The moment Erm Kaslo’s flesh touched the substance of the entity, he understood everything — but only for that moment. Then it turned out that everything was far, far too much for a human brain to take in all at once. He felt as if his skull was straining not to burst its seams, and as if the mind it housed was a thimble into which someone had crammed a barrel’s worth of knowledge. Just sorting all the information into gross categories would be the work of several lifetimes; subdividing it into manageable portions would take millennia.
He managed to surface briefly above the flood to form the thought, It is too much, and directed it at the entity from which the torrents of knowledge had flowed, and were still flowing, into his awareness. He was instantly met with another expression of remorse.
Stop apologizing, he thought, and help me deal with this.
How? was the question that swept in his mind, with a hurricane force that almost drove Kaslo’s consciousness from him.
Moderate your . . . strength of output, he thought back. You’re overwhelming me.
Another apology, but it was softer and the message that followed came at a volume slightly less than deafening. Is that better?
Yes, but a little lower still.
The thunder toned down to a shout. How can I help you?
A mild, monotonic voice spoke in Kaslo’s mind. Better?
Yes, Kaslo thought back. Now, all the information that has flowed into me. Take it back.
I’ve never done that before, said the voice. Then a moment later, Oh, I see. Like this?
The vast weight of universal knowledge emptied out of Kaslo as quickly as it had entered him. Now, he thought, give it to me again, but slowly, starting with a general overview. Then I’ll tell you what to zero in on.
I’ll try, was the answer, but I’m not used to dealing with the tiny-minded.
Kaslo decided the description arose from differences of scale. No insult was intended. Do your best, he thought.
• • • •
Once upon a time, the story began, there was nothing. Then the demiurge arrived.
Wait, thought Kaslo. Where did he come from?
I don’t know. He never told me. By the way, he wasn’t really a he. Nor a she, for that matter.
An it? Kaslo asked.
Your language doesn’t have the appropriate pronoun.
Never mind. Stick with “he.”
The entity explained that the demiurge came from wherever he came from, and his aim was to create Phenomenality, all nine planes of it.
He never explained. He just . . . acted.
All right. Go on.
The first task was to create tools. Or, the entity thought, you might call them — us, that is — helpers.
Kaslo saw a crowd of entities, amorphously shaped. The demiurge was a nebulous light, huge, looming. He was giving the helpers jobs to do. And the first job was to create a sketch of what the final product would be like.
That might not be the right word. A blueprint? A schematic? A rough draft?
An image formed in Kaslo’s mind: the nine planes, but not as he usually imagined them. Instead of a series of levels, he saw an infinitely convoluted shape, constantly roiling, its multiple parts intricately interconnected in ways that his mind was not designed to accommodate. He became dizzy and a little nauseated.
Take it away, he thought. The image disappeared and his stomach settled.
I was responsible for the rough draft, the entity’s voice continued. And then I . . . made a mistake.
You botched the work?
No, I was a good tool. I made a very good sketch. But . . .
Kaslo sensed shame, and behind it the great tide of remorse and guilt that had swept over him before. Don’t! he flung the thought back at the entity. Just give me the facts. What was your mistake?
When the great work was all done and Phenomenality was perfected, the demiurge noticed that I had not destroyed the sketch as he had told me to.
I had become . . . fond of it. It was rough and inelegant, but I thought it had . . . charm.
Charm? Kaslo said.
Maybe that is the wrong word. But it had some quality that appealed to me. And so I had not destroyed it.
Though you had been ordered to. How did your master take your disobedience?
As you see, said the entity.
No, Kaslo answered, I don’t see. What did he do?
He said, “If you like it so much, you can wear it.” Then he left me here.
The voice fell silent for a moment and Kaslo could feel the entity’s struggle to suppress its tidal wave of grief before it could wash over him again. After a moment, since he still did not understand, he prompted the entity: Wear it?
He inserted me into the draft, divided me and scattered parts of me through the nine planes. And here I have remained, through all the aeons.
That seems cruel, Kaslo thought.
It could have been worse. He was very annoyed.
Enough, Kaslo told the helper. He needed to think. Perhaps his situation was not as dire as it seemed. He hadn’t expected to find someone to talk to, under the scab. He’d assumed he’d be absorbed into the entity’s flesh, that this was its means of feeding. That was the first issue he needed to clarify.
Why am I here? he thought.
The demiurge did not deal in why, came the answer. Just how and where and what and how many. I used to wonder why he —
No, Kaslo projected, I need to know why I am here, in this hollow gouged out of your flesh.
