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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Amra 4, Chapter 2

Some more of the current work in progress! Chapter 2 turned out to be a bit on the long side. The usual caveats apply: Every single word below is subject to change before publication. Enjoy!


I'd given up on any quick solution to the puzzle of Amra's disappearance after I'd exhausted every reasonable avenue of inquiry that I and Greytooth could come up with. That had wasted a week, but I had, at least, confirmed three things: That Amra wasn't dead, that the Telemarch definitely was, and that Amra was almost certainly nowhere in the World.
That left everything outside the World. Which was a very large area to search. Technically, it was an infinity. Multiple infinities. But at least I had her point of departure.
I climbed the stairs to the top floor, to look for the hundredth time at the Telemarch's inner sanctum. Or rather, the space that had contained his inner sanctum.
There wasn't a precise line where the room ended. Take the ugly, skull-shaped door, for example. The exterior of the door was as solid, and tasteless, as it had ever been. The interior of the door, however, no longer existed. Or at least the interior surface was as gone as gone gets.
It did not cease to exist at a precise point. The interior surface of the door, and the entire room, just faded. The nearest analogy I could manage was that of someone dipping a brush in ink and dragging it across a sheet of parchment. At first the line would be a solid black, but as the ink was used up, the line would become fainter, patchier, until it disappeared entirely.
In this case, the ink was reality itself. What the brush had been, and whose hand had guided it, I could only speculate. In all probability I had the metaphor reversed, and reality had been erased rather than applied. It made no difference, really, since all I had at this point was speculation.
I entered the room, wishing for at least the fiftieth time that I'd known what it had looked like before it had gone missing.
Keel had been following me. I hadn't really noticed until he failed to follow me into the room. He didn't like the room. Said it gave him the mimis, whatever those were.
Hurvus will be around this afternoon to check your eye, Magus,” he said to my back.
What's to check? It's not there anymore.”
You know what I mean.”
I sighed, and nodded. “I do.”
We've nearly finished off the Telemarch's larder. Down to dried beans and ham bones. I have a little coin, enough for a few days' groceries, but I don't know what's available now.”
Because of the riots and the barricades.”
I turned around. “No, Keel, I mean why are you still here. This last week I have not been the pleasantest person to be around. Why are you still here, telling me about appointments and groceries?”
His face got a little pale, and a little angry. “Did you want me to leave?”
No. I just want to know why you're here instead of out there. You told me you were one of the Just Man's followers, before.”
He nodded. “I was. But Ansen's dead. He doesn't need any help. Amra's alive, somewhere, and she does. I owe her.”
I'm doing everything I can to get her back, Keel.”
I know, magus. And I know I can't really help with that. But I can remind you your wound needs checked, and I can make sure there's food ready when you remember to eat.” He shrugged. “I want to do what I can, even if it isn't much. Plus,” he grinned, “I'm supposed to be gone from Bellarius. Since I'm still here, I'd rather be holed up in a fortress with a magus than out on the street where Moc Mien's crew can get hold of me.”
I smiled. It hurt. “Ah. Theiner. I'd forgotten about him. All right, If you're going to be my eyes, ears and hands in the city below, I can't have you dodging his crew all the time. Best to deal with him now rather than later.” I left the inner sanctum, dug into a pocket and came up with a few marks. I passed them to Keel. “After you buy provisions, I want you to invite Theiner up for dinner tonight. I want to talk to him.”
Uh, magus–”
Don't tell me you don't know where to find him.”
It's not that. If he sees me again he's going to do very bad things to me. Permanent things.”
No he won't.” I dug out another mark, pulled a whisper of power from my well, and scribed the Hardic rune for 'parley' just above it. The rune floated and turned slow circles, as buttery gold as the gold mark it drew its reality from. I gave it enough power to last the day, and hardened it so that it wouldn't fade once I turned my concentration away from it.
I flicked the coin to Keel. “Give him that. You'll be fine. He'll respect the parley.”
All right,” he said, both morosely and dubiously. “Anything else?”
