Previously on The Kaslo Chronicles: With galactic civilization about to collapse as the universe shifts from rationalism to magic, hardboiled confidential operative Erm Kaslo is working for Diomedo Obron, a wealthy magnate who aims to become a powerful wizard in the new order. But a rival has tried to destroy Obron, and the thugs who made the attempt came from the direction of an estate owned by a proto-thaumaturge who styles himself Phalloon the Illimitable. And Phalloon is building himself an unbreachable redoubt.
“Phalloon The Illimitable”
The estate of Phalloon the so-called Illimitable was in most respects much like that of the budding thaumaturge Diomedo Obron, Erm Kaslo’s new employer: It had a large, solid house, some remote outbuildings, lawns and a lake, clumps of mature trees, and an all-enclosing wall. What made it different, Kaslo saw as he surveyed it from a hill in the middling distance, was a rocky prominence that stood in the estate’s northeast corner.
He had come to his vantage point by a roundabout route, leaving a nondescript rented aircar an hour’s walk from the hill on which he had spent the day and which he had scaled from the far side. He was lying on his belly just short of the summit, where a leafy bush grew. Beneath the bush he had placed a compact device that was bedecked with an array of surveilling percepts trained on the territory below. Before he left Obron’s estate, he had also decanted his integrator’s core into a garment that resembled a plump scarf, and now wore his assistant around his neck.
After closely surveying the estate’s powerful but concealed defenses, he told the integrator to concentrate the surveillance suite’s attention on the northeast corner.
“What are we seeing?” Kaslo said.
“By outward appearance, a geological folly,” said his assistant. “As if the man has built himself a hill.”
“It is definitely artificially constructed?”
“Definitely. There have been no geological processes in the area that would account for it. More to the point, although the exterior resembles a naturally occurring mound, the interior is built of stone blocks arranged to create rooms and corridors, staircases and subtly camouflaged windows. There are also two subterranean levels, one of which resembles nothing so much as a dungeon.”
Kaslo studied the schematic his integrator caused to appear a handsbreadth before his eyes. “So we can probably discount the notion that Ser Phalloon intends to be a wizard of the benevolent persuasion.”
“Yes. The rooms are not empty, though most are undecorated. They have been furnished with items from the main house. In fact, a carryall is now on its way from the manse to deliver kitchen utensils and food stores.” The device showed Kaslo an image of the ground vehicle trundling across the open space.
“That’s making a mess of the lawn, isn’t it?” The heavy tires gouged parallel ruts in the deep green sod, whose perfection must have needed centuries of mowing and rolling. “What does that suggest?”
“The same as the construction of a false hill that has a dungeon: that Ser Phalloon, like Diomedo Obron, has gone insane.”
Kaslo’s response was a creaky rumble in the back of his throat. It was a noise that meant he was thinking through a situation and coming to a dark conclusion. He told his assistant to maintain its watch and to advise him of any developments, then turned his thoughts inward.
His new employer, Obron, had told him that the universe’s fundamental operating principle was about to shift from rationalism to sympathetic association—what was vulgarly called “magic.” It happened, arbitrarily, two or three times in every aeon, with catastrophic effects on the civilizations that had grown up and flourished under the old order. A month before, Kaslo would have received that information in the same spirit as his integrator had—as proof that the speaker’s sanity was gravely suspect. Since then, he had seen and participated in events that had forced him to revise his viewpoint.
Obron had said that the change, when it came, would come swiftly. “Not like a flood, with the waters gradually rising. More like a field effect. Before the sudden switch, there is a brief period of instability, during which magic becomes slightly more reliable and cause-and-effect a little less so. We are in that phase now. Soon the curtain will fall, and all will be as new.”
New, but hardly better, Kaslo thought. He considered his integrator and the surveillance suite: powerful, sophisticated, the products of millennia of acquired and applied knowledge. When the change came, they would become no more useful than the rock on which the spy gear rested. And all his hard-won skills at building and using such devices, as well as the other abilities that had carried him to the top rank among confidential operatives on the Grand Foundational Domain of Novo Bantry, would be in vain. He had no talent for magic.
He spoke a short word that was completely out of context, yet succinctly expressed his emotions. His situation was far from good, and needed immediate improvement. Hiring on as a confidential op with Obron had involved Kaslo in a deadly struggle between the magnate and a ruthless rival who worked from concealment. The enemy had sent thugs to kill them both and to steal Obron’s collection of ancient spellbooks and magical paraphernalia. He had planted a spy in Obron’s household then caused that spy to self-combust before Kaslo could question him.
