“A Hole in the World”
“I’m taking Bodwon with me,” Erm Kaslo said. “He’s handy.”
Diomedo Obron did not look up from the ancient tome in which he had been immersed when his security chief entered his work room. “All right,” he said.
“That means there’ll be nobody handy here,” Kaslo said. “So you’ll need to keep everybody inside the perimeter.”
The wizard’s finger traced a line of handwritten text. “Uh huh.”
“Really. Everybody. Inside.”
His tone caused Obron to look up. “I assure you,” the wizard said, “I understand.” He glanced down at the page again. “At least that much.”
Kaslo studied his employer for a moment, then made a sound that signified minimal agreement. But as he saw Obron return to the text, he had to admit that the former magnate of the Grand Foundational Domain of Novo Bantry had come a fair distance since he had first hired Kaslo’s services as a confidential operative. The job had been to track down and apprehend the fraudster Binnie Varshun who had gulled Obron into an off-world mining investment and absconded with the funds.
The op’s impression of his client back then had been that of a man who had inherited vast wealth and spent his life dreaming of becoming a wizard in a world ruled not by rationalism but by magic. Subsequent events had shown that the man’s ambition had been no idle dream. The universe had changed, suddenly and drastically, and the once-hesitant version of Obron was now almost completely submerged beneath the increasingly decisive and powerful thaumaturge who could raise a castle by incantation and surround it with a spell—Plackatt’s Discriminating Delimiter—that could keep out a howling whirlwind and a fire elemental.
Kaslo now saw something else behind the concentration in the other man’s face: fatigue. “Have you been up all night?” he said.
The finger traced another line. “Yes.”
“Following Phalloon’s clues?”
Obron raised his gaze and used thumb and forefinger to massage his eyelids. “As far as I can.”
“You are more intelligent than Phalloon. What he found in all of this,”—he gestured to the shelves of ancient books—“you must surely be able to discover. And probably more.”
Obron sighed. “You are thinking like a man of the previous age.”
“I am such a man.” Kaslo was practical, logical, rational—all the qualities that were next to useless in a universe that now operated by intuition, willpower, and what in the times now gone by had been called mere coincidence. “What am I missing?”
Obron rotated his thin shoulders and stretched his long neck forward and back. “These books,” he said, “they are not inert. They were inert during the previous age of rationalism; now that we have returned to the rule of sympathetic association, they are regaining their mana.”
Kaslo blinked. “Are they sentient?” he said.
“Like our integrators used to be? No.” Obron held his open hand palm-down over the page. His brows drew down as he concentrated momentarily. “But over centuries, even millennia, wizards of considerable power—even supernal power—used these to exert their will. The books acquired and retained a . . . call it a residue of that power.”
“And they use it against you?” Kaslo said. He ran his gaze over the ranked spines, black and red, blue and green, of old leather and strange cloth. “Have we no allies in this new world?”
“They are not inimical,” said the wizard. “Better to think of them as spirited steeds that will let you ride them if you’ve got what it takes.”
“A blunt question.” Beneath the fatigue, the other man’s face showed strength. “To which the blunt answer is, increasingly, yes.” He touched the dry parchment with its serried rows of spiky black script. “We are reaching an accommodation. A sense of mutual respect.”
“Out of which comes what progress?”
Phalloon’s shade, located in the underworld, had told Kaslo that in life the wizard had identified a powerful entity. Phalloon had meant to raise the very castle in which Kaslo and Obron stood on an intersection of ley lines, in the hope that it would protect him from the unknown enemy’s force.
But, even in the underworld, the ba of Phalloon still feared the adversary and dared not speak plainly. Instead, it offered three cryptic clues: the Twentieth Aeon, a face of black iron, and the blood of a dragon. It was these hints that Obron had been researching.
“Progress?” the wizard said and rubbed his eyes again. “I have at least learned that the secret to deriving answers from a book like this is first to discover the right question.”
Kaslo was learning to tamp down his natural impatience when dealing with his employer. This was not an age that encouraged straightforward discourse. “And have you?” he said.
Obron’s response was a question of his own. “Why send,” he said, “a fire elemental?”
“How am I to know?” said the op. “I have been reduced to the level of a child, and not a very promising one.”
