Smog diluted the orange lights, giving them an eerie tint. The motor-coach rattled over the uneven stones, alone in the reaches of the night. From far away came the singing of drunks, riding erratic eddies of the wind.
It is dark, and Thaddeus Grey watches the moon.
He has never considered himself a man of mystery, for the very simple reason that men of mystery tend to know what it is that they're doing, and to an extent, why. Eccentricity, he has long ago decided, requires a good amount of sanity to count for anything. Else you're just a schmuck.
The coach came to a stop. As it has always been in Ans, this required an excessive amount of bumps and trundling gasps of smoke, which rattled him from his reverie. With a start, he grabbed at a handle inset near the door, and glanced at the seat next to him. She had not stirred. Good.
He rapped against a small divide between himself and the driver, and the curtain rustled in answer.
"Not too rough, was it? It's these rocks they use... damn useless for the horses, too, so I'd say we got off lucky."
"Drop us off near the concourse," said Thaddeus. "I can make my way from there."
There was the barest suggestion of a nod, and the curtain fell back into place. Wincing at the jarring motion, Thaddeus moved back into his seat, checked the package one more time, and frowned at the square that was coming into view.
At this hour, it was justifiably abandoned. The air, adhering itself to oddly shaped curls and eddies, seemed to whisper against him. Nonsense verses, like the taste of a woman's hair. He tugged on his gloves. They were shorter than the norm, and covered him only to the upper wrist. He knocked the back of the seat again.
"Why is it that wizards wear such incredibly long boots?"
Silence persisted for a few long seconds. Finally, he said, "Concourse is coming up. Looks empty."
"Yes, well, it would be." He rustled at his pockets, and drew out a small cigarette. "It's late, after all. But don't you worry. Langley will be here."
"Still kicking, is he? Heard he died two years ago, fell outta the dome."
"Well, you know what they say about very old men..." He let the suggestion float in the air, until his companion took the bait, albeit with an indulgent sigh.
"What's that, then?"
The car trundled to a stop once more, juggling the words in Thaddeus' throat until at last it came to a standstill. He pushed open the door, flung the package over one shoulder, and flashed a brilliant smile at his driver. "They bounce."
"There's a lantern on the side, there," said the voice from inside the coach. "Careful not to fall. Stones are slick in the fog."
"Not my first time around. Take care, Hanson."
Hanson gave him a small salute. Thaddeus watched him go, waving as he turned a corner. When the last lights disappeared from view, he changed the girl's position on his shoulder, and smiled. "Good man, that," he told her. "Not many of them around these days, or so they say."
No reply, but that was to be expected. The sedative had smelled expensive. Before them, rising between the weak illumination of two streetlamps like a king above his subjects, the Observatory of Listarel commanded the sickly mists.
"Always hated these lamps," he said, as he headed for the heavy doors. "They have these lights in Sterl, you, know, that glow blue when you switch them on. Very cheerful blue." He knocked once, twice, then twice more, quickly, on a knocker designed with a pattern of stars, arranged in an arch. "They call it Glint," he confided in her, as the portal swung open on silent hinges. Beyond, the lobby was deserted. And dark.
In those days, the Observatory played not-so-very-humble-host to the last great work of the artist Reneuoe. The chandelier was his masterpiece, a veritable castle of grand crystal and yellow diamonds that seemed to dance in slow patterns when you watched them for long enough. There were platforms near the roof, specifically installed for guests to ogle at the mastery of the metalwork of the candelabras, the glow of the flames and the delicate mirrors that whirled their humble light into veritable majesty. It wasn't just good craftsmanship. It was a work worthy of the gods.
... And tonight, no one had gone to the trouble to light it. It was nearly lost to view, somewhere up there, where the stairs curled into an invisible eternity, where not even the stars were shining ...
"Shall we pull up a bed for you?" asked a voice. Thaddeus turned.
"Langley. Good to see you're still alive."
"The dome's not as tall as it looks," said Langley. He was hunched over a small hooded lantern, with which he led Thaddeus into a side room, through a narrow series of halls.
"Not meeting in the observatory, then?"
"Too open," said Langley. He seemed to be looking for something. His hands searched about the doors, feeling, Thaddeus knew, for a very specific pattern of fairies doing questionable things to a donkey. "Here," came the whisper, followed by a sharp click, and a ponderous grinding of gears. An opening appeared between the two doors, into a very short hall. At the end was another door.
"Very nice. Impressive every time."
"How very nice that you are happy, Mr. Grey." Alaborius Langley was one of those men who has grown old enough, and wise enough, that his glance tended to make you feel very small. Even Thaddeus, who considered himself inured to such nonsense, felt some small shred of resolve within him burn into ash. "Things on our end are not as cheerful as you may remember."
