Back in Obron’s workroom, Kaslo told the wizard his theory that the reason their enemy had sent a fire elemental against them was because he wanted the fiery spirit to seize the noubles the op had originally acquired from the murderous thaumaturge, Asrat Gozon. “Fire cannot harm them,” he finished.
“It could be,” Obron said, sifting through the multicolored orbs on his workbench. He picked up one, held it close to one eye, squinting. “Then we’d have to pose the question: ‘Why the noubles?’”
“Magic,” said Kaslo, sitting atop a stool, his hands cradling a steaming mug of restorative punge. He and Bodwon had arrived back at the castle just as dawn was lighting the far horizon. The other man had gone straight to bed but Kaslo had come to his employer’s work room, where he’d found the wizard asleep at his bench, one cheek lying on another of his collection of ancient tomes.
Obron put down the nouble. “But why send an elemental to recover three noubles when the sender is in the seventh plane, where noubles are as plentiful as pebbles are here?”
Kaslo didn’t know. Neither did the wizard. But now Obron brightened and said, “But I have found out something about the other sending.”
“The clickers?” Kaslo said.
“They’re called preyns,” Obron said. He consulted a piece of paper on which he’d made notes. “They originated on an obscure world far up The Spray, and were bred up from some kind of shelled aquatic creature by a thaumaturge of considerable talent, a number of aeons ago.”
“What was his name?”
“I don’t know and I don’t intend to find out,” the wizard said. “It’s probably not wise to allow such a name to enter one’s mind.”
“Even after the passage of aeons?” Kaslo said.
“Under the regime of sympathetic association,” Obron said, “time is not the barrier it used to be.” He consulted the paper again. “Their creator used them to overawe and terrify the inhabitants of the territory where he and his confederates ruled.”
Kaslo repressed a shudder and disguised the action sipping from the mug of punge. “I could see that working,” he said.
“Here’s the interesting part,” Obron went on. “The thaumaturge was one of a group of like-minded practitioners who held sway in the region. They had come to the place because it contained a spot where the third and seventh planes were adjacent and the veil between them more easily pierced.
“Their plan was to build a device that would tap into the seventh plane and draw a certain kind of energy out of it. Their invention would also store the energy, so that they could draw upon it as they saw fit. They intended to perform some remarkable feats.”
“Would the words ‘overweening pride’ and ‘unchecked ambition’ fit these ‘practitioners’?” Kaslo asked.
“It would,” Obron said. “And theirs was the hubrists’ usual reward. The device malfunctioned. The resulting discharge turned a city and its surrounds into a desert and destroyed the world’s moon, which unfortunately was well inhabited.”
“But the preyns survived,” Kaslo said.
“They spent most of their time underground, in deep burrows. They were also used to fetch and carry between the planes, and some of them were in the seventh realm when the disaster occurred.”
Kaslo finished the punge. He needed sleep, though the drink had sharpened his wits. “So,” he said, “the preyns connect us to this wizard who must not be named, who did his business in the seventh plane. Was he the one who so frightened Phalloon?”
Obron waved away the supposition. “No. I have it on good authority that he survived the energy discharge. But when he sought to regain power he was destroyed.”
“And yet we dare not mention his name?”
“There are names,” Obron said, “and then there are names.”
“I must sleep,” Kaslo said. He set the mug on the workbench and headed for the door. Before he reached it, he turned and said, “That energy, is it something we could use? To protect ourselves?”
The wizard made a curious sound that Kaslo was slow to recognize as laughter. “No,” he said, once the fit had subsided, “not for a practitioner of the green school. Or the blue, for that matter.” He shook his head and made a tsking noise with his tongue and palate.
Kaslo frowned. There had been a time when one of his frowns could cause strong and capable men to take a step back. But Obron just blinked at him. “Did I say something amusing?” the op asked.
The wizard’s hands made dismissive flutters. “Just something unlikely,” he said. “The energy . . . well, it tends to accumulate in those who work with it, to deleterious effect.”
“Like radiation?” Kaslo said.
“I suppose. I thought I made that clear when we talked about it earlier.”
Kaslo’s head was fatigue-fuzzy. “When did we talk about it? I don’t remember.”
“Before you went to enter the whimsy.”
