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Fiction

The Archon

Previously on The Kaslo Chronicles: Magic now rules the universe instead of science. Some power has reached out from the Seventh Plane to attack the wizard Diomedo Obron’s demesne amid the ruins of the technological civilization on Novo Bantry. Obron and Erm Kaslo, the hardboiled confidential operative turned wizard’s henchman, must travel (by dragon!) far up The Spray to an obscure world named Old Earth to investigate an ancient evil. To read the other stories in the series, visit lightspeedmagazine.com/kaslo.


“What do we call this thing?” Erm Kaslo said, gesturing to the smooth opaque walls. “It’s not a spaceship.”

Diomedo Obron tapped the green leather-bound tome he was studying. “Testroni’s Impervious Conveyance, it says here.”

They were inside an object that had looked to Kaslo like nothing so much as an oversized version of the silver dome that a butler would whisk away from an aristocrat’s meal. It even had a large ring on top — a ring that was now grasped by the talons of an honest-to-goodness dragon, named Saunterance, that was flying them through interstellar space.

“It’s not like a ship,” Kaslo said. “There’s not even the whisper of a deep-space drive.”

“No,” said the wizard, his attention drawn back to the book, “the dragon provides the motive power.”

“But how does that work? Does Saunterance flap his wings? If so, what do they push against?”

Obron looked up again, wearing the expression of an uncle saddled with an over-inquisitive nephew. “If I tried to explain it to you, I would first have to explain the integuments that connect the universe under the regime of sympathetic association. I have tried that a number of times before, without success.”

“I cannot grasp the concepts,” Kaslo agreed. “They do not make sense.”

“Of course they don’t. ‘Making sense’ was an attribute of the regime of rationalism. Now it is more a matter of . . . ,” the wizard sought for the right words, then continued, “of creating harmonies, some of them plain, some of them intricately subtle.”

“But none of them apparent to me.”

“Because you are tone-deaf.”

Kaslo sighed. Before the universe changed its mind about how it ought to function, he had spent a lifetime acquiring skills and abilities in several difficult disciplines. He had made himself one of the top-ranked confidential operatives on Novo Bantry, one of the grand old Foundational Domains settled thousands of years ago when humanity was building the interstellar civilization that became the Ten Thousand Worlds. As an op, Kaslo had solved mysteries that had baffled the best minds of the Provost Department; he had undone the intricate schemes of master criminals; he had faced down murderously capable opponents and always come out the victor.

Now he was henchman to a wizard who was still learning his craft. But he was thinking: Obron will improve — has improved greatly in the time they had known each other — while Kaslo felt himself to be no better than he’d been the day the crystal towers of Indoberia fell into shards of ruin.

He finally asked the wizard the question that had so often arisen in his mind. “Why do you keep me on? Wouldn’t you be better served by someone who understood what we are doing?”

Obron raised his gaze from the book again. “Is that what’s troubling you?” He pinched the bridge of his long nose and rubbed the back of a thumb across his brow. “Eventually,” he said, “I will take on an apprentice — perhaps two, so that each can keep a jealous eye on the other. From then on, I will have to watch myself carefully.

“Apprentices outgrow their masters,” he explained. “The better ones go off to make their own marks; the not-so-good outstay their welcomes while they try to steal their mentors’ apparatuses and libraries.”

“There’s no fear of my doing that,” Kaslo said.

“Exactly. You are the only person I can trust absolutely. In this new age of contending wills, that makes you a rare find.” Obron went back to the book, but after a moment raised his head once more and said, “There are also some things that magic cannot do. At those moments, the skills of an experienced, practical man may save the day.”

Kaslo went to his cabin and, for the first time in weeks, practiced the combat techniques of hand, foot, elbow, and knee that he had painstakingly mastered in his youth. The familiar motions calmed his mind and gave him ease.

• • • •

They were some days aboard the Conveyance. Kaslo practiced his skills, including the deft handling of knives, ropes, and sticks. Obron remained immersed in the thick green book, occasionally making notes, sometimes looking up with an almost startled expression, followed by a smile of satisfaction.

