A Doyen in the Hand

(Sorry this post is so late, and very long. More about this in the notes at the end.)

They say you never forget your first love. For Dmitri, he’d first seen his when he was eight and had gone to Court for the very first time. For one reason or another his minder had decided to bring him through the Terra Front, rather than by portal. Honestly, he couldn’t remember the reason and it really wasn’t important. Because the very first time he set foot through the shallowing and found himself in the pillared concourse, the six sides of the building each an arcade looking over the vista of another world, the high ceiling peaking in half twilight above his head and glimmering not with stars but the faint light of magic and order and all other thoughts had left his head.

With the Throneworlds extending on one side of every Front and five other worlds of the empire on each of the remaining sides it felt like you could literally set out from the center of one Front and go anywhere the human mind could conceive of in a matter of a moment’s walk. Even after months among the wealth and riches of the Court he’d still found his mind drifting back to that first moment stepping into the Fourth Front. Now he was in a different place but feeling the same thing.

Here was a scene big enough that even a man at the beginning of adulthood reverted to childhood wonder whenever he saw it.

There were plenty of reasons to stay there, in the center of what seemed like unbridled possibilities, whenever he had to return to the Throneworlds. Mons didn’t need his input to do his share of the work and the immense power of his title made people uncomfortable. And there was no way to spend more than five minutes on the Throneworlds without someone wondering where you were. Officials had to answer such questions truthfully, which inevitably led to questions and all kinds of attention and… well, it was better to stay there. The Terra Fronts weren’t used for much anymore, with the convenience and economy of portals having removed much of their commercial and military utility. Really, their only practical use was  their original purpose.

And Terra Eternal hadn’t invaded anywhere in nearly a century.

So they served as a sort of private means of transport from world to world for high level officials, of which Dmitir was one of the very highest. It was one of the few privileges he had that he truly enjoyed. At least, most of the time.

“Doyen Dmitri Dostoyevsky. May all your paths run smooth and peacefully.”

Suppressing a grimace, Dmitri turned to face the man who administered this particular Front. “Palatinus Alvin y-Santos. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers, and my father and his brothers.”

The two men bowed slightly to each other, hands spread at waist height with palms facing each other, as was proper in court circles. The only similar thing between the two was their insincere smiles. Skinny, save for a surprisingly plump gut, bald and constantly a little sweaty looking, Alvin y-Santos had always struck Dmitri as something of a grotesque. But maybe that was just because Alvin also had the vaguely predatory air he’d always hated about people at court – like a scavenger waiting to snag an easy meal once something died.

Dmitri absently smoothed his own hair back and out of his eyes, as if to be on the lookout for trouble, as he said, “To what do I owe the honor of this visit, y-Santos?”

“Why, I’ve just come to bid you welcome here, as you are always, my doyen,” Alvin answered, his smile stretching further across his face.

“Thank you,” Dmitri said, dry as dirt. “Your courtesy is always the highlight of my visit.”

Alvin made a show of glancing around. “I see that the Blade of ben-Gideon is not with you today. Is it time for a new Blade already?”

“I’m sure we’ll have at least one or two more assignments together before his year is up,” Dmitri said. Honestly, he wasn’t looking forward to having a new team of three assigned to him but it was one of the few parts of his job that he had no control over. “Indeed?” Alvin asked, oblivious to the other man’s thoughts. “I had heard that his replacements had already been selected.”

That brought all of Dmitri’s attention to the matter at hand. “And how is that? No one outside of those offered the position should know the members of a Doyen’s Blade.”

“And undoubtedly it is so,” Alvin said with a smile less forced and less pleasant than normal. Dmitri didn’t miss the implication. Someone Alvin knew had been offered the job.

“Then it is well,” Dmitri answered, even though it wasn’t. Someone had been talking when they shouldn’t have. “No doubt you will find some productive use for the good fortune you have found.”

“I was wondering if might ask you for a favor…” And there it was.

Alvin y-Santos was an infamous politicker and every time Dmitri had met him he’d asked for some small thing or another. As a rule Dmitri hadn’t agreed to any of it, thinking that it was better not to give any ground to the scheming man, but he had come to dread the requests. Doyen only served for ten years and after all the power and authority was gone, one thing that was supposed to keep them from running rampant was the reality of having to deal with some of the powerful people you’d angered in your position over the years.

Of course, this meant people like Alvin were always trying to curry favors from the local doyen in exchange for help and shelter down the road. Which brought them right back to the matter at hand. “No favors, y-Santos. You should know me well enough by this point.”

“It is nothing of importance,” Alvin was quick to say. “I just hoped you could convey my greetings to the new administrator of the Eighth Front. She has only come to it in the last week or two and, being a busy man, I haven’t had time to go myself.”

Dmitri stared at the other man for a long, uncomprehending moment, then said, “Y-Santos, you run the Seventh Front. It’s a five minute walk from the Eighth.”

“Regardless,” Alvin began, “I haven’t had the time-”

“Unfortunately we’re not going to the Eighth Front any time soon,” Mons said, coming down the concourse from the Throneworlds side of the Front. He was moving quickly, doubtless aware that Dmitri wanted Alvin far away as fast as possible, but his normally authoritative three-fold voice was muffled by the mask he wore. Most Souls of One wore them to hide their identical faces, something Dmitri found more unsettling than the sight of three – or even five or six – identical people moving in perfect synchronization, but Dmitri had encouraged Mons to stop wearing it over the last year, with some success. Now it was back and he wasn’t sure why.

“In point of fact,” Mons continued, his voice dropping to more normal conversation levels as he got closer to them, “we’re going to the Second Front next, and we may be there for some time. You’d best deliver your greetings yourself.”

“The Second Front?” Dmitri and Alvin asked, for once in sync on something.

“Indeed.” Even with his face hidden Dmitri could tell Mons was smiling. “We’re going off the beaten path for a while. A suitably grand task for our last outing together, don’t you think?”

——–

“Doyen Arianna Kahlenbeck?”

Terra Eternal’s only current female doyen paused in the middle of her latest case summary, surprised to find there was someone in the vacant office she’d borrowed. As was her want she hadn’t really told anyone she was commandeering it, just sort of set up camp there for the duration of her stay on world, so anyone finding it in the first place was a sizable achievement. And this fellow, well, his just getting into the building must have taken a lot of effort.

He wasn’t wearing the steel blue of the architects, nor the bronze of the cartographers or the white of the channelers. In fact, he wore a weathered brown coat, pleated pants of a lighter shade of the same color and a white garment that looked almost like a robe in place of a shirt. He had long, sandy hair and thin, sensitive looking hands that were reaching into his coat to pull out a small brown envelope. He looked nothing if not out of place.

“I’m Doyen Kahlenbeck,” Arianna said, setting her pen aside and leaning back in her chair. If this fellow wanted to eschew ceremony she’d go along with him, at least to a certain extent. “Who are you?”

“You’re handling the Venger Bar-Luzon case, correct?” The man asked, ignoring her question.

Arianna decided to continue the trend and parried that question with yet another. “Who?”

The man froze for a second, envelope not quite free from in his jacket, a comically quizzical look frozen on his face. “You’re not looking for Venger Bar-Luzon?”

Arianna leaned forward. “I wasn’t before. Should I be?”

“Just to be sure…” He glanced around the room once. “This is Terra Rasa, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Arianna said slowly, waiting for some sign that all this was going somewhere.

But the man just shoved his envelope back into his coat and fished around for a second before pulling out a long scroll that he partially unrolled and looked over, muttering, “I’m not sure this scenario was covered…”

Patience now exhausted, Arianna got to her feet and braced her hands on the borrowed desk. “Look here, you, I don’t know what your game is but you’re wasting my time and I don’t appreciate it.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his attention still on the scroll he was reading over. “I was told you handle most problems that creep up here on Terra Rasa but I guess they handed this one off to one of the other doyen. Not sure which one, though. At least there’s only four others to deal with.”

The cavalier way of ignoring her was so out of place she couldn’t really do much besides blink in surprise. Which was exactly how long it took the man to vanish from the room.

Arianna looked around the room once, a weird and very uncomfortable feeling working its way down the back of her spine. She went to the door and yanked it open, startling the members of her Blade as they kept watch in the hallway. She glanced at Lambert, the regulus, and said, “Did you see anyone come in here recently?”

“No, my doyen,” he answered immediately. “Did you need someone specific?”

“Nevermind.” She thought it over for a minute. “Do you know the name Venger Bar-Luzen?”

“No, my doyen. Does it have anything to do with the trade dispute we’re working on?”

She thought it over for a moment. “I really don’t know. But I’d love it if you found out.”

Lambert nodded immediately. “Of course, my doyen.”

——–

“Terra Rasa is the perfect place for Bar-Luzon to hide if you ask me,” Dmitri said, absently cutting his meat into manageable chunks while keeping an eye out on the dining hall around them. He didn’t like staying in a public house but there hadn’t been room for four people in the local channeler barracks and he didn’t want to divide his forces on this job.