The op cast his mind back. And the answer came. “The energy,” he said, “it’s the stuff that’s like weather in the seventh plane, but in our plane it’s . . .” He made a circular motion with one hand.
“Exactly,” said the wizard. “It’s what we call evil.”
• • • •
The days passed and nothing happened. Kaslo went on two reconnaissance expeditions to the site of the whimsy, but saw nothing to concern him. Obron, when consulted, doubted that it would reappear, at least not in the near future.
When the op asked for his reasons, the thaumaturge launched into an explanation that was dense with words like “fluxions” and “atypical congruencies.” Requests for explanations of these terms only led Kaslo deeper into thickets of non-understanding.
“In simpler terms, please,” he said.
“In simplest terms,” said the wizard, “he will not come against us soon because he cannot.”
“His will is diminished?” Kaslo said.
“Not at all. But his capacity to focus that will and direct events across the interplanar barrier is. For that he must gather strength.”
“Was that why he stole our people?”
“Indirectly.” Obron then expanded on the one word, but lapsed into the jargon of his craft: “volitionary incidence” and “cohered aptitudes.”
Kaslo swore and went to look out the slit window. Obron spoke to his back, in a tone of sympathy. “You are frustrated.”
The op regarded the horizon where the towers had once stood. “I am.”
“I can understand. The change has reduced your effectiveness. It was a quality you prized.”
“It was a quality I had earned,” said Kaslo, turning. “By sacrifice and difficult means.”
Obron made a mollifying gesture. “And it was taken from you by an indifferent universe that acted on a seeming caprice.”
“Whereas, equally capriciously, the universe has taken a noddy like me—or as I used to be—and raised me up.”
“That is not your fault,” Kaslo said.
“Even so,” said the thaumaturge, “it must rankle.”
The op blew a small explosion of air over his lower lip. “Too mild a word. Try ‘infuriates.’”
He told Obron he wanted action. He wanted revenge. Most of all, he wanted to know what to do. The wizard’s hand moved to indicate the books spread on his workbench, and a pile of papers held down by the ball of iron that he believed had come out of a dragon.
Kaslo looked where his employer pointed. He saw numbers, diagrams, words, and symbols, connected by lines and arrows. They meant nothing to him.
But Obron said, “I am making progress. One thing leads to another, and sometimes to several others.
“Do you see this book?”
Kaslo looked at the thick tome covered in green leather. “It doesn’t look as old as the others,” he said.
“Yet it is. But aeons ago, a thaumaturge put it in a safe place, where it remained, immune from time’s effects.” Obron assumed an expression of one who has undertaken a demanding task and achieved a first-rate result. “My studies allowed me not only to discover its existence and location, but to retrieve it.”
“Congratulations,” said Kaslo.
“It is,” said Obron, ignoring his helper’s tone, “the Twentieth Aeon’s definitive text on interplanar mechanics.”
“Ah,” said the op.
“Well you may say, ‘Ah,’” said the wizard. “It is a complex and thorny subject, but I am coming to terms with it.”
“Are we stronger today than we were yesterday?”
“Yes, but not as strong as we shall be tomorrow.”
Kaslo felt like a child who must trust in the power of his parent. He pushed the emotion away and concentrated on what was important. “You said ‘Twentieth Aeon.’ Does the book mention a face of black iron or the blood of a dragon?”
Obron nodded. “It alludes to them. The references are not as clear as I would like.”
Kaslo grunted. If things weren’t clear to Obron, they would be pure murk to him. He looked at the papers again, with all their inexplicable markings in the wizard’s neat hand. He picked up the ball of iron, the better to see a particularly complex diagram, but a clearer sight brought no clarity of understanding.
He hefted the black ball in his hand and a question occurred. “Will there be dragons in our new age? If so, where will they come from?”
Obron’s face now showed the suppressed glee of one who knows a good secret but is not yet ready to tell it. “I had an inkling,” he said, “even before the change. In a day or two, I should have the complete answer.”
“You seem pleased,” said Kaslo.
“Too mild a word,” said his employer. “Try ‘delighted.’ That is, if my inkling was right.”
Kaslo said, “If so, I’ll be glad for you.” He found he meant it.