Do you know where the banking house of Vulkin and Bint is?” I was going to need much more hard currency than I'd brought along with me on my voyage from Lucernis.
Not really, but all the banks are on the same street, so yes.”
I'll need you to carry a letter there for me. I'll write it out in a moment.”
They're not going to let me in the door. Especially not with the rioting.”
You don't have to go in. Just deliver the letter to the doorman. And on your way back invite Greytooth to dinner, as well.”
So we're having a dinner party.”
It would appear so. Better buy some decent wine.”
Keel, if you don't start calling me Holgren I'm going to write it on a stick and beat you with it until you remember.”
He smiled. “That sounds like something she would say.” No need to explain who 'she' was.
Where do you think I got it from?”
All right, Holgren. One more question?”
Why the change? For the last week you've barely spoken, or slept, or eaten. Everything has been about the magic. Now you're making plans like you're going to be here a while.”
It was a good question. The boy was perceptive, if annoyingly young. “The change is because I've exhausted all my quick, relatively sane options for finding her.”
So? What now?”
From here on out, haste is a liability. She lives, that much I know, not hope. While that remains true, I have to walk a knife edge in regards to what I can and should attempt, to find her and get her back. I have to walk that edge. No more sprinting. The consequences could be dire.”
He shook his head. “I don't really know what you mean.”
I'll explain all you're likely to understand, and probably much more. But tonight at dinner, not now.”

~ ~ ~

When Keel left I went exploring. I'd seen something in the Telemarch's weave of wards that had intrigued me. I wanted to see if my suspicions were correct.
I knew that, below the four visible floors of the tower, there was a basement that served as larder and kitchen. But the weave suggested there was more to the Citadel, possibly much more.
I didn't bother to take a lantern. The weave of wards and other, still unknown magics was so dense and bright to my magesight that mundane light wasn't necessary. If I needed to see something with my physical eyes—eye—I could always summon magelight in any case.
It was in the great hearth of the kitchen. What looked like a solid, soot-blackened back wall was just illusion. Behind it was a corridor. Where it led to, I couldn't tell from the outside.
I stepped through the wall.
Dust and soot, thick and dry and kicked up by my feet, assaulted my nostrils. I sneezed. It was loud in that cold, silent place. I walked forward, and within a few feet came to a T intersection. Stairs led down in either direction. I chose the left-hand path and descended, but soon enough came to an abrupt dead end. I summoned a ball of magelight and took a look.
The passageway had collapsed, and the weave of wards was torn and dead where the rubble began. I did a little mental calculation and came to the conclusion that I was just about where the Riail must have stood, before Amra made it fall down on top of the Syndic.
Retracing my route, I took the right-hand stairs. Soon enough the stairs began to spiral. They went down a long, long way, with the occasional off-shooting corridor, which I ignored for the time being.
Eventually I came to a rough-hewn cavern, featureless and empty except for a massive iron disc which lay on the floor. It was at least four feet in diameter and five inches thick, and had hundreds of sigils carved into its face, all of them whispering of containment and quiescence, torpidity and compliance.
It was the sorcerous equivalent of a prison door.
I traced the weave, found the command, forced the door. The iron disk floated up and out of the way, revealing a black shaft drilled into the floor. At first glance I thought the shaft was featureless, but closer inspection revealed more of the same sigils carved into the shaft's smooth wall. They were barely visible to the human eye, they were etched so small. I hadn't noticed them at first because every iota of magic had been leeched out of them, unlike the sigils on the shaft's lid. Closer inspection revealed that they were still sound, just bereft of power. If it were necessary, they could be renewed.
I summoned a glowing bead of light, gave it weight and enough power to last perhaps a quarter of an hour, and dropped it down the shaft. It fell and fell, and was lost to sight long before its power sputtered out.
This then was what Greytooth called the rift, where Aither had stored his unrefined magic, his uncut chaos. It was empty now, a very deep, very dark hole in the ground rather than a flawed reservoir of power. I would have given much to know where that power had gone. I had a feeling that, wherever it had disappeared to, Amra wasn't far from it.