Ah, that’s easy. So your life force can be leached out of you and into me.
Will I be physically absorbed, dissolved?
No, responded the entity. Our . . . natures are far too dissimilar. I am much more . . . real than you are, even though I am scattered among the planes.
Existence plainly affords you no joy. Why do you do this to me and the others?
I do nothing. It is Majestrum’s doing.
Majestrum? Kaslo thought. But he’s dead.
Not entirely, the entity responded. A portion of himself — or more properly, his will — remains extant.
• • • •
The history flowed into Kaslo’s mind. Some of it he already knew from what Filidor had said. Majestrum had been a great thaumaturge of the Nineteenth Aeon, with an ambition to be the greatest wielder of wizardry of all the ages. He had long harbored a desire to tap the energies of the Seventh Plane, particularly the element of the upper plane’s “atmosphere” that was experienced as the force called “evil” when it seeped into the Third Plane. If he could tap that force, contain it, focus it, he would command powers that would reduce all of his peers to the status of dust mites beneath his feet.
He labored for decades to design a device that would draw in and hold the evil that swept through the Seventh Plane as wind did through the Third. Then he devoted half a normal human lifespan — though not a wizard’s — to the task of building the machine.
But there remained a problem, as all his calculations consistently confirmed: The grand capacitor would have to be lodged in the interplanar membrane between the two realms, and such membranes had never been intended to be thus used. The demiurge and his helpers had made them semi-permeable. Under the right circumstances, things could pass through them — but those things were not supposed to pass halfway through, then stop, permanently.
Majestrum was not just a wielder of spells. He was that rarest of thaumaturges: a composer. He created new spells and cantrips intended to hold the capacitor in the membrane, including one ingenious variant that would have used the stored evil as its power source. But not even his brilliance could overcome the will of the demiurge.
It was while he was researching the original creator’s methodologies that he came across the fraction of the mortified helper that existed on the Seventh Plane. He set aside all other avenues of research to study the stranded entity. And thereby discovered the solution to his problem.
Only the demiurge’s will could suspend an object permanently between planes. The demiurge was no longer immanent in the rough draft of Phenomenality; he had left it behind and moved on to greater attractions. But each of his helpers, during their temporary existence, had contained a small sliver of the divine will — without it, they could not have served his purposes. And the entity that was confined to the Seventh Plane, blown here and there by its currents and fluxes, still retained its share.
Majestrum applied his considerable mental and willful resources and devised a means of capturing the drifting entity. He fixed it in place, then worked with it — and on it — until he was sure that he could direct it to perform the function he needed. The grand capacitor was duly positioned in the barrier between the Third and Seventh Planes, and the thaumaturge carried on with his plans to activate it and secure for himself a virtually divine power.
He found other uses for the helper. Majestrum sent his horde of preyns to steal men, women, and children, so their life force could strengthen the entity. He would then deploy it to terrify and crush his wizardly rivals, whose most potent spells and shields were as nothing to an entity that possessed the powers of a demiurgic tool. Sometimes, Majestrum would send his new creature even into the underworld to torture his victims’ pathetic remnants. Such power brought the thaumaturge as close to happiness as his dark nature could permit.
Finally, the great device was ready and in position. Its Third Plane manifestation was in the ancient city of Ambit, whose inhabitants were summoned to witness its inauguration and subsequent apotheosis of their wizardly ruler. But among the lesser thaumaturges Majestrum had forced to labor on his masterwork, there had developed a conspiracy to undo him. They had managed to adulterate a crucial component, and when the master activated the initiating sequence, instead of triumph came catastrophe.
Ambit, with its teeming multitudes and all the land for leagues on every side, was obliterated. A skyward burst of concentrated evil destroyed Old Earth’s heavily populated moon. Majestrum had the presence of mind to escape into an interplanar bubble, where he remained trapped for aeons. His attempt to restore himself to life in the Third Plane was blocked by the Archon Filidor’s agent, who finally ended the last remnants of the thaumaturge’s existence.
• • • •
You must have found that gratifying, Kaslo thought.
I would have, replied the entity, if it had made any difference.
How did it not? Even Kaslo knew that when a wizard died, his will died with him and all his magical works became as naught.
It is not the wizard’s death that matters, the entity explained. It is the final extinction of his will. And Majestrum’s will, or at least a portion of it, lives on . . . in his helper.
His factotum. Its name has always been shielded from me, lest I find a way to resist its dominance.