“You’ll be more than glad,” said Obron. “Was it not you who told me nobody wins a war by defending?”
“It was.” It seemed a long time ago now. “That, at least, hasn’t changed.”
“If what I thought, if what I did, was right, we will be able to go on the offensive.”
Kaslo felt as if the room had just filled with sunlight after a cloudy morning. “That would suit me fine.”
“Give me two more days.”
• • • •
Kaslo fought to keep the sunlight, but two more days of inactivity wore upon him. He knew his own psyche well enough to understand that at least some of the unease he was feeling did not spring from his own inner depths. When he had touched the flesh of the entity in the seventh plane, its immense sorrow had flowed into him like cold liquid, seeping down into his deeper levels to form a black pool.
His mind would probe that chill darkness the way a tongue probes the gap made by a missing tooth. He found it had different flavors: remorse, regret, guilt, and an aching to atone for some great lapse, coupled with the knowledge that there would never be an opportunity to do so.
Kaslo fought against the urge to revisit the entity’s despair. It is not my emotion, he told himself. It is a contamination from outside. But he knew that what he needed to rid himself of gloom was a call to action. Thus he was glad when, standing atop the castle’s highest tower, surveying the horizons and seeing nothing, one of the women came up to tell him that he was wanted in the workroom.
“I’ve done it,” Obron said. Again, he gestured to the spread of papers with their incomprehensible jottings.
“Done what?” Kaslo said.
But the wizard only tapped the side of his nose and said, “Come and see.”
They left Bodwon in charge. Kaslo got the spring-gun, but Obron said, “You won’t need that.”
“I’ll feel better,” said the op, which earned him a shrug and a wry look from his employer.
They passed through the gate and the boundary spell. Obron was carrying a black bag, closed by a drawstring. Thrust through the sash that cinched his robe was the wand of black wood that had once belonged to a would-be thaumaturge named Asrat Gozon, the source of the first three noubles.
They walked towards the ruins of Indoberia, but when they came to the broken slider that led to the spaceport, Obron turned southwest. Soon they could see the command tower above the trees, and a few of the larger vessels that had died on their pads when the universe shifted its orientation.
“Are we foraging for whimsy medications?” Kaslo asked, as they passed the wreckage of the liner. But Obron smiled and walked on.
They came at last to an empty pad, in the part of the spaceport where the wealthy kept their private spacecraft. Kaslo noticed a discreet plaque that identified the berth as reserved for a yacht named Saunterance, Diomedo Obron, owner.
The wizard surveyed the unoccupied pad from several angles and apparently found it satisfactory to his requirements. He opened the velvet pouch and withdrew from it, one at a time, a series of noubles. These he placed in various positions around the pad’s perimeter, checking constantly against a diagram in the book on interplanar mechanics, which had also come in the noubles pouch.
The process took some time and required some corrections before every nouble was where the green book said it ought to be. Obron then brought forth the noubles recovered from the sleeper, and placed these at precise points in the middle of the pad. The moment he put in position the last black sphere, the air around the platform became charged with a crackling energy that caused the hairs on Kaslo’s arms to stand on end.
The wizard stepped clear of the pad and gave the arrangement of spheres one final assessment. He moved one of the perimeter orbs a minim to the left, at which the level of energy so intensified that Kaslo’s teeth vibrated in his jaws.
“We should step back a few paces,” Obron said. When they did so, the op’s discomfort lessened. The wizard, meanwhile, was leafing through the green book until he found the page he was looking for. Then he turned to Kaslo, and said, “You might not know that, when the change comes, not all integrators die.”
“I certainly did not. What survives and how?”
“The most ancient sentient devices, on the oldest settled worlds,” said Obron, “have been through the change several times. They know how to protect themselves and carry on.”
“Will there be such on Novo Bantry?”
“Doubtful. This world was settled late in the second effloration.”
“Too bad,” Kaslo said. “A functioning integrator comes in handy.”
“There’s another category: Integrators on vessels that are not in our plane when the change occurs retain their faculties. They do, however, experience a transmogrification when they reenter space time.”
“To put it simply,” the wizard said, “sentient devices are not allowed under the new rules, so they have to become . . . say, their equivalents. Personal integrators that pass through the seventh plane become what they used to call ‘familiars’—and probably will call them that again.