“I really don’t follow your logic on this one, my doyen,” Mons said, talking with only one voice so the other two could eat.

For a brief second Dmitri envied his friend. The local food was unusual but tasty and Mons had gone all out, getting three different meals to experience. But that wasn’t why they were there. “It’s a good hiding spot because it’s the first Terra we found with not native population. Everyone here is an immigrant, so while there’s something like a local culture it’s not a very strong one yet and outsiders won’t stand out as much. By the same token, it’s been settled long enough for there to be a few large cities to blend into. He could be anywhere.”

“Do you want me to send to the local architects and see if the local patrols have heard anything?” Mons asked. “Try and recruit some honest to goodness lawmen?”

“I’m not sure.” Dmitri stared down at the chunks of tangy meat and green vegetables on his plate, trying to work out how he should approach the problem. “Leading a manhunt isn’t what they prepare you for, you know. We’re supposed to hammer out jurisdictional conflicts or settle internal disputes, not find rogue agents.”

Mons just grunted and continued to eat. For a while that was all either men did.

Finally, Dmitri said, “Did you know him?”

“Venger Bar-Luzon?” The question was such a transparent play for time that Dmitri ignored it and just waited for Mons to answer. Which he did, eventually. “Even if we weren’t from different generations there’s a lot of differences in how you train Souls of One dependent on how many you have. Groups of three, five and six all go through different programs.”

“And a group of twelve probably requires a custom built curriculum.”

Mons laughed, almost spraying soup all over the table. “A Hex of One is bad enough. But doubling that to a Parliament? Surely you’re joking.”

“We grew up together,” Dmitri said softly, poking at his food and surprised to find he had little appetite. “Mons, I’ll tell you a secret. I know you Souls of One aren’t really one person, no matter how much you project that idea or even believe it yourselves. I can tell you apart.”

He jabbed at the Mons all the way to his left. “Like you. Whenever just one of you talks, you’re the one who does it. You can switch up your gear as much as you like, you can even fool people who have known you casually for a long time. But I see through you. You’re more like closely knit brothers who have been taught to coordinate telepathically than a single person.”

Mons fidgeted for a second before asking, “Is this all going somewhere?”

“I was just wondering if maybe we got this job because of you. Could you do what he did?”

Mons just stared off in three different directions for a moment, none of his pairs of eyes really focused on anything. Finally he said, “I don’t think any one of us could run off and abandon the others, no. In fact, I met a Hand of One once. It only had four in it.”

Dmitri suppressed a snort. “A Hand is five people, Mons. By definition.”

“But a Soul of One is a person who has been born the same on multiple worlds,” Mons pointed out, his attention back in the present. “If one of them dies you cannot simply send out for a replacement. No such person exists.”

Dmitri paused mid chew, the implications of that beginning to dawn on him. “What happened to that Hand, Mons?”

“It ceased to exist. When one of them died they ceased to be a whole person, Dmitri. It happened a lot in the early days, when Souls of One were a new thing that no one really understood. These days it happens less, in part because they warn us of the danger and try to prepare us to work around it.” Mon shook his head. “But to just cut out four fifths of your mind and walk away from it? I can’t imagine a sane person who would do that.”

Dmitri drummed his fingers on the table top for a minute, figuring that out. “So you think we’re looking for a madman?”

“I think it’s certainly a possibility.”

“Well. At least it’s a place to start.” After that the rest of the meal passed in silence. But it wasn’t the comfortable sort.

——–

The viewing crystal gave only a fair idea of what a person looked like, on par with a poor quality photocapture but without even a third dimension to give it depth. Still, Arianna could tell enough of the expression of the man on the other end to know he was telling the truth. That wasn’t a good thing, though.

“You’re telling me you have no idea where the Hand of Venger Bar-Luzon is?”

“No, my doyen,” the man said, an undercurrent of panic in his voice suggesting he knew how bad this situation was. “Uh… one of him went missing a month and a half ago. We haven’t been able to locate him anywhere on Terra Indissolute. We’ve started looking for him elsewhere but… there have been difficulties. We even filed a request with the Office of the Doyen two weeks back. The rest of the Hand went into seclusion until he returned. When you first contacted us we summoned him but… he wasn’t there.”

“You filed a request with the office?” That interested her. Maybe she was talking to the wrong people. “Thank you for your time, Palatinus.”

“Of course, my-” She tapped the top of the crystal and it went dark and silent before he could finish. Tracking down who Bar-Luzon was had been the work of three days and Arianna had a feeling she didn’t have a lot of time left for niceties. Too many people had no idea what was going on, herself included. It made her nervous…

——–

The file clerks Dmitri had met generally fell into one of two categories: Those eager to impress you and move on to a better job or those who loved their files and thought of others pawing through them as some kind of sacrilege. The local law architect clerk fell into the later category. Clerk – Dmitri thought of it as his name and didn’t think the man would mind – had insisted on an entire orientation tour, a not-so-brief overview of the filing system and a lecture on the importance of not misplacing valuable files.

After all that Clerk had finally accepted his request to search the records personally only when Dmitri hinted that he was willing and able to demote the other man all the way down to dustman if things didn’t hurry along. Hopefully Mons was fairing better finding a patrol squad who could put them in contact with the local snitches and rumor mongers.

“These are the vagrancy files and associated records,” Clerk said, stopping by a rather large scroll rack. “Most recent files on the top, older files towards the bottom. You can read them at that table over there.”

“Thank you,” Dmitri said, dismissing him with a gesture. “You’ve been most helpful.”

Oblivious to the sarcasm in Dmitri’s voice, Clerk nodded and headed back towards his desk at the front of the room. Dmitri started pawing through the files. Anything older than a couple of weeks wasn’t of interest to him so most of what he needed was on the top shelf. He collected a handful of the older ones and headed to the table.

Vagrancy reports were not exciting reading but it was important and he managed to plow through five or six of them in the next hour. He was deep into his seventh file, a much more interesting tale of a homeless man who seemed to know the back alleys much better than the local patrols and never quite got caught when they went to grab him, when a voice asked him, “Doyen Dostoyevsky? On the Bar-Luzon case?”

“That’s me,” Dmitri said, attention still mostly on the scroll he was reading.

“Fourth time’s the charm,” the voice said. A hand placed a brown envelope on the table next to him.

“Thank you.” He looked up to see who had brought the message but there was no one there.

——–

“…And that’s why we chose to give the matter to Doyen Dostoyevsky.”

Arianna rubbed her hands together absently, studying the older man in the viewing crystal for any clue what he thought of all this. As usual, his expression gave away nothing. “Well that does sound like a mess, Director Rand. But looking at the description and photocaptures you’ve provided Bar-Luzon isn’t the man who visited me last week. Do you have any idea who he was?”

“No.” Director Rand was the man who picked and chose what problems warranted the attention of the Doyen and which would simply have to languish in bureaucratic limbo until someone found a good solution to them. As a former doyen himself, Rand understood the stakes and frustrations of the job, and he did his best to keep the doyen abreast of situations that might be relevant to their jobs. The years of hard work showed on his face, never more so than when he was frustrated like he was just then. “I do know that at least one other doyen has run into someone matching that description. Doyen Tan reported meeting a similar man asking the same question two days ago. I think it’s time I tried talking to the others.”

“Lovely. Best of luck with that.” Doyen had a lot of autonomy in their jobs. They weren’t required to check in with their central office until they finished an assignment. That made keeping track of them hard and Arianna didn’t envy Rand the task of trying to find the other two. Of course, Dostoyevsky was apparently somewhere on Terra Rasa. But that was still a whole world to search. “I’ll tell you what, Director Rand, why don’t I see if I can help you find Doyen Dostoyevsky while you try and track down the other two?”

“I would appreciate that, Doyen Kahlenbeck.”

——–

The address was a small building, well appointed, located on the far eastern side of Petrograd, near the river. It looked more like a former bakery than a hideout. What was certain was that Dmitri would probably not have found it even had he searched the architect files for months. The only way he could have begun to suspect Venger Bar-Luzon was there was the note he had gotten. That in itself was suspicious.

Mons was setting up a cordon outside the building with a hand’s worth of the local architects, all that they’d been able to gather on short notice, while Dmitri headed in to confirm whether this was, in fact, the hiding place of a runaway Soul of One or just some bizarre joke.

In complete defiance of his expectations Dmitri had his answer almost as soon as he stepped through the door.

Venger Bar-Luzon was sitting at a table in the middle of the large room that took up much of the ground floor. A counter, probably for merchandise back when the building was still a shop, ran along the left wall and a bunch of other tables and chairs were stacked on the right. Venger stood up at the table and offered a formal bow. “I greet you, my doyen. I am Venger Bar-Luzon. May all your paths run smooth and peacefully.”