Kaslo remembered the shape he had glimpsed just before the preyns stuffed him into the cavity. Now he knew why it had seemed familiar. Majestrum, he thought, had a familiar. A groffet.
And the groffet has a portion of his will.
A mere splinter, but it is enough, because it is . . . shall we say, integrated into the fragment of the demiurge’s will that keeps me alive, so that I may suffer.
That integration must have been a delicate operation, Kaslo said.
Majestrum, returned the entity, was as subtle as he was hideous.
Kaslo was putting the pieces together, but part of the puzzle was still missing. What, he asked the entity, is it all in aid of? What is the groffet trying to do?
I would have thought that was obvious.
Not to me.
The familiar is powered by a fragment of Majestrum’s will. Being part of Majestrum, the fragment wishes to grow.
To what end?
You interrupted my thought. The fragment wishes to grow . . . into another Majestrum.
The groffet is trying to bring back its dead master?
Yes, said the entity. And, gradually, it is succeeding.
I need to think, Kaslo told the demiurge’s helper.
I wouldn’t expect much to come of it. But you might as well do it while you can.
While I can?
As the life force drains, your mentation will become more difficult. After a while, cognitive function ceases as your brain seeks to protect the most fundamental processes.
Kaslo could glimpse parts of the other people the preyns had crammed in before him. Limbs twitched, fingers moved spasmodically. Is that what’s happened to the others?
No, said the entity. Their sensoria were overburdened by the conditions of this plane. By the time they reached me, those that weren’t gibbering had become catatonic.
I have devices that filter and reinterpret the stimuli, said Kaslo.
So I see. They were originally invented by Majestrum. There is probably an irony there, but I was never designed for irony.
It paused, and Kaslo sensed its striving to identify a twist of fate. Never mind, he thought. What about these poor people around me? Can they be restored?
No. The groffet had me very busy for a while. The activity drained them. There is nothing left but reflexes and they are fading. I am sorry —
Don’t start that again, Kaslo shot back.
No, I suppose it doesn’t help. And I don’t wish to offend. It is a pleasant novelty to have someone to talk to, for as long as it lasts.
The groffet does not converse?
It merely exerts its will — Majestrum’s will, that is — which it can do without words. Besides, it has nothing much to say that would be worth hearing. It is single-minded to the point of dullness.
Enough, Kaslo projected. Let me think.
As you wish, but if you feel your mind beginning to cloud around the edges, I would appreciate a little more conversation before you . . . well, you know.
• • • •
Kaslo’s training as a confidential operative had prepared him for dealing with tactical problems. The initial step was to define the situation accurately and completely. And now, for the first time since the fire elemental had been sent to attack Diomedo Obron’s castle, he had a coherent outline of what was going on and who was involved.
An ancient thaumaturge had lurked in an interplanar anomaly since the Nineteenth Aeon, waiting for the underlying rationale of the Third Plane’s universe to switch once again from cause-and-effect to magic. Presumably only under the rule of sympathetic association could he apply his powers to his resurrection. Majestrum’s opening move had been to try to recalibrate and restart the evil capacitor that would have given him the power to rule Old Earth, once the great change arrived and, for all Kaslo knew, the remnants of the Ten Thousand Worlds as well.
But the Archon Filidor had sent an agent, someone called Hapthorn, to thwart the wizard’s plan. Majestrum, so all had thought, was thus finally dispatched. But it turned out that his familiar, a groffet, had been left behind, unnoticed. The thaumaturge had somehow implanted a portion of his will inside the creature which, good servant of an evil master that it was, was now doggedly trying to carry on Majestrum’s plan. It was now seeking to reconstitute an entire Majestrum from the fragment of will with which it was imbued.
Clearly, the groffet, by itself, was not capable of doing what was required. That capability must lie with the demiurge’s stranded and divided helper, with the wizard’s familiar supplying the will that would force the entity to act.
But that raised a question: The entity was a tool that had essentially created Phenomenality. Surely it had had the power to do what the groffet wanted done as soon as it was supplied with life force from the people the preyns had stolen from Obron’s castle. Why hadn’t it done so? Why had it staged futile attacks within the Third Plane?
Kaslo put that thought into words and projected it to the entity. The answer came immediately.
The capacitor’s controls are on the other side of the interplanar barrier, its voice spoke in Kaslo’s mind. I can project illusions and short-lived effects a moderate distance into the Third Plane. But the task the groffet wants completed requires a human operator, preferably one with thaumaturgical skills. Initially, that was to be the one who called himself Phalloon.