The evidence indicated that this shadowy adversary was likely Phalloon, who was known to be keeping Obron under surveillance and was certainly seeking to position himself to emerge from the coming transition as a powerful thaumaturge. The artificial hill, if improved upon, would make a strong redoubt.
A thought occurred. He told his assistant, “Recall Obron’s map of ley lines.” He was referring to an ancient chart that recorded lines of arcane power that ran across the terrain of Novo Bantry, said to be very useful to wizards. When an image of the map appeared in the air before him, he said, “Overlay the position of Phalloon’s and Obron’s estates.”
A schematic appeared. Obron’s demesne was crossed by a thin red line, some distance from his house and the workroom where he conducted his experiments. But on Phalloon’s land, a solid red and an even wider green line intersected.
“Magnify Phalloon’s estate and show me the lines in relation to his unnatural hill.” He swore again when he saw what he expected to see. The redoubt was built right above the crossing point.
“We have a problem,” he said to his assistant. “When the moment comes—and it may do so at any time—our little wizard will be as a newly hatched chick without a nest, while the enemy will be a fully fledged raptor swooping down from its impregnable eyrie, all beak and talons.”
“There are no such things as wizards,” his integrator said. “I wish to make a recommendation.”
“You should submit yourself to an examination of your mental faculties. Lately, you have been confusing Obron’s fantasies with reality.”
“You don’t accept that the universe is about to change, swiftly and drastically?”
“It would be irrational to think so.”
“And I built you to be rational.”
Kaslo contemplated for a moment a world without integrators, without weapons that aimed themselves, without reliable machines of any kind—a world ruled by the whims of an Obron or a Phalloon.
It was not a pleasant prospect. Of course, he did not have to accept it. When the change came, civilization would collapse. The devices that created food and water and maintained health would fail. Millions would surely die; he could find a quiet corner and, with dignity, become one of the countless and uncounted dead.
But then he pushed the thought away. He was not made to go meekly down into the ground. He would stay and fight. And, weak-minded as his employer might be, he would not be the worst thaumaturge to rise up in the new times—whereas Phalloon the Illimitable had probably chosen an apt sobriquet, and Kaslo knew that of those who will endure no limits inevitably grow into monsters.
“Only one thing to do,” he told his assistant.
“The examination?” it said. “I have found a diagnostician.”
“No. We will leave the surveillance unit to watch the redoubt.” He slid down the slope until he could stand up, then made his way to the woods where he had hidden Obron’s aircar. He flew it just above the ground for quite a distance, before he took it into the upper air and head for his employer’s estate.
• • •
Diomedo Obron paced his workroom floor, the knuckle of an index finger pressed against his bared teeth. The schematic of ley lines meeting at Phalloon’s new construction hung in the air. Kaslo told his integrator to turn it off.
Obron stopped and gave him a haunted look. “It’s not just a redoubt,” he said.
“Then what is it?”
“He showed me some of his books once,” the thaumaturge said, “just to rub grit in my eyes. He has a copy of Sholoff’s Extravaganza—a complete round-up of Nineteenth Aeon fabrication spells.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means that when the change comes, with his full spell-casting power augmented by the ley-line node, he can transform that rough assemblage of stone into a wizard’s castle.”
“Not a good thing,” said Kaslo.
“Monstrous! He would be impregnable, with the capability to lash out in all directions.” The proto-wizard sank onto a stool and put his head in his hands. “We’re done before we’ve even started. Nothing I have can withstand what he’ll bring against us.”
Kaslo’s integrator interrupted. “Report from the surveiller: Two cartloads of goods are being transferred from the house to the redoubt. From the tinkling of the cargo, the device infers bottles of liquid.”
“He’s moving his wine cellar,” Obron said. “His most precious possession. He must expect the change to come very soon.” He got up and went to his workbench, picked up a set of rune-covered ivory sticks and tossed them, then studied the pattern they made. “The node must give him greater accuracy than I can achieve. But it will surely be soon.” He swept the sticks to the floor. “We are defenseless, finished.”
“When I was a boy,” Kaslo said, “I won many a fight against schoolyard bullies by not allowing them to set the rules for the engagement.”
“How do you mean?”
“They always liked to talk before they acted. I would hit them while they were still talking, then keep hitting them.”
Obron waved a defeated hand. “Phalloon is not a schoolboy.”
“True, but he thinks he can set the stage for the fight before it happens. Why should we wait until he is ready?”
“The ley-line node,” Obron said. “Do you not know the meaning of the word, impregnable?”
“I do,” Kaslo said, “and he isn’t. Not yet.”
• • •
“Report,” said Kaslo.
“Almost finished,” his assistant said. “His house integrator’s defenses are massive but not terribly subtle. I just need to circumvent another one thousand and twelve scenarios and”—there was a brief pause— “it’s done.”