“I didn’t expect an answer from you.” Obron touched the book again, almost like a man patting a favorite mount. “But that seems to be the question I should be exploring.”
“All right,” said Kaslo. “Why a fire elemental? Because whoever sent it has an affinity for fire?”
Obron’s lips moved in a kind of shrug. “Perhaps, though it doesn’t feel right.”
“A matter of reach or range? After all, we don’t know how far away this enemy is, or what its strength may be.”
“I think we can assume great strength,” Obron said, gesturing to indicate the castle Phalloon had hoped would shield him. “And therefore probably operating from a distance, else it would already be battering at our gates. Which means that its ability to come here and batter must be constrained.”
Kaslo thought of the lonely shade of Phalloon on the windswept desert of the underworld. “Another plane?”
“It could be,” said Obron. “Time and space are not as we know them in the other realms. If a power, a great power, from the previous age of magic had sought to retain its puissance when the universe reverted to reason, it might have secreted itself in a hideaway in another plane.”
“And now,” said Kaslo, “it will be looking to return.”
“Return and rule.” Obron looked down at the page again. “And yet it hasn’t. Why not?”
“Because it can’t. It needs something.”
“And it sent a fire elemental to get that something,” the wizard said. “What does that tell us?”
That was obvious to the op. “It is something that will not burn.”
“Indeed,” said Obron. He laid his hand on the page again. “And how do we feel about that?”
Kaslo could not receive an answer from the book; the tome Obron had called a “spirited steed” would not even acknowledge him. But the look on Obron’s face told him that the wizard had garnered some kind of response. The op looked toward the unglazed slit of a window. The gray light of dawn was growing rosier. “I need to get going,” he said.
“Do you really expect to rescue any of them?” the wizard said.
Kaslo shook his head. “Probably not. But I can at least try to find out where they went, and who or what took them.” His gaze hardened. “And perhaps some way to strike back.”
• • • •
Bodwon was waiting beside the small port in the castle’s main gate, rubbing his arms against the morning chill. But Kaslo didn’t think the cold was why Bodwon was shivering.
“Listen,” he told the man, “this is only a reconnaissance. We’re not going to war.”
Bodwon rubbed his hand over his scalp, where his burned-off hair had now grown back in. Relief and embarrassment contended in his face. “It’s just . . .” he said.
“Say it. Nobody’s judging you.”
The man shivered again. “It’s just that you didn’t see them. They were like machines, I mean like machines used to be. They knew what they were doing, and they did it fast. One minute, the village was full of people, the next they were being hauled off. The women were screaming, some of the men, too.”
“I’ve got this,” Kaslo said, holding up Obron’s speculus. “It’s like a surveillance integrator. It will let us know if anything’s around.”
“Good,” said Bodwon, indicating the two spring-guns that had been part of Phalloon’s preparations for the new age, “because these are not going to be much use if a horde of those things come clicking and clutching at us.”
They followed the unmistakable trail the gray creatures had left, across the vast lawns of what had been Phalloon’s estate, then onto the highway that led to the Commune of Indoberia. Kaslo stopped at the edge of the thoroughfare and knelt to examine the footprints.
But he didn’t find any. All he found was a myriad of round holes, each wider than the thickness of his thumb. When he inserted an index finger in one of them, it went in all the way to the knuckle.
“They didn’t have proper feet,” Bodwon said. “More like spikes. Eight to ten legs, hard to tell because they never stopped moving, and then these big claws on the front.”
Novo Bantry’s chthonic fauna tended to be soft-bodied; few of them had survived the millennia of human settlement. Kaslo had seen crustaceans on other worlds. “Not so big, though. And they lived in the seas.”
He straightened up and they walked on. Kaslo kept glancing at the pockmarked road. It had been built to be impermeable, but that condition had been dependent on the constrained energies that bound its components together. The universe’s new rules didn’t allow for such sophisticated technology, and now the millennia-old highway was crumbling to dust. He thought of all that humanity had built on this once-mellow world—the bridges, the slideways, the grand towers and subterranean complexes—and imagined what it must have been like for the people on and in and under them the moment when the powers that sustained the structures abruptly ceased to apply.
“Let’s speed it up,” Kaslo said, quickening his pace.
They walked an hour and a little more, staying to the center of the pavement, spring-guns cocked and at the ready. Kaslo paused from time to time to consult the speculus. But each time it reported nothing.