As his greeting implied, Venger wore the bronze robes of a cartographer, a specialist in Locke’s methods of travelling across worlds and the horizon. That was a problem in itself. Travelling worlds required huge amounts of magic and cartographer robes were mostly just cleverly disguised wells of magic reserves. With the right matrices to channel it through even an untrained combatant could be dangerous. Dmitri decided to play it safe until he had a better idea what Venger’s game was. So he fell back on formality. “I am Dmitri Dostoyevsky, Doyen of Terra Eternal. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers and my father and his brothers.”

Venger’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “I wasn’t aware that the Throneworlds had appointed a seventh son of a seventh son as doyen.”

Dmitri laughed in response, a short, sharp bark of pure surprise. “Of all the times for that greeting to be recognized it would be now. Only one in a hundred people even know what that means. I’m impressed, Bar-Luzon.”

“And I’m in trouble.” Venger slammed his hand down on the table, a spell matrix that Dmitri hadn’t been able to see from his angle suddenly lit up at the same time Venger yelled, “Abort! Siphon to dexter!”

The next ninety seconds went by in a blur. Dmitri snapped to his left, which was Venger’s right, just in time to see three heads popping up over the lip of the counter. Three pairs of hands were already setting a syphon, a powerful magic draining matrix, with the opening of the V shape pointed towards him. It was more than enough to drain the average magic supply of a person down to nothing in a minute but then, Dmitri was no average person so that wasn’t what bothered him. He didn’t have time to work out what was bothering him because he was too busy lunging towards the table, hands scything counter to Venger’s matrix, activating the most logical countermatrix he was carrying. That was his biggest mistake, in hindsight.

Just because Venger wore the robes of a cartographer didn’t mean he didn’t know anything about combat. Dmitri had just walked into a trap and it sprang out from under the tables and chairs along the right hand wall in the form of six young girls who caught him in a flexible glassweb matrix, a spell that bent like spiderweb when you pressed against it and, if you weren’t careful, would tear you to ribbons with its scything slivers of magic.

Dmitri managed to pull back from the glassweb before it cut him. His own spell, a simple bulwark matrix intended to slam Venger into the wall behind him and halt his mischief, wouldn’t do much of anything against a glassweb, except maybe get cut to pieces. So he changed tactics and, not even bothering to recapture the magic he’d put into building his bulwark already, set his own syphon.

How effective a spell matrix is was depended on a lot of factors. How well magic meshed with the material the matrix was made out of, how much energy was pumped into it and whether or not the magic energy would burn out the materials the matrix was built out of. There was more to it than that, but those were the essentials.

Most spell matrices were built out of metal, since it was easy to mold into the necessary shapes and readily available. But the human body was a kind of spell matrix itself, containing many of the basic shapes and patterns that magic clung to. Most people were a less effective matrix for magic than metal.

But then, most people were not the seventh son of a seventh son.

Most people could not rip apart a glassweb matrix just by forming a syphon with one hand, much less syphon down the transparent wall of energy a bulwark consisted of, even if it was half formed. Dmitri managed all that and had the presence of mind to pull out his core tap with his free hand, cranking it all the way open and releasing the full force of its magic on the room. The glowing rectangle and triangles glyph that represented the Eternal Throne snapped into existence above it and raw magic flooded the room, snapping against the magic sails in Dmitri’s and Venger’s clothes, energizing a half a dozen spell matrices that had been hidden around the room and probably blowing out ever other spell matrix in the neighborhood that wasn’t combat rated.

Three things happened at once. First, Dmitri realized what had bothered him a moment before. Both the ambush from behind the counter and the one from in the tables had been executed by children. And not just any children, but children with identical features moving with a familiar kind of eerie synchronization. They were moving as two different Souls of One, not nine separate people.

Second, with a strobe of light and a gut-wrenching twist the full Hand of Venger Bar-Luzon teleported into the room. Already they were preparing an escape spell. It was a canny move, since doyen relied on the Throneworlds for transport – one of the few checks on their power was a prohibition against carrying teleportation or horizon crossing matrices.

Third, one of the six girls bit him on the wrist and he dropped his core tap. Then another kicked it across the room towards Venger. Unfortunately for her it a loose board in the floor and skittered towards the tables along the wall rather than to Venger himself.

For a second Dmitri stood paralyzed. Venger’s matrix already encompassed most of the room, with four of the six girls and the three boys already caught in its turns. But the girl who had bitten him was scrambling after the core tap and Dmitri couldn’t run the risk that she’d grab it and the whole group would still get away. Rather than break Venger’s teleportation matrix he dropped a bulwark in front of the girl and dove past her, coming up with the core tap just as the teleportation matrix finished and the whole group vanished.

——–

Arianna looked up at the younger man. She’d never been very good with ages but she was guessing Doyen Dostoyevsky couldn’t be more than twenty – and she seriously doubted he was that. It showed in a lot of ways but the biggest was how much trouble he was having hiding his dejection. He’d let Bar-Luzon get away and caused some serious damage to the neighborhood in the process. Now, to top it off, he was apologizing to the doyen who’s territory he was intruding on. She could tell how much each and every one of those facts ate at him.

It would have been cute if the situation wasn’t so serious.

“I’m starting to think that this was a trap of some sort,” Dmitri was saying. “I think he meant to lure you to that empty shop with his note then steal your core tap.”

“That would fit with his pattern in the last few weeks,” Arianna admitted. “He’s kidnapped at least two Souls of One in training, from what you saw, but when the folks on Indissolute went looking for him they found at least six trainee Souls missing. Three blades, a hand and two hexes.”

Dmitri whistled. “That’s a lot of potential, right there. Even if its not fully trained. Add in a core tap as a power source and you could cause some real damage. We should try and-”

“No.” That came from both Lambert and Dmitri’s Blade of One.

“This is no longer the kind of thing that falls under the Doyen’s purview,” Lambert continued. “Theft of strategic resources and everything else that goes with it is squarely the responsibility of the channelers and the Throne of Vesuvius. We’ll file a report with them and let them handle it.”

Dmitri gave Arianna a sympathetic look. “New blade?”

“We’ve been together a month,” she confirmed.

“I sympathize. Mons is swapping out after this job.” He glanced at his blade. “But first, I really think following Bar-Luzon is a part of my mandate. Just because I didn’t catch him here on Terra Rasa doesn’t mean I shouldn’t follow him.”

“But following him gives him another chance to steal your core tap,” the blade replied. “And this time he’ll be prepared to deal with someone of your abilities. No. We’re done here. Regulus Lambert is correct. Leave this to the Vesuvians. It’s time to report back to the Director.”

Arianna smiled inwardly. All doyen had to be a little bit idealistic to do what they did. But as time wore on it was easy to loose the enthusiasm one started off with. Hopefully Dmitri wouldn’t loose his. “You’ve got a good blade right now, Doyen Dostoyevsky. Listen to him, even if it’s for the last time.”

Dmitri sighed and nodded. “I suppose I should.”

“Do you know who your replacement is?” She asked.

“I don’t.”

“I do,” Mons said, then hurried through the rest before he could be cut off. “At least who the blade’s regulus is, since you’re not getting a Blade of One again. You should know too, so you can start thinking of how to deal with him. His name is Oscar y-Santos.”

Once again with comical straightforwardness Dmitri’s expression morphed from annoyance at Mons, to shock, to resigned acceptance. “Of course it is. That’s just the perfect end to the perfect day, isn’t it?”

Fiction Index

(Okay, so this post is really late. A few weeks ago I was on vacation and ever since I’ve gotten back I’ve been helping out as a replacement in a theater production with some friends. Between going to rehearsals and frantically memorizing my lines, most all of my free time has been shot and I haven’t been able to write much. I’m lagging behind where I want to be and I don’t want to rush things.

I delayed this post because this story marks a turning point in the development of Dmitri’s character, as well as the things that are going on in this fiction setting as a whole and I wanted to do it right. I think I mostly succeeded in that. Next week we go back to Project Sumter for another short story. After that I had originally planned to plunge straight into Thunder Clap, the third and final book in the story arc I’ve been working on.

The thing is, I’ve not done some of the outlining I wanted to do and I’m planning a vacation with family the weekend of August 11th. So the new plan is to take a week between “Moroccan Heat”, next week’s short story and Thunder Clap, so that I can try and get my feet under me again. It’s my hope that all other content on the blog will go forward as planned, so the 11th will be the only blank spot in the calendar. Life is a mess and plans, they will be achanging. Thanks for your understanding.

Nate)

Advertisements

The Bear, the Doyen and the Portal (Pt. 2)

(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.

Thrice born.

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.”

Part One
Fiction Index

The Bear, the Doyen and the Portal (Pt. 1)

(Once again pushing the definition of “short story” to the length of two whole posts! This one goes up a little late, mainly because I’m still not back in the rhythm of things after my vacation and the length once again took me by surprise. I needed most of today to get the story edited and ready to go. Hope you enjoy!)

Galen Grant awoke in the manner he was accustomed – face down on the cold, hard ground with an armed man looming over him.

