He was the last of the visitors to come up to me that night. Unlike the others, I didn't immediately send him away. I mean, we hated each other, but I owed him enough to hear him out. The rain thrashed the roof, but it wouldn't keep me awake any more than the pleas or half-hearted attempts at advice I'd been loaded with that evening.
Aubrey tried his best to enter respectfully, but he was always a little clumsy -he nearly knocked my candle over as he came in, the light flicking as it wobbled on the dresser. He didn't look me in the eye, nor say anything for a good while. Finally, he found his voice.
'So you're going to The Tower?'
'I am.' I said. Everyone knew by now. I was going to leave in the morning.
His jaw stuck open with hesitation. I knew what he was going to say anyway. 'So, maybe, if you see her-'
'-I'll see her. I'll bring her back.' Heck, I was insufferably confident. At least outwardly -that's what they needed to see. In order to hope.
Aubrey hardly seemed convinced, but I could see he was daring to hope a little too. 'Maybe. If you do, tell her...' He took a long breath. He shrugged, but there was a light in his eyes. '...I don't know what to tell her, just give her this.'
So, picture this: there I am, stripped to the waist, with my silly little ponytail and my pointy little beard and then, this fucker, big beautiful Aubrey actually leans in and plants one on me. Really, on the lips. Just for a second, mind. Proper softly.
Anyone else would be a flaming pillar of human tallow for that. Probably net me a lifetime of shitty luck in the process.
Huh, I guess I'll have to get around to explaining that in a bit.
Anyway, I didn't torch him. I guess I should have been flattered: he's a handsome chap. But that kiss wasn't for me. Just one more thing to carry with me into The Tower, I guess.
There were tears in his eyes, but he acted like nothing just happened. 'You're not going alone are you?'
'No.' I said, wiping my mouth. 'I'm bringing Roulette.'
He winced. 'I don't think that's a good idea.'
'I need her.' I felt the wave of confidence that comes when I'm about to be my usual dickish self. I can't help it, it's like a warm overcoat. 'I'd prefer if you'd given Rou your gift for Deva. That way I'd get to watch.'
'I think a kiss is enough, Aubrey.'
He stormed off, slamming the door and knocking over my candle, extinguishing it. I pulled my fingers through my hair, pulling out a few loose strands in the darkness. Fishing under the dresser, I found the candle. It burst back into flame as the hairs melted into nothing in my fingertips.
I slung on my waistcoat to go and see if Roulette was still up -wouldn't want to give her the wrong impression turning up half naked. Don't get me wrong, I love Rou, and there's been a few exceptionally intoxicated nights where we've shared the same bed... ...but well... ...I'm not going to go on about it. Or remember it, come to think of it.
I stole quietly into the corridor, not because I had anything to hide, but because it felt like everyone in whole hotel had something to say to me and I was sick of it. A tentative knock on the door down the corridor later and I was in a room just as dank and unloved as mine was. In its favour, this one had Rou in it.
A red haired woman with full cheeks and a bright smile, there wasn't much to her really. Cute freckles. The fact that she was potentially the most powerful living being ever hardly registered with most people. It’s like their minds can't wrap around the idea that this wholesome, unassuming girl, whose arms seem just a little too long with a fringe to match, could -given the right tools- boil the oceans and the lands for that matter.
Yeah, okay, once or twice I may have got drunk and fucked the apocalypse, let's not dwell on that, shall we?
Still, people sometimes got a measure of her when they looked her in the eyes. Some people have shallow eyes. But hers. Like looking down a well on a moonless night. Still, you can only shock people from their daily irrelevances for so long: most'll stare for a moment and then forget about it. It's a self-defence thing, I guess.
Anyway, I'm in her room and she's serenely shuffling a deck of cards in her nightdress, so I figure it's probably safe to tell her what happened.
‘Rou, Aubrey just kissed me.’
‘About time you two made up.’ She said. Every word seemed to have a clear gap between them, even when she spoke quickly. I'll never understand how she did that.
‘Ha, wasn't for me. It was for Deva. For me to give to her when we see her.’
‘You can't carry a kiss. It's a moment. A... ...slice of time. Still, we haven't seen her in a long time, she was good to talk with.’
‘You say that like we're just going to stride into The Tower like they invited us in.’
‘They did invite you in.’
She had me there. Still, I'm not one to let the facts lose me an argument. ‘I think that was a one-way thing. And it was some time ago. I think it may have expired, you know, owing to certain activities we may or may not have participated in.’
She frowned at me and resumed her shuffling. She was always doing something with her hands, if she could help it. She once made me a belt out of all these long bits of twine on one particularly long trip. With the right amount of concentration she could probably have done it with the power of her Art in a few seconds, but she's all raw talent and that sort of thing takes a bit of finesse.
Roulette, you see, was in the rather unique position of having more than one soul. Or so I'm told, but it’s a neat little theory, so I'm inclined to believe it. This, for reasons unknown to me, amplifies the effect of all Art (or magic, if you'd prefer) by several orders of magnitude. I mean, I'm good: few can get as much energy (and that's all it really is) out a human hair or toenail as I can. But with me, it'll wither, burn to ash, melt or whatever. With her, she'll draw the energy out of it so fast it just winks out of existence.
This may not mean much to you, but this thought keeps me awake at night.
So why isn't she the heroine of this story rather than me? Well, she has a few issues: headaches, nausea, nosebleeds -all the classics. Plus, she's not the only unique one: she might be able to channel Art like no other, but I can steal from the structure of the universe. Right, so the Art needs a source, right? A part of you, hair, toenails, blood, whatever. You can use a part of someone else, but that's a slightly different set of rules. What I can do is sidestep the rules and get something for nothing. For a little while at least. Stealing from the universe is actually a bit of a desperate act. It always balances its accounts eventually, usually manifesting in the form of proportionally bad luck. Say I light a candle with “stolen Art” -that might mean I stub my toe in the morning. If I steal it to raze a city, it might mean an asteroid hits my home town or every crop withers for hundreds of miles around. What can I say? Reality has a strange sense of humour.
Anyway, that's what we can do. She could have destroyed everything. I guess it's possible I could have too. At least she'd have done it on purpose.
I shook myself back to the present, hoping Rou didn't notice I'd drifted away slightly. You know, for a girl whose skull is practically bursting from internal pressure, she's quite perceptive about that sort of thing. And heavens forbid she thinks you're not listening. I got away with it -she'd been folding the cards into each other so hard she'd bent them.
‘You want anything else?’ She said, cutting the pack neatly in half. ‘Only if we're going to cross the bay I should at least pretend to get some sleep. It's only proper.’
Oh yeah, insomnia: that's been slowly fracturing her psyche for years. I always liked how cheery she was about it. ‘Er, no. Thanks Rou. Sleep it is.’
‘Ok, me and the whisky'll be here if you get bored.’
Her expression rarely changed, and I still don't know quite what her intentions were. Five years. And she was still more or less unreadable.
Yeah, name's Ludas Ignes, pleased to meet you. Biggest bastard Giant's Corpse ever spawned and I've got the body-count to prove it. This is my story and sticking to it. If you believe any of it, it's your own damn fault.
I slunk back to my room, the rain was so loud on the roof I could scarcely believe it was slate up there and not drum skin. I don't like the rain -after all I'm the Ember of the East, the Wretched Inferno and all other manner of bullshit mythology. Only the primitive wastelanders I used to burn for money still believe I'm that any more.
The bed was hard, uncomfortable and held the unshakable smell of mushrooms. You don't need me to tell you that ain't right. There was no way I was going to get any sleep without a bit of assistance: I bit into my thumb just above the knuckle, drawing a little blood. The metallic tang evaporated as focused the droplets into the Art, the air filling with the scents of the forge for a moment, and I'd cast myself into a deep, abyssal sleep.
I woke before sunrise. Roulette was thrashing around on the floor next door. I'd have gone in there and performed a similar magic trick with one of her hairs or something to put her tortured body at ease but... ...we've got a truce about that sort of thing. Focusing Art through your own flesh is one thing, but using someone else's isn't right. I won't. I'll burn myself to ash before I do that.
I shuffled off to the window. The mass of lanterns strung all across the waterfront had long burned out. The rain was now a fine, salty fog, cloaking everything but The Tower. You can always see The Tower.
I decided to head downstairs for some breakfast, leaving Rou to her convulsions. The hotel was, unsurprisingly, deserted. I stole a pickled egg from the container on the counter of the bar. Yeah, judge me now, but it's not like I was paying for anything by this point anyway. The townspeople were too desperate for that.
About an hour later, Rou appeared, looking like death. I pretended not to notice, as per the script we'd long established. In return, she wouldn't point out that my beard is stupid and ponytails are for women. It took some negotiation for this little treaty to be ratified, but we've both been happier since we decided not to mention each other's appearance. I handed her a pickled egg as we each took a seat at the counter.
‘Things taste better when you're freeloading.’ I told her.