On one of those occasions, Kaslo said, “You’ve discovered something important.”

“‘Discovered’ is not the apt word,” said the thaumaturge. “It is not like studying a text in the old-world sense, deriving information and fitting it into facts and concepts already understood. This is more like achieving a new level in an evolving relationship of increasing complexity. But, yes, the book and I are becoming more intimately involved.”

Kaslo would have left it there. He had only the haziest idea of how a wizard formed a relationship with a book. But Obron was pursing his lips like a man who suddenly apprehends a connection between two heretofore separate points. He said, “Tell me again about the entity the clickers were tending.”

“I’ve told you all I saw.”

The wizard’s gaze was intense. “Tell me what you felt.”

Kaslo did not have to make an effort to recall the emotion that had washed over him when he touched the flesh of the vast entity; it now flooded through him again as he recalled the moment. “A great sadness,” he said.

“What flavor of sadness?” Obron said. “The sadness of failure at some cherished goal? Or of remorse for an evil act, either committed by the regretful one, or allowed to be committed by another? Or of separation from a loved one, never to be known again?”

Kaslo sat in the salon and let his mind go inward. He felt a dry lump forming in his throat and tears welling in his eyes. “It feels,” he began, then paused to let the emotion fill him, “it feels as if I have loved and lost, and with the passion of a fool. More, I allowed my love to weaken me, so that another could use me for ends I would never have countenanced.”

Obron nodded, as if something had been confirmed. “And is this an old regret?”

“Very old,” said Kaslo, feeling a tear trickle down his cheek, “and yet fresh as today.”

Obron made a soft grunt, then went back to the book, his finger tracing a line of text.

“What does it mean?” Kaslo said.

“I don’t know,” the wizard said, without looking up. “I only know that it means something. More, it may mean everything.”

Kaslo could get nothing further out of him.

• • • •

Another day passed, then a small chime sounded from the roof of the Conveyance. Obron looked up from his studies and made a hand motion. A segment of the wall became transparent, showing a blue-green ball set against speckled blackness. “We are arriving,” he said.

“But we haven’t passed through a whimsy,” said the op.

“Certainly, we have.”

“Without medications? Why are we not mad?”

“The Conveyance is not called Impervious for nothing,” said the wizard. He approached the transparency, studying the rapidly expanding view of Old Earth. After a moment, he said, “Saunterance, see the desert in the northeast. That is our destination.”

The dragon’s voice spoke from the air, just as in the days of ships’ integrators. “I see it.”

The vessel angled down so as to make a shallow entrance to the planet’s atmosphere. Kaslo was hard put not to think of the Conveyance as a spaceship; the experience of travel was almost indistinguishable from passage on a space yacht. They were soon high above a gray ocean, gradually descending from west to east, with a large continent looming on the forward horizon. The desert for which they were bound was now out of sight, being some distance inland.

Having nothing better to do, Kaslo remained at the transparency while Obron went back to his literary immersion. As they neared the coastline, the op saw a coastal range of ancient peaks from which a long, mountain-spined peninsula thrust far out into the sea. At its tip sprawled a city overhung by an array of black crags. Scaling the heights was an array of spires, domes, terraces, and stairs: a vast and ancient palace complex.

“That city,” he told the wizard, “does not look to have suffered as deeply as Indoberia did. I see towers still standing, and the roads are open. I can even see movement. There are people down there!”

“Mmm,” said Obron, turning a page.

Now the city passed out of sight as they overflew the end of the peninsula, heading inland. Then the floor tilted and the metropolis came back into view as the Conveyance swung in a descending arc. At the same moment, the dragon Saunterance spoke, in the same quiet, neutral voice of a ship’s integrator: “I have encountered a problem.”

Obron looked up sharply. “Define it.”

“I am being drawn down to that large structure atop the mountains.”

“Resist,” said the wizard.

“I cannot.”