Kaslo said, But then Diomedo and I destroyed him.
Yes. So then I sought to draw Obron in, but he was too careful. He sent you.
I, who have no skills.
True, though you have a good supply of will. You are just unable to focus it.
Kaslo was pursuing the trail to its logical conclusion. So all of the displays, the elemental and the athlenath, the preyn raids, were intended to lure a wizard within range?
The preyns were sent to bring people. Or, as Majestrum’s groffet called them, fuel. The last one was to capture you, again for your life force.
Kaslo conceded the point. But the rest . . .
Yes. The goal was to lure in a practitioner and bend him to Majestrum’s will.
Kaslo had finally caught up. And right now . . .
I am doing just that, said the entity. I’d rather not, but the whips and chains that Majestrum applied to me in the Nineteenth Aeon are as strong as they ever were. And the groffet is adept at using them.
Show me, Kaslo said.
• • • •
An image instantly formed in Kaslo’s mind: Testroni’s Impervious Conveyance stood on the level plain, its hatch sealed. Through a transparent panel, the op could see Filidor and Obron inside. The Archon was moving his hands and arms into precise positions, while his lips formed words Kaslo could not hear. Obron was frantically leafing through an ancient book, occasionally pausing to scan a page and call out something to Filidor. The Archon’s groffet was standing statue-still, but Kaslo had the impression it was as active as the two thaumaturges.
Their intense activity was occasioned by what was going on outside the domed vehicle, which had not only lost its sheen but was now scarred and scorched in several places. Two huge creatures of indeterminate shape were battering at the conveyance with multiple limbs that seemed to be formed from thick, black smoke yet ended in solid, heavy hammerheads. A third athlenath had shaped one of its appendages into a thick spike and was trying to insert its tip into the wall where the edge of the hatch would be.
As Kaslo watched, Filidor smacked his right fist into his left palm, then sharply pulled the two hands apart while shouting something that caused his mouth to contort wildly. The prying demon was abruptly hurled far away across the empty landscape. It struck the flat surface in a series of rolling bounces, shedding parts of itself as it went. It finally stopped and lay inert, like a mound of black fog. Then it slowly rose and began to reconstitute itself.
The Archon took the book from Obron, flicked to another page, and quickly scanned what was written there. Then he touched his index fingers to his temples, crossing his arms so that each digit touched the opposite side of his head. He blew out his cheeks then released the pent-up air in a burst. Both of the hammering demons dissipated into thin clouds of gray vapor. But, as with the first athlenath, they quickly began to solidify and reform.
That is a very skillful wizard, the entity said. But magic is not as powerful here as in the Third Plane. Sad, but this can end only one way. Majestrum’s groffet is making me summon a banderanth. It will dissolve the vehicle, and then the two thaumaturges will be in my — that is, Majestrum’s — clutches.
Then stop! said Kaslo.
I would, but I cannot. His will is paramount.
Something must be possible! What can be done?
An interesting question. Let me consider it.
There isn’t much time.
True, said the demiurge’s helper. All this effort I’m making is putting serious demands on your life force.
So intent had Kaslo been on the struggle that he hadn’t noticed a creeping sense of lassitude. Tell me, he said, something we can do! Now!
My powers, combined with Majestrum’s will, cannot be withstood. We can do nothing about the splinter of his will. Therefore, the only avenue of approach is to deal with me.
I am trying to deal with you, said Kaslo.
I mean “deal with me” in a final and irrevocable way, said the entity. Kill me.
Kill you? How?
Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? If I knew how to do that, I’d have done it shortly after the demiurge left me here.
You’re not helping.
I’d like to. I had high hopes when you appeared. You’ve done a lot of killing.
Kaslo was tired. His brain felt heavy in his head. Is there anything, he said, that you know of that could kill you? Assuming I could get my hands on it.
Majestrum devised something, before he bound me. He was using a new spell, one of his own compositions, and there was a statistical chance that it might not work. In case I broke free and turned against him, as I probably would have, he prepared a weapon.
What was it? Where is it now?
But the demiurge’s helper did not know. The weapon was created in and never left the Third Plane, a realm into which the portion of the entity that was trapped in the Seventh Plane could not see.
Is there no way to discover it? Kaslo asked.
Pardon me a moment, said the entity. The banderanth has arrived and I have to force it to attack your friends’ conveyance.
Kaslo’s mind grew perceptibly duller as he waited. When the entity next spoke in his mind, the op felt as if he hadn’t slept for a day and a half.
