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Fiction

The Ba of Phalloon

Previously on The Kaslo Chronicles: Magic has abruptly superseded rationalism and the technological civilization on the ancient world of Novo Bantry has collapsed. Hardboiled confidential operative Erm Kaslo, now chief henchman to the proto-wizard Diomedo Obron, works to secure the castle they seized from Obron’s rival, Phalloon the Illimitable, and to deal with the survivors of the catastrophe. [To read the other stories in the series, visit lightspeedmagazine.com/kaslo.]

“The Ba of Phalloon”

“I’d say there are at least three hundred of them,” Kaslo said. “Mostly men, but quite a few women. I don’t see any children. I see clubs, knives, some homemade spears.”

He turned from the narrow slit of unglazed window that pierced the castle wall. His employer, Diomedo Obron, was seated on a high stool, immersed in studying a diagram in an ancient tome spread open on the workbench, the pages tall and wide, stiff and yellowed with age. He waved a hand in a gesture that said, Not now, without averting his gaze from the book, the index finger of his other hand tracing one of the curved lines of the figure. At intervals along its course, the tip of the finger disappeared for a while.

“I’m thinking they might try to come in here,” Kaslo said. “Not right away, but after they’ve looted Phalloon’s manse.”

Obron’s free hand showed him its palm. His finger continued along the rest of the line, came to where it ended at a cartouche that enclosed three symbols. When he touched each of them in a particular sequence, the characters glowed as if they were inked in fire.

“Hmm,” he said, and his gaze became distant. Then the light faded and he closed the book, a puff of dust rising from the scratched black cover.

“Master,” said Kaslo—he was getting used to using the term—“we need to stabilize our situation here.”

Obron came back from wherever he had been. He glanced toward the window and gave another variant of the dismissive gesture. “They are of no concern,” he said. “The castle is still protected by Plackatt’s Discriminating Delimiter. The harder they throw themselves against it, the farther it will throw them back.”

Kaslo looked again. The mob was now filling the forecourt of the sprawling stone manse, those at the leading edge prying open the doors and venturing within. They would find furnishings and artworks whose only value now was as firewood. The great house was also full of sophisticated mechanisms that were now of no value at all: Their self-awareness was gone; the world-spanning connectivity in which they had once taken part was vanished; the functions they had performed, whether complex or simple, were already fading from the minds of the new primitives, as if the devices were no more than elements of a dream from which they had been rudely woken.

The mob from the city would be looking for food and drink. They would find neither. After Obron had caused this castle to appear, he and Kaslo, accompanied by Follace, the majordomo to the estate’s former owner, had emptied the manse’s cellars and pantry of all its provender. It was enough to last those inside the castle for years; the mob, for a week or so.

Obron had selected another old book from the shelf above the bench and was leafing through its pages, once more completely absorbed. Kaslo picked up a speculon that lay on a stool beneath the window. It appeared to be only a hollow tube of some hard, black rock, yet when he put one eye to it and said, “Closer,” it presented him with an amplified view of whatever he aimed it at. It was as if the distant scene was right before him, a full-size image hanging in the air, just as his old integrator would have supplied, before the great change ended the intelligent device’s existence.

He studied the mob, though now he was seeing individuals instead of an undifferentiated mass of humanity. He could focus on one person at a time, even call for the image to freeze then resume motion. Just like before the change, he thought, and realized that that word—before—kept coming up. So did after.

The members of the mob were mostly young adults, and none older than middle age. Nobody was in rags—not yet, he thought—but some of them had rips and tears, a few had improvised bandages, and there were some bloodstains here and there.

Ordinary people, he thought, though maybe quicker than most to react to sudden disaster, or maybe just luckier than most. Wouldn’t matter how savvy you were if you were in an omnibus that forgot how to fly, or in a building held together by abstruse forces that abruptly ceased to apply.

The refugees had been flooding into the manse; now they were trickling out. Some of them carried treasures or knick-knacks they’d picked up, but increasingly the emotions Kaslo saw on their faces were frustration, disappointment. And when they looked toward where he stood, he saw another common cast: hunger.

“Pull back, slowly,” he said to the speculon; the image receded until he told it to stop. The throng had come out onto the forecourt, and were now filtering through the screen of topiary that separated the stone paving from the sweeping lawn that eventually climbed to where the former owner, the ill-fated Phalloon the (self-styled) Illimitable had sited his redoubt.

Now a big man pushed his way through to the front of the mob. Heavy-shouldered, wide in the waist without being fat, a scar on one cheek, he was dressed in the remains of a singlesuit that had not been cheap to buy, though there was nothing about it to name its wearer as a member of the social class that wore the best. In Kaslo’s many years as a confidential operative, he had often met the type: more cunning than intelligent; intensely focused on his own needs and desires; not only always the first to know when violence would serve, but always the first to strike.