Kaslo crossed the sloping floor to his cabin, entered and emerged soon after buckling on the harness he had devised for his weapons. He found Obron at the viewport, his face grave, fingers cradling his long chin.

“What is happening?” the op said.

“The unexpected.” The wizard turned and went to his workbench, where he took up a wand, fitted an ornate ring on one thumb, and slipped a small, black book into a pocket of his robe. After a moment, he retrieved the book, opened it, read a portion of a page, then put it back in the pocket.

He looked at Kaslo. “Do nothing without my direction.”

The vessel came smoothly down toward the agglomeration of buildings spread across terraces that climbed from the middle to the upper heights. Some were clearly ancient, their surfaces weathered over millennia; some were ruins.

Their descent slowed, then slowed some more.

“At least we’re not being shot down,” Kaslo said.

A new voice, freighted with an air of authority, spoke from nowhere. “When you have landed, you will disembark.”

“Who speaks?” Obron said.

“One who speaks for the Archon,” said the voice.

The title caused the wizard to knit his brows as if searching for a misplaced detail. He quickly sought through his shelves of books, found one, opened it and ran a finger down a page. Then he flipped to another page and read for a few moments. His brows rose and he assumed the expression of a man who has encountered a fact that may or may not be to his benefit.

The Conveyance landed. Obron gestured and a segment of the wall slid aside. It was a short step down to the black flagstones that paved their landing place. He went out and Kaslo followed. The op found himself on a wide terrace that overlooked the city spread out between the mountains and the encircling sea. It was late afternoon and the light from the orange sun was mellow, illuminating a vast grid of streets that, if not bustling, were not blocked by fallen masonry.

The wizard looked up at the dragon. “Saunterance, are you well?”

“I am confined,” said the dragon, which squatted beside their vehicle, “but not uncomfortably so.”

On the inner edge of the terrace, a windowless stone wall rose up several times Kaslo’s height. As he surveyed its unbroken expanse to left and right, a crack appeared in front of him, widening to reveal a door set invisibly into the seamless surface. The voice that had spoken before said, “Enter.”

Kaslo looked to Obron. The wizard produced the black wand Kaslo had acquired from Asrat Gozon weeks before. He pointed it at the doorway and said two words. Nothing happened that the op could see, but the voice said, “You need fear no harm if you intend none. Enter.”

Obron’s narrow shoulders made a tiny shrug, then he squared them and stepped through the doorway. Kaslo followed, but kept his hand on the spring-gun suspended from his harness. Beyond the portal was a corridor, its length lit by lumens bracketed to the wall at intervals of several paces. The illuminatives were such an ordinary sight that the op had passed the third light before he was struck by the incongruity: lumens belonged to the age of rationality; the energies that powered them ought to have ceased being generated in the universe of sympathetic association.

He stopped and examined one. It was, indeed, a perfectly ordinary lumen, the kind that had lit a hundred billion rooms in the Ten Thousand Worlds since time immemorial. “How can this be?” he said.

Obron turned and beckoned him, saying, “If we walk to the end of this corridor, I believe we shall find out.”

They walked on until the end of the passageway was in clear view: another blank wall that, as they neared it, revealed another door that swung open.

“Enter,” said the voice, “and wait.”

They came into a spacious office centered on a wide antique desk, walled with bookshelves and cabinets, and decorated with images, sculptures, and curios of several different aeons. Some of them were the most ancient objects Kaslo had ever seen.

He pulled his gaze from a great globe built up of innumerable layers of intricate gold filigree and said, “Does the connectivity survive here? Am I speaking to an integrator?”

The voice said, “The answer to your question is: yes or no, depending on when you ask it.”

“I am asking it now,” said the op.

The answer came from another voice. “You are asking my assistant, whom I have named Old Confustible. Not long ago, it was an integrator, and I expect it will be again, some great time from now when you and I are mere dust.”