She just shivered.
‘You think we can get across the bay in this fog?’ I said.
‘Shit, I need you in peak condition, Rou, it'll probably be wall-to-wall violence the moment we set foot on the shore.’ Looking back, I almost regret the hint of relish in my voice.
She shrugged and nibbled the egg.
I propped my head on my hand. ‘We're going to die, aren't we?’
She kept nibbling.
‘I mean, all it takes is for one of us to lose concentration, run out of material, trip over our feet -anything.’
‘I could level it from here. A pint of blood would do it.’
I remember pinching the bridge of my nose so hard it hurt. ‘Not with Deva inside. And we promised the townsfolk...’
‘-When did you ever care about the little people?’
‘Shut up and eat your egg and I'll steal you something better, yeah?’
We emerged, after an eclectic breakfast of various things pilfered from the pantry, into the cool morning. Gulls squawked tunelessly and the streets stank of effluence. The sun was starting to burn through the fog and draw out even worse aromas. Leiden was the kind of town where a blanket of fog was an improvement. Even through the poverty, a sense of unease could be felt rising above it. This was not a happy place.
I put my arm around Rou. Her coat was about two sizes too big for her, and even though she'd rolled back the cuffs, it still hung over her hands. ‘Come on, we've got to find us a boat.’ I said.
She was a little unsteady, but with me to lean on, we made our way down to the waterfront. There were only a few people about, fishermen mostly. We huddled on a bench looking out over the docks. We were pretending to wait for the people to wake up and the fog to clear, but actually I was hoping Rou would return to normal if we waited a little while. The Tower was ever present across the bay, an endless pillar in the fog.
Out of the murk, a tall figure emerged, carrying two short, curved blades. They were slick with something that looked like black oil. As he got closer, I recognised it to be Aubrey, tired but still looking heroic in full scale and helm. I waved as sarcastically as I could.
‘Fifteen last night!’ He said when he saw us. He waved his blades around listlessly. Beads of nightmare blood ran along the edges. ‘Fifteen!’
He probably killed most of them himself. A fragment of a thought arose in my mind, I should have asked him to come with us. But I was mindful of what happened last time he travelled with us. Keeping that shithole safe was his weird penance for the things that happened.
‘Get some sleep Aubrey.’ I called out. ‘They'll be no more nightmares for the town tomorrow.’
He barely acknowledged it, he just ambled off. I contemplated apologising, you know, in the very likely circumstance I wouldn't return to do it another time. But I knew I was right so really, he should have apologised to me for his stupid vendetta.
I announced that the fog had cleared enough and stood up. A couple of the fishing boats had already gone out. Apparently the need to eat trumped the fear of the horrors their nets had been pulling out lately.
I walked up to a fisherman who was just about to start loading his equipment onto a little single hull with an oversized sail. I tapped him on the shoulder. He swung round. Sleep was still in his eyes, but the sight of smirking man in a waistcoat and a gangly woman in an oversized coat seemed to wake him up.
‘Hi.’ I said. ‘My name is Ludas -the Wretched Inferno- and I'll be taking your boat now.’ I stroked my beard as I said it, flicking a few sparks from my fingertips using the energy in the very ends of my fingernails. Saves me cutting them.
He stood there dumbfounded. Roulette started untying the rope on the mooring.
‘Oh don't look at me like that.’ I said, stepping aboard. ‘If you don't get this boat back, well, you've got bigger problems.’
A minute later, we were bobbing in the ocean, smiling back at the fisherman stood in the same place on the dockside. I didn't mean to taunt the man, but it was look back at the town or look forward to The Tower. Still, I had to actually steer the damn tub eventually. Not that, with a target the size of The Tower, you can really miss.
The waves were fairly rough and I quickly felt sick. Nothing to do with the fact we were floating towards a two hundred feet of madness and terror filled with literal and figurative nightmares. Nope. In an action entirely unrelated to fear, I put an arm around Rou and looked out across the bow before going back to the tiller. She was looking better actually.
Foam splashed onto the deck, somehow always managing to pool around my feet. I probably should have worn boots I knew were watertight, but my grandpa always said to face death in comfortable shoes. I estimated it would take about hour to get to there unless the wind picked up. Which it didn't.
It took an eternity to drift towards the shore, The Tower filling more of the horizon inch by inch until its featureless surface eclipsed all other thoughts. Perfectly smooth, an immaculate off white hue. You could almost believe it was something benevolent, or at least benign. Maybe it was once, but you know what they say about good intentions. You'd have to question the motivations of anyone who felt it necessary to build a monstrous, unscalable structure half a mile offshore. I wished the inhabitants of Leiden had.
Okay, so I mentioned that they'd invited me in. In a way, the magi of The Tower weren't so different from me -a bunch of magical bastards really. The only point we really differ on is whether it’s right to use someone else's vitae to draw your Art. I've killed a lot of people, I'm not proud of it, but when you've got a marketable talent like searing flesh from the bones of the odd bandit, it's surprisingly easy to be persuaded to fall into that line of work. I liked to think I'd grown up a lot since those days, but there I was, sailing toward more death and destruction. I found myself thinking that Aubrey was probably right to leave, although I was no closer to forgiving him for it. Truth be told, I'm amazed he stuck with us as long as he did after we lost Deva. Here's the thing, we had one major thing in common: we were both too bloody good at bloody work. While we had Deva there was always a shot at salvation and he... ...heck: we both clung to it.
I'm a murderer. Plain and simple. There's a special place in The Void for people like us. Roulette could be a little impressionable, she could have done amazing things. Good things. But she'd met me. Five years ago. The three of us travelled far and wide, doing our thing for people who could afford us. Then there were four of us, Deva kept Aubrey sane, somehow. I drew the attention of the magi of The Tower -thinking back on it, it may have been some of Rou's work that wrongly got attributed to me.
Don't get me wrong, no one was employing us to pay a visit to The Tower. I wanted to get Deva back. I wanted to stop the tide of nightmares. I wanted it all to end. And yes, I was curious as to what the living hell they were up to in the dark rooms of that monolith.
A nightmare is a hard thing to describe. Crippled, twisted things, with weird, black blood leaking from every orifice and crescents of metal erupting in collisions of flesh contorted at random angles. Like walking, screaming afterbirths with too many limbs supported by mechanical scaffolds. They used to be people, animals or some combination thereof. Extra mouths, eyes, or perhaps no eyes at all, compelled by magical control and insanity. They seem to radiate from The Tower, washing up on shore, ravaging anything they find.
The worst ones are the ones that remember. I had one scream at me to run, to hide, going on and on about how it didn't want to hurt us. I actually shit myself the first time one attacked us, maybe twenty miles from Leiden. That was the beginning of the end for Aubrey's part in our ventures. He's been crusading against them ever since, burning ever since with righteousness, desperate to end their suffering. I think he's been waiting the day one of them emerges from the sea with Deva's face. He's killed more of them than the entire town put together.
We both blamed each other for letting her get taken from us. All that mattered was that I was right, and I could have forgiven him if he'd only apologised.
The wind was pathetic. I took in the island around The Tower as we came closer. Mostly bare rock, some crumbling wall lining the path from a curiously empty berth. I was wondering what exactly the inhabitants actually ate, because there were no plots of vegetables or signs of fishing. Or signs of any human activity whatsoever. The entire shoreline was deserted.
The boat hit the side of the berth with a sickening crack, although I don't think I did any serious damage. The lack of welcoming party unnerved me, actually. It was altogether anticlimactic. Was no one watching? I mean, death had come for the magi, the Ember of The East, burning for revenge was on their doorstep. Didn't they care?
Rou stepped out onto the rotten wood of the walkway, keeping to the edges where it was least likely to give way. I followed, trying to look confident and menacing whilst focusing in not ending up in the drink.
Where was everyone?
Then I heard the screams. They could smell us. We were standing on a rickety collection of timbers in the literal birthplace of nightmares. The screams came louder, with the sound of rapid footsteps in the distance, somewhere around the edges of The Tower.
Roulette calmly pulled a small bag out of her coat, loosened the drawstrings and emptied three of her childhood teeth into the palm of her hand. She puffed her hair out of eyes and fixed a glare at the front ranks of approaching grotesques as they clambered over the rocks in the distance.
“You think I'm afraid of nightmares?!” She shouted. “I. Don't. Sleep!”
I dragged her off the jetty onto the shore. If you're going to be slinging fire around, it's as good a rule as any not to be standing on something made of wood, no matter how sodden it is. Another good rule is not to run out of ammunition. With, at a guess, forty nightmares in sight and who knows how many more to come, this was a distinct possibility
‘Make everything count, we've been saving those.’ I tell her, as if she didn't already know. Like she just happened to have a bag of her milk teeth on a whim or something.