“Good,” said the op. “And the camouflage drape on the aircar?”
“Still holding. It will register as a pair of mating moths.”
“Then over the wall,” said Kaslo. He directed the volante to skim the top of Phalloon’s wall, coming in from the south at moth speed. Then it dropped and sped toward the pile of stone. It stopped and settled to the turf so that the rough structure was between the intruders and the main house. “Out we go,” the op whispered, encouraging Obron with a strong grip on the thaumaturge’s limp bicep.
Kaslo’s employer was shivering, though the evening air was mild. He clutched a large satchel to his chest and stumbled as the op urged him into a shambling run toward the castle-to-be. “This is v-very d-dangerous,” he said.
“Not as dangerous as waiting for the enemy to outmatch us.” Kaslo opened the hold-all he had brought from the aircar and took out a self-aiming disorganizer. It was a more powerful weapon than he expected to need, but for this operation he did not care to be found wanting. He spoke to his integrator using an almost silent, subvocal system he had designed himself. “Report.”
The device’s voice spoke deep inside his ear. “Nothing to report.”
“One servant in the cellar, arranging wine.”
“His house integrator shows him in his workroom, packing items in a trunk. Two bodyguards with him.”
“Defenses, wards, alarms in this structure?” Kaslo tapped the stone wall.
“Nothing,” said the integrator. “Most curious. He is moving from a heavily, if clumsily, defended location to one that is completely undefended.”
“That is because he expects to defend his castle by means magical.”
“So it’s a shared delusion,” his assistant said. “Is it contagious?”
“Never mind.” The op turned to Obron. “Can you see if there’s anything to attack us or keep us out?”
His employer looked up from a globe of clouded crystal he had taken from the satchel. Kaslo could see milky shapes swirling within the sphere. Obron’s voice quavered as he said, “He has laid the bases for two spells I recognize, one that I don’t. But none is yet active. They await the final steps.”
Kaslo swung the disorganizer on its shoulder strap so that it hung across his middle. He activated its system, waited for the telltale light to glow. “Then in we go.”
He led a still-shaking would-be wizard along the wall until they came to a set of steps leading down into the structure. At the bottom was a door. Kaslo consulted his integrator.
“Latched, but unlocked,” it said.
He went down the steps, found the latch, and silently lifted it. The door swung noiselessly inward on shiny new hinges, revealing a basement room lit by an oil lamp. A plump, balding man was taking dust-covered bottles out of padded baskets and slipping them carefully into a wall-spanning rack. He moved slowly, fully absorbed in his task.
Kaslo stepped inside and drew Obron after him. He lifted the disorganizer and cleared his throat. The servant turned, saw the weapon’s emitter aimed at him, and dropped a bottle. It smashed on the stone floor and wine ran past his feet.
“Over here,” Kaslo said, gesturing toward the wall beside him. He had to repeat the instruction, because the man was staring down at the fragments of green glass in a red puddle as if it were the worst horror he could imagine. Finally, the servant crossed the distance on trembling legs, his jowly face paste-colored, his eyes huge with sadness. When told to sit, he did so, staring at nothing.
Kaslo swung the disorganizer aside and drew a restraint from the hold-all, along with a combination gag and blindfold. Moments later, he had the servant fettered, tethered, and incommunicado. As he straightened up, his integrator spoke in his ear.
“Surveillance reports activity: Phalloon and the bodyguards leaving the house, heading this way on foot.”
“Energy weapons. Also, and this is odd, they are carrying antique, spring-operated bolt-throwers.”
“How long before they arrive?”
“Two minutes at their present hurried pace.”
Kaslo turned to Obron. “Upstairs, quickly!”
An inner staircase led from the cellar to a kitchen. Kaslo had time to notice that the room was equipped with rudimentary appliances before he found another set of utilitarian stairs plainly meant for staff. They went up again and came out in a sizable room lit by a pair of narrow slit-windows. The space was walled and floored in stone, with heavy wooden furniture stacked in a corner. Sheets of paneling leaned against one wall and a large, rolled-up carpet lay beneath the windows.
“Where are Phalloon and his men now?” he asked his assistant.
“I . . . I am not sure,” it said.
“The surveillance suite is not functioning correctly.”
“Use your own percepts.”
“I . . . cannot. The scans are . . . unreliable.”
“They are nonsense. I see three men, then a crowd, then no one. Now they appear to be trees, now some kind of cake.”
“Cease,” Kaslo said. To Obron, he said, “I think the moment has come. Let us hurry.”
Obron did not move. He had the look of a man who has just experienced an unexpected inner pang. “What is it?” Kaslo said.