There is a way, it said.
Kaslo came back from a gray blankness. He couldn’t remember what he had been thinking of just moments before. What? What are you saying?
I’m saying there is a way to discover where the weapon is.
Right! Kaslo dragged himself back to wakefulness. The weapon. How do we find it?
A part of me is in every plane, said the entity. We ask the fragment that is in the third realm.
Kaslo remembered. But that fragment was trapped in a cave on a distant planet. How do we get to it?
It may be trapped in the Third Plane, but it is still part of me. Or, rather, it and I are still parts of the same whole.
I’m too tired for pedantry, Kaslo said. What does that mean in practical terms?
I can . . . reach out to it, but there is no guarantee it will respond. Each of us is sunk in its own individual hell.
Unutterable weariness flowed through Kaslo. He rallied himself and said, Try.
In a moment. Your wizards have managed to repel the banderanth, but I’m sending it back again.
Kaslo realized he must have dozed off waiting, because the entity’s voice snapped him back to alertness.
I’ve made contact.
The op tried to shake his head but found that it was now firmly wedged between the wall of limbs and torsos into which he was pressed. Ask about the weapon. Where is it?
A moment passed and he was sliding into torpor again. It was in the Third Plane, the voice in his head said, but now it has been moved.
Despair piled onto Kaslo’s fatigue, like two opponents jumping onto his back in a melee. Where to? he managed.
That’s the odd thing. My other part insists it has been taken into this plane.
Kaslo struggled to think, formed a thought. But then you’d know where it was.
Yes, but I don’t. How peculiar.
The op’s brain refused to grapple with the conundrum. He felt it shutting down. It was like seeing all the lumens in a building being turned off, floor by floor.
Is there anything you can do, he asked the entity, to make my brain work better? I need to think.
Well, you are just a rough draft. I suppose I could try to optimize your mentational functions, or at least fill in some of the blanks.
It was like being in a hot stuffy room when someone opens a door and a flood of cool, reviving air flows in. Kaslo felt his awareness both growing and sharpening in a matter of moments. He examined his situation from several angles then said, You can’t see into the conveyance, can you?
No, it is impervious. But wait, the banderanth has dissolved a hole in the top. It is only a pinprick, but . . . A moment passed. And there it is. It passed an image to Kaslo’s mind.
I see the weapon, Kaslo said. I must get to it. But the confining membrane pressed him tightly against the mass of bodies. He considered the possibilities for an instant, then a plan formed in his enhanced mind. He asked the entity, Does Majestrum’s will control the preyns?
Only indirectly. They are trained to obey the groffet.
Can you control them?
Where is the groffet now?
In the opening of the cavity Majestrum created in me, watching the destruction of the conveyance.
That was as Kaslo had expected. Then have them cut me loose, quietly.
The arthropods arrived and lifted the membrane away from Kaslo. His mind was preternaturally sharp, but his limbs were weak. He stepped carefully out into the cavity, and saw the wizard’s hunch-shouldered familiar framed in the opening, gazing out and down.
Is there another way out of you?
Did the preyns cut the original wound?
Can they cut another one?
The entity’s voice, until now a monotone of placid calm, took on an edge of excitement. Yes.
Then have them do so, but without the groffet noticing.
Easily done. A curtain of the entity’s flesh-like substance descended silently from the cavity’s ceiling while another rose from the floor to meet it, effectively screening the groffet’s view of Kaslo and the two preyns. Now the arthropods raised their front pincers and began tearing at the solid wall of the entity’s meat, which fell away like cheesecloth, creating a down-sloping tunnel that soon ended in a new opening. Kaslo could see the flat, pebbly surface of the plane beyond.
He stepped toward the tunnel, but his knees kept bending and he sank down and would have toppled forward onto his face if he hadn’t managed to clumsily sway himself upright. But his mind remained clear and incisive. Can you have the preyns take me to the conveyance? he said, and when the answer was in the affirmative, he bid the entity make it so.
One of the multi-legged creatures picked him up, its grip firm but gentle, and placed him on the other’s back. Kaslo grasped the carapace with weakened hands and held on as the animal scuttled down the tunnel and out onto the flat surface.
The scene had changed since the entity had shown him the athlenaths’ attack on the vehicle. The three demons were now hanging back while the new threat summoned by the groffet, the banderanth, took on the task of reducing the conveyance’s defenses.