Precisely the kind to rise to the top of a mob, Kaslo thought. Two other men now came to join the bruiser, and the op’s eyebrows rose when he realized he recognized them. They were the two bravos Phalloon had hired to be his henchmen; Kaslo had last seen them running for the horizon after Obron had blasted their employer in the opening round of the duel that ended in the death of Phalloon. Kaslo was surprised the two had come back. Things must be as bad in the city as Obron had said they would be.

The leader of the mob was scanning the castle, taking in the towers, the closed gates, the sheer walls crenellated on top and dropping down to the steep glacis, the tall, narrow windows. His focus arrived at the slit through which Kaslo watched.

The op saw the man studying him, and said, “Closer.” He stopped when he had the thick-jawed face presented larger than life-size. He noted the broken nose, the scars around the lips, the eyes as flat and affectless as a marine predator’s.

“Pull back,” he said, and saw the thug’s gaze go to the unmanned battlements then back to the gates. Kaslo knew what was coming, and his expectations were confirmed when the leader of the mob turned and singled out, one at a time, six men from the crowd. He called them, gathered them around him, pointing at where Kaslo stood. He also gestured with his chin to the two who had been Phalloon’s henchmen.

One of them tried to shrink back into the crowd. The other expostulated in words that Kaslo didn’t need to hear to understand. The man pointed to the burnt patches on the back of his head, the other hand gesturing toward the castle.

The thug in charge cut them off with a short word and a brandishing of a thick cudgel that had been dangling by a cord from one thick wrist. The op could see dark stains on the weapon’s studded head.

The man who had tried to hide in the multitude was shoved forward. The one with the singed scalp was seized by the neck and thrust toward the chosen six. The meaning of the ringleader’s gestures was clear: They could try their luck at the castle or take their chances with him.

The eight men, all of them armed with simple weapons—spears, a couple of clubs that had once been table legs, a ceremonial knife—advanced on the castle. Their shoulders were hunched, their heads down, as if they were walking into a storm. But on they came.

Kaslo turned to Obron. “They’re going to try it,” he said.

The wizard made a small, dry sound, a puff of air escaping over his lower lip, his attention now on the contents of a small libram bound in faded green leather.

Kaslo knew his master was right. Plackatt’s Discriminating Delimiter had defeated not only Phalloon, but the raging storm-spirit the thaumaturge had hurled against the invisible barrier—though not without some crucial assistance from Kaslo at the moment of truth. But that was not what bothered him about the situation.

“It’s the waste,” he told Obron.

“Hmm?” the other looked up, a bemused expression on his sharp-chinned and even sharper-eyed face. “What waste?”

“Those people out there. They’re not monsters or barbarians. They’re mostly decent people who’ve had their lives yanked out from under them.”

Obron shrugged and went back to his book.

“No, listen,” said Kaslo. “It can’t be just a few wizards like you and a few more helpers like me and Follace. Somebody’s got to do the things that make life go on. Grow fresh food or, I don’t know, make the pots and furniture.”

The wizard quirked his mouth, then spoke a few syllables and performed a precise movement of one hand. A small table appeared between them, on it a long loaf of fresh bread.

“Fine,” said Kaslo, “but do you want to have to do that three times a day, every day?”

The other man conceded the point. He spoke and gestured and the food disappeared. “Do what you think best,” he said. “I have things to . . .” As he spoke, his attention went back to the book and he became absorbed once more.

“Wait,” said the op, and when the wizard dragged his gaze back to him, said, “Bring back the bread.” A moment later it was in his hand, warm and smelling like the backyard of a bakery. Obron really was getting better at thaumaturgery.

“That’ll do,” he said. Carrying the loaf, he went out the door and down the stone staircase that led to the castle’s bailey and the main gates. He opened a smaller portal set within the larger one and stood for a moment on the wide, flagstoned path that interrupted the glacis and led up to the gates.

He saw the advancing party take note of him. He closed the sally port and stepped easily down the paved slope, the loaf of bread held up where it couldn’t fail to be seen. A few paces took him to where he knew the barrier spell surrounded the castle. He passed through it as if it wasn’t there; for him, it posed no barrier to passage in either direction. That’s why it’s called a “discriminating delimiter,” he thought.

He went down the sloping lawn to a point where the incline became steeper, and by the time he had descended that part, the eight that the mob leader had sent were right in front of him. He held out the loaf.

“Here is the arrangement,” he said. “Work for food. And for safety.”