Where did you go?” I whispered, and the rift ate my words and gave nothing back.
I sat down on the dusty stone floor, put my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. Alone for the first time in a week, I let my frustration and fear for Amra out in a burning shriek. When it was done, my throat was raw. I don't know that it made me feel any better, but at least I felt no worse. Slowly, patiently I pieced together my self control and calm reserve, and strapped myself into it, like a knight his armor.
The frantic worry clawed at my stomach, as it had since she'd entered the Telemarch's sanctum. I made sure no sign of it touched my face.
I replaced the lid and began the long climb back up to the tower.
If I had need of it, I had the world's deepest, most secure oubliette at my disposal. And I would have need.
I'd feared, since I first forced the door to the Telemarch's inner sanctum, that any reasonable approach to locating Amra would be met with disappointment. Slowly, over the course of the last week, as spell after spell had failed, I had been considering more extreme plans to get her back.
The first that came to mind was finding yet another of the Eightfold's Blades, and using it to find her. I'd put it aside, considering just how powerful, unpredictable and dangerous those Blades had so far proven to be. Put aside, but not discarded. I would do it if I had to. Even if it earned me Greytooth's enmity.
Before I went down that road, however, there was another I could travel. It was equally deadly and equally terrifying, but it was a route that I had much more knowledge of.
The rift, bereft of power as it now was, would still prove useful on that journey.

~ ~ ~

Any unusual pain?” Hurvus asked me as he applied some milky solution to the empty socket. It was cold, numbing and uncomfortable.
Define unusual, in the context of losing an eye,” I replied.
Sudden headaches? Persistent irritation?”
No. The pain has lessened, though it still hurts if I glance somewhere quickly.”
The muscles are tied into each other, trying to move an eye that isn't there anymore. The pain will fade. Sit up, lean forward, let it drain into the basin. Have you considered a false eye or sewing the lids shut?”
I have not.”
Good. Don't. That's just begging for infection. And don't sleep with the patch on. Disease loves close, damp, dark places.” He handed me a clean cloth and began packing up his things in a worn leather satchel. I wiped the solution off my cheek and eyelids.
It don't need any more attention from me. I won't miss the walks up the Mount. If you need anything else, you can come see me. I won't be back here.”
Trouble getting through the Girdle?”
No. The boys on the barricades know me, and the Blacksleeves as well. Physicking has its benefits.”
What about Keel?” I asked him.
What about Keel?”
Anything more to do about that arm of his?”
I unbound it this morning and re-splinted it. Or hadn't you noticed?”
I hadn't. I've been rather distracted.”
He grunted. “It's properly set and healing well. The splints can come off in a month. No more, no less. Then he'll need to build his strength back up in the arm, but slowly. The muscles will have atrophied by then. I've told him all this, but Isin only knows if he was paying attention.”
I stood and shook his hand. Passed him a few marks. “My thanks, and your payment. Have you eaten? Greytooth will be supping with me in an hour or so.”
I can't. I have a committee meeting.”
I raised an eyebrow.
The Just Men. I've been keeping busy sewing them up after their clashes with the Councilors' troops.”
Have you become a revolutionary, then?”
I take no part in politics. But their organization regarding casualties is a sad fucking shambles. I decided to give them a little advice, if only to make my life easier and keep people from dying unnecessarily.”
Enlightened self-interest, then.”
Too fucking right.”
A drink before you go?”
His eyes said 'hells yes' but his mouth said 'no thanks.'
I saw him to the door. As he was going down the steep street, he passed another gentleman coming up it. I waited at the door, since anyone who had climbed this far could only be coming to the Citadel. The fellow didn't look like much, but I activated the wards nonetheless. Appearances, deceiving, etc. The man was a mage, that much I could tell with my magesight. How powerful he might be I had no idea.
He was a relatively young fellow, fit enough that the climb hadn't winded him too badly. He was dressed in white hose, black shoes with silver buckles, and a suit that was silk and pale, pale blue. He wore a tri-cornered hat, Isinglas-style. I looked down at my own clothes, and realized I was sorely in need of a laundress. Well. At least black was forgiving of grime.