The other man turned a face toward him that seemed to glow with a new vitality. It had been thin before; it seemed broader now, and somehow more solid. “There’s a spell I put on myself, weeks ago,” Obron said. “Vilzai’s Vivifier, it’s supposed to . . . Never mind. I think it has just really taken effect.”
He took a long, deep breath, and plainly drew immense enjoyment from the simple act. Kaslo had seen men react much the same way to powerful stimulants. Though he knew they had little time, he asked his employer, “The spells Phalloon started but did not complete—could you complete them now?”
The glowing face became thoughtful. After a moment came the answer. “Oh, yes.”
“Is one of them intended to defend or isolate this place?”
“Yes. Plackatt’s Discriminating Delimiter. It keeps out what you don’t want in, and keeps in what you don’t want out.”
“Apply it now,” Kaslo said, “and specify Phalloon to be excluded.”
“Give me a moment.” Obron reached into a pocket of his upper garment and withdrew a scarred old libram. He flicked through its pages with an authoritative air, stopped at one, and quickly read what was there. Then he put the book away, sniffed, and placed his feet in a certain alignment and put his fingertips together in an unusual combination. He paused as if waiting for a beat only he could hear, then spoke seven syllables.
A chill wind rushed through the room, and Kaslo felt the air crackle with a silent energy. His teeth vibrated uncomfortably for a moment and it was as if invisible hands traced the shape of his body and the lineaments of his face. He shivered at the phantom touch, then the sensations were gone.
Obron wore a look of pleasant surprise. He looked at his hands, held before him, as if they were new and different appendages. Kaslo noticed that they no longer shook. “Well,” the wizard said, “that was . . . something.”
“Has the spell worked?”
“I should think so. We’ll know when Phalloon tries to cross it.”
Kaslo asked his integrator if it could guide him to Phalloon’s workroom. It made no reply. He tried again, adding a fundamental command word that allowed the device no leeway for prevarication.
“Oom,” said its voice in his ear. “Oom-aloom-a.” Then it began to hum a simple melody.
“Stop that,” he said. He had to repeat the instruction with the command word. After another verse, the device went silent.
“Let’s go,” the op said. He led the way out of the room into a stone hallway, saw an open door down the corridor. He slung the disorganizer into the ready position then stopped and checked the weapon. It was inert. He unslung it so that he could use it as a club and crept to the open doorway. He glanced back to see Obron sauntering after him, rubbing his thumbs and fingers together as if the sensation was novel.
Beyond the doorway was a large room with a vertical slit of a window. Its walls held open shelves and cupboards, half-full of materials Kaslo would recently have called junk, but now recognized as magical paraphernalia. The op went to the window and peered out. He saw Phalloon and his two retainers making their way toward the false hill. The self-propelled trunk had malfunctioned, slowing their progress. The two hirelings had now grasped its handles and were half-carrying, half-dragging it after the thaumaturge, who kept taking a few quick strides toward their objective, then stopping to tap his foot impatiently as the others struggled with his burden.
Kaslo looked beyond them to where the towers of the city loomed on the horizon. The distance was too great for him to be sure that he was not seeing a buzz of traffic in the air above the spires. Reflexively, he began to tell his integrator to use its percepts, then remembered its last contribution and stopped.
He peered at the far skyline. He thought he saw a thin line of smoke rising. If he could see it at this distance, at the source it must be a thick column. In a moment, it was joined by another. And now that he let his eyes focus on individual towers, he was sure that he saw smoke issuing from near the top of one of the tallest.
His imagination showed him volantes and heavier airbornes losing their power and crashing to the ground. Or losing their senses and slamming into buildings. It was too much to take in. He fought off a shudder; he had enough to deal with already.
Down on the lawn, Phalloon had scaled the long slope leading to the prominence on which he had sited his castle-to-be. He paused where the land leveled out and watched impatiently as his henchmen labored up with his luggage. They stopped halfway up, consulted for a moment, then tried rolling the trunk up the incline, top over bottom. But Phalloon’s shrill squawk, followed by a high-pitched hectoring, returned them to their earlier, more laborious approach.
Kaslo’s original plan had been simple: When Phalloon came within range, he would have used the disorganizer. That would technically have been murder, but the enemy’s bodyguards were armed, and the op had no doubt they would have shot first if ordered to. Proactive self-defense, he would have deemed it.
But now, the great change had come and the disorganizer was nothing more than an intricately fashioned blunt object. Kaslo turned to Obron. “It’s your fight from here on in.”