The man with burned patches on his head swore, but Kaslo read relief behind the belligerence. The others mainly looked uncertain—one had the expression of a man who expects others to try to fool him, without success—and the op knew it was time to seize the initiative.

“The big guy,” he said, gesturing with the bread, “he’s the boss?” He was already moving through them toward where the thug with the cudgel waited.

The singed man spoke quietly as Kaslo passed him. “He’s a hard one.”

The op didn’t look his way. “Who isn’t?” he said. The eight turned and followed him. It’s just that easy, Kaslo told himself. Then he took another look at the mob’s leader and thought, Until it isn’t.

He approached at a steady pace. He saw the big man step forward and set himself, the cudgel ready at his side, but Kaslo kept on coming as if he saw nothing to deter him. When he was close enough to be heard in a conversational tone, he tossed the loaf of bread so that it flipped end-to-end, caught it without taking his eyes off the other man, and said, “Listen . . .”

He took one more easy pace, then tossed the loaf toward the thug with the club. Nineteen out of twenty brawlers would have looked at the spinning loaf, but Kaslo realized immediately he was up against the twentieth. The man moved forward fast. He didn’t bother to haul back the studded length of wood to strike a downwards or side-arm blow. Instead he brought it straight up in a vertical swing intended to connect with Kaslo’s chin, while the empty hand sprang forward to grasp his throat if he stopped and tried to back-pedal clear.

But Kaslo hadn’t won fights by avoiding them. He turned sideways and leaned a little backwards to let the cudgel brush past his chest, just close enough to snag a thread from his upper garment. His leading hand met the outspread fingers of his opponent’s as it reached for him. He grasped the middle two fingers and bent them sharply back. He heard the small bones snap and saw the shock register in the man’s eyes.

But, an instant later, those eyes could no longer register anything; Kaslo pivoted to bring his free hand around in a shoulder-high strike, his middle and index digits driving straight into the other man’s sockets. He felt the moment’s resistance as the edges of his fingernails pierced the thinness of the corneas, then the obscene warmth as his fingers sank to their knuckles in the man’s most vulnerable flesh. The eyes’ clear ichor squirted past onto his hands as he thrust right through the retinas and dug into the soft, gray tissue behind.

The op yanked his fingers out of his opponent’s ruined sockets. The big man fell forward, already convulsing, what had started to be a scream turning into the moan of a wounded animal. He landed facedown on the manicured turf, twitching, the cudgel’s cord still looped about his wrist.

Kaslo bent, seized the weapon, and with three swift blows crushed the back of the skull.

He stood, wiped the gore from his hand on the leg of his breeches. The scene was silent except for the soft suffle of a breeze through the topiary. The nearer members of the mob were staring at him. He saw wide eyes and open mouths. One of the women looked as if she was going to gag.

He turned and picked up the loaf of bread. It had landed near the feet of the man with the burned head, who now took an involuntary step back as the op approached. Kaslo ignored him and turned to the crowd. With the hand that still held the dripping cudgel he indicated the corpse on the ground.

“That,” he said, “is over.” He let fall the weapon and held up the loaf, and as their eyes went to it, he said, “This has just begun.”

• • •

The next few days were busy. Kaslo divided the crowd into platoons, then the platoons into squads, and put those who had had some experience with managing groups into positions of leadership. The skills that most of the three hundred had brought with them from the world gone by—that became the usual way to refer to their pre-change existence—had little application to their new requirements. An essence distiller or a designer of eyelid adornments did not easily transpose to the life of a peasant.

But there were others who had abilities that could be adapted to their new existence. Those who had tended plants in their conservatories, cooked meals without integrators, built scale models with their own hands, fashioned decorative ceramics, now found that their former quirky pastimes had laid at least the rough foundations of usefulness.

“We need shelter, sanitation, a water supply, and the beginnings of crop lands,” Kaslo told his squad and platoon leaders. “The change is not temporary. The mechanisms that underlay our lives will never work again. Instead, we must work for ourselves.”

A man of late middle age who had been a managing partner in a firm of intercessors said, “What about the fellow in the castle? What will he do for us?”

“His thoughts increasingly lead him down ever more abstruse avenues,” said the op. “He is not to be relied upon.”

“He made the castle,” the man said. “Why can he not make all that we need?”

“Because, sooner or later, he would stop. And then where would we be?” They were seated in a circle on the lawn. Kaslo looked up at the narrow window behind which Obron read his books and conducted his experiments in the green school of magic. “He is not your integrator,” he said. “There are no more integrators. We are on our own.”