The closest nightmare stumbled over the wall towards us, gurgling, howling. Essentially humanoid, but with a mutilated dog's head, it droned angrily at us through smashed teeth bared for all to see where the jowls had been cut away. The way the head loped from side to side with each step sickened me. It carried on wailing, half drowning in its own black, bloody spittle.
More horrors followed behind it, practically trampling one another, some just about recognisable as people, others mostly gnashing teeth and flailing metal. A huge nightmare, tottering on thick trunks more like stilts than legs rounded over the rocks behind them. It had no hands, just two obscenely large clubs that it swung as it pushed its way through its lesser brethren.
One of the front runners pleaded at as, black tears pouring from its remaining eye: ‘Why aren't you running?! Please!’ It carried on regardless. ‘Please. Please.’
It was silenced by the huge one as it stomped through, crushing it. I fancied I could hear the bones breaking above the cacophony of screaming.
I couldn't take any more. ‘Do it. Put them down.’
The air lit up with white light, then the pressure wave hit my ear drums. Even deafened by the implosion, the sound of the tooth collapsing in on itself, like a hundred glasses breaking, broke through into my brain.
Looking up again, there was very little to see. A blackened crater about forty feet across was the only evidence of the obliterated regiment. She called it “the heart of the sun”. I called it fucking terrifying.
Her eyes bulged and every blood vessel in her seemed to be trying to burst through her skin. She put the remaining teeth back into the bag and tried to smile. She didn't really pull it off.
‘What's next?’ She whispered.
‘We get inside. Before we run out of focuses, preferably.’
There was no way we were rushing anywhere with Rou in that state; we rounded the edge of the crater and got back onto the path to The Tower. The air smelt of burnt meat. We were too familiar with the smell by that point to be put off by it, to be honest. As we went further up the path we could see the far side of the island stretched out a fair bit further, still nothing but lifeless rocks, but plenty of room for a few hundred more nightmares.
We kept looking around for more, but if they were there, they were leaving us alone. It was rare for them to do anything other than mindlessly rush towards you, but I had seen them retreat a few times. Maybe someone noticed and didn't want us to break any more of their toys? Although the fact that no one was raining down lightning bolts and fireballs, like the stories said they would, seemed like an indicator that we were still being ignored. Irritatingly.
Rou and I carried on up the path, keeping the pace slow for her. I acted like I was trying to be quiet. I don't think she ever really bought it when I pretended not to notice how much it took out of her. I wanted to chide her for using such extreme Art. I mean, really, was there really any need to rend those things down to the molecular level? She'd kill herself if she carried on showing off like that. But I didn't say anything. I just said something lame like: ‘Maybe there's no-one home?’
We came to the doors. The same perfect alabaster as the rest of The Tower, about fifteen feet high, the only indication that they were the entrance at all were the thin grooves delineating them from the surrounding walls. No handle, nothing.
‘What should we do now, knock?’ I said. It was meant as a joke. I knew it was my turn to show off my Art. Get anything hot enough and it'll melt.
‘Or we could ring the bell.’
‘Over there, there's a 3 foot long bell.’
There was. It was hanging from a stone frame down a little side path. ‘As far as I can see, that's either going to get someone to let us in or it's going to summon every remaining nightmare on the island to dinner.’
Rou shrugged. She obviously thought it was worth doing. We were still equipped with enough stuff to burn a few hundred more, so I figured we might as well. At least Aubrey would be able to sleep well for a few nights if we culled the nightmare population even more than we already had.
‘Alright, I'm only doing this because I want to have enough material left to torch every last magi in there.’
I stepped up to the bell. It wasn't anything special other than being pretty big, I guess. I wasn't surprised no one had thought to leave us anything to strike it with. This did raise the question of why they bothered to provide the thing in the first place. No matter. I wasn't going to be defeated by a problem just because I can't solve it by setting something on fire, no matter what my teachers said.
I pulled a stone from the wall, took a run up and rammed it into the side of the bell. It rung out, painfully loud. My hand hurt like hell too. There wasn't time to feel sorry for myself though. We both ran to positions where they wouldn't see us when the door opened.
Obviously we crouched there for a good minute whilst precisely nothing happened. I was getting a cramp in my leg from hunkering down and there was the niggling idea that every nightmare on the island would be coming for us. Suffice to say I was ready to kick my original plan into action: make our own entrance.
Within a moment of this idea cementing itself in my mind, two things happened: the first didn't really surprise me, the quiet morning once again was shattered by wailing, screaming voices. The second was that the doors to The Tower started to recede. I'll admit to being a little disappointed. I wanted to know just how strong that weird white stone really was. I consoled myself with the idea that it meant more energy to unleash on the magi.
I stood up. ‘Alright, Rou. If this goes wrong, well... ...it's been good working with you.’
‘If they kill you before me, I promise, this whole place will be dust.’ She seemed perfectly calm.
The door inched back, revealing nothing but darkness beyond, until, very suddenly, they dropped out of sight into some hidden recess. Only a dim orange glow from within revealed the hallway beyond.
Meanwhile the nightmares had been slinking into view behind us. Lots of them. I grabbed Rou's arm and hurried her inside. The first thing that struck me was the huge temperature drop -the entrance was practically glacial. The second thing was the awareness that there was no one there to greet us, or at least try and fry us like we'd been expecting. Just a badly lit corridor in desperate need of some heating.
We kept walking, Rou gripping a tooth, me weaving a lock of hair around my fingertips. We came to a set of double doors -the normal kind with handles- at the end of the hallway. Overcoming the urge to kick them open, I tried the handles and found them unlocked. Rou took up a position by the wall, flicking her head back to see if anything had followed us down the corridor.
I swung the doors open.
The chamber beyond was so bright compared to the hallway I couldn't see a damn thing. A sense of dread filled me, ushered by the wall of undefinable smells that slammed into my nostrils. Finally my eyes adjusted.
An elderly man was staring at us from his chair behind a sweeping table. His expression was a picture of aristocratic disgust and boredom. He put his book down among the detritus of his desk and sneer at me.
‘And who might you be?’ He said, as if addressing the most pitiful urchin.
I took a deep breath, I thought this unexpected meeting could end up being useful. ‘Do you know where Deva is?’ I asked, sweetly.
‘Who? I must ask you to leave, we risk letting the experiments in if we leave the door open any longer-‘
‘You don't know where Deva is?’
He was getting angry. ‘No and I-‘
He was cut off by the fact that he found he was wreathed in flame. He began to scream and flail wildly, setting his books on fire as he pounded the desk and the flames engulfed him.
I strode over and leant in close. ‘Then you're of no use to us. See you in The Void.’
I'm not convinced he was listening, I think he had something else on his mind.
Take it from me, the best time to put the Art on someone is before the conversation is over. People usually wait until they've said their piece before reaching for their material. And it's pretty hard to draw essence when you're on fire. I speak from personal experience.
We headed for the stairs at the far side of the room, not even looking back at the charred gatekeeper slumped over his desk. I readied another couple of locks of hair. I was already wishing I'd brought more.
Each step up seemed to take us into a brighter and warmer space. I still had no idea where the light was coming from. For some reason I thought the space inside would be dingy and decaying. You'd hardly think anyone capable of creating the writhing, crying army of nightmares would be interested in interior design. But when we hit the first level it was like stepping out into a summer day. There were no shadows -everything was bathed in the same warm light with no discernible source. It was a big space, dotted with obscure pieces of machinery, some of which had pipes that ran all the way into the ceiling.
‘There's no one here.’ Said Roulette.
The next set of stairs was on the opposite side of the room. I guess the magi never moved between floors much or they'd have found this arrangement as infuriating as I did. It wasn't even a straight line: we'd have to navigate the oddly equidistant machines.
‘Up to the next one then, there's plenty more floors.’
The walls were the same as on the outside: smooth and featureless. The floor was of an unpolished marble. A good sort of stone. Get it really hot and all sorts of nasty things can happen.
We moved around the machines, I had no desire to touch anything unless I had to, but I did feel stupid by the time we'd made it across the floor and nothing had happened. This wasn't some hallowed tomb, just an unimportant room with a few strange machines in it. And it wasn't like there was any reason to treat the magi's stuff with respect, now was there?
‘Shh.’ Roulette froze.
‘There's a noise.’
I couldn't hear anything over the quiet hum of a couple of the machines. I pulled a face.
‘No,’ she said ‘from downstairs. The nightmares are inside.’
‘Is that all? There's probably even more up ahead. Let's get moving.’
More bloody stairs, gently following the curve of the wall led to the second floor. This one was more interesting. Well, if you find rows upon rows of specimen tanks arrayed like books in a library interesting, anyway. From the top of the stairs we could see some contained lifeless curiosities, preserved in inky liquid. But some moved: limbs, eyes, unidentifiable organic masses, twitching and bobbing in response to the gases being bubbled up from below.
The urge to destroy it bubbled up too. It just felt wrong. Still, we couldn't just stand there feeling uneasy, so we moved among the stacks, trying not to look too closely at the specimens or the tarnished labels on their tanks.