His employer had already made his way to the shelves and cupboards and was examining his rival’s possessions. He chose a few of them, and after a cursory examination lined up three objects on the workbench. Then he opened his satchel and from its contents added some items of his own. He pursed his lips, pinched the bottom one between thumb and forefinger, humming tunelessly to himself.
“When will Phalloon encounter the barrier?” Kaslo asked him.
The wizard broke off his musings and glanced out the window. “Soon,” he said. He drew Kaslo’s attention to the trunk. “Too bad about that,” he said.
“Why?” said the op.
“I had a rough idea as to what Phalloon possessed.” He gestured at the shelves and the bench. “These are the lesser part of it.”
Kaslo saw the implication. “So, what’s he’s got out there—”
“There’s some power in it.”
“Can he collapse the barrier?”
“Doubtful. But just because he can’t cross it, doesn’t mean that he can’t hurl things through it. At least some things.” Obron directed a thoughtful look Phalloon’s way. “I’ll admit he has more learning than I—I’ll assume he has more will, though not much more.” He gestured toward the objects on the bench. “I, however, have a few items—some of them thanks to you—that should even the odds.”
“Who will win?” Kaslo said.
“I expect some touch and go,” said his employer. “Judgment will play a role. His impetuosity and arrogance will weigh against him. And he has one serious problem.”
“And that is?”
“I am in here, above the node of the red and green. He is not. Proximity may be the key. Moreover, I believe I have progressed slightly farther into the green school.”
He turned his gaze back toward the scene outside. Kaslo joined him. There was a definite pall of smoke above the distant crystal towers of Indoberia now, and a flicker of flames reflected in the shining spires. As he looked, a huge slab of one tower’s substance split off near the top, and fell toward the ground like an iceberg calving from a sea-touching glacier. As Kaslo saw tiny shards fly into the air, he reflected on how the builders would have used constrained forces to hold the great structures together. Now those powers were dissipated.
His mind offered him a series of unsought images: All up and down The Spray, on the Grand Foundational Domains, on their secondary worlds now themselves grown ancient, even on the roughest minor planets, the products of engineering and science would be failing. Great orbitals were falling from the skies; sliders buckling and heaving, throwing pedestrians from their speeding surfaces, towers and arches collapsing, dams yielding to gravity-mad torrents.
Again, he thrust the apocalyptic visions from his mind. There was nothing to be done about a universe gone mad. There was only what could be done in the here and now.
And here came a thaumaturge who would surely do his worst. Phalloon’s men had got the trunk up the slope. Rubbing his palms together, the wizard turned from them and stepped briskly toward the structure’s main door. A quick stride, then two more steps, a third, though not a fourth—because the small nose projecting from his round face abruptly struck an invisible wall. But the wizard did not just rebound; he was picked up, his feet clearing the ground, then hurled back almost to where his retainers were wrestling the trunk forward. They stopped, gaped, set down their burden, unslung their weapons, found them dead, and took up the bolt-throwers instead.
The wizard stood up, shook his head to clear it, and stood staring at the doorway. He struck a precise pose, moved his arms and hands in unlikely ways, and spoke words Kaslo could not hear. Then he felt his way forward, his hand outstretched until it was suddenly seized and jerked forward. Then again he was thrown back and down. Phalloon rose, his face now a moon covered by a dark cloud. He put his fists on his hips and glared at the door. Then he raised his eyes until he was looking up into the window from which Kaslo and Obron stood looking down at him. Kaslo could now see the whites of the wizard’s eyes, all around the irises. He need not be able to hear the words that Phalloon was mouthing to understand their meaning. Or the intent behind them.
Obron offered the other wizard an ironic salute, then turned to the items he had arrayed on the workbench. “And so it begins,” he said.
• • •
If Phalloon’s weakness was an impetuous nature, he managed to overcome it for the initial passage of wizardly arts. He did not return Obron’s salute, but turned and gestured brusquely to his men to take up the trunk and carry it back down the slope. Back on the flat, at a distance of a hundred paces, he bid them set it down. He then stood behind the chest and made a sequence of hand-waves over its top, which obliged him by popping open. Phalloon disappeared behind the upraised lid as he bent to delve within.
“I think I know what he’ll try first,” said Obron. He stepped to the bench and took up an object that resembled a three-pronged fork of green crystal, a little longer and wider than his hand. He voiced a few sounds over it and the chamber was immediately filled with a pervasive hum that became a buzz that quickly climbed in pitch until the op felt his teeth vibrating in his skull, before the frequency finally became too high for his ears to register.
Obron held the fork aloft. It now shone from within, growing ever brighter as the wizard whispered sibilant phrases over it, until Kaslo had to turn his eyes away. The thaumaturge carried it to the window, needing two hands to do so. From the manner in which he wove a wandering path across the room, it seemed to Kaslo that the glowing trident was being pushed this way and that by invisible forces.