“Ship’s integrators become . . .” Here Obron decided to show rather than tell. He held the book open before him, drew the wand from his sash and pointed it at one of the interior noubles. He spoke words that meant nothing to Kaslo, then aimed the black wood at another one and uttered more syllables. The air now crackled with powers and potentials.
“Excellent fluxions,” Obron commented, as if to himself. Then he pointed the wand at the black nouble, which looked to Kaslo as if it had become a lightless hole in reality. The wizard spoke again, emphasizing each sound with a tap of the wood upon the air. Each stroke of the wand made a noise like thunder. To Kaslo, it sounded as if a giant was hammering his fist on some vast, echoing door. He took an involuntary step backwards before steadying himself.
The black nouble glowed with nonlight. Then it began to expand, slowly at first, then more rapidly. At the same time, it became less spherical, thinner, until it was finally two-dimensional. A circle five times Kaslo’s height now stood on the landing pad, a circle that roiled with black and purple amorphities.
“It’s a whimsy,” Kaslo said.
“Yes,” said Obron, searching through the book again.
The op raised his spring-gun. “What if the enemy comes through?”
“He can’t. This one is mine and mine alone.” The wizard found the page he was seeking, and raised his voice. He spoke a string of syllables, the only one of which Kaslo recognized was ‘Saunterance.’
The whimsy flashed with streaks of light, reds and blues and bright yellows. Then out of its middle something poked through the barrier, something very much like an animal’s muzzle—but an animal larger than any beast that had ever lived on mild Novo Bantry.
First the muzzle, then the eyes—big as saucers, the color of old gold, split by a vertical pupil—then the cranium and the long, sinuous neck clad in blue-green scales. Then the shoulders and the forelimbs, with curved talons the size of Kaslo’s hands. Then the heavy body and the unlikely wings, and finally the hindquarters—more talons—and a tail to match the neck for length and suppleness, finished off with a spade-shaped vane.
“It’s a dragon,” the op said, as the whimsy dissolved.
“Now it is,” said Obron. “It used to be my yacht.” He was picking up the noubles and returning them to the pouch, but he paused to smile up at the huge creature. “Welcome back.”
The dragon opened its mouth, showing glistening fangs and a prehensile tongue. “I am different,” it said, in a voice like heavy rocks rolling in a flood. It examined one paw, flexing its clawed digits.
“In some respects,” said the wizard. “To me, you are still the very good and shiply companion you always were.”
The creature considered that for a moment, then said, “Agreed.”
Kaslo let out the breath he had been holding.
“Where do you wish to go?” Saunterance said.
“Off-world,” said Obron. “Can you do that?”
The dragon consulted some inner process, then said, “I can. But how will I carry you?”
“That,” said Obron, “will take a little time to organize. In the meantime, you could carry us back to my castle.”
“Very well,” said the dragon. It seized both men, though gently, in its forepaws and leapt toward the sky. Its wings dug into the air and in moments they were high above the spaceport.
“Over there,” said Obron, indicating the castle on its rise.
“Very good,” said Saunterance, tilting one wing up and the other down. They slid toward home.
After a moment, Kaslo noticed he wasn’t sad anymore.
• • • •
For two of the castle staff, the arrival of a dragon carrying their master and his security chief was one brick too many on an unsteady pile. The man and woman fled, screaming, toward the ruins of Phalloon’s manse. Fortunately, they went as a couple, which made it easier for Kaslo to chase them down, reassure them (though only partly), and lead them back to the castle. By then, the wizard had raised a high-ceilinged, open-fronted barn outside the curtain wall, where Saunterance now sat, apparently content to do what former space yachts did when nothing else was on the agenda.
When the op entered the castle yard, he found Obron directing the rest of the staff to bring a range of items out of the building and into the open space. Set before the wizard was what seemed to be the entire contents of his workroom, including the furnishings, as well as two comfortable chairs from the sitting room, Obron’s and Kaslo’s beds, two changes of clothing for each of them, and a few other possessions that made life reasonably comfortable.