We rounded a corner, just past a large tank filled with pulsating slug things before we caught a glimpse of another magi. A young one, absorbed in some analysis of the contents of the tank in front of him. I was going to ready myself but there was a sharp crack form one of the nearby tanks, like an electrical discharge. The young magi snapped round and saw us.
He mouthed the words “Oh shit”, dropped his paperwork and began desperately clawing at his pockets. I think Rou actually laughed. If he'd calmed down he might have actually been able to retrieve something.
‘Kid. Stop.’ I said.
He didn't, I could see the confusion and fear. Not my idea of a magi. I snapped my fingers on both hands for effect and a small circle of fire burst into life around his feet. That got him to stop.
‘Where is Deva?’ I snarled as we advanced.
He shook his head. I fed more energy into the fire, the flames crept higher.
Roulette butted in, speaking calmly. ‘The people you take, where do you keep them?’
He pointed upwards. I imagine his feet were starting to cook. He was practically dancing. It quickly became too much and he fell over, through the fire. I didn't bother clicking my fingers when I extinguished it.
We both stood over him. ‘He's pretty dazed, I think he hit his head.’ I said.
Rou knelt down and cradled his head, with the kind of tenderness that can make a man jealous. ‘This is unfair isn't it?’ She said. ‘You were just following instructions, weren't you?’ The motherly smile vanished. ‘All excuses.’
He made a feeble noise, like an injured kitten.
She let his head drop to the stone floor. ‘Not worth the energy; the nightmares can have him.’
He was already unconscious, or at least pretending to be, by the time she stood up.
‘Come on, they won't all be this crap.’ I said.
The contents of the tanks began to give me some idea of how they might be producing their so-called “experiments”. There were all manner of appendages and creatures, in no order I could fathom. Quite how, where and, most importantly, why they were put together in the form of nightmares remained a mystery.
‘Hey Rou, remember these things?’ I said, pointing into one of the tanks in our path. Within were the bastard lovechildren of snapping turtles and king lobsters. The shallows where the Innocents Tribe used to live teemed with these angry little creatures. I should emphasise the 'used to' part of that. I think that may have been where we fought our first fellow user of the Art. The shaman was pretty good at hurling rocks around but I'll never forget the look of surprise on his face when Rou exploded him. I was pretty surprised myself, although I managed to bring my jaw back up in time to avoid a mouth full of gore.
‘What might a magi do with those?’ She asked.
‘Donno, maybe they could strap a few to a nightmare -they've got one hell of a nip.’ We picked our way towards the stairs. ‘I wonder why the kid didn't hear the old guy screaming -he was pretty loud.’
‘Very little about this place makes sense.’ She replied.
She'd get no disagreement from me. ‘Alright, let's see what madness awaits on the third floor.’
Another set of long stairs led up to a pair of doors. On the outside of the staircase, a set of steel rails followed the contour, I guess they were for moving the tanks up and down.
Rou eased the door open. It was pretty dark beyond. Immediately, we could hear voices. It sounded like an argument: not close enough to hear every word, but I caught a few insults. Pushing the door open further, we saw that we were looking into a great mortuary: a hundred slabs, some occupied, all neatly arranged, filled the room. A number of tanks, too mucky to discern the contents, sat on trolleys near the slabs.
Roulette pointed to several cylindrical containers near the stairs. The oily residue around their lids gave away their contents even as she mouthed the words “black blood”.
Meanwhile, the argument seemed to be heating up. One of them was shouting now, but he stopped abruptly when something on one of the slabs started wailing.
‘Oh, well done!’ I heard the other one say in a fine example of professional sarcasm. ‘Do you want to get sent back down? After all we've had to do?’
‘Shurrtup!’ Hissed the first one.
Rou and I sneaked in a little closer so that we could get eyes on them. They were certainly a little older than the whelp sleeping downstairs, but they were hardly advanced in years. The creature continued wailing, gaining a couple of partners for its chorus.
I heard one of the magi say something about putting them to sleep, and I was happy to wait for them to do it. I was expecting them to perform a similar trick to the one I pull to send me under the night before, a little bit of sympathy Art, but he actually walked over and jabbed it with something. It was too dark to see what -the creature itself was little more than an unsettling silhouette, but the effect was pretty quick. With the ringleader placated, the others settled down too.
‘You'd better hope they didn't hear them upstairs, you idiot.’ Said the second one, a stage whisper of pure spite.
I turned to Roulette, to do some whispering of my own. ‘Any idea how we can do this quietly? We've been surprising them so far, and it's worked out.’
‘You know I do not do quiet Art. You think of something.’
I ran a few scenes through my head as the pair of magi pottered around the creatures on the occupied slabs. Could I freeze them? Far from my area of expertise, but I knew it was possible. Probably still noisy. No, I needed some really focused, intense heat. Right inside their skulls. The only way that would work was if we both did it -I can't be that accurate on two people at once. Get it right and they'd both keel over as their brains boiled. Get it wrong and you're going to get a very confused magi as the air tears itself apart next to him. Sometimes Art is all about good aim. Rou didn't like the plan, but she came around pretty quickly.
I stood up, out in plain view, and whistled, not because I'm a good sport and I wanted to give them a fair chance, but because it got them to stand still for a second. My target of choice went crossed eyed as I used another of my rapidly depleting focuses to boil his brain. There was the wet sound of offal being dumped in the gutter. Rou's mark's head caved in, like it'd been crushed beneath an elephant. Both magi, needless to say, hit the floor and didn't play any further part in my story.
At least her aim was true, even if her sense of proportion was basically non-existent.
We crept across the mortuary or whatever it was. The whole place stank of blood and harsh chemicals. This was definitely where they put the lesser nightmares together. Rou kept looking like she was about to say something but remembered we were in a room of sleeping monstrosities and promptly shut her trap.
The next set of stairs beckoned, another set of rails and another set of heavy wooden doors. I was pretty sick of going up stairs by that point. I'll be damned if you don't hate them as much as I did by the time I'm done moaning about them. I guess I should have thought through attacking a two hundred foot tower a bit more. But you've probably noticed thinking things through hasn't really been my strong point.
The doors swung open, revealing a magi, back to us, leaning over a railing. He spoke without turning around:
“Galva, have a look at this.” He said, beckoning to the railing beside him.
Roulette and I exchanged glances.
I stepped forward and he spoke again. “This batch are an improvement over your last work at least.”
When I was close enough to reach out and touch him, I could see through the railings, down into a wide pit containing a number of furious nightmares. I wasn't sure if they were fighting among themselves or there was something else the magi was observing, but it struck me as too good an opportunity to miss.
‘You're quiet to-’ His utterance cut short by the sudden feeling of weightlessness that comes from being shoved over a railing by a smirking magical bastard and into a sandy pit of writhing terror. The creatures had already started ripping at his flesh before he hit the dirt.
‘He's right.’ I said, as the screams started. ‘These do look nastier than the ones outside.’
‘There are others.’ Said Rou, pointing to the opposite railing on the far side of the room.
‘Oh shit, get out of sight!’
We scrambled to the cover of the walls of a small observation area, I guess so they could watch their creations without being seen. There was already shouting.
‘No more sneaking, then?’ Said Roulette.
An arc of lightning flashed towards the vision slits, shaking the little construction. Typical show-off's Art is lightning. Fire or ice is just moving energy into or away from somewhere. Electricity is really fiddly: you have to ionise the air in a path to do it. A pedant's magic.
‘Hah, I bet he's really proud of that.’ I said, readying my second to last lock of hair. ‘I think I saw two of 'em.’
‘They will die.’ Rou said, closing her hands around another of her milk teeth.
‘What're you doing?’
Another burst of lightning crackled towards us, but then blue light flashed from everywhere all at once, the sound of a hundred thunder cracks assaulted my ears. This was it. I'd underestimated them: I was going to die.
I didn't die. The thunder stopped, with a few sizzling crackles lingering on. I risked a peek through the vision slit.
‘Rou. What. Did. You. Do?’
The scene was apocalyptic: every metal fixture in the room, including most of the railings, had half melted. Any organic matter had been rendered into smouldering ash.
She was shaking and babbling, but laughed out a few words. ‘Turned their lightning on them.’ She took a long breath. ‘Added to it. Multiplied. Shielded this box.’
I propped her up, arm beneath her shoulder, and took the lead. ‘We should keep going -we can't let them get prepared.’
Two burnt husks greeted us as we reached the stairs up. Death is quick where the Art is involved. Of course, most people aren't as fast as Rou or me, but I could tell these guys were getting better as we went up -lightning isn't the preserve of some gifted nomad witch. You have to have at least some understanding of it to unleash that kind of Art.
We practically crawled up the last steps to the next floor. The doors were open, it was dark, there didn't seem to be anyone there. Of course, anyone up there would have heard a thundercloud exploding just beneath their feet so we didn't rule out someone hiding somewhere. This floor was a massive ring of cages, all facing a central table. It was bathed in a weird light. Above it hung the ugly offspring of a chandelier and a set of torturer's tools.
