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Holiday

Time, as the magister of Manchuria had written long, long ago, had a tendency to pick favorites. By which was meant, in the primordial pecking order of various realities, it was actually quite rare to find one in which Time presented itself with any sort of self-respect. For every universe in which He was the sort to show up at steakhouses in a pinstripe vest, and talk amiably with His disciples over a glass of Chardonnay and perhaps a nice soup, there are at least a thousand in which He is the type to drive by that same steakhouse at one in the morning in a convertible that assuredly belongs to someone else, his hair flying like a greasy flag behind him and a hoarse note in his voice suggesting he has been screaming vulgarities at the top of his lungs since sunset.

*****

Night fell in the Downs of Ans. It was spring, which meant that the willows on the slopes of the Damp Hills crooned to the tune of the crickets, and the sound swept over the quiet streets like a dream in trundling motion. The houses here, to the south of the river Myr and some miles separated from the Silver Bridge, carry a distinct flavor of civil negligence, coupled with resident dissatisfaction that has given even the exterior walls the appearance of coffee on a white shirt. It has always been an unpleasant place, dangerous to walk even on snow-lit full moons, but tonight we frequent it not for the alleys in which muggings take place in Congo lines, nor the stench which has been bottled by the more suicidal breed of alchemist since the city's birth, but for the curious events taking place very far underneath the dirt-caked surface of the poorly cobbled streets.

It had all the best trademarks of simple ingenuity, and even when he was nicely lost in the intricacies of his work, the engineer known to his few human contacts as Jorial felt the warm bubble of pride in every firing neuron of his mind. Assassins, it turned out, were just as afraid of a club to the back of the neck as anyone else, and the gentlemen of the Downs at perfected that practice to an art form. So he worked in peace, undisturbed by fears of an undue comeuppance, and as the days went by the machine, like a sketch done in degrees, became more and more defined. What had once been a jumble of gears and elastic connectors was now a defined skeleton of steel and tubing and at least half a dozen species of screws. At the center of the labyrinth was an already half-covered sphere of soft blue luminescence, which blew small sparks into the yellow light of the basement.

"Beautiful," said a voice from the other side of the room.

"Dangerous," grunted Jorial as a reply, and he gave the final turn on a bolt larger than his fist. It was the first leg of the temporal cage, and though he did not notice, it was almost three degrees too far to the left.

"I gathered. Did I tell you that I lost a man carrying that here? I take it that's a no. Oh, don't look so shocked, it wasn't all that dramatic. One second there's two men carrying the crate, and then of course James had to be an utter fool, swinging it back and forth like a briefcase, and then... poof! He's gone! If I'd any idea how he did it, I'd tell you to market that to the highest bidder at the Sterlian Exchange."

"And I'd tell you, absolutely not." Jorial wiped his hands on his long apron, his eyes holding a note of worry. "Do you have the rest of the girders? I told you I'd need at least half a dozen more, and I only see two on the pile." He gestured to a pair of long iron beams lying next to a makeshift forge.

His guest made a noncommittal gesture that troubled Jorial even more. "Yes, yes. I'm afraid I ran into some trouble at the docks, though, but it's nothing you should worry about. I'll just get them to you tomorrow."

"I need to finish this cage today, Cordimus. Else you should have brought the sphere later, like I asked! You told me yourself, it's already killed"-

"So dramatic, Jorial. Look at it! We've been sitting here with it uncovered for over an hour, now, and we aren't dead yet, are we? Besides, we don't know it kills people. For all we know, he's just been... moved. That's not the word, but it'll come to me in a moment, it's been a long night."

"I don't like this."

"I know," said his guest, and began to rise. "Believe you me, I know. But it's just how it is, my friend. If it'll calm you at all, I'll try to get Gideon to raise your payment. Two thousand Capitol pieces, how does that sound?"

"Insufficient, if it's my life on the line."

This drew a laugh, born more of courtesy than humor. "You're a funny man, Jorial. I like that very much, it makes you interesting to be around. But if you'll excuse me, you are not my first errand of the night, and very far from my last." He checked his watch with a pointed expression, and with a tip of his hat, Cordimus took his leave. Jorial heard his clipped steps ascending the stairs, and his voice calling back, "and of course, if ever you need me, try not to, yes? I'll be back by tomorrow, if all goes well." The door slammed shut. He was alone again.