Even wearing the Archon’s goggles, Kaslo could not sustain a clear image of the Seventh Plane creature. It seemed to shift in and out of focus, and its outline was constantly mutating. But he could see that it was big, at least half the size of the vehicle, limbless and headless as an unshelled mollusk, although tubular projections kept rising randomly from its glabrous skin only to be pulled back to no apparent purpose. The thing had draped itself over one end of the conveyance, and its undersurface looked to be glued to the dome. Wisps of gray vapor leaked out from under the line where the banderanth’s substance met the formerly shining surface.
It’s dissolving the dome, Kaslo thought, as the preyn he was riding scuttled toward where the hatch had been. Through the transparency, he could see Filidor and Obron still doing wizard’s work, but their shoulders slumped with fatigue and their ashen faces beneath the helmets and goggles were graven by deep lines. They seemed to have aged decades since he had been snatched away.
He was within a few paces of the conveyance when the preyn carrying him abruptly stopped. Momentum threw Kaslo forward over its head, to roll across the packed rounded pebbles that made up the floor of the vast plain. The animal that had borne him, along with the second preyn that had accompanied it, now looked at him with a new purpose. Pincers clacked and reached for him.
The groffet had torn its attention away from the attack on the two wizards’ shelter, seen the preyns carrying Kaslo toward them, and ordered them to stop what they were doing. Its next step was clear to the op’s clarified intelligence: It would have the animals seize him and carry him back to where he had escaped from. The entity’s ability to summon and control demons would depend on draining the last of the man’s life from him.
Even now, the banderanth had begun to slide off the dome, its actions no longer ruled by the demiurge’s helper. Kaslo looked past the preyns to see the entity slumped on its side, looking once again like a range of low hills. The mask of black iron had fallen away. Halfway up the slope of the entity’s substance, he could see the circular orifice in which Majestrum’s groffet stood. The shaggy were-creature’s lambent eyes regarded him impassively.
All of that Kaslo took in at a moment’s glance. Then the preyns advanced, pincers wide. He turned his head, though his weakness made it a vast labor, to call to the men in the conveyance, but there was no need. The hatch fell open, became a ramp, and at the top of the ramp was Filidor. Haggard but determined, the Archon pointed a rod of black wood at the nearest preyn. He said a word and the creature was instantly limned in a purple non-light that made Kaslo’s eyes ache even through the thick crystal lenses. Now the light blinked out to leave the arthropod standing dull-black and seemingly frozen in mid-motion. Then the black shape came apart, becoming a million specks of dust that fell to the ground. For a moment, they formed a stain on the surface; then they were gone.
Filidor aimed the wand and dispatched the second preyn in the same manner. Then he and Obron hurried down the ramp, seized the op under his arms, and hauled him into the conveyance. As soon as he was inside, the Archon’s groffet made a gesture and the hatch sealed itself.
Kaslo lay facedown on the floor where the wizards had deposited him. Breathing and blinking his eyes had become about as much as he was capable of.
Filidor knelt and regarded him for a moment, then said to Obron, “Bring Hentero’s Compendium.” When Kaslo’s employer handed him the ancient black book, he riffled through it quickly, found a page, and read it. Then he sought in another section of the text and paused for a moment to think.
“Should work,” he said, getting to his feet. He glanced at the first page again, flipped back to the second, then spoke a succession of syllables while manipulating the fingers of his free hand in a series of exact motions.
For Kaslo, it was as if a bellows had been inserted into his navel then worked to inflate his body with what felt like a bubble of cold power. He could track its chill as it spread from his middle to the rest of his torso, then into his legs and arms, down to toes and fingers that felt as if they might burst open from the pressure. But when it sought to rise into his head — he was sitting up by now — he silently spoke inside his still lucid mind: No, and felt the power remain just below his chin, like a flooded river lapping at its maximum height.
“What did you do to me?” he asked Filidor, as he rose fluidly to his feet. It felt as if his body was vibrating with energy, though his hands showed not even a tremor.
“A combination of Podestri’s Interrealm Lend-Lease and Shalmor’s Chronical Decompression,” the Archon said. “You probably wouldn’t understand.”
Kaslo disagreed. “Try me,” he said.
Filidor explained that he had first dispelled the illusion of time, so that Kaslo was revealed in his current living existence as well as in his pre-gestative and post-mortality states. He had then “borrowed” some of the life energy from the preconceived Kaslo’s potential, converted it to a useful kineticism, and imbued it into the op’s body. “Of course,” he said, “balancing requires your ba to have even less of an existence once it appears in the Underworld. But it seemed a reasonable price to pay.”