The lack of company puzzled Kaslo at first, then began to worry him. Indoberia had been a well-populated city. The death toll from its collapse would have been massive, but there should have been survivors, even if they had lost their reason and the gentle habits of civilization. Stragglers had still been coming in to the castle and its village right up until the clicking gray things had swept over the stockade.
But as they made their way through the outer ring of houses and vendories, the two men saw and heard nothing. The speculus cast its peculiar energies wide and reported no contact.
“Where is everybody?” Bodwon said, dropping his voice to a whisper in the silence that surrounded them.
Kaslo moved on, following the trail of holes. Farther on, it departed from the main road and crossed what had been a great square in which the Commune’s Festival of Conjugations used to be held. The far side had been occupied by an eight-story building, each floor with a colonnaded arcade facing the open space, where persons of all classes and degrees had mingled to watch the proceedings. The structure was now a long, wide heap of rubble, with blocks and shattered columns jutting out at random. The gray tide had climbed it and moved on.
Kaslo stopped halfway across the square. “What’s that?”
He trained the speculus on one of the multi-punctured flagstones just before the pile of debris began and bade it enlarge the image.
“What is it?” Bodwon said, his head moving from side to side, the spring-gun following his shifting gaze.
“Not sure.” Kaslo went forward cautiously, paused and looked again through the speculus. “I think it’s a piece of one of them.”
It turned out to be two pieces. Kaslo stooped, drew a long-bladed knife from a boot, and gingerly prodded the objects. One rolled away from the other, and he said, “Did they have their eyes on stalks?”
“I think so,” the other man said. “There was something sticking up at the front.”
“Well, one of them lost his.” Kaslo stood and looked up at the sloping wall of debris. He could see the broad trail of holes passing straight over, but when he used the speculus, he saw where a few score marks veered off to one side. “There,” he said.
Weapons ready, they made their way up the heap of broken stone, at first stumbling and then having to sling their weapons and go on all fours. The side trail continued until it ended where two long slabs of white stone had fallen against each other, making a tall, triangular gap.
Kaslo signaled for Bodwon to come in from one side, while he approached from the other, inching over the broken stones, spring-gun ready. The space beneath the leaning slabs was mostly in shadow, but the angle of the morning sun gave Bodwon the better view.
“Something is moving.”
Kaslo put down the spring-gun and took up the speculus. “Illuminate,” he said. A moment later he called to the other man. “It’s one of ours.”
They clambered to the gap, Bodwon reaching it first. He swore bitterly, turned to Kaslo. “It’s Pol.”
“Let’s get him out of there.”
“No,” said a voice from inside the crevice, barely more than a whisper. “If you try to move me, I’ll come apart.”
Kaslo stood crouched before the opening and aimed the speculus. Then he swore more direly than Bodwon had.
“Have you got any water?” said the papery voice.
Kaslo passed in his canteen.
“What’s wrong with him?” Bodwon asked.
It was Polpero who answered, his voice strengthened by the drink. “I cut the one that had me,” he said. “Waited until I could see a place to hide, then I cut its eyes off.”
He coughed and took another swallow. Bodwon said, “Take it easy.”
“No,” the answer came. “I’ve been waiting for you to come, so I can tell you. And give you this.”
Something came weakly flying out of the gap to clatter on the stones at Kaslo’s feet. It was a hunting knife, but most of its blade was eaten away. Flecks of a green substance had pitted the remaining metal and charred the hardwood handle.
The op picked it up, then put it in the satchel he wore on a strap slung over his neck and shoulder. “Tell us,” he said.
The story came haltingly, on failing breath. Polpero had been chopping wood when the clicking invaders came over the stockade. Before he could even swing his ax at it, one of them seized him in its outsized pincer and threw him over its back where he remained pinned by the giant claw. All around him, the people of the village were suffering the same fate.
“I had my knife,” he said, “but I had to wait until I saw the right place. Then I saw this.” He indicated the leaning slabs. “I grabbed its eye stalks and sawed right through.”
The thing had made a weird noise, like heavy fabric ripping. It stumbled on the slope, but Polpero’s hope that it would drop him was not realized. It clung tighter, squeezing the breath from him and driving the spikes that lined each jaw of the pincer into his back and belly.