I didn't really look closely: I was distracted by a sort of mewing noise. It was coming from one of the cages.
‘I thought those were all empty when we came in.’ I whispered.
‘Hello?’ Called Rou, her voice shaky.
The only response was the sound getting a little louder.
‘Well?’ She said.
I shrugged. Honestly, I thought our luck would have run out by that point. I went over to the source of the sound, stood at the bars and used a couple of hairs to set a tiny flame just at the end of my finger. The light exposed a weeping man curled up in a ball on the floor of the cage. He wasn't wearing the same clothes as the magi so I figured he wasn't a threat. In fact, he wasn't wearing anything at all.
He stopped crying when he saw Roulette. I guess it was the eyes. Sure, the magi probably had horrible plans for him and I wouldn't know what he'd seen them do to others on that central table. But he looked at her as if he understood what she was. Even she didn't really understand what she was, but I could tell, this man got it. His suffering wasn't important when he was looking the end of all things in the face.
‘Leave him here.’ I found myself saying. ‘A naked man isn't going to help.’
‘We promised the townsfolk.’
‘We let him out, he goes downstairs and gets killed by the nightmares or goes up and gets killed with us!’
He stood up, still fixing his gaze on her.
I danced the tiny flame across my fingers. ‘Can you speak? Do you know where Deva is?’
He finally looked at me. ‘You're the Walking Wildfire.’ He said, slowly. ‘You burned them all. Women and children.’
Oh yes, it's good to be famous.
Rou dug into her coat and pulled out a flask of whisky, took a short pull and handed it to him through the bars. ‘We're letting you out. Don't be stupid.’
I wasted some more of my precious material melting through the lock. When you tend to solve your problems by messing around with the fabric of the universe, you tend not to gain the sort of physique that can be used to rip doors off their hinges. We had Aubrey for that.
The naked man stepped out into the light. Dark skin, short hair, he could have been from anywhere, but obviously it was somewhere we'd made an impression. He took a long slug of the whisky and pulled a silly face. Tears were still in his eyes when he spoke ‘Thought you'd have better drink for all your blood money.’
‘Do you mind shutting up? We're kinda busy murdering your captors.’
I pulled Rou away, towards the next set of stairs. Every moment wasted was time for the magi above to work out what was going on. The naked man followed a cautious distance behind us. A thought occurred as we got to the stairs. Just where in the Void did all our money go, anyway?
‘Rou, give him your coat. It'll probably fit him better than you anyway.’
She smiled and flung it at him.
As he slipped it on, he started droning on again. ‘There is a place in the hills where you can stand and see graves in all directions, as far as the eye can see. It was not so before you came.’
Now, as I've said, I've done a lot of bad things, but I don't remember anything quite like that. I figured he was probably exaggerating. You have to question why, if he thought I was such an unredeemable bastard, he decided to follow us in the first place. Perhaps it was faint noise of the room full of nightmares we'd crept through two floors ago wailing somewhere below us.
This set of stairs wasn't like the last few, it seemed to wind upward at least three times as far. I couldn't say why though, it just meant this floor had an acre of wasted space in the centre. Still, it gave us plenty of time to get to know our now no longer quite so naked friend.
‘Who are you, anyway?’
‘Well, Nomas, how did you end up here?’
He had a far off look. He didn't say anything.
‘You know what, I didn't really care anyway. 'Lette, reckon they're going to ambush us up here?’
‘It's what I'd do.’
When we finally got to the top of those damn stairs, I put my eye to the keyhole and saw... ...precisely nothing because there was a key in it. Rou tried the handle gingerly. It was locked.
Rou and I looked at each other. She looked a heck of a lot smaller without her coat on. Still gangly, but there was nothing to her.
‘I'll get this one.’
I took out my pocket knife, cut my thumb and slowly smeared it in a large rectangle on one of the doors. I'm told you're not supposed to use really fresh focuses. I know it makes it a lot more difficult, but I've had a fair bit of practice and besides, I only had one standard piece left. A flash of intense heat scorched its way through the door, causing the rectangle of wood to plop out, charred at the edges.
As there had been no sudden explosions or drooling nightmares in response, I poked my head through. I think Rou thought I didn't see her clutching all her material at once, ready to do something drastic.
Luckily for those in a hundred mile radius who preferred their atoms in their usual arrangements, my head remained thankfully attached to the rest of me. I stepped through into the room beyond.
The gentle pulse of unfathomable machinery gave me a headache.
‘'Lette, look at this.’
I nearly said something about the last time I tried to show her something, but I remembered our truce. Anyway, the disgusting object in question (this time) was an eight feet wide tank filled with slowly congealing blood. Rows of glass portholes showed there were gallons of it in there. Pipes spooled out in seemingly random directions into other machines. They made room look like a metallic, tangled forest.
I never really got on with forests. Can you guess why?
‘What do you think this is all for?’ Roulette said.
Nomas whispered from behind us ‘They take blood from everyone.’
‘Ugh, this kind of Art makes me sick. They'll be mixing it all together and using it as a mind focus for the nightmares. I guess it stops them from actively attacking each other. I don't know if it's enough to control them by itself.’
Roulette took a few steps closer. ‘So if we destroy this, what'll happen?’
‘I have no idea.’
Nomas tentatively moved in front of me. ‘If my blood is in there... ...what can they do?’ Somehow he managed to retain his demeanour of strange nobility whilst he said this. You wouldn't have thought he was crying like a child five minutes ago.
‘Probably not much, it'd take a master to isolate you in all that.’
Rou stopped, mid-step over one of the pipes. ‘Isn't this where the masters of Art are supposed to be? We don't even understand what any of this stuff does!’ Her voice went weird for a moment ‘We're like children in the dark.’
I put an arm around her. ‘Does that worry you?’
She thought about this for a second. She did that thing where every word was a distinct entity. ‘No: we're very dangerous children. And I like the dark.’
The blood inside boiled to a dark brown vapour. I heard Rou's teeth clench and then the entire construction folded in on itself, ripping itself from the surrounding machines like the death throes of some enormous creature, a metallic scream boring into my skull. The apparatus toppled away from us. Newly detached pipes dripped foul-smelling liquids.
Nomas' head didn't explode or anything, so we guessed it was probably the right decision. He did make a noise though. But I think that was the sight of a quadruped nightmare scuttling down the opposite wall rather than anything to do with the blood tank. It was quickly followed by two more. They looked mostly reptilian, although I've never seen any lizard with a jaw that opened out like a flower covered in teeth. Black spittle dropped from their mouths to mix with the soup of chemicals draining from the pipes.
‘I've got them.’ I said, forming a fireball a few inches in front of me. Normally used for showing off, hurling a fireball at something is a little cheaper, material-wise, than exploding it at distance. This is for all sorts of reasons I'm sure the magi were studying but I've never understood.
The flame arced in a graceful motion that made me remember why I didn't usually bother with the flashy stuff. Fortunately it mesmerised the Nightmares as it sped towards them. Unfortunately, having several hundred degrees of searing heat smash into a pair of them didn't quite halt their advance. It melted the face -if you can call it that- off one and left the other one down a couple of limbs, but they didn't stop. As a general rule, an opponent on fire is good; an opponent on fire trying to claw your kidneys out is bad.
It was a point of professional pride now, I took every last bit of energy from the remaining lock of hair and centred it on a piece of pipe above the advancing nightmares. A burst of shrapnel rained down on them in an instant. I'd shredded them. I should have done that in the first place. I was hit by the notion that those things smell even worse when you open them up.
Then I noticed it. ‘I've just blown a hole in the wall.’ I said, as if Rou wasn't looking straight at the fresh tunnel about ten inches across through the otherwise flawless stone. It had a diagonal trajectory, down towards the bay.
We took the long way round, to avoid stepping in the indescribable puddle I'd just created. With Nomas frantically scanning the room for more of them behind us, we peered through.
‘Fuck me.’ I said.
‘Now's not really the time.’ Quipped Roulette. What can I say? We have very similar senses of humour.
‘Aubrey's down there.’
We were high up, but it was definitely him. He was stood in front of what looked like a handful of the braver men from the town. I couldn't really tell how many, but they were outnumbered by a wave of nightmares pouring towards them. But he wasn't looking at them. He was looking up at the hole I was staring out of. I swear, there's no way he could see someone looking down, but from the wide grin on his face, he knew it was us.
‘Can we help him?’ said Roulette.
‘He'll be fine. Let's make sure the magi are too busy to interrupt the crazy bastard.’
By the time I'd finished my sentence he was already a whirlwind of blades, piling into the nightmare swarm. There was no way of knowing if he'd survive and there was no point wasting my only remaining material on making sure. I grabbed Roulette's hand and hurried up the stairs.