They had some supplies: those taken from Phalloon’s stores, as well as some basic foodstuffs that Obron had stockpiled in a hiding place at his own, now abandoned, estate. Kaslo led a group of a hundred there—what had formerly been a short trip in an aircar was now a two-day march—and found the house and grounds deserted. Obron’s vehicles could not be awakened, so they tore apart a wooden outbuilding and used its materials to make sledges. Heaped with packages and containers, each was hauled by ten men back to the castle. The return trip took three days.

He had left the man with the singed-off hair—Bodwon was his name—in charge. Kaslo had induced Obron to make them tools—axes, saws, hammers, nails—and Bodwon was overseeing the leveling of Phalloon’s woods and the construction of the first plank houses. When the op returned, he saw that the work had proceeded well: Piles of lumber were stacked neatly on the level ground downslope from the castle. The people were tired from unaccustomed labor, but the wizard had provided salves that swiftly turned blisters into calluses and put strength into muscles while easing their aches.

Bodwon reported a problem with the construction plans: “Yao-sen, our carpenter,”—in the world gone by, the man had liked to make intricate toys and puzzles out of wood—“says that if we build with fresh-cut wood, it will warp and twist. The winds will whistle through gaps. Walls may not stand.”

Kaslo went to Obron, and found that the wizard had revived an Eighteenth-Aeon spell called Fofferah’s Temporal Cabinet, good for aging wines, spirits, and cheeses. He was able to apply it to the lumber, seasoning whole stacks overnight.

“Build communal latrines first,” Kaslo said. The bushes at the side of Phalloon’s manse were becoming impassable.

The days were long, but never long enough to accomplish all that Kaslo foresaw would be necessary. He wanted a village, ringed by a palisade, with vegetable gardens and grain fields surrounding it. The alternative was to have let the people fall back to what they had been when they had come to the estate, led by the brute he had killed: a feral wolf-pack, picking the bones of a dead civilization. And when the bones were all picked, they would have eaten each other.

There were always ten more things for the op to do, each one crying out that it should have priority over the rest. So it was that weeks had gone by before he could concentrate on anything other than their immediate needs. But in those weeks, with calculated assistance from Obron, they had accomplished much: built communal houses within an enclosing wall of timbers, pointed at the top; planted and harvested their first crops, using seeds from Phalloon’s stores and with the plants’ growing time amplified by Fofferah’s Temporal Cabinet; organized themselves into a polity that, if it was not quite a village, was at least no longer the mob that had come up the road from the chaos in Indoberia.

Bodwon had become a useful lieutenant. The fellow with whom he had served as Phalloon’s henchmen—Polpera was his name—lacked intellect and insight, and had slid down the emerging hierarchy to simple laborer. But by the time Bodwon’s hair had grown back and his scalp burns had become dry scar tissue, he was already directing much of the settlement’s day-to-day work.

Kaslo finally had time to think. One morning, his thoughts took him back to the days just before the change, then they leaped him forward into the might-be’s of the still-evolving future. He went to where Bodwon was supervising the construction of a grain storage hut, raised well above the ground on timber legs that were fitted with hammered-metal skirts to deter rodents.

“I want to ask you about your time with Phalloon,” the op said.

Bodwon rubbed his hard hand over his skull’s scars and bristles, a motion that had become a habit. “It all seems a long time ago now,” he said. “Like a dream from when I was young.”

“Concentrate your mind,” Kaslo said. “Do you recall any dealings with a Captain Maduc of the Constabulary on Cheddle? There would have been another Cheddlite, big, in temperament not unlike Polpera.”

“No Cheddlites I ever saw,” Bodwon said. “There was Pol and me and the household servants.”

“Might he have met with them out of your sight?”

The erstwhile wizard’s henchman’s signaled a negative. “He kept Pol and me with him at all times. One of us had to sleep in his chamber, on a pallet just inside the threshold, with the door triple bolted.”

“He made no mention of wanting to take Obron’s goods? To scotch his plans for after the change?”

Bodwon’s shoulders lifted then dropped. He told Kaslo that Phalloon had scarcely mentioned him, and what little he had said was of a disparaging nature. “‘Feckless’ was the word he used,” the lieutenant said. “A ‘talentless dabbler.’”

“But he was preparing to dominate Obron, once he was settled here in his castle?”

Bodwon blinked in surprise. “Is that what you thought?” His gaze turned inward for a moment, then he went on, “That makes it clearer.”

“How so?” Kaslo said.

The man told him that the castle was not intended to be a base for aggressive operations. It was to provide safety for Phalloon, a redoubt guarded by spirits of air and fire.

“But not from Obron,” the op said.

“No, he was very surprised to see him in the place when the day came.”

Kaslo’s thumb and forefinger tugged on his lower lip as he contemplated the new pattern that was emerging. After a moment, he said, “Then against what threat was he building a fortified stronghold?”