The op could not see what was happening outside. Obron blocked the window and, besides, the light from the fork was nearly blinding. His master was still whispering incomprehensible sounds, while struggling to hold the trident in a two-handed grip that put Kaslo in mind of an angler trying to control a monster fish.
Then from beyond the window came a warble of thunder, a sound like a giant gargling on thickened blood. A huge pressure began to build in the chamber, and Kaslo had to clap his palms to his ears to save their sensitive membranes from being battered into his skull. Obron grimaced in pain, but his grip on the trident remained strong and now he brought both arms down so that the three ultraradiant prongs pointed through the slit in the wall. Instantly, the fork’s light was extinguished and the room shook to a ker-ack! louder than the discharge of any lightning bolt.
The pressure in the chamber instantly dropped back to normal; the op had to yawn and stretch his jaw to equalize the sudden change. Through spots of color that bloomed in his field of vision, he saw Obron hurry over to the bench, discard the now dull fork, and begin leafing through Hentero’s Compendium.
Kaslo went to the window. As his eyesight restored itself, he saw Phalloon sprawled upon his back in a circle of scorched grass. In the farther distance, the two henchmen half-ran, half-staggered away, one of them slapping at the back of his head, where small flames consumed his hair.
Kaslo was about to congratulate his master—employer now seemed an old-fashioned term—on victory, but he saw the more distant wizard raise his head, shake it once, then get to his knees and from there to his feet. With an air of fell determination, Phalloon marched to the trunk and stood looking down into it. Then he cast toward the stone pile a glance so baleful that the op felt something inside him turn cold.
“Out of the way,” said Obron, pushing him aside. “He’s employing Porthry’s Basilisk. He used to do it to mice and roaches, then offer us the results as parting gifts. As if anyone would be impressed by stone vermin.”
He sketched a figure in the air. Kaslo actually saw the lines of some complex symbol in green fire, then it faded.
So, too, did the chill in his belly.
Obron was leaning out the window now, calling in a mocking tone to his dispossessed rival. Kaslo heard him say, “. . . couldn’t cohere your fluxions if your life depended on it,” and “I’ve seen fancier digitation when the neighborhood loon picks his nose.”
“What are you doing?” Kaslo said.
Obron stepped back from the window. “Phalloon’s weakness,” he said, “is his tendency to overreach. I must engage his emotions.”
“I think you’ve already done that,” said Kaslo, as a stream of high-pitched vituperation sounded from outside.
“I need him to try something truly large, something beyond his means that I can then turn and apply against him.”
“And if it turns out to be beyond your means, as well?”
The thaumaturge shrugged. “I thought you were a man who could take a risk.”
“A calculated one,” said the op. “But the mathematics of your business are beyond me.”
“The discussion is now moot,” said Obron, peering again through the window slit. Kaslo looked, too, and saw Phalloon blowing into the neck of what appeared to be a large red balloon whose surface was marked by occult symbols in gold and silver. The sphere was already twice the size of his head and growing with each exhalation.
“As I hoped,” said Obron. “Prudence would see him using the breath of a well prepared subject—the best is a prepubescent boy fed on bread and milk. By using his own wind, he intensifies the force, but risks a rising dissonance that . . . Well, never mind. Now we will see.” He rubbed his hands together and went back to the items on the bench, chose a six-holed flute of yellow bone that had once been part of someone’s arm and returned to the window.
Kaslo had been watching the inflation of the sphere. Now the red-faced wizard paused to take several breaths. Obron leaned out the window and called, “What, out of wind so soon? That’s not the puffed-up bladder of hot air we all knew as Phalloon the Severely Limited.”
The taunt galvanized the puffing thaumaturge. He returned the neck of the balloon to his lips. His face turned first scarlet, then an alarming shade of purple as the figured orb doubled in size.
“Lovely,” said Obron. “A driven elemental is one thing; an elemental seethed in maniacal fury is altogether a different pail of eels.”
Kaslo had heard the term, but could not fit a meaning to it. “An elemental?”
Obron pursed his lips and blew a short breath through the flute, apparently too soft to raise a note. But the op had the impression that the instrument grew a tiny bit larger. “An air elemental,” the wizard said. “And a very angry one. He is causing it great distress.”
Outside, Phalloon was holding the balloon, now waist-high, by the neck, while his free hand made circular motions above it. The purple had spread to his neck and his bald pate resembled a large grape of surpassing ripeness.