“I agree,” said Kaslo. “And perhaps between now and that melancholy eventuality, I can find some other way to rebalance the disrupted quotients.”
The Archon’s eyebrows rose and he turned to Obron. “I thought he didn’t understand such arcana,” he said.
Before the other thaumaturge could answer Kaslo said, “I didn’t used to. Now it seems rather obvious.”
He glanced out the transparency. The entity lay as before, apparently inert, with the groffet watching dispassionately from the permanent wound in its side. The banderanth had retired from the conflict and was moving at a slow but steady speed toward the horizon. The three athlenaths had also withdrawn; they had taken themselves off some distance and appeared to be communing with each other. Kaslo deduced their shapeshifting to be their means of communication and they were deciding what to do next.
“The demiurge’s helper,” he speculated aloud, “has used up all the life force extracted from the people stolen by the preyns. It can no longer command the demons for the groffet. The groffet is safe from their retribution while it remains within the entity’s substance.”
“Yes,” said Filidor. “It is a stalemate.”
“No,” said Kaslo. “It is not, and it is time to end this — once and for all.”
Not long before, he knew, he would have been amazed at the clarity with which he could assess the situation: not only the relative statuses of Majestrum’s groffet, the helper, and the demons, but the strengths and potentialities of the two thaumaturges. Both of the latter were tired and depleted; Obron was near exhaustion, and Filidor could not have deployed more than two major spells without collapsing.
To Kaslo, these realities were now self-evident. He was interested in pursuing their meanings and ramifications further, but first he must take care of an obligation. He strode to the desk littered by scrolls and librams, swept them aside and found the stack of papers on which the wizards had made their calculations. Atop it rested the fist-sized orb of black iron-like metal that Obron had been using as a paperweight. Kaslo scooped it up.
He weighed the heavy ball in his hand, then turned to see the two others eying him carefully. He tossed the thing up and caught it. Its impact against his palm sounded like a hard slap. “What was it you called this?” he said to Obron, though he remembered exactly. He now found that he remembered everything exactly. “Oh, yes, you called it ‘a dragon’s equivalent of a kidney stone.’ But it’s not.”
He studied it from several angles, then turned to where Filidor’s groffet was standing in its customary place in an out-of-the-way corner. “Old Confustible, do you know a spell that Majestrum would have used to disguise something so it could be hidden in plain sight?”
“Probably Azerablez’s Innocuous Gloss,” the familiar said.
“And its undoing?”
“Speak the second sura backwards.”
Filidor said, “I know that. I will say it.”
“Let me,” said Kaslo. To the groffet, he said, “Speak it to me.”
Old Confustible spoke in his ear, three triplets, each of three syllables. Kaslo understood them instantly, intuitively. He spoke the middle one, reversing each of its sounds.
The ball of iron in his hand shimmered and his palm felt a moment’s cool heat. Then the black sphere was gone, and in its place was a shining nouble of deepest red.
“An exemplar,” said Obron. “I’ve never seen one outside of a picture in a book.”
Filidor leaned close and inspected the orb through the crystal lenses of his goggles. “It’s been worked on,” he said. “An exemplar is more than just a nouble, but — though I never thought I’d have occasion to use the phrase — this is more than just an exemplar.”
“It is unique,” Kaslo said. It was all very clear to him now. “It has no name, because Majestrum knew that anyone who came across the name might find the weapon. He referred to it obliquely, as ‘the blood of a dragon.’”
“A weapon?” Filidor said. “Against what?”
“Open the hatch,” Kaslo said, “And I’ll show you.”
He stepped down the ramp onto the pebbled plain. He formed the thought, I have it, and projected it to the entity.
Its voice came into his mind, very faint. Ah, it said, and the silent sound carried the sense of a longing at last to be fulfilled.
Can you rise up? Kaslo asked it. If so, I think you should.
Slowly, the demiurge’s helper levered itself up on its rudimentary limbs, until it assumed the posture that, in a man, would be kneeling. The groffet clung to the rim of the wound in its side. The best I can do, the entity said.
It will suffice. The sling was still tied to Kaslo’s belt. He unknotted it and slipped the red nouble into the leather pocket.
Wait! Filidor’s voice broke into his mind. There is much we can learn from it.
No, sent back the op. It has suffered enough. Though Kaslo’s back was toward the Archon, standing in the open hatchway, he sensed Filidor’s raising of a hand. Better if you don’t, he said, and felt the tension behind him ease.