Bodwon’s hands spread in a gesture of helplessness. “He did not confide in Pol and me. I suspect that in his eyes we were not much more than talking beasts.”

“Arrogant, yet afraid,” Kaslo said, mostly to himself.

“It began to worry us,” the other man said, “toward the end. We wondered if we had signed on to a ship that would sink before it left harbor.”

Kaslo was familiar with the sensation.

• • •

The op found Obron in his workroom, humming to himself as he assembled a complex apparatus of flasks and beakers, mounted on metal struts and connected by glass tubes, some of them curled like springs. Stoppered bottles containing multicolored liquids and powders crowded a side table and yet another old tome lay spread-eagled on a free-standing lectern.

He looked around as Kaslo entered, and said, “The big lead cauldron over in the corner. Bring it and put it here.” He pointed to a clear space on the bench at one end of the alchemical arrangement of metal and glass.

Kaslo obliged, finding the task a back-strainer. When he had the cauldron in place and Obron had begun making minute adjustments to its setting, the op said, “It was not Phalloon who hired Maduc to steal your goods.”

Obron tugged the heavy gray vessel a minim to one side so that whatever came out of a glass tube would drop into its exact middle. “Really?” he said.

“He was afraid,” Kaslo said. “Very afraid.”

“There is plenty to be afraid of,” the wizard said, still focused on the apparatus. “Was his fear specific or general?”

“Bodwon doesn’t know for sure.”

“Bodwon?”

“Phalloon’s henchman, the one who fled with his hair on fire. He works for us now.”

“Really?”

“Really. Listen, can you stop fizzicking with that for a moment? We need to discuss this.”

Obron sighed. Still, he turned to his security chief, though not without waving an arm to take in the workbench, table, and lectern, and saying, “This is important, too, you know.”

“Bear with me,” said Kaslo. “Phalloon had a high opinion of his abilities—and, incidentally, a low one of yours—but something had him deeply worried.”

The thaumaturge’s face clouded. “He said something about me? What was it?”

“Does it matter? You are here and he is scattered meat and bones.”

But Obron insisted on knowing, and absorbed “feckless” and “talentless dabbler” with a solemn frown. “If he were here,” he said, “I could show him a thing or two.”

“If he were here, you wouldn’t be,” Kaslo reminded him. “But turn your mind to this. He had identified a threat that worried him greatly, so much so that he built a strongpoint over the intersection of two ley lines and was gearing up to enslave some elementals to defend it.”

He saw Obron’s long face grow solemn as he focused his thoughts on the matter. Then the wrinkles and furrows relaxed as the wizard reached no conclusion. His gaze stole back to the book open on the lectern.

After weeks of constantly having to be the prime decision-maker for three hundred people—not to mention a few dozen more who had found their way to the emerging village and been accepted as probationers—the op found his temper fraying. “Listen to me,” he said. “When you hired me to be your security chief, I was entirely suitable for the position. I knew how to evaluate threats and weaknesses, and knew what to do when I found them.

“Now I am half-blind. Yet I know this much: Before the change, even though there was a Constabulary in Indoberia, you had an enemy who sent armed thugs to steal from you. We thought it was Phalloon and acted against him. Now it turns out that he was not the one.”

“He was nonetheless my enemy,” Obron said, “or at least a competitor.”

“Be that as it may,” Kaslo said, “the situation now looks like this: Someone attacked you; someone frightened Phalloon; chances are, they are the same someone. We need to know who he is, what he can do, and how he means to do it.”

Again he saw the thaumaturge come to grips with the facts, even over the lure of whatever was in the book. “Very well,” Obron said, after a moment, “what do you want from me?”

“Now that the change has come, do you have any way to find out what we need to know?”

Obron did not answer. Kaslo watched him stand and think, the long face serious now. It occurred to the op that Phalloon’s estimation of his master had been wrong. The wizard might have started out as a dabbler, an amateur easily gulled by the likes of Binnie Varshun, the confidence trickster and budding thaumaturge Obron had originally hired Kaslo to track down after the man had absconded with the funds Obron had invested in their partnership. But events since then had required the op’s master to step up to the necessities of this new and dangerous age. Obron might still like to dabble, but by his studies he was turning himself into a full-weight wizard.

The question was: Would he have time to complete the transformation? Or would some greater power, until now operating from the shadows, step into Obron’s path and do to him the thaumaturgical equivalent of what Kaslo had done to the man with the cudgel?

And the most pointed question of all: What could Kaslo do to keep his master safe? He waited now as Obron sifted through the contents of his mind, contents that grew daily more complex, and more interconnected. He saw a possibility occur to the man, watched him go to a shelf of ancient and tattered books, leaf through it, finally find and read a page, then close the book with a head-shake of irritation.