“And, for good or ill,” said Obron, “here we go.” Raising the bone once more to his lips, he began to blow and finger the instrument, though Kaslo heard no sound. Outside, the sphere of air in Phalloon’s grip had begun to move of its own accord, displaying transient bulges and top-to-bottom ripplings of whatever material it was made from. Though it resembled a balloon, its red had not faded to pink as it had expanded. If anything, it was a deeper shade. The symbols and figures on it stood out starkly, shining through the gathering darkness.
Kaslo looked skyward. A black cloud had formed over the estate, a swirling mass of inky vapor, from which spirals of dark gray mist reached halfway to the ground before they were torn apart by eddies of air. Now Phalloon also looked up, and a vengeful smile split his flushed face. With a final clenching of his fist followed by a springing open of its thumb and fingers, he relaxed his other hand’s grip on the neck of the balloon.
Kaslo had expected an eruption of gases, even for the inflated sphere to fly off as its pent-up contents were released. Instead, the sphere sat as if weighted to the ground, while from its open neck issued a white, swirling fog that convoluted and roiled upon itself, seeming as thick as curds. As more of the thick gas emerged from confinement, it formed a long, conical shape that began to rotate, at first slowly, then faster and faster as its mass increased.
Phalloon stepped back, his hands busy in the air before him, his mouth constantly moving. The enlarging cyclone hung between earth and overhanging cloud, swelling as it spun at ever-increasing speed. It was paler now, the color of skimmed milk, and as it reached higher the dark cloud above began to rotate in harmony. The tendrils of gray mist that reached down now grew darker and more substantial, and when they touched the top and sides of Phalloon’s elemental, they were instantly sucked into its spin.
Kaslo could hear it now. It had begun as a soughing moan, as of wind playing about a house’s eaves, but it soon grew to the strength of a gale and kept building, as more and more of the overhead cloud was drawn down into the tornado. And now it was a roaring, ear-battering, constant blast.
The whirlwind towered up to the sky, where black clouds were racing from all directions to join its ever-growing mass. Phalloon had stepped back, his clothes and hair-fringe flapping as if frantic to escape. He glanced up, and Kaslo saw a worried look briefly cross the wizard’s round face, but then his fury returned. Phalloon bit his lip and raised a hand, its digits bent into strange alignments. He paused, then brought his arm down in a chopping motion that ended with his forefinger aimed squarely at the window where Kaslo stood.
And where Obron also waited, bent over his six-holed humerus, blowing his breath across the aperture at one end, his fingers rising and falling. Kaslo still could hear no sound from the instrument, though the wizard’s fingertips covered and uncovered the stops in what seemed a complex pattern. Obron’s brows were drawn down in intense concentration, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and upper lip.
Impossibly, the sound from outside grew even louder, causing the op to clap his hands to his ears once more. The whirling white cone had absorbed so much substance from the lowering clouds that it was now the color of black iron. And it was advancing steadily toward the half-built castle.
Until it met Plackatt’s Discriminating Delimiter. To Kaslo, it was like seeing dense fog come up against clear glass. The swirling mass of gray vapor flattened against the barrier, and the op could see into the whirlwind’s raging center. The spell had clearly stopped the elemental, he thought, but beyond the cyclone he could see Phalloon’s arms still thrashing the air, his mouth opening and closing as he chanted fresh words of power.
The barrier did not break—but it began to bow inward. Kaslo looked to the wizard he had chosen to follow, and wondered again if he had backed the wrong contender. Obron was piping for all he was worth, his fingers flying over the bone flute’s stops, perspiration now pouring from his brow, desperation in his eyes. Proximity to the ley-line node or not, Kaslo saw that the attempt to counter Phalloon’s power was failing. Obron had gambled, and was losing.
Kaslo looked around the chamber. Magical paraphernalia abounded, but it was of no use to him. He drew his energy pistol and realized that it was no more useful than a rock he could throw. He let it drop. Then he remembered.
To Obron, he said, “Keep blowing. I have an idea.” He left the chamber and found the stairs to the cellar. The plump, balding man was where he had left him, even though the restraint had ceased to function when the great change had come. The servant was sitting against the wall, staring at the broken bottle, his face an image of misery.
“You could have escaped,” Kaslo said.
The man did not look up. “To what?” He gestured to the smashed glass and pooled liquid. “That was a Grand Empyreal, of the 5546 vintage. The master will have my hide.” He blinked morosely then said, half to himself, “And, sad to say, that is not a metaphor.”
“It was not your fault.”
“Phalloon does not trifle with irrelevancies. I am the wine steward. Grand Empyreal stains the floor. No more need be said.”
“He values his wine highly?” Kaslo said.
“The refinement of his palate is his great pride.”