Roulette gave a sharp pull on my arm when we were halfway up. She was out of breath and a trickle of blood was coming from her nose. A creeping dread started to fill me.
‘-it's alright. Just... ...slow down.’
She wasn't alright. She was giddy and confused. I sat her down and made a show of adjusting my boots. With all these steps, I was glad I'd taken my grandfather's advice about sensible footwear. Although, I don't think he ever said anything useful about keeping a human superweapon from turning catatonic in the middle of a magical war zone. If he did, I probably wouldn't have listened to him anyway, as he died when I was eight.
Nomas lingered a short distance down from us. I could tell he was terrified, even if he was doing a better job of hiding it than most. Our “methods” tended to have that effect on bystanders.
‘Come here.’ I said. He hesitated long enough for me to get angry. ‘Now! There will be more of those things coming and if you don't do as I say the first thing I do will be to feed you to them. Understand?’
‘Don't threaten me Wildfire.’ He said, coming closer anyway.
‘The name's Ludas. Listen: if Roulette here can't stand or fight for whatever reason, well, we're probably all fucked, but I want you to get her out of the way. Fast. Behind me is safer than in front of me.’ And, because of my winning personality, I added: ‘I gather your people must have learned that the hard way.’
‘You left only ash behind you.’ He said, with that weird kind of pride that made me want to strangle him. Still, he was a patient man, so he didn't say anything else for a while after that.
‘I'm okay.’ Added Roulette, weakly. She hated it when I got protective, which made it pretty good measure of what state she was in. The fact she barely protested was a bad sign.
We pressed on as fast as I dared drag her. You may well wonder why we didn't find a defensible corner and let her rest. I'd like to give some sound tactical reasoning here, but the truth is moving quickly was all we'd ever done. I wasn't about to break the habit of a lifetime. Besides, there were an unknown number of nightmares coming up from below and, as I've said, unprepared users of Art are a heck of a lot easier to deal with. Oh yeah: and try finding a corner in a cylindrical tower.
I stopped before the next set of doors and took out my pocket knife again. ‘Rou, I've been putting this off for a long time. You don't know how hard it is for me to ask you this, but....’
‘Ludas, stop taking the piss and give me that.’
She took the knife, grabbed the end of my ponytail and roughly sliced it off. Even in her weakened state I could see the glee in her face.
‘You've been dreaming of doing that for a long time haven't you?’
‘You have to sleep to dream.’ She handed the decapitated ponytail over. I knew two things then: first it'd take a lot of self-control not to use all that fresh material at once. Second: I looked even stupider than usual. I divided it in two, stuffing one into the pocket of my waistcoat.
‘Ready?’ I said, trying the handle of the door.
‘Not really.’ She said.
Nomas didn't look ready to do anything other than break down and cry again. I wonder what we did to his people, was I something they warned their children about? Perhaps he'd made his peace with his doom at the hands of the magi? And yet here was this monster there to give him hope, of all things. Hope of surviving The Tower. Not even I had that.
I winked at Rou, because it was better than showing her that I was actually pretty scared, and kicked open the door.
This room was different. It was light, airy and comfortable. There were fine looking tables and little bookshelves. None of which I spent any time taking in since I dived straight for the nearest cover. All the moisture in the air crystallised behind me. It was like there was a tiny snow shower just in front of the door. Some of it then boiled away, back into gas. Suffice to say, someone had just made that particular spot pretty damn cold.
I think I'd landed behind a sofa, or something like that, but I could hear voices and the gurgling of a nightmare too.
‘I can take him!’ said one with puppy dog arrogance.
‘Just wake the others up and run.’ Hissed another.
‘He's over there, I-’
What did I say before? Get them when they're talking. And that's what I did. Unsure of just what lay on the other side of my sofa hiding place I went with standard plan: incinerate everything. I pushed a wall of flame out towards the centre of the room as soon as I had the briefest glimpse of magi. It caught a recently roused nightmare in front of them immediately, the crest of flame rolled over two more of its sedated brothers. They charred without even reacting. There were two magi behind, a younger one -almost certainly puppy dog- and the first proper magi I'd seen: sure he had a proper magi beard and a few years on him, but it was what he did next that tipped me off. I'd accidentally fed more heat in than I'd meant to and it had made it hard to control, the wall had become a wave about to break upon them.
With all around them aflame, the proper magi was clutching a flask of blood, a fairly serious focus, I could see it disintegrating away as he pulled the heat out of the air around them, keeping the fire from engulfing them.
I started laughing, I tell myself I do it 'cause it unnerves them, but I'm not really sure that's true. I fed more heat into the inferno around them.
‘Run! Get to the Sanctuary!’ Said Proper Magi.
Puppy Dog seemed to have enough sense to use his material to create a space cool enough to dash through.
‘Where's Deva?!’ I shouted, pushing the fire harder.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ Called the remaining magi, straining to rip the energy out of the air around him.
And like that, I stopped. I pulled everything back. Unfortunately for First Proper Magi, he didn't stop pulling heat out of the sphere of air around him.
He flash froze with a very surprised look on his face.
I just caught sight of the younger magi's feet disappearing up the stairs. Most of the furniture was on fire. I took a closer look at the frozen magi in the centre of all the destruction.
‘You know, I'm getting pretty annoyed at not getting an answer to that question.’ I said in the human icicle's direction.
‘Maybe...’ Said Roulette, poking her head around the door I leapt out of before I decided to redecorate in ash black and barbecued nightmare. ‘...they don't know?’
‘Don't even joke about her not being here. That would make all this-’
‘-Just you rampaging with no purpose?’
Which was kinda what we'd been trying to draw a line under.
‘Hey’ I said ‘let's not have this conversation here, yeah? We'll all die of smoke inhalation if we stay much longer.’
Nomas helped me support her as we rushed through. Normally, when in a burning building, I wouldn't recommend going upstairs, since that's where the smoke goes too. And most buildings I've had cause to set ablaze tend to collapse sooner or later. But The Tower was almost entirely made of that perfect off-white stone that would probably take more than a few burning soft-furnishings to topple. The smoke, however, I could turn to my advantage.
‘Either of you have any idea what “the Sanctuary” might be?’
Nomas looked past the increasingly nauseous Roulette we were holding when he spoke ‘Somewhere safe from you?’
Roulette laughed. I think I chuckled too, thought I might have been suffering from the symptoms of lack of oxygen. I knew we were thinking the same thing: 'Nowhere is safe from us'. I'm really glad neither of us had the hubris to say it out loud.
After more stairs (have I mentioned how much I hated the stairs? I have, but I'm not sure I got it across clearly enough) we met yet another set of double doors. They hadn't even been closed properly, so I guess the other magi was in a hurry. In any case smoke was coming through ahead of us. Perfect.
I whispered ‘Real quiet, stay low.’ and pushed the door open enough for us and our cloak of smoke to move through. One flaw was that it was really hard to breathe without coughing, but no one had suggested a better plan.
We crept in. It was a bunk room, which was a little disappointing after the tanks of specimens and nightmare mortuary thing. Even more disappointingly, our stealthy entrance was pretty much wasted. The place was empty. Although it looked like it had recently been vacated in a hurry.
‘They've all run away. Just like old times.’ I said. ‘Nomas, close the door, we might as well be able to breathe.’
I felt Roulette's fingers dig into my arm. Tiny nightmares, the size of large rats, slithered towards us from under beds and cabinets. They oozed the black blood and barely had any distinct shape at all beyond erratically placed feathers and shards of metal. They made sharp cracking noises.
‘Those aren't as scary as the last ones.’
‘No.’ Said Rou, digging her nails in. ‘But there's hundreds of them.’
‘I'm nearly out of ammunition as it is. Run.’
Between Nomas and me, I don't think Roulette's feet touched the ground as we ran to the opposite stairway. We had to dance around the more sprightly ones. I kicked a lone one out of the way.
I felt the jolt of electricity arc up my leg, contorting my muscles as the little black mass burst open in a foul-smelling explosion. Somehow I remained upright. I hopped for a few seconds of agony. Then it was mostly gone. Just the dull sensation of tiredness in my leg and the certainty that I didn't want to do that again.
‘Don't touch them.’ I said through clenched teeth. Honestly, I don't think Roulette or Nomas were likely to try and pet them anyway, but you say these things because someone has to.
With more of a skip than a jump, we avoided the ranks wriggling their way at us, and we were there. They had serious difficulty following us up the steps, but you had to admire their persistence.
‘Whoever thought those things up’ I said, finally succumbing to the need to cough the smoke out of my throat ‘Is a deeply twisted individual.’
‘You think in odd ways.’ Said Nomas, not caring to elaborate.
Roulette struggled out of our grasp, not that we were trying to restrain her. She actually looked a little better. The smoke was stinging her eyes. And now that I thought about it, said smoke was making it very difficult to see if those things behind us were having any more success in conquering the stairs.
‘Keep moving.’ The numbness in my foot began to subside, which was good considering I'd nearly stumbled on those fucking steps three times.