Obron stood again in cogitation, one long finger tapping the bridge of his nose. He pulled out another book, scanned its table of contents, then put it back. Now his head cocked to one side, like a bird’s, as he considered a newly arrived thought. He opened a draw beneath the workbench, rummaged through its contents, and came out with a piece of dark wood as thick as Kaslo’s finger and as long as his forearm.

“Phalloon’s,” he said, as if that was all the explanation required. With a purposeful stride, he carried the wand to another part of the chamber, where a waist-high tripod supported a wide, shallow bowl. Kaslo followed him and watched as the wizard dipped a finger into the bowl’s contents, which appeared to be a clear oil, and spoke a word. The oil instantly became opaque and tiny ripples raced across its surface, as if it were being ruffled by a breeze that kept changing direction.

Obron spoke again, a string of syllables. The surface stilled. He lightly touched the wand to the oil, then drew it back and spoke again, this time at length. Kaslo did not recognize the language, but he heard the name of Phalloon in the midst of the final passage.

Images appeared on the surface, fleeting and difficult for Kaslo to make out from his vantage point. Obron studied them, as if waiting for something. And then it must have arrived, because he spoke a short word and the image stayed. He turned to Kaslo and said, “Come, see.”

The op approached until he could look down into the vessel. He saw, as if from on high, a vast, featureless plane where constant winds blew clouds of dust. Through the obscuring billows he saw a small figure, clad in dark rags, huddled against the blast.

Obron said something and the point of view seemed to swoop down toward the sharp-pebbled ground and close in on the target. It was a man, one arm over his eyes to shield them from the flying grit.

“There,” said Obron, “is the one who can tell us whom Phalloon feared.”

“Who is he?” Kaslo said.

“Better to ask who was he.”

“Very well, who was he?”

Obron turned a mildly condescending gaze upon him. “You really have no talent for this, do you?” he said. “It is, of course, Phalloon—or what’s left of him.”

“But I saw him ripped to pieces by the air elemental!”

“Yes,” said the wizard, “and now you’re seeing his shade, down in the Underworld.”

“How is he all alone? I always thought the place was overcrowded.”

“It is. He is surrounded by a multitude, each enduring an endless solitude.”

Both men paused a moment to contemplate the paradox. Then Kaslo said, “Can you conjure him up here, so we can ask him questions?”

Obron shrugged. “The wizards of old did it,” he said, “though I have no idea how.” He looked speculatively at the shelves of books.

“Then what good is this?” Kaslo said, the back of his hand flicking over the bowl and its contents.

“I don’t know how to bring him up,” said the wizard, “but I do know how to send someone down.” Now he gave Kaslo a meaningful look.

“No,” said the op. “Not a chance.”

• • •

“Phalloon!” Kaslo said. He had to shout to overcome the constant wail of wind—a wind that not only scoured the skin with a constant spray of grit but stank like a battlefield a week after the slaughter.

The huddled figure looked up at the sound of his voice, but the seamed and coarse-skinned face was scarcely recognizable as the full-fleshed visage that the thaumaturge had worn in life. Kaslo reminded himself that this was only a part of the entity that had been torn apart by his own whirlwind.

As Obron had explained it, each evolved being had three essences: the ka, the ba, and the kra. The ka accumulated all that was virtuous during its owner’s lifetime and at death went up to the delights of the Fourth Plane, called the Overworld. The ba accumulated all that was evil, and went down to the foulness of the Second Plane. The kra was no more than a hinge that held the other two together; it remained on the Third Plane where, at least usually, it soon dissipated.

The op called Phalloon’s name again and saw the ba’s grim features condense as it struggled to chase a memory it could not catch. But Obron had provided Kaslo with a means to restore the shade’s power of recall, at least temporarily.

“It has to be something he felt deeply about in life,” the wizard had said. “The stronger the affiliation, the stronger the effect.”

Now Kaslo showed the shade the object he had brought with him into the Underworld and saw light return to the dull and faded eyes. The claw-like hands reached for the dust-covered bottle of Grand Empyreal, but the op held it out of reach.

“Only a little,” he said, “and then only if you answer my questions.”

The eyes shone with a hunger then burst into a flood of tears that caused shame to well up in Kaslo. But he steeled himself to do what had to be done and did not reflect on the part he had played in consigning Phalloon to death. He opened the bottle and produced a tiny cup, into which he poured a few drops of the red liquid, which seemed to glow like fire here in the Underworld. The shade’s fingers took the offered vessel and carried its contents quickly to the dried, cracked lips. The wine disappeared and in a moment a flush of life reanimated the emaciated face.