Kaslo turned and saw that a narrow door had opened in the rear wall of the chamber, to admit a man of early middle age dressed in a nondescript singlesuit of deep green with black accents. He wore nothing to indicate rank, except for the heavy ring on an index finger: white metal in which was set a green stone incised with black runes. He came into the room, the door closing itself behind him, and took the seat behind the desk.

“As to what Old Confustible is now,” he continued, “I find it better not to inquire too closely. In the dawn of a new age, one must accept help with the emphasis on gratitude while kicking curiosity to the curb.”

The man now studied the two visitors for a moment. He seemed to notice Kaslo’s spring-gun for the first time. “You are welcome to keep your weapon, but I must warn you not to make any untoward motions with it. My person is defended and the systems are automatic.”

The op looked around the chamber. He saw nothing to alarm him. But, back in his old office and lodgings, no one would have seen the devices that he had installed to protect him. This place had lumens and something that acted like an integrator; he would make sure that the weapon hung untouched on his harness.

The man had now turned his attention to Obron. “You would be a thaumaturge,” he said. “Green school, since you arrived in a version of Testroni’s Impervious Conveyance. May I ask how you managed to contrive one? And where you acquired the dragon?”

Obron had been returning the man’s searching gaze with a close examination of his own, with particular attention to the intaglioed ring. “You will pardon me if, for the moment, I do not care to divulge that information,” he said.

“Ah,” said the man behind the desk. “Of course. Until we establish the nature of our relationship.”

“Which I hope will be one of amity,” said Obron.

“As do I.” The man laced his fingers together on the desktop and leaned forward, the ring reflecting the room’s lights onto the polished surface. “Let us begin by identifying ourselves.”

He said nothing more, making it plain that the first admission must be theirs. Obron did not hesitate, but named himself and Kaslo, and said that they had come from the Foundational Domain of Novo Bantry.

“Novo Bantry?” said the man, in a tone that said the world was familiar to him. He then said, “Old Confustible?”

A schematic of The Spray appeared in the air, the stars that hosted populated worlds delineated in various colors. Around the elderly specimen that lit this world a blue circle appeared, followed by a white circle to identify the star around which Novo Bantry orbited.

“Well down The Spray,” the man said. “I don’t expect we’ll see too many more visitors from your world.”

“You probably won’t see any,” said Obron. “There was a certain amount of attrition within the wizardly community just before and after the change. And then it turned out there was another complicating factor that by now may have eliminated the few remainders.”

“Would that be,” said the man behind the desk, “an interplanar factor?”

“It would,” said Obron, “and I would like to know your views on that issue before I say anything more.”

“My views,” said the man. “Would you not first like to know whose views those are?”

“I know that already,” said Obron. “You are Filidor, first of that name to hold the office of Archon of Old Earth.”

“I’m somewhat surprised,” the other man said. “Not too many folk as far down The Spray as Novo Bantry have heard of our mostly forgotten little world, let alone our governance.

“Technically, though,” he continued, “I am Archon of those parts of Old Earth still inhabited by human beings. And, since the change, the population has declined considerably.”

Kaslo spoke up now. “But you have not suffered the devastation that struck Novo Bantry.”

“No,” said Filidor. “Still, a distressingly large portion of the populace decided that they did not care to live without the devices that cushioned their lives. Nor to inhabit a world in which they might run afoul of some spellcaster’s caprice.” He gestured to the walls. “Out there lies the grand old city of Olkney, many of its rooms harboring the corpses of those who chose not to make the necessary adjustments.”

He sighed and for a moment his gaze went inward, then he returned to the matter at hand. “Back to that interplanar factor,” he said. “I assumed that because, after you identified your world, Old Confustible whispered in my ear to remind me that Novo Bantry and Old Earth share a curious characteristic: They are two of the three worlds in The Spray where the Third and Seventh Planes are adjacent to each other. All the others — and there are thousands of them — are out in space.”

Obron’s brows had risen. “There is a third planet where whimsies can appear?”

The Archon waved away the question. “A little ball of rock named Nestranko down near New Gargano. Completely disregarded, although if you’re interested in such matters, it appears to have been the place where the demiurge and his helpers designed and perfected the prototypes.”