He stopped a few feet away from the threshold and said “Magister Angrado?”
I nodded.
He doffed his hat and gave me a shallow bow. “Perrick Leed, of Vulkin and Bint.”
Well met, Magister Leed. Would you care to come inside?”
Your pardon, but no. I was sent to verify your claim, as is necessary before the bank can accede to your request. It will only take a moment, and then I will return to the bank directly to fulfill your instructions.”
Well enough,” I said. I'd set in place the precautions Leeds was now following, so it wouldn't have been very fair of me to complain. Being both a thief and a mage, I'd imagined far too many ways to make child's play of a banking house's mundane security procedures.
Do you submit to the Compulsion, magus?”
I do.”
He summoned up his power, and I felt the Compulsion settle on my mind like a soft cloth. I would notice no further effects, as long as I did not try to lie.
Are you in fact the mage Holgren Angrado?”
I am.”
Do you in fact wish to withdraw a sum of forty thousand Lucernan gold marks based on the letter of credit on file with the Bellarian chapter of the bank?”
I do.”
Does the Lucernan chapter of the bank in fact hold sufficient monies on deposit in your name to cover in full the sum you have requested, including the applicable five per cent accommodation fee?”
It does, as far as I know and last I checked.”
Are you in any way trying to deceive the bank into giving you monies that you do not in fact possess, or are otherwise spoken for?”
I am not.”
The Compulsion dissipated and Leed bowed once again. “I thank you for your time, Magister, and apologize for this necessary delay. Your request will be fulfilled in the morning.”
Why the delay?”
The current situation in the city is such that we feel it necessary take extra precautions, to ensure that your funds are delivered.”
In other words, the city is a battlefield and you need to gather a small army to make sure I get my gold.”
Precisely, Magister Angrado.”
Well. I apologize for putting the bank out in this fashion.”
Apologies are wasted on banks, magus,” he said with a small smile, “as they do not fit in any ledger. But I appreciate the sentiment. Good day.”

~ ~ ~

Keel was a dismal cook.
He'd prepared what he said were marsh eels in heartroot sauce, but looked like discs of gristle half-submerged in a gray, cold, pasty gravy. He'd mistaken pepper for a vegetable, rather than a seasoning. The bread at least was bought from a bakery and palatable, if stupendously expensive, costing nearly as much as the wine. The rebels controlled the docks, but Councilor Steyner and Councilor When controlled the routes into the Bellarian countryside, where virtually all the produce and fresh meat for the city came from. Imported wine was dirt cheap. The price of loaf of black bread was enough to cause heart palpitations.
Greytooth, Keel and I ate in virtual silence. Greytooth, I had discovered, enjoyed talking about as much as I enjoyed having one eye. Keel could talk all night, but he kept silent, sitting at a table with two mages. As for me, I'd been raised to save conversation for after a meal. Besides, I needed all my concentration to finish the meal without letting on what a chore it was to chew and swallow.
Theiner had not yet made his appearance.
I had no idea where Keel had gotten the table. Or the chairs. Or the dishes or the cutlery. I hadn't seen anything remotely like them when Amra and I had first entered the Citadel, and in the week that followed, I hadn't been paying attention to anything other than trying to find her. Well, that and my eye. I would have been happy to ignore that as well, but the pain, especially at first, had been unignorable.
I finished the last bite and, with a sigh that I hoped sounded like satisfaction, pushed the empty pewter dish away from me.
Many thanks, Keel. That was...” I searched for a word that wouldn't be an outright lie.
Horrific,” Greytooth supplied.
...filling,” I finally managed.
I've seen my Ma make it a hundred times,” the boy muttered. “Not sure what went wrong.”
Cooking is as much an art as the Art,” I said. “Perhaps we should hire a professional.” I looked around the virtually empty ground floor. “Maybe somebody to dust. Do you know anyone?”
That would haul themselves up to the Citadel each day, past the barricades? How much are you paying?”