I'd like to say how the next floor was an exciting escalation of the madness we'd seen so far, but no, it wasn't. It was a food hall and kitchen. Good to know that magi have to eat (and presumably shit too, but I never saw anything obviously for that purpose). It was completely empty of life, save for the notable exception of a truly horrifying nightmare sleeping calmly on a counter-top with a stretcher beneath it. An array of syringes were discarded nearby. It was in some sense humanoid, with plates of spiked metal bolted to it with all the artistry of a monkey with a pot of paint. It didn't look like the sort of creature you'd survive a hug from.
‘I guess they didn't have time to wake it up.’ I said, because I was doing a pretty good line in stating the bloody obvious by this point. I handed Nomas a crust of bread from one of the tables on our way through. I don't know if the surprised look on his face was due to me being capable of a simple act of kindness or if the thought to take it himself had never occurred to him. He washed it down a sip of whisky from Roulette's flask.
The next set of doors was different. Big metal things. A tiny crack of light came through with enough of an interruption to suggest the reason they wouldn't open up was a huge door bar. I didn't think the magi were naïve enough to think that it was enough to hold back someone like me, but it seemed like their on the spot plan was to throw as many obstacles in our path and then run for their “Sanctuary” whatever that would turn out to be.
I watched the last of the first focus twist into nothingness as I carefully melted a path through the hunk of metal in the way. I hadn't had to use the Art this much in a long time. It has a cumulative sort of effect: the only real way I've heard it described that I liked was that you feel 'diminished'. Less energy, less mental agility, less everything. Like you're slipping away. Before, when too tired to drop off, I'd intentionally harnessed this fact to put myself to sleep, normally you resist it rather than embrace it. I knew that if I pushed myself much harder I'd start getting forgetful and slow.
Roulette was less predictable, sometimes it made her worse, other times she could be replacing our opponents with ash in the breeze all day with no effect. I think it affects everyone differently, but even with the amount of practice we'd had, I could begin to feel the fatigue pulling me back, withdrawing me from the moment.
‘Something feels wrong.’ I said, rolling my shoulders to try and persuade the muscles to keep working. ‘I'm losing my edge, Roulette.’
She stared at me. A worried look. I immediately regretted saying anything. Stupid. Everyone always looked to me to know what was going to happen next. I think that's why Aubrey stuck with us as long as he did: I called all the shots, so all the crazy, idiotic and downright evil stuff we did wasn't really his fault. It wasn't really; in another life he'd have been a king by now. As for Deva, I don't think I could even begin to explain. So I won't.
‘It's not that bad.’ I added, far too late to stop Roulette from worrying. She was fiddling unconsciously with the hem of her shirt. She was a little twitchy, but I don't think she was getting any worse. She'd pull it together in a few minutes. I told myself that anyway. I can't remember if I reprimanded myself for being a lying bastard or not. I probably did.
Unfortunately, I'd just hastily melted through the door, which rather forced the issue of whether or not to wait any longer. And, weird as it sounds, I didn't want to show any weakness in front of our hanger-on, Nomas. As far as I could tell he was following us out of necessity and was on our side, but I may well have killed his entire tribe for all I knew and I didn't want him getting any ideas about revenge. I don't remember his tribe at all.
I pushed the door open, ready to embrace any of thousand fates on the other side, most of them terminal. The notion of pushing towards the nearest cover took hold of my brain; the old survival instincts emerging from the fog. Only there wasn't any cover.
There wasn't anything. A light so warm that every surface was incandescent. A second later, my eyes adjusted. This room wasn't like the others. There was no ceiling. No more steps. The walls were lined with books stretching up to what seemed like infinity. A cradle was slowly descending from an endless chain up above. The steel base falling incrementally towards us was the only thing that didn't hurt my eyes to look at.
Nomas appeared next to me. ‘A library.’ Awe in his voice.
I should have been glad that someone was picking up the slack on my stating-of-the-obvious duties. But that room was all I was thinking about: more books than I thought existed. I'd never had a great relationship with the written word, anything not chiselled into rock was impermanent at best around me. Still: that much knowledge in one place is a powerful sight. The way they were bathed in otherworldly light only increased the effect.
The cage descended with all the urgency of a glacier. ‘Wait, so the only way up is in this lift?’ I said. Oh yes, Nomas was going to have to pull off an astounding performance if he wanted my obviousness-crown.
Rou's head hung awkwardly to one side, her eyes opening wide before clamping tight with huge, pantomime blinks. ‘These lights are too bright, the pressure in my head is too much.’
I could have sworn she was going to scream. It wouldn't be the first time. Just when I felt I could feel the sound about to erupt from her throat, she let out a shallow breath and flopped down to the ground.
Nomas and I both thought she'd fainted. She stopped us dead when she looked up and practically laughed out a few words: ‘You wouldn't believe how much this hurts.’
‘I dunno, I've been on fire a few times.’ I said, with more tones of inner dickishness coming out than I'd intended. ‘Er, not that this is a competition or anything.’
‘Is Deva up there?’ She whispered.
‘Can't say. We've only found one prisoner so far. They've taken hundreds. Nightmares....’
They wouldn't waste a woman like Deva like that, right?
The lift wobbled slowly down like a pendulum.
We were stood in this alien, impossible room, awash with light with nothing to do but wait. Rou sat quietly on the floor with her eyes closed.
‘Is it just me...?’ I said, only just noticing the black blood caked on Nomas' feet ‘...or is this the most blatant trap in the history of obvious traps? The only way up is in a cage? Are we really going to just step in and hope for the best?’
‘The trap they got me with was pretty obvious.’ Said Nomas, perfectly deadpan.
‘He has got a sense of humour! Bugger me.’
Rou smirked. ‘Didn't know you were into that.’
‘Well, my dear, you I prefer curvy girls, but you know I'm not fussy.’
Nomas' face was a picture of awkwardness. The tribals hardly speak with the sort of candour that Rou and me shared.
I'm not sure what he really wanted to know, but it was some sort of attempt to steer away from uncomfortable subjects: ‘Do you and her... ...are you...?’
‘We don't talk about it. We've got a truce.’ I said. Roulette and I kept it fairly professional, 'though I guess we got more open with each other when Deva took a shine to Aubrey. The amount of stupid innuendo certainly went up, anyway. Making Aubrey uncomfortable as we flirted was all part of the fun. Dealing death was only a tiny part of our lives, but I don't think anyone wants to hear about that.
Nomas squinted at us. Had he been experiencing the same disappointment we were? I mean we'd only met one proper magi so far. And in his case there's this man and woman who he thought were soulless mercenaries, and they turn out to be a pair of foul-mouthed children, so to speak.
‘Oh thank the skies, the lift is nearly here.’
The cage hit the floor with a faint clang. I'd been expecting some god among nightmares to leap out, a colossus of muscle and hatred, but once again, death held back. Even The Void didn't seem to want us.
‘Oh’ I said ‘I'll go first shall I?’
‘Anything to get out of this light.’ said Rou.
The lift wasn't anything spectacular: ten square feet of cage with a set of controls linked up to the chain mechanism above. A piece of vellum parchment sat atop the control panel. I held it up to see what was written on it; two lines -neither of them all that reassuring. The first: “You have no idea what you are doing.” The second: “You will regret this, Ludas.”
It began to crumble in my hands. No idea if that was me or not. My memory is hazy on that and the lift pulling rapidly upwards was pretty distracting. After about twenty feet it slowed to the same pace it had descended at. Noticing for the first time that Nomas was in there with us, I pulled the cage door shut.
Just in time to see Aubrey appear at the door of the library, armour clawed open in several places, blades and arms so caked with nightmare blood that I couldn't tell what was him and what was his weapons. He stood there, staring up at me as we ascended, him looking the triumphant hero, me the scrawny victim of a recent emergency haircut. He must have killed almost as many of them as we did just to follow in our wake. The lads from the town were notably absent.
I thumped the controls but they had no effect. One way trip. When had it ever been anything else?
‘Can't stop it! We're going to find her!’ I shouted down to Aubrey.
He sighed. The way he stood there, flicking the blood off his blades said it all. I winced at the deflated resignation as he turned to face the door, and the sound of angry nightmares coming up from below. I knew he'd kill them all. Probably pretending they were me as he did it.
The lift moved ponderously upwards, past the seemingly infinite bookshelves. Roulette was gripping the bars, shaking slightly. Nomas didn't look a whole lot better, he obviously didn't like heights. I decided not to mention the possibility that the magi could cut the lift chain and be done with us hilariously easily. Still, they probably wouldn't bother with the cryptic message if that was the case. That thought didn't stop me spending five minutes trying to come up with the best way of decelerating an object I was standing in without ripping it apart.
The light got brighter, to the point where everything but the lift became a brilliant white. Roulette whimpered. Bright lights and the kind of headache it takes more than one soul to encompass don't mix.