He told the entity that functioned as an integrator to display Nestranko on the schematic. Another glowing circle appeared, this one in green, much farther down The Spray, almost to the Back of Beyond.

Kaslo was struggling to encompass new concepts. In the world he had known, it was customary to talk about the demiurge as the initiating cause of all phenomenality. But the nature of this “unmoved prime mover” was taken as a pious fiction, a mythological construct to explain the unexplainable.

Now his employer and this alleged ruler of humanity’s supposed original homeworld were discussing the first cause as if it were an apparaticist with a corps of attendants that had worked on some negligible little speck of a world to build the whimsies that made interstellar travel possible.

While the op had been thinking, the two practitioners of the arcane arts — for surely this Filidor had the air of a spellslinger — had fallen into a discussion. Again the op was hearing terms he could not define, although he could tell the dialogue was evolving into an argument, Obron using words like “must” and “necessity” while Filidor threw back “cannot” and “out of the question.”

Kaslo interrupted. “Wait,” he said. “The demiurge? It’s hard enough dealing with sympathetic association. Must I now move through a universe of myth?”

Filidor broke off the dispute to take another look at Kaslo. Then he turned his gaze back to the wizard and said, “So, not one of the fraternity?”

“No talent,” said Obron. “But he has very good instincts when it comes to practical issues.”

Filidor addressed Kaslo in a tone that was meant to be reassuring. “Do not worry yourself about matters that need not concern you. Neither you nor your master will be delving further into that particular ‘myth.’” His tone when he turned back to Obron was final. “Not on my world.”

“I do not act out of not idle curiosity,” the wizard said. “There is a terrible threat, to your world and mine.”

“The threat,” the Archon said, “has been dealt with. Or, rather, I should say threats, because there were two. The first was the device that became stuck in the membrane between this plane and the Seventh. My predecessor and I deactivated the thing several years ago, before I assumed the office of Archon.

“The second threat was vitiated by an agent of mine shortly before the change. Majestrum,” — Filidor rubbed his palms together in a gesture of termination — “is no more.”

Obron blinked and looked about as if expecting sudden danger. “You have no qualms in naming that name?”

“You could shout it from the rooftops. It has become a term without a referent, all its powers evaporated.” The Archon leaned back in his chair. “That is why your journey has been a fool’s errand. Your enemy no longer exists.”

“Wrong,” said Kaslo.

Now it was the Archon’s turn to blink. “I am not used to being contradicted,” he said.

“Then prepare for a new experience,” the op said. “I know nothing about this Majestrum and next to nothing about the capacitor that was supposed to draw evil from the Seventh Plane and channel it for his purposes. But I do know that some power is alive and active in that realm, and it’s doing its best to do its worst on our world. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has plans for yours.”

He saw irritation rise in the Old Earther’s face, but then he saw that reaction overtaken by a mind that had learned not to act without first obtaining a full understanding of the situation. Filidor studied the ring on his finger for a moment, then said, “You had better tell me what you know.”

For the next several minutes, Kaslo told the Old Earther all that had happened since he and Obron had taken up together: the thugs sent to steal Obron’s speculon, the deadly struggle for power of Novo Bantry’s wizards before the change, the op’s visit to the underworld where Phalloon’s shade still feared whatever lurked in the Seventh Plane, the attack of the fire elemental and the preyns.

“Preyns?” Filidor interrupted, and now he was sitting forward in his chair, his eyes bright. “Coming out of the other realm?”

“And stealing people to take back with them,” Kaslo said. He told the Archon what had happened to the refugees in the village, and of the entity whose touch had filled the op with sorrow and despair.

The Old Earther’s expression grew grave. When Kaslo had finished he looked to Obron. “You have researched the question?”

“As best I can,” said the wizard.

“And drawn conclusions?”

“There is only one to be drawn.”

The Archon took a long inward breath and let it out just as slowly. “So Majestrum was not alone in his exile.”

“Clearly not.”

