying this. It seemed to serve as a magic reserve. Plus,” here he gestured towards her hair, which was braided and pinned up in a number of loops behind her head, “this is a hair style that was popular among first and second rank cartographers at court a few years ago, favored for its storage capacity. We’ve siphoned off the stray magic and left it in storage here.”
“Excellent.” Dmitri examined the necklace for a moment. It was well crafted but didn’t have any of the markings you’d expect of an artifact crafted specifically for magic storage. Most likely the woman had owned it before and simply discovered it functioned as a magic reserve when she discovered magic. “What phoneme does she speak?”
“I can understand you,” the woman interjected. “Mostly.”
“Good! That saves trouble.” He knelt down beside her and looped the necklace back around her neck. “There. I return what’s yours to you. And to go with it, I add another present.”
He pulled a small black box out of one pocket and removed a pair of silver bracelets from it. Each one glowed as bright as a lantern. “Key.” Mons handed Dmitri the key to the shackles without protest and Dmitri unlocked the wrists, replacing them with the bracelets. As he slipped each one over the woman’s wrists he pressed on it until it shrunk and became skin tight. “Now. What’s your name?”
“Why do you care?” The woman countered.
Dmitri sighed. “Do you see the way these bracelets glow?”
“It’s hard not to.”
“It is, indeed.” Dmitri waved his hand at the domed room they were in. “This room, and most of the buildings in this camp, run of a very specific frequency of magic – you understand frequencies, yes?”
The woman snorted in exasperation. “Yes. We have them at home, too.”
“Everyone has them, the question is whether they understand them.” Dmitri tapped one bracelet to draw attention back to them. “These glow only when exposed to that frequency of magic. Which means they will glow like this whenever you come here again, or whenever you trespass on the territory of Terra Eternal again. You will be found. You will be executed. I ask for your name only because, should it prove necessary to execute you, I feel your grave marker should have a name on it.”
The woman’s expression lost some of it’s huffiness and became a bit more curious. “You’re very young to be so jaded.”
“I deal with the fallout of shortsighted hubris day in and day out. Believe it or not, people who shut down a major part of our infrastructure, making commerce difficult and potentially ruining our ability to react to trouble here are not the biggest problem I’ve seen in the last year.” He rocked back and looked her over once, matching curiosity with curiosity. “Let me just say that I know a woman of breeding when I meet one. Do you really want us to remember our first face to face meeting to end with a bad impression?”
“Maybe I’m just waiting for a rude boy to give me his name, first,” she countered.
Dmitri laughed and nudged Mons in the leg. “If it’s a full fledged introduction you want, then by all means I will give you the courtly treatement.”
The three men removed their masks and bowed in perfect sychronization. “May I present Dmitri Dostoyevski, Doyen of Terra Eternal, who speaks with the full authority of the Eternal Throne.”
Dmitri added a slight nod of the head and said, “I greet you in the name of my self and my brothers and my father and his brothers.”
Most people Dmitri had met failed to recognize the form of his greeting, or if they did they were too overawed by the title of doyen to give the correct counter greeting. His prisoner didn’t even pledge fealty to the Throneworlds but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, she managed a better proper greeting than any he’d had in a long time. She rose, in spite of the chains on her ankles, and said, “I am Maria Berggolts, by blood, daughter of the Boyar of Italy. Though that is a title that means little, these days. I do apologize for any trouble I or my companions have given you.”
With great effort Dmitri managed to keep his expression neutral. He knew the natural-born-lord-of-all-Terra type, the Empire was full of them, but Maria didn’t quite fit the mold. For starters, you’d never find any of them breaking into secure military instillations wrapped in bruja magic and fighting with their bare claws.
“Unfortunately an apology isn’t enough to pardon your intrusion.” He rose to put himself back on eye level with the prisoner. “You remain banished from our territory on this world and all other fifty one words that swear fealty to the Throne of Terra Eternal.”
Her eyes widened. “Fifty one?“
“Plus this one,” Dmitri added dryly. “For a total of fifty two. Anyone else we catch trying to use this portal as you did will be given the same warning and marked as you are. But do try and spread the warning around.”
He handed the scroll that detailed profile of her world to Mons, who took it and started looking it over while also removing the shackles from Maria’s feet. Dmitri wished, for just a moment, that he had six hands and three sets of eyes like his three-fold companion. But that came with its own problems. “In compensation for being our messenger to your world we’ll even give you a hand in getting home. But I recommend not coming here again. Your world built itself without magic. Best not to unbalance it adding too much.”
He turned to go and wrap things up, there was still paperwork to do and a report to write and no good place to do it in the portal chamber. But he stopped as Maria called out, “What do you mean don’t come here again?”
“Magic used in your world doesn’t go away, you know,” he said over his shoulder. “It just sort of disipates. And the kind of magic you find here – well, it’s not safe by itself and you don’t have the expertise to sterilize it. Leave it be, Maria Berggolts.”
He couldn’t see her expression from where he stood but her tone was slightly bitter. “Sometimes trading safety for the power to make a difference is the right choice. Surely you realized that when you sought out your position, doyen.”
Mons burst out laughing, three voices in eerie harmony. Dmitri turned to face them fully, annoyed, but Mons spoke before he could. “Doyen Dostoyevsky has never once in his life been weak.”
He blushed. “Thank you, Mons, that’s enough.” Mons just shot him a grin and slipped his mask back on. Dmitri looked at Maria once more and said, “Don’t assume power is a blessing. As often as not, it’s a curse greater than weakness.”
He stalked back towards the entrance, the last words he heard from Maria Berggolts echoing in his mind. “Jaded indeed.”