“And, society being in the process of falling apart, these are now irreplaceable.”
The majordomo nodded, tears in his eyes. “They were scarcely less so before the event. And I, of course, am not.”
Kaslo looked about the cellar. There were other racks, deeper in shadow, all filled with dusty bottles. “Which of these,” he said, “are dearest to Phalloon’s refined palate?”
• • •
The tornado was taking up a good deal of space now, pressing farther in against the discriminating barrier. Once outside of the castle-to-be, Kaslo had to step well to the side of the roaring, swirling mass of air to put himself within Phalloon’s line of sight. But the thaumaturge, intent on stirring his elemental to even vaster energies, did not notice the op.
Kaslo held up a dusty bottle. The wizard’s gaze remained fixed on the whirlwind, his hands in frantic, though precise, motion, his mouth chanting a stream of syllables that were inaudible over the constant blast.
The barrier bent further, and Kaslo felt the first stirring of a breeze that lifted the hair on the back of his neck. He picked up a second bottle from the crate he had brought from the cellar, and held both above his head. Still Phalloon remained focused on his elemental’s management.
Kaslo tapped the neck of one bottle against another, heard a faint clink over the sound of the storm. Phalloon’s eyes flicked his way, though his hands and mouth continued their strict machinations. The op tapped the bottles together again, a little harder, the musical sound a little louder.
Phalloon shuddered, a man intent on his work who was resisting an irresistible distraction. Kaslo shrugged, flipped the bottle in one hand so that he was now holding it by its neck, then performed the same maneuver with the other one. He held them both aloft, and his face communicated a silent message to the thaumaturge: You think I won’t? Of course, I will.
A spasm went through the wizard. His hands moved faster, though without losing their precision; his mouth spat inaudible sounds at a frantic rate. The whirlwind not only roared, but keened. Kaslo heard in the voice of the wind a frustrated rage that dwarfed any ire he had ever known or seen.
Phalloon’s gaze was locked on him now, the irises again rimmed by fury’s white. Kaslo offered the wizard another shrug, spread his arms wide above his head, brought them together. The bottles smashed. A cascade of richly aromatic wine and shards of thin glass showered his head, trickled down his neck, and soaked the collar of his shirt.
Just before the impact, he had seen Phalloon’s mouth form a new word. The op could not hear it over the roar of the wind, but he had no doubt that the purple-faced man had shouted No-o-o-o-o!
Unfortunately for Phalloon, the long, drawn-out exclamation was not part of the spell that bound the elemental—a spell whose spoken component must be expressed just so, lest the enslaved and tormented air spirit break the thaumaturgical bonds in which Phalloon had netted it, and become free to do as its nature dictated.
The elemental’s nature dictated that it take full-bodied revenge on the wizard who had dragged it from its plane, humiliated it with fetters, and lashed it with ever-sharper agonies—at least, as such terms apply to a creature of spirit. It ceased to batter itself against the barrier and instead sped across the distance between it and Phalloon. The wizard raised his hands and tried to say something, but the whirlwind was upon him in a blink of an eye. He was lifted from his feet, turned end over end and swept skyward in a circular rush as the elemental stretched out the kinks that Phalloon’s spell had inflicted upon its substance. The last Kaslo saw of him was a vision of the man’s eyes, now wholly white. A moment later, a thin rattle of red drops struck the barrier, followed by a few morsels of flesh and one shattered bone. Then the whirlwind rose into the dark cloud above and tore it to shreds. Before Kaslo had crossed the distance to the castle’s basement door, the sky was clear.
He resisted the wine steward’s attempts to seize his hand and rain kisses on it. “Just put away the rest of the wine, then find yourself other duties,” he said.
When he arrived back in what had been Phalloon’s workroom, Obron was leaning against the edge of the window slit, the bone flute loose in his fingers. Kaslo took a stool over to where Obron stood. The wizard looked tired but appeared serviceable. “You’d better sit,” Kaslo said, then helped steady the wizard as he sank down onto the seat, shoulders slumped, head fallen forward. The op took the flute from his hand—it had a warm, greasy feel that raised the bile of revulsion in him—and put it on the bench.
“Now what?” he said.
Obron looked up. Vilzai’s Vivifier seemed to need a reapplication, Kaslo thought. The wizard flourished a fatigued hand. “First we bring in Phalloon’s trunk, then I consult Sholoff’s Extravaganza and finish the castle. After that, rest, consolidate, plan.”
“Should we not go to Indoberia, try to help?”
Obron shook his head. “We would be overwhelmed.”
“We sit here, safe, while the world collapses?”
“What makes you think,” the wizard said, his voice sounding as weary as he looked, “that we are safe?”
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