Whatever you think is fair, Keel. I leave it to you. They can do the marketing as well.”
He nodded. “I'll find somebody tomorrow.” He rose to collect the dishes.
No, leave them. We need to talk, we three.”
Greytooth raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing.
I filled everyone's glasses and sat back down. “First I want to thank both of you for all you have done this last week, and for the assistance, and friendship, you tendered Amra before that.”
Keel looked down at his lap, embarrassed. Greytooth swirled his wine.
I have not been able to discover Amra's whereabouts, despite all our efforts. We have done all that can reasonably be done, I believe.”
Does that mean you're giving up the search?” Greytooth asked, voice mild.
It does not. It means I am preparing to resort to unreasonable means to find her.”
Such as?”
Well that depends in part on what you can tell me about the Philosophers' connection to the Eightfold, and Her Blades.”
He put his glass down. “I can tell you nothing, Holgren.”
Can't, or won't?”
He avoided my question by asking his own.
What do you hope to gain by such knowledge? How does that have anything to do with finding Mistress Thetys?”
An Arhat was mixed up in the whole sordid affair with the Blade that Whispers Hate. Here in Bellarius, Amra encountered the Knife that Parts the Night—and you, Magister Greytooth, another Arhat, another Philosopher. I have learned one thing in the years I have spent with Amra Thetys: Where she goes there is no coincidence, only cause and effect.
That the Philosophers are connected to the Eightfold's Blades I have zero doubt. That Amra is connected to the Blades, likewise. Therefore you Philosophers are, in some form or fashion, connected to Amra, even if only tangentially. I want to know what that connection is, Fallon.”
Because anything connected to her might be something I can use to pull her back from wherever she has gone, or guide me to where she is.”
Holgren. I am sorry, truly. This connection does not offer hope of that sort.”
Tell me, and let me judge.”
Very well. Put simply, The Cataclysm was caused by a splinter faction of the Philosophers; this much I suspect you know.”
I do.”
That faction used one of the Eightfold's Blades to... do what they did. The rest of us have been dedicated to collecting Her Blades ever since, to finding them and keeping them out of the reach of anyone who would seek to use them, so that nothing like the Cataclysm might ever happen again.”
Noble,” I said, “but not, you'll pardon my saying, terribly effective, judging by the state of Bellarius.” Hundreds had died when the power of the rift had begun to breach its containment. Buildings had melted like wax, dark things had been birthed and still roamed the night streets, killing and worse. The Knife that Parts the Night had made it all possible.
We are few and the Blades are extremely powerful. Until Amra destroyed the Blade that Whispers Hate, we had devoted ourselves for centuries to tracking the Blades down and containing them, believing them indestructible.” He tossed back the remains of his wine and set the empty glass carefully on the table.
Amra Thetys gave us hope that we might accomplish what we all had believed was impossible. She gave us reason to believe we could fully discharge the debt that the Philosophers owed the world, for bringing on the Cataclysm. Her destruction of Abanon's Blade gave us reason to hope that we need not spend an eternity hunting and imprisoning the mad weapons of a mad goddess, that our quest and our watch might actually have some end. That is the connection between Amra and my order, Holgren. That, and no other. I swear it. I'm sorry that it does not afford you any means to bring her back.”
It was the most I'd heard him say at any one time. He looked drained. I poured him another glass.
How do the Philosophers track the Blades?”
We do not, as such. We merely look for certain signs that one might be loose, and in the hands of a mortal. We have no direct way of finding them using the Art, or the Philosophy. I do not know where Kalara's Knife is any more than I know where Amra is, nor do I have any special means of finding out.”
What if—” My question was interrupted by a knock at the door. Theiner, I presumed. Or Moc Mien. Whichever. Keel obviously presumed the same, because he was suddenly very busy clearing the table and disappearing.
I went and opened the door.
Magus,” Theiner said with a nod. “Got your invite.” He was standing with his arms folded, coat-less despite the cold.
I nodded in return and stepped aside to allow him entry. He didn't move.
Where's Amra?” he asked.