“I knew I was going,” he said, “so I stuck the knife in the hinge, three, four times. Green stuff shot out. Oh, I tell you, it burned. But it let me go, and I crawled into here.”
But that was not the end of the story. Not every one of the creatures had taken a captive; now, while the rest of the herd moved on, the unencumbered dozen or so gathered at the opening to the gap and picked at Polpero with their claws.
“I was too far in. They couldn’t get a good grip.” He let out a ragged breath and took another swallow from the canteen. “But they tore me up some.”
“We’ve got to get him back to the castle,” said Bodwon. “The wizard—”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Polpero said, “except where we all go.”
“He’s right,” Kaslo said. He offered the other man the speculus. “You want to see?”
Bodwon had the look of a man desperate for an alternative when he knew there wasn’t one. He turned away, breathing hard.
Kaslo spoke to Polpero. “You did well. Are you ready?” He lifted the spring-gun.
From the gap came the faintest chuckle. “You have no idea.”
Bodwon turned back again, and gently pushed Kaslo’s weapon aside. “I’ll do it,” he said. He set himself and aimed. “Goodbye, Pol.”
“Try not to miss,” said the dying man, with a laugh that became a wet cough. Then came the twang of the heavy flexi-ceramic spring being released from its catch, followed instantly by the thwack of a bullet striking bone and crashing into the softness behind it.
Kaslo reached in and retrieved his canteen, then they piled blocks of broken stone against the gap until it was sealed. It probably wouldn’t keep the vermin out, Kaslo thought. He looked to Bodwon. “Are you all right?”
“I’ve been better.” But the man shook himself, recocked the spring-gun, and said, “I’ll do.”
“Yes,” said Kaslo, “you will.”
Bodwon pointed with his chin to the top of the pile. “We keep going?”
Kaslo was thinking. After a moment, he said. “I still need to see where they went. But first . . .”
He clambered back down the debris pile until he came to where the gray thing’s eye stalks lay. He picked one up, very carefully. A droplet of green ichor fell from the severed end. Holding the thing at arm’s length, he shook it repeatedly until it was drained, then did the same with the other before putting them both in the satchel.
“I think,” he said, “the boss will be able to do something with these.”
Bodwon’s face said he didn’t doubt it. But then, Kaslo thought, the man had been on the receiving end of a wizardly blast from Obron when he and Polpero had backed up Phalloon’s attempt to retake the castle. Still, as they climbed the pile and looked at the landscape of rubble and destitution that had been Indoberia of the shining towers, he realized that he was coming around to the same point of view.
They went on into what had been the Commune’s heart, finding vast heaps of shattered crystal where spires had once stood. They had to pick their way across the lower slopes, flinging themselves clear when unstable inclines sent avalanches of razor-edged shards toward them. Now they followed not only the trail of holes—which Kaslo was surprised to see penetrated even the larger blocks of clear stone—but a scattering of green dots.
“Good to know they can be hurt,” Bodwon said at the sight of a green splash.
Kaslo did not reply. They were nearing the top of a low rise of dark stone; he thought it might be the tumbled ruins of the Commune’s connaissarium. Beyond was another square half-filled with rubble. The op could make out motion on the far side, and he showed the other man a hand signal that meant stop and lie down. Then together they crawled to the top of the slope.
Bodwon stared and swore, then swore again. “That can’t be,” he said.
Kaslo stared at the swirl of dark colors and turgid motion dissolving in upon itself and said, “But it can’t be anything else.”
• • • •
“A whimsy?” Obron said.
“I’ve stood in the forward lounge of a lot of spaceships,” Kaslo said, “and watched us approach them. No question it was a whimsy.” He shook his head. “On a planet. And stable. A hole in the world.”
Obron turned from where he’d been sitting at his lectern, and scanned his collection of ancient books. After a moment, he reached for a fat green libram, saying, “Now it makes sense.” He leafed through its dry pages, then came to what he was looking for. His finger stabbed at the text. “Yes,” he said, mostly to himself, “seventh plane.”
He read a few more lines, then snapped the volume shut and replaced it. When he looked up at the other two men his expression was that of one who’d been searching everywhere for a lost collar stud and finally found it far back under the wardrobe.
Kaslo knew his own face wore a more sour look. “It’s important?” he said.