“More.” The voice creaked like a worn-out chair. The cup was held out in a silent plea.

“First, tell me your name,” said the op.

The eyes went inward, then Kaslo saw the knowledge dawn.

“Phalloon. I am—I was—Phalloon the Illimitable.”

Kaslo poured another tiny measure and saw it disappear. “Do you remember the castle you were creating?”

Again the pause, then again the recollection. “Strong. I was making it strong.”

Kaslo gave it more to drink. The shade was somehow more substantial now, its worn-out non-flesh filling with vitality from Third-Plane wine.

“Why did it need to be strong? Whom did you fear?”

The mouth opened to speak. Kaslo saw gray teeth and a gray tongue against which the few drops of Grand Empyreal glowed like rubies. Then the sere lips closed.

“Take more,” he said. “Answer me.”

The shade’s hands trembled now. It spilled a droplet onto its thumb and licked it clean after it had downed what remained in the cup. It looked at Kaslo, and its eyes showed anger, but beneath the animosity, the op saw another emotion.

“What are you afraid of?” he said. “Nothing can hurt you here.”

“Give me more,” said the ba of Phalloon, holding out the cup.

Kaslo saw some of the strength that had made Phalloon a powerful thaumaturge. He had not expected a struggle. “Not until you answer. Whom did you fear?”

“Did?” said the shade, and followed it with a hard, dry sound that Kaslo realized was an Underworld laugh. “Not did! Do!”

“What can hurt a shade?” he said. “Only your own regrets.”

The dried hand beckoned. “Give me the bottle, and I will tell.”

But Kaslo now saw a sly intent. He poured another few drops and saw them pass between the now-stained lips. Then he said, “Answer me fully, and the wine is yours. Play games, and it goes back to the Third Plane. You will never see its like again.”

Rage exploded in the shade’s face. And misery. And a fear that almost harrowed Kaslo’s heart. But he stood firm against the flood of hard words alternating with pitiful pleas that now ensued. Finally, he said, “Enough, I am leaving.”

Phalloon’s ba burst into tears again. “You do not know!” it cried after him, its voice a thin shriek against the wind. “He hears! He knows!”

Kaslo turned back, the bottle offered as a silent inducement. “Who hears? Who knows?”

He saw only misery now in the shade’s ruined visage.

“If I speak his name, he will hear. He will come. He will . . .”

“He will what?” said the op.

“Torment me. He has powers—such powers.”

“Who?” said Kaslo. “If you fear to speak the name, give me a clue that I can follow.”

He saw the shade trying to gather its weakened faculties. “Here,” he said, and poured it three successive doses of the elixir.

Phalloon’s remnant drank them down. The flush in its face spread to its neck. It shook its head as if to clear its mind. Kaslo saw an idea form.

“Have you,” the shade said, “my books?”

“Yes. What can they tell us?”

The hand beckoned for more wine. The op complied. The shade drank.

“It was where I found him, the traces of him. He is not fully . . .”—it sought for a word—“immanent. Not fully realized.”

The words did not make sense to Kaslo. “He is a thaumaturge? Like you, like Obron?”

Again the bark of a laugh. “Not like. And not ‘is’ but was.”

“Was?” said the op. “You mean he’s given up wizardry?”

Another bark and another summons of the wine. Kaslo poured and this time the shade tossed it off, as more of the old Phalloon reconstituted itself.

“Given up? That’s droll.” A grim smile occupied the shade’s mouth. “He never gives up.”

The wind threw grit in Kaslo’s face. He had had about enough. “If you mock me,” he said, “the wine goes. There is still much of it left, and I will drink it in your castle, sitting in your chair.”

The ba had acquired enough energy to growl, but Kaslo was not impressed. “Give me clues I can work with,” he said, “or this ends now. I’ve had enough of this stinking place.”

“You’ll have more than enough of it, when you’re here forever,” said the shade. But when Kaslo turned to go, it said, “I will tell you what I can. Three things: the Twentieth Aeon; a face of black iron; the blood of a dragon.”

“More,” said Kaslo.

“No more,” said the shade. “I have already given you more than I had when I discovered him and his plan. Search the books. Even a nibblewit like Obron should be able to find what I found.”

It beckoned for more wine and Kaslo obliged. When the drink had gone down, he saw a cruel smile appear as the shade followed its thoughts. Then it said, “Of course, finding the truth is just the beginning. Then the question becomes: What, if anything, can you do about it?”

“What did you do?”

Another short laugh. “Built a castle, prepared for a siege. Or, at least, I started to.” It looked up at Kaslo and the mockery was unconcealed. “Whether it would have worked or not, I didn’t know. I was hoping to make a redoubt so strong I would not be worth the trouble of winkling out.”