It was the middle of the night and it was a different armed man than usual, so at least his hosts had gotten creative in their treatment of him. Galen rolled over on his back, pushing the thin animal skin blanket that was failing to keep him warm to one side, and took a closer look at his new friend. It was hard to tell how tall he was, given that he was currently bending down and poking him with the hilt of his sword, but his weathered brown coat, long sandy hair and tailored pants suggested something.

Galen thought it over carefully, twice, then nodded to himself.

“You’re not local, are you?”

The new man laughed quietly. “Not exactly, no. Hopefully you’ll stay relaxed, by the by, or the locals might take an interest in our little meeting here.”

Galen sat up, frowning a little. “You speak Celt. Definitely not local.”

“Yes.” The stranger rocked back on his heels and tilted his head to one side. “Are you interested in why I’m here?”

There was no one else in the tent, which would have been inconvenient since it was a really small tent, so Galen arrived at the obvious conclusion. “I guess it must be to talk to me.”

“Yes it is,” the brown coat said, nodding slowly. “You’re far from home, Mr. Grant. This world isn’t your home.”

“Yeah, I figured as much when I couldn’t get cell service.” Galen sat up and dusted off his denim shirt. After two months on the open plains there were holes in several places and it smelled worse than the city in summer but it did more to keep him warm than the thin linen undershirt. It was all he’d had when he slipped through to wherever this place was, where the people lived in tents on the open flats, electricity was a thing you only saw during storms and the locals had grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go.

He had no idea what any of them were saying, either, so the reason he was so unpopular remained a mystery. The stranger prodded him with the hilt of his sword again. “Hey. You paying attention?”

Galen jumped slightly. “Sorry. What?”

“There are some people outside who want to talk to you.” He nodded towards the back of the tent, not to the entrance, so it probably wasn’t the locals. “Want to see them? Or would you rather stay.”

Go with him.

“I guess I better come along.” Galen got to his feet and patted himself down. He’d had a dataphone in his pocket when he’d slipped out of his home and into whatever this place was but the charge had died weeks ago and he was pretty sure it was broken. Still he’d taken some video of the place and that might be worth something. His house keys were long gone, as was most of the change in his pockets, which the locals had confiscated. His wallet still had its contents except for the driving license. The picture had prompted his captors to take it, or so he thought.

The man in brown watched as Galen collected his things, a strange smile on his face. “Do you always do what you’re told?”

“Huh?” A blank look.

“I think you’re a little too trusting, that’s all.”

Galen turned that over in his mind a few times. “Do you not want me coming along?”

The stranger tapped his finger to his temple once or twice. “I wasn’t talking about me, although it certainly applies. Come on. Showing you the way is part of the message.”

When he decided to move the other man could really move, Galen decided. They went past the usual guard, who would normally be waking him up in a few hours, unconscious at the entrance to the tent. Then the brown coat quickly led him through the camp in a twisting, circuitous route that avoided the central camp fire and most of the more important looking tents. Galen hadn’t been outside since he arrived but it looked like a lot more people had shown up after he was captured.

But they never saw any of them on their way through the camp. Whoever this stranger was he was running circles around the natives.

Hold on.

It was about ten minutes after they got out of camp when the grass under their feet suddenly seemed to stretch into a blur and jerk under their feet. Brown coat kept his feet effortlessly but Galen fell flat on his back and started to slide. Then something wrapped around his waist and they were flying through the air. A moment later they landed, light as a feather, and the world around him, which still had the pattern of grass but grass that had been painted on a giant, lizardlike cardboard cut out, turned glowing and see-through. A second later Galen was standing on top of a plateau of rock about twenty feet above the rest of the grasslands with the man in brown and two newcomers.

The first was a tall, lanky man in denim, jeans and jacket both more patches than original fabric, his eyes still glowing faintly with chameleon light. He was easy to identify. The other was an equally tall, powerfully built woman wearing a sleeveless top, loose around the collar but fairly formfitting everywhere else, and a skirt that hid most of her legs without looking hard to move in. Galen couldn’t identify her as quickly but the necklace of small square metal plates she wore finally put him on the right track.

The woman gently took the jewelry out of his hand and pushed him a half step back. Galen smiled and said, “You’re Momma Bear, aren’t you? And the Alligecko. Did you two come all the way out here for me? I’m honored. Aren’t you guys a bit far from home?”

“Far from home?” The lady asked, one eyebrow arched in picture perfect incredulity. “Is that all you have to ask us?”

“Well, like I said, it’s not every day you have honest to goodness superheroes picking you up but-”

“Not to interrupt,” the brown coat said, “but I’ve fulfilled my end of the deal, so I’ll be on my way.”

Both Momma Bear and the Alligecko stopped long enough to give a solemn nod to the strange man, who turned and left as soon as they had acknowledged him. In two steps he seemed to be fading from view, by the end of the third he was gone entirely. Galen decided it was more than a little creepy.

The three that remained stared at the empty spot where the fourth had been for a minute, then the Alligecko slapped Galen on the back and said, “So now you know where we all went to get our powers. Time to show you how to get back.”

“Wait.” Galen scratched at his head in befuddlement. “This is where superheroes and supervillains get their powers?”

“It is,” Momma Bear said. “In fact, you’ve been here for a while, right? One should have attached itself to you by now. Why didn’t you get away from the Vishnu on your own?”

“Attached?”

Attached.

“Oh.” Galen shook his head slowly. “I guess I hadn’t noticed. How did you know I was there? Did they tell you?”

“The Vishnu? No. They don’t like people like us for some reason.” The Alligecko shrugged. “They’ve never felt like explaining and most of us try to avoid them. But there’s a guy called Clairvoyance who hangs out on this side of things and watches for people from our side when they come through. He’s good at it, though I’m not sure how he does it. We try and collect them, show ’em the ropes, so the Vishnu don’t get too many of us.”

Galen shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the two of them. Both were kind of famous back home. Saved people from disasters, caught petty criminals, occasionally battled supervillains. The Alligecko’s lizardlike aura and camouflage abilities made him the darling of the ninja-chic crowd, while Momma Bear’s aura of raw power earned her fans of all stripes. Lots of people wanted find out how to wield the powers of an auratouched superhero. But even if he had been one of them, Galen might have reconsidered if he knew it made you talk crazy. “Can you run all this by me again?”

Momma Bear took him by the elbow and lead him to the edge of the plateau. “Tell me, my friend, do you know where we are?”

“Look like the Great Plains of Western Louisiana. Kinda far from Italy no matter how you slice it,” Galen said, glancing at Momma. “Mexico’s not such a log way off, though I’m not sure why Alligecko’s so far north either.”

“You’re close but not entirely right,” the Alligecko said, the giant, glowing, toothy reptilian aura that his name came from springing up around him and slipping noiselessly down the side of the bluff to the ground below. Though he was making no attempt to hide the shape of the spectral creature was still obscured, like a fog bank, hard to make out clearly even though it glowed slightly in the dark of night. It reared up on it’s hind legs, serpentine body stretching a good twenty feet upwards so that its upper shoulders were even with the top of the plateau and its massive head was even with Galen’s.

The Alligecko spread its arms, stubby in comparison to its body but still long enough that Galen could lay his head in the palm of one hand and his feet wouldn’t quite reach the elbow of the other arm, and gestured to encompass the world from the ground below to the sky above. “This is not our home. It’s a different world, my friend. Little here is like you would expect. The shape of the land, perhaps. But beyond that? Everything you know is wrong.”

“Things are different here,” Momma said, taking up the train of thought. “There’s an entirely different energy at work in this world. I wish we could explain it better but really we can’t. The closest word for it is magic, though I’m not sure that’s what the locals call it. There are thin places between here and home, and sometimes we stumble through to this place. And then the magic finds us, and we take a little of it home with us.”

“I get stumbling through,” Galen said. “But what makes getting back so hard?”

“Usually it’s not, most places you can slip through one way will let you back the other. But the Vishnu,” the Alligecko jerked it’s head in the direction of the camp they’d left recently, “and some other groups who don’t like visitors from other worlds keep an eye on the crossing points in their territory and grab people who come through them.”

“We know where most of them are and keep an eye on them so people don’t get caught that way,” Momma Bear added, “but sometimes old ways close and new ways open. That’s one reason we need to get home as soon as possible. You need to show us how you got here so someone can start watching it and keeping people from crossing that way.”

“Yeah. Two months camping in tents isn’t much fun when you are expecting it.” Galen laughed. “Worse when you aren’t. The voices don’t help much, either.”

Momma gave him a weird look. “Voices?”

Never mind. 

“…Never mind.”

——–

Unfortunately Galen wasn’t quite done with camping yet. Although tents weren’t involved he still spent another two nights sleeping on the ground as they made their way to the “hard way” home. Along the way the other two spent a lot of time trying to get Galen to find the aura that had attached to him. Both Momma Bear and the Alligecko showed him their own, the ways they focused it and called it to life. But Galen couldn’t find any such power within himself, he just heard voices. And he knew better than to say anything about them.

By the end of the trip both were upset with him, which wasn’t a fun feeling. The Alligecko and Momma Bear were world famous, after all, and it didn’t make much sense to expect him to be up to their standards just because he fell into a different world, did it?