That's one of the things I'd like to discuss with you.”
She obviously did what she said she would, or we wouldn't be standing here talking. And I wouldn't be meeting you in the Citadel if the Telemarch still had a pulse.”
Please, Moc Mien, come in.” He was Theiner to Amra, not me. I was meeting with a crew chief, not an old friend.
Finally he did, with what seemed to me a strange reluctance. He wandered around the big, empty room for a moment, sparing a glance for Greytooth, who in turn ignored him completely.
Where's Keel?” he asked.
Washing up after dinner.”
Staying out of my sight, you mean.”
I mean he's washing up after dinner.” Moc Mien snorted, but let it rest. To my mind, Keel had nothing to prove to anyone. He could have fled the city at any point, knowing his former crew wouldn't be kind at all if they caught him. He'd stayed to help rescue Amra. Moc Mien's opinion of the boy meant nothing to me.
Care for some wine?” I asked him, and he nodded. I poured him a glass.
Are you going to answer my question, mage?” he asked as he took the glass from me and leaned up against a pillar.
As to where Amra is, I don't know. Not here. Not anywhere in the word. But not dead.”
You're going to have to explain that one to me, I'm afraid. I'm just a street rat grown up.”
I snorted. “So is Amra, as far as that goes. Please don't play the fool, Moc Mien. It doesn't suit you.”
All right, if she isn't dead and isn't in the world, where the fuck is she?”
That's exactly what I've been trying to find out ever since she disappeared.”
Well. Thanks for enlightening me. Is that all you wanted to discuss?”
No,” I said. “But let's leave the other topics until Keel rejoins us.” I hoped the boy would return without me having to call him. It wouldn't do to show fear to one like Moc Mien. “Amra told me that you were her oldest living friend. How did you meet?”
I needed someone small enough and with the balls to climb up the inside of a drainpipe. It was a pretty wide drainpipe, but it was long, and as crooked as Kerf's staff.”
What in the world did you need someone to do that for?”
It was the only way I could find into a place I wanted to get into.”
Did she do it?”
No. She asked if I was born a moron or became one later, and then picked the lock on the coal chute.” He smiled at the memory, briefly. The smile disappeared when Keel came up the stairs from the kitchen, replaced by the stony mask of a crime lord. For his part, Keel ignored his former boss, sat down at the table and sipped at his wine.
I went to the table and sat down, looking at Moc Mien. After a brief hesitation he peeled his back off the pillar and sat, splay-legged, in the last empty seat.
Gentlemen. Sitting around this table are the four people in Bellarius who know Amra, know that she saved this city from utter destruction, and have a stake in bringing her back from wherever she has gone.”
Yeah, you might want to explain that part a bit more clearly,” Moc Mien drawled. “Where did she go?”
Very well. Here are the bare facts. She entered the Telemarch's inner sanctum. The Telemarch died. Amra, the Knife that Parts the Knife, and the power that the Telemarch had summoned that was rapidly destroying the city all vanished. The facts and their order of occurrence are what I and Magister Greytooth are completely certain of.”
What in hells is the Knife that Parts the Night?”
A powerful and deadly weapon made by by a powerful and insane goddess. It was what gave the Telemarch much of his magic, and made him insane.”
Fair enough. Next question. Where were you when Amra was facing him down, mage?” Moc Mien's voice had a thick thread of contempt running through it, but I answered calmly.
Getting my eye gouged out by a monster.”
He was protecting a little girl,” Keel said, pointing to me, eyes hot. “Where the hells were you?”
I'm going to let that pass for now, boy. We'll get to you later.”
Keel,” I said quietly, “Moc Mien is here for a parley at my invitation. Don't insult my honor.” It wasn't really fair to Keel, but he was young and hotheaded. He needed to learn to stay calm when provoked.
Sorry,” Keel muttered. He didn't sound the least bit sorry. I wouldn't have either, at that age.
Moc Mien, Amra isn't dead. Whatever she did, it saved the city and everyone in it. Whatever she did, it caused her to disappear from the world. But she isn't dead.”