For a moment, he was unsure of how to proceed. He eyed the girders again, then the still burning embers of the forge, and the hammer resting at an angle upon the sizzling surface of the anvil. He could create the scaffolding for the front half of the sphere, and proceed tomorrow with the rest, but then again, the work would exhaust him, and it was far past midnight. He took off his heavy gloves, and rubbed at his wrinkled eyes. The machine would have to wait. Ten years younger, and it would have been a different story, but time was such a venom to the bones, and he needed rest.

Twenty minutes later, changed into his nightclothes, the engineer laid his head on the small bed in a side room of the basement and closed his eyes. It was the 2334th year of Maxwell, and the song of the willows lulled him to sleep.

*****

Jorial woke to the same unease which had driven him to bed. A persistent paranoia that had lingered ever since Cordimus had arrived last night dragged nails down a pot somewhere in his chest, and he winced as he threw on his apron, mask, and gloves. His knees were no better, and stiffer for the morning, but that would pass. This dread, though, would require something heavier. The kitchen was on the other side of the basement, and the allure of whiskey dragged him through the workshop, where his heart went suddenly cold.

The sphere had gone utterly dark.

"Mother of Yaw," he whispered. His feet moved independent of his will, ever closer to the dark metal in the center of the machine.

"What..." His hand, trembling, rose to touch it. Fear struck him a sound blow as his fingers touched the surface, and he braced for what he was sure would be the unbearable agony of vaporization.

It didn't come.

The material was cold, but no colder than ordinary steel. Smooth, but not impossibly so. No sparks flew from it, and the blue light was utterly absent.

"Cordimus is going to murder me."

A pounding came from the direction of the door. His heart lurched and sent a twanging, bowstring sensation down his spine. It will pass, it's the wind, it's nothing at all. It came again, and louder. The wind, the wind, the wind, the... the realization hit him that the basement was not, in fact, in any position where the wind could hit it. It was inside the abandoned cellar of a den of money launderers, who prepared against such things. And besides, it was locked. Wind be damned, there was someone outside. And from the loud THUD that shook the very structure of the basement, they were about to come in. Jorial picked up the hammer from his anvil in one hand, and the pronged poker in the other, and called out to the footsteps hurrying down his stairs.

"Who is that? You're trespassing! Who goes?" But no one answered. Only the tramping of boots on the stairs, and a jingle of steel that could only mean the worst. Grim shadows appeared near the opening, and muttered voices carried through. All of a sudden, they stopped.

"I said, who goes there?"

The answering voice was tinny, but deep and intentionally fearsome. "This is Captain Ryur of the Royal Aralunian Inquisition. Come out now, Magrul, and you may yet see the light of day before your timely death. Refuse, and we'll cut you down before you can read a single verse."

Blank silence. "What?"

"He's stalling," someone muttered, and one of the shadows grew quickly larger before giving way to its owner, a man in heavy plates of gleaming iron, his helmet large and crested, who held in his hands a crossbow of immense size and antiquated design. In spite of this, he had no sooner begun to loom above the figure of Jorial before he threw himself to one side, the bolt going wide and a cry escaping beneath the mask of steel.

"He's a staff! Garis, your spear!"

It was obvious that their time in the staircase had not been wasted. When the other three men charged into the cramped workshop of the basement, their weapons were armed and quickly aimed at Jorial's chest. He, in turn, dropped his impromptu weapons and raised his hands slowly above his head. The first man had regained his feet, and an extended creak indicated that his crossbow was once again a threat to Jorial's limbs. "You move, Magrul, you die," he growled.

"This is a mistake," was his only response. The original proclamation from the men had only now begun to filter through the rushed confusion of the morning, and he eyed the foreign crests on their armor, and the colors that now belonged only to the Duke of East Halmsvale, with dismay that soon gave way to puzzlement. "Hold on... did you say you were from Aralun?"

"Silence your tongue, magician." The crossbow twitched menacingly.

"But that's not - just hold on! That... your lot's been dead over a thousand years! And the inquisition... that's ancient history. This isn't right, you don't exist, this is Ans we're in, you hear?"

"I say we shoot him."

"What's that, in the corner?" One of the men pointed towards the husk of the machine. Ryur's head followed the motion. If it was possible for a helmet with only two slits for the eyes to express curiosity, the captain's was doing so now.

"Well, Magrul? Answer him. And no more of your nonsense. We don't follow your pagan politics."