The worst part was sneaking into the compound. This was the “hard” part of the “hard way”, a long, tortuous trip in the shadows of buildings, timed to get them past guards and make sure no one caught them. The whole place was crawling with people in creepy white coats of all different cuts. Everyone, men and women, wore enough jewelry that they jangled quietly when they walked and they were armed like they’d just stepped out of the weirdest Renaissance Fair ever. Wicked hooks that were sharp on both sides, spears with large, flat blades and brass colored gauntlets with all kinds of nasty nubs and spikes on them, he wasn’t sure how people could fight with them but he knew he didn’t want to find out.

You shouldn’t be here. You need to leave.

Worst was the voice. Very insistent, that, kind of distracting when he was sneaking past people who might take “getting medieval” very literally. But, though they gave him some annoyed looks, his two guides managed to see him safely through. Finally they arrived at a building that was little more than a dome about twenty feet high in the center and twice as wide at the base.

A single door led inside. There was a large rectangle in the center of the door with two triangle, points downwards, on either side of the lower half. It took a second but Galen realized it was probably supposed to be a chair of some sort.

Don’t go in!

Galen started slightly. “Um…”

“Quietly,” the Alligecko whispered. That had been his favorite word for the last hour.

“I know. But did you hear that?”

A frown creased the thin man’s face. “Hear what?”

“Singing,” Momma Bear said, pressing her ear to the door. “Beautiful singing.”

That wasn’t what he’d meant but it was something. The three of them clustered by the door, which Momma had cracked open just a bit. Sure enough the sound of someone singing a beautiful tenor solo in Russian was pouring out. “Wonderful,” the Alligecko whispered. “There’s never been a guard before.”

Guarded forty nine times over.

“How many times have you done this?” Galen asked.

“Four,” Momma answered, pushing the door open a little further and carefully sliding a small mirror through it. Light poured out as Galen peered through the crack and saw something breathtaking.

There was what looked like the beginning of a spiral ramp going up the inside of the dome. It wasn’t possible to see much beyond that but even the small part of the dome that he could see was full of dozens of thing, glowing slivers of energy, as if the air was full of floating panes of glass. Fascinated, Galen reached out to touch one that was drifting just in front of the open doorway.

No!

As soon as his finger touched it the pane of light bounced away with a horrible crashing noise then vanished from existence. With it went most of the light from inside inside the dome. Alarms were sounding all across the compound and feet were running in their direction. Momma Bear shoved the door all the way open and Galen could finally see the goal of their trip. It was a crackling circle of pale purple energy covered in constantly shifting shades of light and dark. In front of it stood a single man with a spear. Backlit as he was Galen couldn’t make out many details other than that he wore the ubiquitous white coat, appeared to have blonde hair and the panes of light in the room now clustered around him like a flock of chicks. And he knew they were there.

Run! Run now!

But the Alligecko grabbed his arm and pulled him forward into the darkened room.

Fiction Index
Part Two

The Doyen and The Dragon

“You know, Mons, you would think that, as a society that has discovered a way to fling the thousands of tonnes of gold and silver in a Terra Front from one fold of the world to another-“

“To say nothing of all the copper, steel and rockmelt.”

“To say nothing of them. In short, a society that can move buildings from world to world should be able to make a man a pair of boots he can use to climb a mountain without chafing his feet raw.”

Mons paused for a moment as they trudged up the side of the mountain in question. “You are still young, my doyen. They might no longer fit. Do you wish to stop for a rest?”

“What I want is a reevaluation of our priorities,” the doyen said, waving Mons on ahead of him. “We have magic enough to travel from one face of Terra to another, but we cannot solve the simple problem of cramped shoes.”

Mons resumed his hike and affected a lofty tone. “Perhaps you should apply yourself to that problem next. I’m sure the agenda of Terra Eternal shall suffer not a whit as it is put aside so that Doyen Dmitri Dostoevsky might pause and invent the Magic Boot – the universally acknowledged foundation of any civilized society.”

“Ha! That attitude is why I’m the doyen and not you,” Dmitri responded, allowing himself a slight limp now that Mons’ attention was once again focused forward.

“I remind you that many people don’t consider being a doyen a privilege.” Mons suddenly whipped around in time to catch his younger charge in mid limp. “A case in point: You frequently find yourself hiking all over unknown worlds in boots that no longer fit. We should pause for a bit.”

Mons didn’t wait for an acknowledgment, he just moved to the side of the narrow path they had been following and took a seat on a smallish boulder. Rather than squeeze in with him, Dmitri took a seat on a log that looked to be wedged in place by a pair of smaller rocks, pulled off his calf high boots and admitted, “That does feel much better.”

“Perhaps after this assignment you should look into the problem of keeping yourself supplied with the appropriate footgear,” Mons said, trying but not quite succeeding at hiding a smirk.

“Logistics is not my strong point,” Dmitri said with a shrug. “The fact that I have to draw out any teleport or sky folding matrix myself, rather than carry a pre-etched charm, is a real discouragement from learning anything in that school of magic.”

“A doyen shall not move himself from world to world,” Mons murmured, “nor take more with him than he may carry. I have to confess, even after watching you in action for over a year, I don’t understand the prohibition.”

“Can’t say as I do, either, but it’s one of the few things Locke and Goltermann agreed on, so I guess we can assume it makes sense.” He sighed and leaned back, resting his back against a larger stone behind the log. As he did, his elbow bumped into something and he turned to pick it up.

“Find something, my doyen?”

Dmitri turned the length of wood over in his hands. “Looks like part of the handle off a pickaxe.”

He passed it over to Mons, who gave the stick a glance and nodded. “We must be getting close to the mine.”

“You’re probably right. It looks like the magic is…” Dmitri pushed his sleeve up to let the bracelet on his wrist dangle freely. The copper disks there swung back and forth as if in a strong wind. He let the long sleeve slide back down and cover the bracelet again. “About half sail. The briefing said we can’t expect much more than that under this sky.”

“We should try to get there before the sun sets and the magic weakens,” Mons pointed out.

Dmitri pulled his boots back on. “Just as well. Short rests are fine, but once we’re done here we’ll actually get some relaxation in. Let’s go see what makes this mine so interesting to a herd of dragons, shall we?”

——–

Kor’aj Thrinnaeveous snapped his head around when his seeg stepped into the tent of meeting unannounced. The talk had gone so well that Thrinnaeveous had hoped to finish the day without crisis, but he should have known better. His own kor’aj had warned him that life was one continuing crisis, and the one who did not hear the crisis of the moment was simply not listening hard enough.

Still, the interruption was frustrating. Thrinnaeveous set the small silver trinket he’d been examining down and gave Seeg Rallaj his full attention. The seeg’s posture and nervous sway spoke of discomfort, and not, he suspected, because he had interrupted his kor’aj. Thrinnaeveous pulled himself up to his full height. “I listen.”

Rallaj dipped his head once in acknowledgment. “A group of humans is climbing the mountain. Their methods speak of caution, but not open hostility.”

“How many?”

“Four in all. And…” The seeg’s tail swept across the ground nervously. “Some of them are quite strange.”

To Thrinnaeveous, such a careless choice of words was strange. The differences between humans and the tribes were many and obvious. Why speak of them at all? “Strange how?”

Rallaj dipped his head once again, this time in apology. “Perhaps it is best if you saw for yourself, Kor’aj.”

With a quick bob of his head and sweep of his tail, Thrinnaeveous asked his guest to excuse him. On his way out of the tent he paused to gently bump his seeg with his shoulder, sending the younger one out first in a mild reproof. Then he stepped out into the cold mountain air and followed his seeg down the side of the peak.

——–

It turned out that they were even closer to the mine than Mons had originally suspected.

Not more than five minutes after they resumed the trek up the mountainside they were stopped short by a sound vaguely like a hunting horn, only much deeper and richer, that seemed to roll down the mountain like an avalanche. In fact, for a brief moment that’s exactly what Dmitri though was happening. The note sounded as they approached a narrow pass through a much steeper wall of rock, and as soon as it rang out the air was full of the sounds of breaking stone.

Except no rock came rolling down the mountainside. Instead, the narrow pass disappeared as the rock on either side seemed to bend inward and seal off the path entirely. As soon as that was accomplished the note faded from the air and, once the echoes had died away, the mountain seemed quiet again.

Dmitri stared at the solid rock wall for a moment, slowly relaxing his guarded stance as it became clear there wasn’t any immediate danger. “Mons.”

“My doyen?”

“I think the natives are getting restless.”

He quickly ducked the swipe Mons took at the back of his head and moved to a safer distance. “Is this really the time for that?”

Rather than rise to the bait, Mons was focusing his attention on the top of the newly formed stone wall. And why not? There was definitely something worth seeing there.

The first dragon recorded in the history of Terra Eternal was chanced upon by Veronica Locke, who took very detailed notes on how not to be eaten by one and included them in her Bestiary of Two Worlds, the revised and expanded version of which was still required reading in many institutions of higher learning. Since then, many different things had been discovered on other worlds which were at least somewhat similar, and generally classified as a dragon (although scholarly debate on that grouping continued.)