Kaslo let the sling with its burden hang from his hand, its cords wound around his fingers. He swung the weapon in a wide, slow circle, then put more energy into the rotation and raised his arm so that the sling rotated above his head. In the Third Plane he would have heard a whirring; here the motion was silent, but the nouble glowed in its pocket like an ember blown into red-hot life.
It wants me to stop you, the entity’s voice said inside Kaslo’s head. But I told it I lack the energy. The op looked and saw Majestrum’s familiar standing in the open wound, moving its furred arms in a manner that might have been an attempt at spellcasting. Is that irony? the entity said.
Thank you, said Kaslo. For everything. Then he let the glowing missile fly. It streaked toward the entity — a line of crimson fire that did not quickly fade — and struck the demiurge’s helper in the middle of its mass. The effect was similar to what happened when Kaslo shot the preyn. Where the exemplar pierced the entity’s substance, a hole appeared, glowing red around the edges. The gap expanded rapidly, racing outward in all directions.
A faint voice sounded in Kaslo’s mind, more a sigh than a syllable. Ahhh, and suddenly the entity was no longer there. Majestrum’s familiar fell to the ground, as did a mass of desiccated bodies, but only the groffet moved. It rose to its splayed feet and looked at the three men without emotion. Kaslo’s enhanced perceptions told him the creature was incapable of feeling.
There was motion farther out on the plain. The three athlenaths had been moving away. Now they stopped and began to come back, their roiling forms gliding smoothly just above the ground.
Get inside! Filidor was gesturing to Kaslo from the open hatchway. The op turned and moved toward the shelter of Testroni’s Impervious Conveyance. But as he mounted the ramp, he was jostled aside. Old Confustible hurried down onto the plain and scurried on its short, bent-kneed legs to where Majestrum’s groffet stood watching the onrushing demons. The Archon’s familiar seized the other’s arm and began dragging it toward the hatch.
Kaslo stood in the doorway. No, he projected to Old Confustible.
It knows things, the groffet replied, dragging Majestrum’s creature up the ramp.
The things it knows are better forgotten, the op said. And while it lives, so does Majestrum’s will.
He’s right, Filidor’s voice sounded in his head. Let it go.
The Archon’s groffet seemed poised to argue, but then it loosened its grip on the other familiar and came inside the conveyance. The ramp lifted, sealing the hatch. Majestrum’s familiar was tipped out onto the plain. A moment later, the three demons arrived. They surrounded the groffet, forming a single black mass of pulsing energy. Then they separated into three individuals again and flew off toward the horizon. Behind them, nothing remained.
Soon after, Saunterance arrived, unsummoned. The dragon seized the ring atop the dome, spread its wings, and lifted the conveyance. Inside, Filidor and Obron sank into their chairs, their slumped postures eloquent of exhaustion. Old Confustible retired to its customary spot and closed its lambent eyes. Kaslo unwound the sling’s cords from his fingers and watched through the transparency as they raced across the emptiness.
He was thinking, and the thoughts were new to him.
• • • •
“I’m staying here,” Kaslo told Obron. “Filidor says I can use his library and connaissarium. Bodwon can take over for me when you get home.”
They were in the suite of rooms the Archon had provided for them in the same wing of the palace where Filidor had his own quarters. The room’s window looked out over the sprawl of Olkney and the woods and fields beyond the city. Kaslo pointed out a large house that stood in its own walled grounds. “The former owner was off-world when the change came. He won’t be coming back. I can have it.”
“What will you do here?” Obron said.
It was obvious to Kaslo. He was still getting used to the slowness of ordinary minds. “Study, practice, invent, correlate,” he said. “I mean to produce a Compendium of my own.”
Obron’s brows scaled new heights. “Thaumaturgery?” he said. “You?”
“I’m not the me I used to be,” said the op. “Watch.”
Obron’s mouth fell open as Kaslo proceeded to kiss his own elbow. “I’ve never seen it done that way,” the wizard said.
“It seemed a simpler approach than the one you showed me,” said Kaslo. “And my method allows for this.”
This time, Obron gasped. “Both elbows at once! That’s . . .”
But before he could find a word to express his astonishment, Kaslo added both knees and the top of his head. A moment later, reconstituted and gazing down at his former employer, who was stretched out on the floor in a swoon, the op said to himself, “Probably shouldn’t do that in public.”
He revived his former employer and helped him to a chair. Obron passed a hand over his face. “Erm Kaslo,” he said, as if to himself, “a thaumaturge. A practitioner.”
“More than just a practitioner,” said Kaslo. “I intend to compose.”