“I will need to look into this.”

Obron signaled assent, but added, “There may not be much time.”

Filidor wore the look of a man who has to face yet another evil just when he thought he had already done his full share of evil-facing. “Old Confustible,” he said, “revive your dormant components that were active in the Nineteenth Aeon. We have a problem.”

“I am doing so,” said the voice from the air, “but I must advise that the problem is already being compounded.”

“How so?” said Filidor.

For answer, a screen appeared in the air. On it formed an image that Kaslo recognized as the terrace outside, where Saunterance waited. The dragon had curled itself around the Conveyance and appeared to be sleeping. But now the viewpoint pulled back to show not only the dragon but the sky above and to the east of the Archonate palace. A bank of cumulus clouds had ramped up on the horizon and shone pink as they caught the last rays of the setting sun.

But from within the rosy background a dark spot now emerged and rushed toward the image’s viewpoint, enlarging as it came. It had the form of a thick, boiling clot of dense black vapor. Old Confustible’s percepts centered on the onrushing cloud and enlarged the view. Kaslo saw shapes appearing and disappearing in the roiling motion of the black stuff: arms with clawed, seven-fingered hands; a head crowned by spiked horns and with an array of lidless eyes across its forehead; a mouth with two rows of triangular teeth, top and bottom, from which protruded a long, split tongue.

“What is that thing?” the op asked.

The voice from the air answered him in the same tone as it might have used to tell him the time of day. “An inhabitant of the Seventh Plane. It would call itself an athlenath; we would call it a demon.”

“It does not look friendly,” Kaslo said.

This time Filidor answered. “It will not have come willingly into our plane. It has difficulty holding its form here and must strain to keep itself together. That process causes it to experience its equivalent of pain. It will be very angry and eager to end its discomfort.”

The Archon looked at Obron, who was staring at the screen in mixed fascination and horror as the pulsing cloud filled the frame. “You were right,” he said. “There is something in the Seventh Plane that must be dealt with.”

The viewpoint pulled back to show the athlenath entering the airspace over the palace. In moments, its speed and course would bring it to the terrace where Saunterance lay dozing. But now the dragon’s eyes opened and its head lifted and turned toward the onrushing cloud. Saunterance pushed itself up and onto its hind legs, but could do no more; though it opened its wings, it strained against an invisible restraint.

Filidor said, “Old Confustible, release the dragon.”

On the screen they saw Saunterance shake itself. Then it sprang into the sky, its great wings digging deep into the air as it drove itself in a rising spiral to gain height.

“Can it defeat the athlenath?” Obron asked Filidor.

“Probably not,” was the reply.

“Can you do something to help?”

“Probably yes.”

“Then please do,” said the wizard. “I am fond of my dragon.”

The Archon spoke to his assistant. “Old Confustible, are we prepared?”

“Quite,” said the voice from the air.

But Filidor did not give an order.

Kaslo said, “What are you waiting for?”

Obron knew the answer. “He is waiting until we know for sure what is the demon’s target,” he said.

Filidor nodded, his eyes on the screen.

The athlenath was bearing down on the place where the Conveyance rested. The creature was even larger than Kaslo had thought and it seemed to be gaining greater control over its form: it now showed four long arms and two bandy legs, a thick torso, a short, heavy neck. The spikes on its head also continued down its back in two parallel rows.

It slid down an incline toward the terrace, head-first and all four arms extended. But as it neared the Conveyance, it pulled up sharply to hang vertical in the air, its head turning from side to side as if seeking something. Then it spotted Saunterance, circling high above. The demon’s mouth opened and the split tongue vibrated. Even deep within a palace hewn from a mountain, Kaslo could hear its roar.

The screen showed the athlenath shooting up into the sky, clawed hands spread to grapple with the dragon. Saunterance gave over its circling, folded its wings, and plummeted toward the attacker, leading with the talons of its hind feet.

“That settles that,” said Filidor. “You may open fire.”