‘I don't like this. I feel like I am dreaming.’ Added Nomas.
‘It ain’t one of my dreams: there's no naked...’ It wasn't a sudden realisation that no one really needs to hear the contents of my dreams that stopped me. No, it was, and this is going to sound stupid, but it was the feeling I got in my gut when: ‘...Deva.’
The brows above Roulette's squinting eyes furrowed ‘You dream of Deva naked?’
‘Fuck no, Aubrey would slit my throat for even thinking about it. Listen, she's near, I know it.’
‘We can't see anything.’
I pull my arm around her. ‘Come on, when have I ever let you down? Don't answer that.’
The light flickered then died away, leaving an unnerving afterglow and the sight of fifteen silhouettes in a ring around us. Robed men holding things like desiccated human hearts and carved bones, deeply powerful focuses.
You know when you're going to do something way ahead of time and you know it's a really bad idea? And you do it anyway? Go on, guess what I said next:
‘Any of you know where Deva is?’
Roulette, whose sense of self-preservation typically outshone mine in moments like those, slunk down to the floor of the cage. I gave the door the slightest push to check it hadn't locked in place. Some luck: I found it would swing right open. Open right into empty space -over a drop big enough that I wouldn't bet on Aubrey being able to work out what exactly just cratered the floor next to him.
The fifteen silhouettes didn't move. ‘I guess they don't know either.’ I said.
A voice emanated from somewhere above us, weary and echoing: ‘Make no attempt to use The Art. The Sanctuary will not tolerate it.’ It was an old man. I thought it might even be the Archmagi. ‘Come out slowly.’
A marble bridge issued from the wall towards the cage, soundlessly stopping a hair's width from the cage door. Nomas pushed the door open and darted across to the circular balcony. That would have been a reasonable move were it not for the ring of magi apparently waiting to destroy us. Still, we've all got our fears, and it spoke volumes about Nomas that after so much his nerve held as long as it did. He hunched low to the ground in the half-light, too relieved by solid rock beneath him to care about his suicidal lunge. He must have got some attention because the lights started to rise again.
The material in my hand wouldn't be enough for a decisive strike against so many targets. Maybe five or six of 'em, a few more if I risked something a little slower. Even if they weren't as good as the one I'd fought downstairs, it was hopeless odds.
Of course there was a way to get all the power I'd need: steal it from the fabric of the universe. I did mention that I could do that, right? I'm pretty sure I did. Even as the thought appeared, I was reaching out, feeling for something to grab hold of. Once you've got it, you yank it so to speak and focus it for as much Art as you dare. I think I also mentioned that the universe takes exception to this sort of thing and will eventually make you pay for every iota you steal. That might had made me pause for thought if something really damn weird didn't stop me first.
Listen, the fabric of the universe, aside from being nearly impossible to comprehend for even the brightest minds (and no, I ain't one of 'em), is a really messy tangled thing. A swirling tapestry of infinite potential spiralling upon itself, frayed and geometrically unfathomable. Whoever said “you can't get something for nothing” didn't understand just how intricate 'nothing' really is.
Soon I'd pull all that energy screaming out upon the magi, consequences be damned. But the mess wasn't there. I couldn't get a grip, not a single strand to grasp. For want of a better word, the fabric of reality was, for the first time I'd ever known it, pristine.
‘Shit. Rou, step out slowly. There's no safety net here.’
‘Do as the voice says, something tells me Art is going to be really fucking difficult here.’
That same voice echoed down again: ‘Enter.’
I took the lead, expecting a thunderbolt at any moment.
Rou fell in behind. She spoke softly. ‘I can get them all. Just-‘
‘-No, Deva is near.’
I think she understood, that the magi weren't immediately trying to kill us was novel (although, come to think of it, our approach hadn't been especially diplomatic), but if we could just get to Deva... ...well that had more or less been the entirety of the plan since the day they took her. Which was completely Aubrey's fault and not something I felt responsible or guilty for, of course.
I hauled Nomas to his feet without stopping and made for yet another staircase, leaving the fifteen to either continue staring at us, presumably ready to send us to The Void at the first hint of aggression. If the light wasn't so bad I might have been able to get a proper look at them. I hope they were scared.
I finally stumbled on the last bloody step, my knee crunching awkwardly into the floor. The Walking Wildfire wasn't. I didn't move for what felt like minutes but was probably only a few seconds. I remember being surprised at the sensation of pain feeling like it was mere information. Too much Art'll do that to you: pull you away from yourself.
Nomas picked me up just as I'd done for him moments ago. I looked around to see just what I'd stumbled into. The top of The Tower. The ceiling of the world. There was no wind, no sound and nothing but a huge robed man framed against the sky.
‘I offer you no welcome.’ Said the Archmagi. ‘Do not think the magi are defeated by this little outburst. There are thousands of us out in the world. What do you have to say for yourself?’
‘Where in The Void is De-’
A burst of incredible pain. He got me while I was talking.
What happened next was a bit confusing. Having your torso pulled apart by a swirling mist of purple lightning is a little distracting after all.
I remember Roulette’s words pretty clearly though: “This is the end of all things.” Her wrists were pissing out blood where she must have cut them open. Nomas was frozen in horror. The Archmagi seemed too focused on feeding more power into the storm to notice anything else.
A funny thing knowing you’re dead. I was surprisingly okay with it. Roulette would join me in The Void soon, along with everyone else for a hundred miles. “The heart of the sun” a thousand times over. Shame I probably wouldn’t last a couple more seconds to experience it.
There was something. Right in the middle of the rapidly expanding maelstrom where my organs used to be: a dangling thread of the universe. Fuck it, I was going to rip everything out of it with my dying moment. Who gives a shit about bad luck when you’re dead?
I yanked the thread as the storm consumed me. No sight. No sound. Nothing. I kept pulling, a memory of a man futily raging against his own destruction. The energy kept pouring out as the structure of reality around me kept unravelling.
A thought occurred, if a loosely associated essence of rapidly scattering matter can have thoughts: ‘I can use this.’
Ever more power flowed inwards, bringing together atoms in appallingly high energy states, shaking themselves apart and brought together again by even more energy, cascading into this thing: me. More and more. Some great impossible equation of screaming energy holding a shape something like a man, cheating the inevitable answer that this could not be by pulling even more energy in.
Something like vision returned. Through the plasma writhing about me I could see the Archmagi. An insignificant man, surrounded by fifteen equally worthless creatures all trying to hold back Roulette’s building apocalypse as The Tower shook itself apart around them.
With a wave of a limb of contorting flame, the fifteen became ash. This left the Archmagi, who turned his Art onto holding back the entity of dancing fire I’d become. More energy. He was powerful, the floor beneath the shapes that may have been my feet boiled away as I pressed closer to him, close enough to see the fear in his deep blue eyes, straining with the effort of pushing heat away from him.
Some of the particles that made me up took to fusing themselves together to escape their torment. Even more energy flowed in. There was no voice box to make a sound, only pure, elemental fire cowed into making the right vibrations.
‘This was meant for Deva. But I will give it to you.’
The kiss broke through his Art and obliterated him from the inside out.
It was becoming impossible to hold it all together: the fabric of the universe around me was a mess –a tattered forest of exotic oddness I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. There was only one thing left to do: find some way of dumping all that power without turning everything for a thousand miles into cinders. And then die.
Slowly at first, then a torrent as word got around that the particles could escape their agony by venting upwards, a spear of fire launched into the sky, drawing the energy away from the effigy of myself. Everything went dark again. I think I heard someone whisper my name. Perhaps it was The Void.
Aubrey’s handsome face loomed over me out of the gloom. Figures: the worst luck I could imagine was an eternity of afterlife with a guy who can’t admit he’s wrong. I guessed that Roulette must have succeeded in destroying The Tower with him still in it. Poor bastard, he only wanted to find the woman he loved.
I said the only thing that came to mind: ‘She wasn’t there.’ Just moving my mouth was excruciatingly painful –like I’d been cut up into a thousand pieces and only just noticed. I deserved that. No amount of pain would be undeserved. ‘I’m sorry Aubrey. I fucked up.’
‘Get up, Wretched Inferno, we’re going to find Deva.’
‘I’m a little dead for that.’
Roulette’s voice broke in, feeble, but warm. ‘You can burn a little longer. Putting you back together took… …almost everything I had. I don’t know how I did it, but the end of all things can wait.’
‘Fuck. I’m still alive. I’m in that shitty hotel aren’t I? The Void’d smell better.’
Aubrey’s big hands pulled me upright. Nomas was there too, finally wearing something more than Rou’s coat. He didn’t seem especially happy.
‘Alright.’ I said, noticing I had no hair whatsoever, still, it was a better look than Roulette’s blood-caked bandages around her wrists. ‘Where’s Deva?’
Aubrey pulled a silly face and when he spoke I realised why. ‘Er, I found a magi you didn’t kill in there. He says there’s another Tower.’