Although dragons tended to be much more different than one another than, say, dogs or horses or even humans, they all shared a few basic characteristics. They tended to be built like reptiles, although some had feathers instead of scales, they had voracious appetites and they were big.

Really, really big.

So big, early versions of Locke’s Bestiary actually devoted a page to sketches that showed a dragon with various other animals to press home just how big they were. (Later versions used the Great Clock Tower on the Throneworlds instead of animals.) When Dmitri had been told the locals were complaining of a herd of dragons he had laughed. Whether they were intelligent or stupid, it was common knowledge that dragons were too big and hungry to be able to move in groups. A herd of dragons would strip continents of food in a matter of days.

Of course, what Dmitri had forgotten in that moment, but remembered once he got out on the mountainside, was the first rule every person who crossed the horizon into a new world learned: Never laugh at the natives.

There was a trio of creatures crouching on the top of the stone wall and staring down at the two of them. The best word for them was long. Long, snakelike necks, long, powerful arms, long, sleek torsos and a long, restless tail. Almost hidden behind the rest of their bodies were short but well muscled legs. When two of them rose off their haunches and moved along the ledge of rock, spreading out in either direction, Dmitri realized they walked as much with their arms as with their legs, almost like a gorilla. From the tip of their tails to the end of their nose, Dmitri guess they couldn’t be more than ten to twelve feet long.

Dmitri tapped his chin absently and said, “Mons. I think we’ve found that herd of dragons.”

——–

The spare scrub grasses slid past Thrinnaeveous in a constant susurrus, the whispers of late autumn. If not for Rallaj’s nervousness the entire mountain would seem to be at peace. Still, a seeg did not come to his station for nothing, and Rallaj’s caution was a powerful warning and Thrinnaeveous reminded himself that he would be wise to heed it.

The tribe was already gathering at the low wall, it’s strongest voices watching over the side of the stone barrier and quietly harmonizing with the songs of the earth. Thrinnaeveous paused to rear back and dip his head to them in acknowledgement. Humans had been coming to the mountain for the last two seasons of the moon, ever since his people had arrived, this batch could very well wait long enough for him to acknowledge his kin.

With propriety observed, Thrinnaeveous loped out to the edge of the ridge to look down and see what had so excited his seeg. At first glance they were nothing more than four humans, as Rallaj had said. The size and face of one spoke of youth, not yet come into its full strength or wisdom. But young or no, he stood with a stillness and watchfulness that Thrinnaeveous knew humans often considered a mark of a listening ear and thoughtful words. He carried no weapon and wore a long cloak or coat. In fact, the garment was so long it nearly touched the tops of his boots and the sleeves covered his hands, as if saying that the man who wore the coat had no need to use his own hands.

As for the other three… Thrinaeveous looked from one to another, then back across the three again. They were dressed much like the younger man, except their sleeves were not as long. Beyond that, he saw few differences. Even their appearance… He looked once more, this time stretching his knowledge of humanity to its limits. It was hard to be entirely sure. “Their faces are identical?”

“It seemed so to me,” Rallaj answered immediately. “And every other who has seen them. I do not know what it says of them.”

Thrinnaeveous narrowed his eyes and drew a deep lungful of air, tasting the skies nervously and stretching his senses to the utmost. But no new revelation came to him. Defeated, he let the breath out in a rush. “Neither do I.”

“I listen.” Rallaj slid a half pace back and waited to follow his kor’aj’s lead.

Unfortunately, Thrinnaeveous wasn’t quite sure where they were going to go. The other humans who had come up the mountain had come under arms or making angry demands. These were simply waiting.

Then again, they were so few, and lightly armed. Two of the three identical humans carried weapons, one a spear the other a pair of odd looking swords, but it wouldn’t be enough to fight a small chorus, to say nothing of a full tribe. Hardly the approach of thinking creatures who had come looking for a fight. He pulled his head back over the ridge and looked up at Rallaj. “We shall go and hear them.”

——–

“Why do you think they’re humming?” Mons asked softly.

Dmitri wasn’t sure he would call it humming, but the deep, bone rattling sound that the dragons had been making for the last two or three minutes certainly had something in common with that kind of music. With over a dozen dragons in sight, all apparently making noise together, it was hard not to wind up thinking about it. “I think it’s a kind of magic. Except, instead of placing a sail to catch magic and syphon it storage, the sounds make a pattern that can hold the magic ready at hand.”

Mons did a double take. “You mean like power words?”

“Except I’m willing to bet they have more than a half a dozen of them. And they probably don’t have to work for years to get the pronunciation just right.” He waved a hand at the line of dragons who were singing, pacing and keeping watch all without apparent strain on their faculties. “Look at that, Mons. These dragons must have a natural affinity for sound and-“

He was cut off when two dragons suddenly dropped down the ridge in a single graceful and seemingly effortless leap. It was easily a twenty foot drop, if not more, but neither creature seemed the least put off by it as they flowed towards the two humans like some strange dun and green liquid. That alone wouldn’t have prompted Dmitri to stop, but Mons had quickly pushed him back a few steps and taken up a position between the dragons and the doyen. Dmitri suppressed a huff and watched what the dragons would do next.

What they chose to do was come to a stop about ten feet away and pull themselves up on their hind legs. With them so close at hand Dmitri was forced to increase his estimate of their size by another foot or two. Or perhaps these were just unusually large specimens. Both dragons dipped their heads down on their long, sinuous necks until they dropped lower than their shoulders, then snapped them back up again, almost like a snake preparing to strike.

Except instead of lunging forward the dragon with scales of a darker green started to talk. At first Dmitri didn’t realize that was what was happening. It wasn’t until the dragon made it’s second attempt that he recognized that the dragon was speaking a human language. The first time around the dragon had chosen a language from some phoneme he wasn’t familiar enough with to identify on hearing it. But the second time he could identify obvious shades of the twelfth phoneme, Mons’ native tongue. The third attempt was a recognizable greeting in the fourth phoneme. The dragon was apparently determined to run through languages until it found something they both spoke.

Highly unusual but not necessarily a bad thing. Dmitri waited until the dragon paused for a response, then said, “Do you speak the language of the Throneworlds?”

The creature stopped for a moment and canted its head to one side. “Little.”

Dmitri stifled a sigh and switched to his native language. “Then how about Cyrillic?”

“That is a more comfortable language for us to speak in,” the dragon said. “I am Thrinnaeveous, the Kor’aj of this tribe. I will listen to your words and speak on our behalf.”

Dmitri easily recognized a ritual greeting when he heard one. Since it seemed the polite thing to do, he did his best to match the dragon’s earlier nod with a bow and said, “I am Dmitri Dostoevsky, a Doyen of Terra Eternal. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers, and my father and his brothers.”

——–

Thrinnaeveous tried to pick apart the human’s greeting. He knew that humans naturally respected family, although they did not go so far as to band together into tribes as dragons did. But he wasn’t sure what this human’s father or brothers had to do with the situation at hand, if anything. By the same token, any fool could see that the earth would last forever, but what a doyen was or what it had to do with that was not something he could fathom.

Worse, it was the younger human who was speaking. Not only would a younger dragon never think of speaking before his elders, at least in matters such as these, until that moment Thrinnaeveous had assumed that the same was true for humans. Now, he was not so sure. And Dmitri had made no move to explain his strange trio of companions as of yet.

“I welcome you to this dragon’s mount,” Thrinnaeveous said, shifting his feet slightly to display his desire to get to the point. “And ask what brings you to it.”

“Simply this: It is not your mountain.” The doyen gestured to encompass the path they stood on and everything above it. “This territory belongs to the city of Lienz, in the nation of Ligare, who’s king and nobles have sworn loyalty to the Throne. You are trespassing here, and preventing the people from working the mines and enriching the kingdom.”

Thrinnaeveous shifted back a step, surprised. “No humans lived here when we arrived.”

“Of course not,” the young human replied. “They work here, but live at the foot of the mountain.”

“How can you claim land you do not live on?” Thrinnaeveous demanded.

“Whether you acknowledge our claim or not, the fact is we have made it.” He gestured back down the mountain. “I admit the Ligarans were not exactly diplomatic when they initially approached you. Perhaps if they had explained the situation before you became settled here there would have been less of a conflict.”

Thrinnaeveous dropped his hands to the ground and rested on all fours, prompting the doyen’s two armed companions to bring their weapons up, showing a surprising degree of synchronization. Rallaj slid forward and bared his teeth but Thrinnaeveous waved him back. “Dmitri Dostoevsky. My people have traveled long and hard. We have come to this mountain, who’s stone does not sing the song of our home, and now you wish us to continue on our way?” Behind them, the voices of the tribe rose in unison, their objection adding force to his words. “Where are we to find rest and a welcoming voice from the earth if not here?”