“What now?” Kaslo asked, but Obron was occupied in checking what was being brought before him against a list. “No time to dawdle,” the wizard said, then gestured to the pile of Kaslo’s goods on the cobbled stones. “Is there anything of yours that I ought to have included?”
The op saw clothing, weapons, toiletries, all higgled and piggled together. “That depends,” he said, “on what is going on.”
“We’re taking a trip,” said Obron.
“How?” But even as Kaslo asked the question, the answer came into his mind. “Saunterance?” he said.
“Just so. Now take a look at your gear. Everything I need is here. We’re waiting on you.”
Kaslo looked, then said, “Rope came in handy when Bodwon and I—”
Obron snapped his fingers and called for rope.
Almost everything Kaslo owned was on the little pile. He experienced a brief flash of nostalgia for his old traveling valise, but its intelligence had died with all the other integrators, so the once-useful devices he had built into the suitcase were now just so much dead metal. “No,” he said, “that’s it.”
“Then step back,” said the wizard. He opened a book that rested on his lectern, found the page he wanted, and slipped the sleeves of his robe back to his elbows. “Here we go.”
The spell was lengthy and, as usual, in a language Kaslo had never heard of. It also called for the caster to move hands and arms in precise motions. Kaslo saw strain on Obron’s narrow face as the thaumaturge struggled to contain and command unseen but powerful forces. Finally, with a downward chop of one bony hand into a lean hand, the magic was completed.
A shining hemisphere, twice a man’s height, now stood where their possessions had been stacked. It resembled the kind of bell-shaped cover that would be whisked away to reveal a chef’s creation in one of the first-class restaurants Obron had once frequented: a silvery reflective dome topped by a semi-circular handle of the same material.
Obron spoke a word and a segment of the shining stuff slid silently aside. “Come along,” he said and stepped within.
Kaslo followed and found himself in a room that was somehow larger than the dome’s dimensions should have allowed for. The wizard was rearranging his goods and furnishings to make a workspace and a sleeping area. He beckoned for Kaslo to do the same, and the op moved his bed to one side and placed his few items on or under it. With a few more words and gestures, Obron created interior walls and doors to make cabins around his sleeping space and Kaslo’s, with a common space between them that had room for their chairs.
The wizard surveyed his work, fists planted on hips, and said, “That should do. Are you ready?”
“Let me speak to Bodwon,” Kaslo said. But when he put his head out of the open doorway, he saw that his second-in-command had already taken charge. Bodwon was sending the staff back to their duties, before turning and offering his superior a salute.
Kaslo returned it and withdrew into the chamber, where Obron was adjusting the color and luminosity of the dome’s inner surface to a more tranquil, neutral appearance. The wizard looked about him, apparently saw the order he wanted, and spoke another word that closed the door.
“Take a seat,” he told the op, “and hold onto the arms. There will probably be a period of adjustment.”
Kaslo did as bid. Obron sat in his own seat on the other side of the room. He cleared his throat and said, “Saunterance, we are ready.”
For Kaslo, it was like sitting in the saloon of a space yacht as its in-atmosphere drive cycled up. Except that there was no discernible vibration. Instead, the floor suddenly pressed against his feet and his stomach lurched down deeper in his abdomen.
“Easy, Saunterance,” said the wizard, “and softly.”
The g-forces moderated. Kaslo’s breathing settled. “It can fly in space?” he said.
“It is doing so now,” said the wizard. At a wave of his hand, a portion of the wall became transparent. Novo Bantry was a great, sunlit circle growing smaller.
The wizard sighed. “You keep asking such questions, but when I try to explain you can’t accommodate the concepts. Did you ever know the precise physics of a deep-space drive?”
There was a silence while they watched the grand old world shrink to the size of a coin, then a bright dot.
“Where are we going?” Kaslo asked.
“The seventh plane,” said Obron. “That’s where the enemy lies.”
“But we’re traveling through space,” Kaslo said. “Could you not have conjured another whimsy on Novo Bantry?”
“Yes, but I could not have brought all this.” He gestured to his books and apparatus. “For that, I must enter the plane at a specific point, where the interplanar barrier is at its thinnest.”
“And where is that?”
“We’ve discussed this, haven’t we?” said the wizard. “A desolate place called Barran on a fusty, forgotten little world called Old Earth.”