How does that work, exactly? How do you leave the world any way other than feet-first?”
There are an infinite number of planes of existence.”
Oh? Care to give me an example?”
Certainly. In fact I'll give you eleven: The eleven hells, to be precise.”
You're saying Amra is in a hell?”
I don't know where Amra is. It's possible she's there. It's equally possible she's wandering around the plane of the gods, stealing fruit from Isin's own garden and complaining about the wine. I don't know where she is. I only know she isn't here, on this plane with us.”
Moc Mien rubbed his forehead. “Well. Thanks for informing me, I suppose.” He put his glass on the table and stood up. Turned to leave.
I'm going to find her,” I said quietly to his back, “and then I'm going to go and get her. And I need your help.” I looked at Greytooth and Keel. “I need all of your help.”
Moc Mien turned around.
Just what sort of help is it you think I can offer, mage?”
First, I want you to give Keel a pass for the time we will remain in Bellarius. I'll need him to run errands for me. I need him to be able to do that without turning up at my door in pieces.”
How long were you planning on staying?”
I don't know. Perhaps a week. Perhaps a month. Until I no longer need the Citadel.” Until I could take, and break, one of the creatures created by the power of the rift.
I can probably accommodate you. It won't be cheap.”
I didn't expect it to be free. Second, I want to hire your crew. It will be for a very dangerous job.”
What do you want to steal, and who from?”
I don't want to steal anything. I want to trap something.”
Trap? We're thieves, not hunters.”
Do you see many hunters in Bellarius? I need tough men who know the streets, alleys, rooftops and hiding places in the city. Your crew will serve.”
Not unless I say they will.”
You know what I mean.”
What are you hunting?”
One of the creatures that was spawned the night Amra disappeared. One of the dark mishaps created by the Telemarch's rift. Which one doesn't really matter.”
So you want me to ignore Keel's existence, and you want my crew to kill something.”
No. Not kill. I need it alive.”
By all the dead gods, what for? Those things are deadly.”
I need it to lead me to Amra.”
How in hells will that work?”
It's complicated and magical. Just trust me. If I can capture one and break it to my will, I'm virtually certain I can use it to lead me to Amra, or at least very near.”
Greytooth cleared his throat. “Have you discovered a way to walk the planes, then?”
Me? No. But there's a book that might tell me how.”
Oh, really. And where might this book be found?”
In the Black Library.”
Greytooth stared at me, open-mouthed. Finally he said “You've lost your mind.”
What?” Keel asked. “What's the Black Library?”
I have to second the kid, unfortunately,” Moc Mien added. “Never heard of it. Not that I'm big on libraries.”
The Black Library,” said Greytooth, never taking his eyes off mine, “is in Thraxys. The fifth hell.”
So let me get this straight,” Moc Mien said. “You want to trap one of the nightmares that's been terrorizing the Girdle and house-break it. Then you're going to go to a library in the fifth hell and steal a book that will tell you how to wander around other planes of existence. Have I got the basics down so far?”
That's not a plan. That's not even wishing. That's pure, impossible madness.”
Greytooth cleared his throat. “I'm assuming you'll be using your new, notional pet as a bloodhound of some sort, to lead you to wherever Amra is.”
That's right.”
Moc Mien looked at the Philosopher. “You're not taking him seriously?'
I am. Unfortunately. It is both the strength and weakness of mages that we deal in making the impossible become the inevitable. Strength, because without that level of self-belief, we could work no magic whatsoever. Weakness because we sometimes bite off more than we can chew. Holgren is not necessarily mad, despite what I said earlier.”
Are you joking? I'm not even a mage and I can see holes in that plan big enough to put my foot through.”
Nothing Holgren has said so far is impossible. Incredibly dangerous, yes. Almost sure to get him killed, certainly. But not impossible. Though I do get the feeling he is leaving out some rather large portions of his plan.”
Oh?” I asked. “Such as?”