For a moment the doyen was silent, although whether he was considering what Thrinnaeveous had said or simply marveling at the chorus of dragons was not clear. “Kor’aj Thrinaeveous. I cannot say where you will find a home, or if it will be soon or far in the future. But this cannot be your home. I have a duty to the people of Lienz, to restore their livelihood to them before they are forced to leave their homes. You will not allow them to return to their mines?”

“You know as well as I that such work weakens the mountain and makes it unsafe.” The chorus shifted key and matched his derisive tone. “To allow you to undermine the mountain is to allow you to undermine our homes.”

“Then I’m sorry.” For the first time the doyen took notice of his companions, gesturing for them to lower their own weapons and line up to his left. Once they had done so, Dmitri turned his attention back to Thrinnaeveous and said, “This is Solomon ben-Gideon.”

Thrinnaeveous waited for a moment, expecting to hear the names of the rest. When the young human said nothing more he swept his neck to include all three. “Which?”

“Yes.” The three men answered as one. Thrinnaeveous jerked away as if confronted by a wolf, but the three ignored his reaction. “I am Solomon ben-Gideon. A soul of One. Thrice I have been born under different skies but now I walk the worlds as one.”

“I am impressed with what your people are capable of,” Dmitri said, once again encompassing the mountaintop with one hand, the sleeve that covered it flapping in the breeze. “But I assure you that the souls of One are capable of much more. Mons has prepared a demonstration for you, I believe.”

The doyen drew a small pendant from inside his coat and did something with it. A second later the sound of the earth and the air changed, as if a a storm had flown up the side of the mountain and was now about to break. Though Thrinnaeveous felt no wind, the cloth of their coats seemed to fill and drift as if the earth itself was exhaling beneath them. The three identical men, no, perhaps it was better to say the man who was in three places, swept an intricate pattern through the air before them, deftly avoiding one another and completing the movements in less than two full heartbeats.

The one with a spear touched it’s point to the ground and the side of the mountain shook. A great crack formed across the path, separating the humans and the dragons, and from the depths of it Thrinnaeveous could hear the sound of liquid earth roaring. As the tremors faded away the doyen called across the chasm. “Know that a threefold soul is not the greatest of the souls of One, nor are they the most dangerous weapons in our arsenal. In two weeks time, Terra Eternal will come and seal this gap. If we still find you beyond it, we will cast you from these mountains by force. Until then, Kor’aj Thrinnaeveous.”

The young human tucked away his pendant and the air fell still again. Then both he and his companion turned and walked back down the path they had come by.

Rallaj and Thrinnaeveous watched them go, then Rallaj went to the crevasse and peered into it. “This is beyond even our stone songs, Kor’aj.”

“Well said, Rallaj.” Thrinnaeveous went to stand by his seeg, joining him in his grim contemplation for a moment. Then he gently dripped his head down to be level with Rallaj’s and nudged him away from the gap. “Come. We have much to do, it seems.”

The guest from the tent of meeting was waiting for them at the top of the ridge. Like the other two, he was human, but he carried no weapons, but rather a heavy sack of trade goods. He had already packed it away, perhaps having sensed that there would be little market for what he brought now. “Quite a difficult choice your people face now, Thrinnaeveous.”

“And we must make it on our own,” he replied. “We will take no more of your time. Perhaps the people of Lienz will be more interested in your wares.”

The man set aside his heavy sack, carefully holding his long hair to one side so as to ensure it would not get tangled in the strap. Then he straightened up and fished around in the pockets of his coat until he produced a scroll. “You may be right, old dragon. But before I go, let me ask you one last thing. Have you ever heard of the Jovian League?”

——–

“You know, if they stick around they might cause more problems for whoever’s sent to evict them.” Mons looked up from the matrix he was carefully monitoring. “It’s not like the Throneworlds are likely to dispatch a group that includes a soul of One to deal with them.” He nodded his heads towards the pendant at the center of the spellwork. “To say nothing of a full blown Coretap.”

“Maybe not,” Dmitri said with a shrug. “But overestimating the opposition is just as crippling as underestimating them. In the mean time, our side will have a decent idea what to expect. I mean, a race that can create power words out of music? Can you imagine the panic that would cause if it caught you by surprise?”

“What really gets me is the way the back up was harmonizing with the lead dragon.” Mons’ heads shook in sequence, one of the weirdest gestures in his admittedly weird repertoire. “They either work on it from birth or do it intuitively. I’m not sure which possibility scares me more. They may not be able to match me for precision, but there’s far more raw power there than I’d ever like to see up close.”

Dmitri sighed and got up from the log where he’d been happily resting his feet just before their confrontation with the dragons and started pacing the path. He was fairly sure the tribe wouldn’t follow them down the mountain, but if this was going to take much longer they’d need to move further along. He wasn’t sure if the dragons were native to this face of Terra or not, but if they were there was no point revealing how they traveled from one point on the horizon to the next. “Are you still not ready, Mons?”

“Properly calibrating to the beacons can take time,” he said. “But I prefer to take that then to wildly jump to an unexplored Terra. Why, are you in a hurry?”

Dmitri shrugged. “It just wasn’t a very difficult problem. I’m ready to move on.”

“And let the other shoe drop in someone else’s lap?” Mons asked teasingly.

“If your worries become a problem, I deal with it then.” Dmitri shrugged. “In the mean time, there’s fifty two worlds that offer fealty to the Throne, and only five doyen to smooth out the problems that come with all that implies. There’s still plenty for us to do.”

“Always so serious,” Mons said. But it was gentle and good natured, not teasing or sarcastic. “Well, then I suppose we should move on.”

The spell he had been holding collapsed in on itself, and the horizon line bent until it seemed it would swallow them. Then, as soon as it had happened it all snapped back into place. And with that, they were gone.

Fiction Index

The Valley of the Shadow of Dagon

The Valley of Dagon’s Disapproval was not exactly what Veronica had been expecting. Of course, no one under the age of fifteen had ever been there, supposedly, although some of the older children talked about sneaking out there at night, but just enough failed to come back from such expeditions to make such trips, and the stories that went with them, very rare. What Veronica found there didn’t resemble any of those stories anyway. Even in her addled state, she could see enough to realize most of those stories were told by people who had never been to the place in person.

There weren’t rolling banks of fog oozing over the edge of the Valley, nor did jagged stone line the cliffs on the northern side like the teeth of a great beast. The ground did not rumble with the hunger of the god that dwelt within. It looked just like any other valley around the province, a strip of dry, low laying land full of scrub that clung to the sides of cliffs for dear life.

It looked totally innocuous. Even standing on the cliff’s edge and looking down at the stony floor of the Valley, Veronica could see no sign of its long history as the seat of Dagon. They did not give her long to look over the Valley before they threw her over the edge. When she figured that when she reached the bottom  what the Valley looked like wouldn’t matter so much anymore.

But the Valley wasn’t out of surprises for her yet. Almost as soon as the hands had left her back and her feet had left the cliff she felt the change. For just a moment the sky seemed to flex and bend, Veronica felt like she was being turned inside out. Then, as quickly as it came, it was gone. After that, she would have been hard pressed to say what exactly happened next. There was a brief glimpse of a vast expanse of bright blue, very different from the gray overcast skies a moment before, then something solid whacked her in the back of the legs and sent her tumbling.

Veronica went spinning through the air for a heart stopping second, then slammed roughly onto a a steep, grassy slope and rolled, scrabbling frantically for purchase. She had just enough time to realize that a river had somehow managed sneak into the bottom of the Valley where it hadn’t been two seconds ago before she rolled into it.

In three seconds the biggest problem in her life had gone from being unable to fly to being unable to swim.

The current of the river probably would have swept her away entirely if it hadn’t first slammed her into the pylon holding up the bridge. By this point, Veronica was well and truly sick of slamming into things but, since she had expected her life to end with a much more violent encounter with the ground five seconds ago, in many ways it was a step up. Of course, she didn’t have much time to be philosophical about it just then. What she did manage to do was grab hold of the rough wood and clung to it for dear life.

For just a moment she held perfectly still and tried to gather her wits. She was, unsurprisingly, at the bottom of a valley. But instead of the dry desert floor, scoured by the passing of many rains, the ground was covered in thick, green grass that ran down to the river. She was clinging to the side of a strange, patchwork bridge that looked like it had been sewn together by giants and dropped into the river from the sky. The idea made her giggle.

She was laughing so hard that she didn’t realize people were running across the bridge until one of them had shimmied down the column next to her and started yelling at her. “Oi, lass! Don’t just stare, grab me broom!”

At that moment the words didn’t mean much to her, but the intent behind his pushing a long pole with bristles at one end was clear. Veronica shifted her grip on the beam she was clinging to and grabbed clumsily for broom. The morning’s several falls, plus whatever was in that drink she’d been given before being taken to the Valley that morning, had left her quite dizzy and a little giddy. She did manage to grab hold eventually, and the man dragged her over and looped a rope around her waist. In a matter of moments she had been hoisted out of the water and into a crowd of half a dozen men of various ages, who all looked at her and muttered to one another incomprehensibly.