"But I'm"-

A bolt fired, and smacked into the stone less than two paces from Jorial's left foot. "Last warning," said the captain.

"It's not an easy answer," began Jorial, grasping for what Cordimus had told him a long time ago, but panic was clouding his clarity. "It's... well, it's supposed to"- his brain cleared. Realization struck like a lightning bolt. "What year is this?"

"Captain, I told you, he's stalling! We should"-

Ryur shook his head. "That's enough, Crandis. He's harmless without the staff. Besides, he amuses me. It's the 1920th year of Maxwell, Magrul. Does that satisfy you?"

"That's not a nice color for a face, is it?"

"Crandis. Shut up. Magrul, the machine. What does it do? Where are the others of your kind? We know of the covens, it won't do to lie to us."

"It... I... gods, you really are Aralunian." He raised the mask slowly above his head, and tossed it to the ground. "This house we're in... it wasn't here an hour ago, was it?"

"I told you already: enough of your tricks. Is it a teleporter? Is that what you're saying?"

"And 'Magrul'... you think I'm a wizard, don't you?"

"There's only one Wizard, Magrul. And we've killed him already."

"But then... The Shattering, then. That was what, 1912? I'm sorry, I'm terrible with dates. Ridell"-

"Don't say that name!"

"But I can help you, don't you see? That... no, that's not a teleporter, you... you don't understand, it's a sort of time... manipulator, is what it is. I'm from the future!"

"All magic is vile. Future, past... it's of no matter to me. You're coming with us."

"But I can help you! In less than a century, your kingdom... it's gone. It burns with the rest of them!"

"Shut up. Yarin, tie him up. Crandis, ready the horses. We're leaving. Garis, stay on him, you hear? That spear doesn't drop a single inch from his chest or you're walking back to the outpost." Ryur began to turn. "What is it now, Yarin?"

"Er... that staff of his, Captain?"

"Well?"

"This is a poker." The soldier held it up.

"I don't care if it's the beard of Aermun himself, Yarin. He's a Magrul. Said it himself, didn't he? Traveling through time... it's scum like him that almost got the whole lot of us killed." He turned his attention back to the fearful face of Jorial. "You'll hang by dusk tomorrow."

"But you don't understand! It's not magic, it's Glint! And you don't know... Mortmondes is coming, he comes and you all die anyway, but I can help you! I can help you, and I'll go back to my time, and the future... your kingdom will last for millennia."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, and frankly, I don't care. I've had enough of your kind's treachery. I"-

The ceiling split. chips of stone and splinters of half-rotten wood scattered to every edge of the room. A sound like living thunder trampled the sullen dust, and a blazing white light enveloped Jorial's senses and stayed there. He was aware of a chorus of screams, in which he took an agonized part. Something slammed into his chest and sent him flying against the anvil, and the following crack, he decided, was probably not a dent to the iron. His eyes cleared at the precise moment that he realized he couldn't move his right leg, and he saw running feet all around the workshop, and blasts of purple and orange light and a bright sun that threw the crisscrossing paths of the arrows in bright relief. One side of the entire building had collapsed in a shower of natural earth, which had formed a slight incline to the light of day far above. He crawled in that direction, faltered from an excruciating bolt of pain in his lame leg, then drew himself up into a feasible limp, the poker serving as a crutch as he toddled away. Behind him, the screams continued, and someone, probably Ryar, screamed "keep him here! Don't let him escape!" But even that sound was soon lost in the roar of sudden fire.

Jorial scrambled against the dirt and rock, fear and adrenaline giving power to his weak strides, and he cleared the top at about the same time as the corpse of the man called Yarin, whose smoking cuirass gave a clue to the nature of his demise. From what little he knew of the period, Jorial knew that what was being used below was raw magic, quite removed from the sharp, domesticated sorcery of his own age, and he felt enough fear of the fact to mount one of the horses in front of the ruined building with more speed than his leg wanted to permit. Screaming from the pain, he jerked its reins around, grateful that someone had already untied the leads as it cantered into a field that wouldn't exist for very long. But it was all right. Through the pain, fear, and bewilderment of his situation, Jorial had found a glimmer of meaning, which he clung to. He knew where he was going. More importantly, he knew what must be done.

In an hour, the last of the screams faded into the distance, and were lost. In a day, the first of many golden towers came into view, and the glorious ramparts of Aralun stood mightily in the face of the sun.

December 27, 2019 21:37

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