From several places on the upper reaches of the Archonate palace, beams of coruscating energy, of an eye-straining ultraviolet shot through with gold and silver sparks, reached up to converge on and surround the rising demon. The creature was momentarily limned black against a surrounding aura. It swatted at the beams like a man beset by a cloud of midges. Then it pulsed twice and lost cohesion. Head, limbs, torso, hands, feet, all became puffs of black smoke that dissipated in the wind of its own passage.

The energy beams ceased, the purple aura disappeared, and Saunterance plunged hindfeet-first through the emptiness that moments before had been filled with raging demon. The dragon opened its wings, braked against the air, and descended to land lightly beside the Conveyance. It craned its neck to examine the sky in all directions, then lay down, curled itself once more around the shining dome, yawned, and closed its eyes.

The screen in the Archon’s chamber winked out. Filidor sat in his chair, his chin in one hand while the other tapped its beringed index finger against the desk top. Kaslo saw him come to some conclusion, then look up at Obron.

“Well,” the Archon said, “you and I need to make some plans.”

“Yes,” said the wizard.

Kaslo had a question. “Those energy beams, they looked like ison cannons.”

Filidor said, “But, of course, ison cannons are impossible in an age of sympathetic association.”

“Then how — ”

“This is Old Earth. Events that may have transpired once or twice on the Foundational Domains have happened here many times. We have developed . . .” — his hand stirred the air as he sought for the right word — “let’s say, workarounds.”

Kaslo wanted to know more but the man’s attitude said the information would not be forthcoming. The op turned his practical mind toward the realities of the situation. As Filidor and Obron put their heads together, he said, “The attack at least tells us something useful.”

The wizard and the Archon turned toward him as if he were a bumptious youngster interrupting an adult conversation. Kaslo fought down a flash of irritation and maintained a professional demeanor. “It tells us, first, that he has to send an agent rather than come himself. As he did with the men who attacked Obron, the fire elemental, and the preyns.”

“True,” said Filidor. “Which means?”

“Which means that he cannot, or dare not, leave the Seventh Plane.”

“Very good,” said the Archon. “What else?”

“This time, he attacked our transportation,” Kaslo said, “which tells us he does not want us to come to him.”

“At least not in the Impervious Conveyance,” Filidor said. “On the other hand — ”

Now it was Kaslo’s turn to interrupt. “On the other hand, that may be exactly what he wants us to think. Because his real goal may be to draw us to him, so that we arrive, overconfident, in a place where he has the strength to deal with us, once and for all.”

The Archon looked to Obron. “You were right. His instincts are indeed good.” To Kaslo he said, “So what would you recommend?”

“There is only one thing to do,” the op said. “We go to find him, but without expecting an easy time of it. It may be a trap.”

Obron said, “You always say no one wins a war by defending. It looks as if our enemy intends to do just that.”

Kaslo shrugged. “There may be different rules for different planes.”

“So there are,” said Filidor. He spoke to his assistant. “I want the complete history of the destruction of Ambit by Majestrum’s cabal of thaumaturges.”

The screen appeared again, and instantly filled with text and images. Filidor glanced at it then said, “But we now know it is not complete, don’t we? Majestrum was not the only survivor of the disaster.”

Old Confustible said, “The records are reliable. The names and fates of all his associates are accounted for.”

“No,” said Obron. “Something has been left out, some detail. And behind that detail hides a monster.”

Filidor agreed. “It would be good to know just what kind of monster that is — ”

“Before,” said Kaslo, “we have to face it.”

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes writes science-fantasy. His SF novels are: Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, Majestrum, The Commons, The Spiral Labyrinth, TemplateHespira, The Damned Busters, The Other, Costume Not Included, and Hell to Pay. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Postscripts, Storyteller, Interzone and a number of “Year’s Best” anthologies. Night Shade Books published his short story collection, The Gist Hunter and Other Stories. Formerly a journalist, he spent more than twenty-five years as a freelance speechwriter for Canadian corporate executives and political leaders. His works have been short-listed for the Aurora, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. His website is at matthewhughes.org.