Obron blinked then refocused himself. “Very,” he said. “Of course, I always knew it had to be interplanar. Now we’ve not only confirmed that but we even know which plane.”
A new thought occurred to him, and he pulled down a heavy folio bound in scaly red leather. He opened it on the lectern and began to leaf through, humming tunelessly. After a few pages, he stopped to read a passage, then quickly flicked through the book to another section. As he read the second text, the humming stopped and the wizard became very still. Now when he looked up, he had the face of a man who’d sought a lost stud under the wardrobe and found, looking back at him, the chill face of death.
“Tell us,” Kaslo said.
Obron’s gaze flicked about the room, as if anything might be lurking in the high shadows of the ceiling. “I think I know,” he whispered, “what so terrified Phalloon.”
The thaumaturge shivered, though there was no draft from the window. Outside, the mid-afternoon sun was shining, a bar of light falling through the narrow window, but Obron’s thin shoulders shook again.
“I cannot speak the name,” he whispered. “Indeed, I must make an effort not even to think about it. Even the slightest connection might be enough to . . .” He moved his hands as if wiping away letters chalked in the air, then stared into the middle distance.
“Not good enough!” Kaslo’s voice reverberated off the stone walls and Bodwon, standing behind and to his side, jumped.
Obron looked at his security man, his aspect once more deeply fatigued. “Not by your standards,” he said, nodding. “But those standards no longer apply.”
The op still had not got his head around it. Sympathetic association meant that things which shared just one thing in common could be closely connected by a practitioner who had sufficient will and the expertise with which to focus it.
Take a doll and give it the name of a person; dress it up in some fragment of the target’s clothing; add some of his hair and fingernail clippings. The effigy was now connected to the person, tightly connected if the wizard had the will and skill.
Though the target be halfway around the planet, the doll could be made to speak and tell where he was hiding. Though he be wearing armor behind stone walls, a dart thrust into the doll would pierce his heart. A calling spell could bring him marching without rest or sleep to where the wizard waited.
To Kaslo, it made no sense. He was a man of the bygone age; he was beginning to think he could wholly never adapt to the new. He took a breath and let it out slowly. “So what do we do?”
Obron scraped his lower teeth across his upper lip. “Learn,” he said, after a moment. His gaze went to the workbench, where Kaslo had deposited Polpero’s corroded knife and the eye stalks he had cut from his captor. “Seventh,” he said. “Yes.”
He got up and approached the bench, found a rod of polished obsidian and used it to stir the severed stalks. He rummaged in a drawer and withdrew a small glass cube that had a different colored lens in each side. With this, he peered at the eyes, making little grunts that said he was seeing what he expected.
“Hypothesis,” he said. “The creatures came through the whimsy from the seventh plane and returned there. They came because they were sent, and they went back with what they were sent for.”
“People?” Kaslo said.
Obron ignored the question. “The fire elemental was from this plane, but was roused and directed from the seventh. Elementals are simple and ubiquitous; the spells to command them are, to use a word, elementary. That is why even a beginner like Phalloon could summon one.”
“But we’re not dealing with a beginner,” said Kaslo, “are we?”
“Turn your thoughts away from that direction,” Obron said. “If you provide a connection, the interplanar barrier no longer obstructs. You open, as it were, a wide conduit.”
The wizard paused and thought some more. “And the same barrier meant that human agents—evil human agents—had to be employed.” He looked at Kaslo. “I refer to the men from Cheddle who attacked us.”
“They were certainly evil,” Kaslo agreed.
“You perhaps do not know,” Obron said, “that evil is a naturally occurring phenomenon on one of the other planes. Something like weather. When it becomes highly active—a storm, if you will—it can seep into our plane and contaminate the weak of spirit.”
“From another plane?” Kaslo said. “The seventh?”
“There you go,” said his employer, with the kind of smile that would encourage a none-too-bright child. “You’re not as inept as you think you are.”
“You said we had to learn.” Kaslo made a gesture that took in the welter of books and paraphernalia. “I’m not going to be much use at it here.”
“You won’t be learning here,” said Obron, “though I will be.” His long finger pointed to the window. “You’re going on another reconnaissance.”
Kaslo felt Bodwon stiffen beside him. He asked the question that was on both their minds. “To watch the whimsy?”
“No,” said Obron, shaking his head. “To enter it.”