Such as how you're going to domesticate a monster. Such as how you're going to gain access to the infernal regions in the first place. Such as how you intend to to battle your way past the endless hordes of demons hungering for a taste of living human flesh, rather than the pale, wispy sustenance of a human soul. Such as—”
Details, magus, merely details.”
He snorted. “Does that mean you don't yet know how you're going to deal with those details, or does it mean you don't want to discuss them?”
Mostly the latter, a bit of the former,” I admitted.
Greytooth just shook his head. Silence crept into the room. Keel finally broke it.
So does all that mean Holgren is rats-in-a-bag crazy or not?”

~ ~ ~

The 'party' broke up a short while later. Greytooth and Moc Mien left thinking I was probably insane, but in the end Moc Mien was convinced to help by the promise of large amounts of gold, and Greytooth by simple hope. Keel was also leaning towards crazy, but he was too young and inexperienced to make a final judgment. Even if he became convinced I'd lost my mind, I was fairly certain he'd stick around out of loyalty.
Gold, hope, and loyalty. Powerful enough motivators to convince three people to attempt what seemed impossible. Explaining that I didn't need any of them to accompany me on my trip to Thraxys hadn't hurt either.
I knew more about the eleven hells, in all probability, than anyone else alive. I'd studied them in depth after I'd sold my soul, looking for some way out of the bargain. Then I'd died, and gone to the third hell. What I'd discovered there wasn't something I could talk much about; some sort of compulsion had accompanied my resurrection. But one thing I'd learned before my resurrection gave me hope that my plan to raid the Black Library might have a chance of succeeding.
The hells were empty. Or at least the third one had been. I was willing to bet my life and my soul that the others were, as well.
Oh, there were still damned souls pouring in, but there were no demons or daemons there to receive them, to torment them, to feast on them.
They were all gone.
Where they'd gone or why, I hadn't a clue. Whether they would be back, the same. But their disappearance gave me at least a hope of success. If they were still disappeared, I would not have to battle my way across the third, fourth and fifth hells to reach the Black Library—a battle I would have had no chance of winning. Even without their native denizens, trekking across three hells would be a perilous journey.
I would have to enter at Gholdoryth, the third hell. It was the only one with a gate I had relatively easy access to.
First things first. Trap and train one of the rift-spawn. The Citadel had everything I need to do so, if it could be done. Once I'd accomplished that, I could leave Bellarius behind and return to Lucernis.
I wouldn't be spending much time in Lucernis, however, if all went well. Just long enough to drop Keel off safe and sound at home, visit a couple of powerful, unpredictable beings, and reopen the hell gate that the mad sorcerer Bosch had created just off the Jacos Road.
Inspector Kluge would be very unhappy about that, if he found out. Best he didn't find out.
From there....
Well. Step by step.
I left Keel by the fire with a nod and climbed the stairs, magelight guiding my way. I passed, once again, the cloth-covered easel on the second level, as utterly uninterested in the Telemarch's artistic endeavors as I had been when Amra and I had first climbed the stairs to his inner sanctum.
I stopped off at the library on the third floor and took a book at random from the dusty shelves, not bothering to look at the title, if it even had one. Many of them did not. It didn't matter. If I did not read to distract myself before sleep, I wouldn't sleep. Facts and suppositions and memories and plans and fragments of plans would parade themselves endlessly across the stage of my mind, and soon enough it would be dawn and I would not have slept a wink. I could function without it, but I would never be sure I was as sharp as I needed to be. Especially if I needed to cast a spell extemporaneously.
Magic was an unforgiving art, and failure due to inattention could mean sudden death; mine or others'. That much Yvoust, my master, had beaten into me early. He hadn't been wrong in that, though he had been in too much else.
I went to 'bed' in the inner sanctum, as I had every night since Amra had vanished. Keel may have felt uncomfortable there, but I found it peaceful. I hardened the magelight, propped myself in a corner and started to read what seemed to be a treatise on the measurement of time, written by some dead Gosland philosopher. It was all rubbish and nearly impenetrable, which was exactly what I needed.

I got almost two solid hours of sleep. Hurvus would not have been happy with me. I forgot to remove the patch.