The man with the broom came climbing up the side of the bridge and threw himself over the railing with a final huff. For a moment he just stood there, brushing water out of his clothes and tsking. For some reason, instead of just splashing water around and leaving his clothes wrinkled, the action actually sent sheets of water running from them until, a few seconds later he was quite dry. The image was so funny Veronica found herself giggling again.

The men on the bridge, and Veronica noticed that they were all men and they were almost all armed with hammers, saws and other tools of the carpentry trade, clustered around her and started to babble at her incoherently. The man who had climbed down the bridge earlier waved them back, saying, “Break it up, boys. No call to all be hovering over her like a flock of vultures. Now,” he knelt down and gave her a quick lookover. “Who are you, lass?”

For the first time, Veronica noticed a few things. First, he didn’t have his broom thing anymore. Guiltily, she wondered if he had dropped it in the river trying to save her. She had no idea what such a thing might be used for, or if it was valuable. Second, if she listened closely, she could tell that this man was speaking the same language as everyone else, but for some reason he made sense when the other men didn’t. Third, everyone was dressed strangely but his clothes were strangest of all.

All the men were wearing loose fitting pants, a kind of clothing she’d thought only the wealthy wore – and she’d never met any wealthy carpenters. And their tunics were worn tucked into the pants, which struck her as a very hot way to dress. Her rescuer looked even more overloaded with clothes. His pants were cut off at knee length and some sort of close fitting cloth tubes were pulled over his feet and calves. He wore something that looked like sandals with closed toes and heels on his feet, just like everyone else, but he also wore what looked to be a leather cloak over it all except, instead of simple holes for his arms it had sleeves like a tunic. A weird kind of bag with a stiff brim slouched on his head. She would have though he would sweat to death except she was beginning to realize that it was actually much colder here than she had expected it to be. And she was beginning to suspect that wherever she was, she was a very long way from the Valley of Dagon’s Disapproval.

One of the carpenters said something to the now-broomless man, the only person on the bridge other than Veronica who wasn’t carrying something that looked vaguely carpenteresque. He took the strange bag off of his head and scratched his hair. “I don’t know. It looks like she’s been drugged.”

More strange talk, although Veronica knew enough to recognize a question when she heard one. Then the man said, “I can see she can’t be more than ten. Just because I can tell she’s been drugged doesn’t mean I know why, or what to do about it. Maybe-”

“Who are you?” Veronica asked, swaying dangerously as took a step closer to him. “Why is it so cold?”

He stared at Veronica for a minute, then slumped. He had great round cheeks that looked something like a pomegranate and even they seemed to wilt a bit. “Great. She’s not from around here, is she? Did anyone understand that?” No is recognizable in any language, and it was the first local word Veronica picked up. After hearing it a half a dozen times it would be hard not to. The man turned back to her. “Sorry, lass. I can’t understand you.”

She shook her head in dismay. “That’s not how talking works!” For a moment she planted her hands on her hips and braced her feet, just like she’d seen her mother do a dozen times and like she had often done with her younger brothers and sisters. She quickly regretted it because the wind stole the warmth from her like a greedy dog after meat. She quickly wrapped her arms around her middle and hunched against the cold, muttering, “If you can say the words you can understand the words.”

He sighed and said, “That’s not the way the gift works.”

This time, Veronica did her best to listen to what he was saying. The words weren’t familiar but somehow she was understanding them. That made picking out one to repeat fairly easy. “Gift?”

One of the other men said something and the leader, since that was what her rescuer looked to be, turned and irritably said, “Thank you, Franz. Why don’t you boys get back to work and let me handle this? She can’t understand what you’re saying anyway.” For all his chubby cheeks and slight build, the burly carpenters were apparently willing to take his orders because they went back to one end of the bridge with little protest and started to work. The leader sighed and reached into his coat, pulling out a folded blanket that looked like it had seen better days. Veronica had no idea where he had been keeping it. “Here,” he said, shaking it loose, “Wrap yourself up or the cold will be the death of you.”

Veronica eyed the blanket and backed away a step. So far she had been given over to Dagon, thrown off a cliff, nearly drowned in a river that hadn’t been there the day before and dragged out by strange men who couldn’t understand her. She wasn’t going to be brushed off by someone who thought getting dressed meant pulling a bag over your ears! Taking extra care to make sure it was pronounced right, she slowly said, “Gift?”

“That’s right. It’s one of me gifts, always being understood no matter where I go or who I talk to.” He held the blanket out for another moment, then sighed and folded it over one knee and looked her in the eye. “But I can’t understand other people the same way. When I was given the gifts, the Queen told me it was to make sure I was paying attention to the people I served. You see, I’m what you call a dustman. And that’s me name.”

“Dustman,” she said slowly, rolling the word over her tongue and trying it out.

“That’s right. I’ve got me broom.” He reached into a kind of pouch sewn into the side of his cloak and, even though the stitching that held the pouch in place barely looked big enough to hold his hand, he managed to pull the long bristled pole out of it in a single fluid motion. Veronica stared in disbelief, but the Dustman apparently didn’t notice. Or, it would occur to her later, he was used to it. “Of course, a broom ain’t much good without a dustbin, is it guv?” He stood and reached back to whack a round metal can with a fitted lid, setting it rattling. “Take it all together and what do you get? Your humble servant, the Dustman, here to cart off those things you no longer want.”

Veronica couldn’t quite suppress a grimace at the thought that his being there was particularly apt, in that case. Fortunately, he misinterpreted the gesture and quickly swept a few steps closer. “Why, it don’t even matter what it is you’re stuck with. Water?” He brushed a hand across one shoulder and, just like before, the water seemed to flee from his touch, running out of her clothes and onto the bridge in small streams. “Let old Dusty take care of it for you. Dirt on your clothes?”

He backed up a step and somehow produced a strange looking and admittedly filthy tunic from somewhere inside his cloak. The edges looked tasseled, except the threads of the tassel were woven into intricate designs. The Dustman fingered the strange tassels along the left sleeve. “Why, just look at this lace! A dozen washings and it will never come clean! Your dustman takes just such refuse away!”

He snapped the garment once and it released a cloud of dirt which, instead of settling on the ground, drifted over and seemed to melt into his leather cloak. The tunic now looked completely clean and, with a flourish, the Dustman slipped it up his sleeve with no regard for the fact that it really shouldn’t fit there. “It doesn’t matter the kind of mess you have on your hands. To be a dustman is to serve. And to serve, we’re given the gifts. Oh, there’s more than just a few of them.” He shrugged. “But they all help us do our job.” A flicker of something sad flashed across his face. “They help me, I suppose. And they keep me honest. So you can understand me, but I have to work to understand you, see?”

He thumped one hand on the railing of the bridge. “I can carry any kind of junk as far as I need to, however I like, and it will never make me tired, no matter how big it is.” The lid of his metal can lifted slightly and Veronica caught a glimpse of three heads, a goat, a lion and a lizard, all poking out from under it, before the Dustman quickly stretched his other hand out and hammered the lid back down. “Or how contrary it feels about it. But,” he picked the blanket up from the ground where he’d set it, “I cannot take anything a person actually needs.”

Then he held the blanket out to her again. “And I can’t keep it if I find someone else who does.”

Veronica took the blanket hesitantly and wrapped it around her shoulders. It wasn’t much but, now that she was dry, it was an improvement. She looked up at him and thought about what he had just said, and what his gift had told her it meant. She wasn’t sure she trusted it. The only other people who she’d seen capable of things like what he did were the priests of Dagon. At least, she had heard them speaking in other tongues, she didn’t know if they could stick long poles into their belt pouches. It didn’t seem like something priests would need much.

And the priests of Dagon were not people she loved overmuch. On the other hand, if these people didn’t speak her language, what were the chances they knew who Dagon was, or would care that she was under his censure? And what’s more, the priests never gave anything away. That, more than anything else, made up her mind. Once again she did her best to repeat the word correctly. “Honest.”

The Dustman grinned and patted her on the shoulder. “Glad to hear it. Now, maybe we should get you into town and some food in your stomach. You don’t look like you’ve eaten properly in a long time.”

Veronica just shrugged. Six mouths to feed was a lot, no one in her family had eaten well in some time. She was a bit suspicious of this Dustman still, but she figured she could work for her food as well as anyone else, and what more could they really want from her? At the very least, it had to be better than being sent to-

A commotion at the end of the bridge distracted her. A new man had arrived. Like the Dustman, he wore a long, brown cloak with sleeves, but it looked more ornate. At least, it had a belt and a few other strange attachments to it that the Dustman’s did not. But any ideas Veronica had about their being related vanished as soon as the man started across the bridge. He was saying something in a loud voice that carried without crossing the line into shouting, but he clearly didn’t have the Dustman’s gifts because Veronica had no idea what he was saying.

At least, not until he got closer and the last sentence in his speech included one word Veronica had hoped to never hear again.

“Dagon.”

Fiction Index