"A blood cult? Unhappy? My word, Langley... will you never cease to surprise me?"
"You seek to irritate me."
"Well, that's unfair," Thaddeus followed the old priest into the room, and heard the door scrape closed behind him. "I just want to know what's going on." He peered around a stack of books with black covers and red stamps across the spines. "Where's Borovin?"
"I believe we're taking this by the usual routine."
"Very creatively so. We found his ear hanging on the Parthic Gate."
"Knotted," said Langley, and took a seat by the room's main furnishing: a raised platform inscribed with an eleven-pointed star. "They used his intestines as rope."
There was silence for a while. One got the feeling that there ought to be a fire, crackling in the background. There was only silence.
"Well," said Thaddeus, after a pause. "That's certainly... novel. And... the rest of him?"
"Pending," scowled Langley. He pointed at the girl. "You can set her down, now."
"What, on the star?"
Langley waved his hand dismissively. "No. Not yet. Put her on that carpet, over there. That'll do."
The two men watched her for a while. Thaddeus raised an eyebrow. He was very good at that. He practiced.
"Peaceful creature," he said.
"Odd, certainly," replied Langley. "The people of Nakafar do not have winter, did you know? Too near the rotation. They count seasons by the tide." Thaddeus puffed his cigarette. In the poor ventilation of the room, the smoke made little clouds that twisted, dreamlike, through the air. "But now," Langley continued, "you must also have heard of the men of the Galetops... they have no summer. Their springs are when they raise their young, and winters are where they prove their worth as men."
"What's your point?"
"In her homelands, this is a woman of 35. Here, she is 14. In the Galetops... an infant comes into the world."
Thaddeus laughed. "That's almost ridiculous enough to have come from me, Langley." He smothered the cigarette on one of the shelves. "You know what I'm wondering."
"You've never been one for morals."
"True," said Thaddeus. He shrugged. "But this is something else entirely, isn't it?"
"So, then. What do we do now? Just... stab her?"
Langley looked at him, long and slow. "Not precisely." He walked over to one side of the room, to a dusty old chest sagging against the wall. Odd scores raked along the wood, and Langley drew out from its depths a package, swaddled in beige cloth.
Thaddeus sighed. He'd had enough jobs, now, to know what the old man meant. "Once more unto the breach," he murmured.
"Indeed." The smile was fleeting, but sympathetic. "Go by the Silver Bridge. Head north." A small bell interrupted the directions. It was strung against a wall, and its clapper had been hollowed to enhance but thin the sound. The two men turned as one.
"Someone's opened the passage," said Langley.
"Trade secret, I thought?"
"Borovin. They must've beaten it out of him." Langley strode, stooped but powerful, to the door, and casually knocked over a bookcase, creating a crude barricade moments before something heavy thudded against it.
"That can't be the only exit, can it?"
There was no reply. Langley was pulling at the raised platform, and Thaddeus moved to help him. There was the scraping of wood, another thud against the door. The star was moved.
A ladder, falling into shadows and flinty darkness.
There was a whisper at the door.
"Open, astronomer," said a voice, low and cutting. "Spare yourself a painful end. Spare your soul. Open."
Thaddeus grabbed his revolver. Langley placed a hand over his own.
"Don't be so dramatic. I'll pump it with lead, you can wait at the bottom."
"Take the girl." His voice was clenched, perspiration dotted his wild white hair and stained his astronomer's cap.
Silence from the door. Thaddeus drew his hand slowly away, and flashed Langley a smile.
"See? There we are. It's go"-
A humming filled the small space. It was most visible in the smoke, which seemed to curl within itself, like worms in thrashing agony. The air was sucked inward, caving through the flimsy wood of the door. Blue symbols flashed for a moment against the borders, first in anger, then desperation, and then the splinters shattered and spread into a mass of fractal mulch, shooting through the bookcase, throwing it against the other wall.
Darkness filled the room.
He couldn't help it. In a second, the revolver was in his hand. In another, three bullets of bright steel went sailing into the shadows. There was no impact. There was only silence, then a face, emerging as if from a pond.
Thaddeus saw a pair of eyes, as empty as life, as full of life, as the halo of dead stars. The head was pale, and bald, and scars crossed the nose and lips and turned them to ragged, hanging flesh.
Another hum, and a halting series of alien notes, and now a slice of oblivion, embodied in a spreading mass of black lightning that shot across the room, screamed as it traversed the room. He grabbed the girl, and dived. Somewhere above came a horrible cry, and as he landed very heavily on the stone far below, trickles of red flowed down around his head.
Above, a shadow blocked the light of the room. He fired wildly, heard the bullets sing against the ladder and the shadow disappeared.
Nothing more was needed.