A chill went through Kaslo that had nothing to do with the cold wind. “That was the best you could hope for?”

“Against him ? It is the best anyone could hope for.”

“Twentieth Aeon, a face of black iron, and the blood of a dragon,” Kaslo said. “That’s all you have?”

“No,” said Phalloon’s ba, “it’s all you have.”

The time was almost up. Kaslo left the bottle and walked downwind. He had to keep changing direction as the gale constantly shifted to throw grit into his face. Occasionally, he saw the faint shapes, like shadows, of other tattered figures sitting on the ground, each alone and forlorn. Finally, he huddled down and just waited, his collar pulled up and his arms raised to shield his eyes.

• • •

Phalloon had caused a small, circular chamber to be dug into the rock beneath the castle, its center marking the exact place where the ley lines crossed. It was from here that Obron sent Kaslo into the Second Plane and it was to here that the op returned when the period of the spell ended.

He found the room empty, but there was a whiff of smoke in the air, the odor of burning wood—and of other things. As he climbed the spiral staircase that led up from the chamber, the smell grew stronger and he heard the sound of a woman sobbing.

The staircase led to a door that opened into the castle’s walled courtyard. A woman was sitting on the stone paving, her back against the rim of the well that supplied the castle, her hands and hair covering her face. Kaslo recognized her: Irilene, one of the latecomers. In the world gone by, she had liked to prepare gourmet meals with her own hands. Now she was one of the cooks who fed the castle’s staff.

Kaslo went to her, squatted down. “What is it?” he said. “What’s happened?”

She made a wordless sound and gestured toward the gate.

It stood open. He crossed the courtyard and went out to where he could look down on the village—and saw instead a mass of charred and smoldering wreckage. The crops in the fields beyond were rows of ashes.

Obron was standing outside the gate, gazing down on the scene with the air of one who was sizing up a puzzle. Follace, Bodwon, and other members of the castle staff were huddled nearby, staring at the destruction and talking softly among themselves. All of them were within the boundary of Plackatt’s Discriminating Delimiter.

“Who did this?” Kaslo said.

Obron turned, a worried frown further lengthening his already long face. “I don’t know. Whoever it was sent a fire elemental against the castle. I called up a water spirit to counter it, and the fire-sprite turned and ravaged the village instead.” He gestured to the smoking ruins. “All that was the work of moments.”

“How many did we lose?” the op said.

“How many what?”

Kaslo contained his temper in a hot, bright part of his being, where it could do no immediate harm. “How many people?”

Obron’s face made the equivalent of a shrug. “All of them,” he said, “except for those you see here.”

“All of them?” Kaslo said, horror replacing anger as he imagined the scenes he had missed. “All burned?”

“Not burned,” the wizard said. “Taken. The village was emptied before the fire elemental reached it.”

“Emptied how? Why did you not stop it?”

Obron spread his hands. “It, too, was the work of moments. They came like a flood, sweeping over the wall and through the fields and houses, and carried them all off.”

“Who came?”

Now the op’s master looked like a man who finds he can’t remember a small fact. “Not ‘who,’ I think. Better to say ‘what.’” He used his thumb and two fingers to draw his cheeks toward his mouth, thinking. “I need to look in some of the oldest books,” he said, then turned and strode toward the gate.

Kaslo went to where the others stood. They watched him approach and he saw varied emotions: Some were glad to see him, some were angry that he had not been there, some were just afraid.

He spoke to Bodwon. “What did you see?”

The man rubbed his stubbly head. “They weren’t men,” he said, “but they couldn’t have been machines—there are no machines anymore. They were gray and they ran on more than two legs, so fast you couldn’t . . .”

His account trailed off as his mind replayed something horrific, then he shook his head as he came back to now. “They made a clicking sound. I don’t know if it was their legs or how they spoke to each other.” He shuddered. “Every time I try not to think of it, I hear that clicking, clicking.”

Follace the major-domo had been at the gate, about to take a basket of eggs Bodwon had brought up from the chicken pens. He had had a good view. The gray tide had come from the west, where lay the ruins of the Commune of Indoberia. He had seen it pour over and into the settlement, then the fire-sprite had arrived at the castle and made the barrier a wall of flame. When it was driven off, it passed through the village and set it ablaze.

“It all happened in the time it takes to eat a boiled egg,” he finished.

Kaslo said, “Did you see which way they went?”

Follace blinked. “Yes,” he said, “back the way they’d come.”

Kaslo looked to the west, where the late afternoon sun glinted on the shattered crystal of the truncated towers. “Then that’s the way we’ll have to go.”

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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.