Admit It, You'll Miss Me
There were three forces acting against the Librarian in Blacksgage this month. First were the soldiers of the Party Guard, led by Ser Wallenstein, who had settled into winter camps in Dogma and were defending the rebuilding efforts there. They did not come under attack, and for the first time in several months peace reigned.
Second were the forces put together by Doctor Vassari to assault North and Southside Black. The troops were followed by mages and spies to root out sifter magi and break the mind-altering enchantments that they left behind. The Librarian's remaining mage cadre, busy elsewhere, did not respond, and the Black neighborhoods peacefully fell out of her control.
Third were the forces of the Esoteric Society, the Executive Bureaucracy, and the Champions of Sovereignty, led personally by Lord Founder, Captain Rargo and King James, respectively. They marched on the Dead Campus itself, and it is there that the remaining forces of the Librarian made their stand.
"Bring her down!"
Captain Franz Rargo, commander of the Greycloaks currently storming the main reception area of Orn University Daimot, was not a happy man. Things had been too easy. They had advanced cautiously, expecting heavy resistance, but this...ambush was the first time they had even seen any of the enemy. Even calling it an ambush was a bit much. The Librarian had simply been waiting for them in the entrance hall of the University Commons, with ranks of blank-faced mages and summoned creatures behind her. From what little glimpse he'd gotten of her before the fight started, she didn't look so good, shaking and swaying as she cast her spells. Unfortunately, that didn't seem to be having any effect on their potency.
That said, something was lacking from the enemy defense. The shaker magi, for example, were almost violently conspicuous in their absence, and the Librarian's forces that remained...tattered
was the best descriptor he could come up with. They were ragged, on the edge of some precipice of the mind that Rargo didn't care to contemplate. There was no time to really consider the implications before the fire came down. His Greycloaks knew what to do--gods know they'd had to do it often enough by now--and scattered, moving behind cover, lofting bolts and arrows at mages when they had the chance but ever working to get to sword-range. He issued a few sparse orders, but the truth was that his men had their business well in hand. It was his allies that he was more worried about. King James, for example, was determined to face down the leader of the MU infiltrating the city personally, which Rargo privately thought was insane. He'd read the reports that O'Vail had sent out, and the only way he would ever want to meet the master of the sifters was with a good head start, and maybe a couple artillery pieces as backup. Worse than the Champion's King, though, were the Explorers. The Society's men were solid, yes, the remains of the Blackjack Boys and the Home Guard fighting as much for their fallen friends now as for any other cause. But those soldiers, despite all their ferocity and skill, were being led by Lord Founder, a man who viewed the concept of mortal peril as a personal challenge. It made strategy sessions less useful than they would otherwise have been. Julius Lance, the leader of the Blackjack Boys, would nod and agree and give good suggestions when they were planning the next day's movements, and then when the actual battle came all that would be completely ignored by Bennet Founder, who would once again charge in with that damn dragon gun of his, all his men running to catch up and protect him from the Librarian's magicians. It was infuriating, it really was.
"Bring her down!" the Captain shouted again, focused on the slim white figure of the Librarian. Some of the others had wanted to capture her--he dimly recalled Doctor Vassari suggesting as much to him in passing while the man was taking a break from treating wounded in Dogma, and Founder had even taken to carrying weighted nets about with him just in case--but as far as Rargo was concerned, capturing a mage of her caliber was far too dangerous. Best to end it now. Her mages were dropping around her like mayflies, and the summons weren't doing much better, but she was still a deadly thing indeed, furious at this trespass into her domain. Or at least she should be. Peering around the pillar he was using as cover, Rargo could not see any emotion on her face. Behind her, he noticed with some satisfaction that a man in a grey cloak was gesturing others forward, swords in hand.
Lord Founder and Lord Pontiss got to the Librarian before the Greycloaks did. Outside of the Blackjack Boys, Pontiss was probably the only person who understood how their antimagic worked, and he was using that to good effect today. Founder was, as usual, less subtle, but his methods served him well now. Rargo saw him leveling the dragon gun out of the corner of his eye--it always amazed him, that a man of Founder's age could even lift the damn thing--and winced in anticipation of the sound.
The last gargoyle defending the Librarian fell, its stone chest shattering from the impact of a fist-sized iron ball, and suddenly she stood alone, though not for long. The Blackjack Boys were there with surprising speed, magical energies rolling off their strange black armor and warping reality behind them like disturbed fog, limbering up clubs set with grim lead symbols. They struck her down and bound her hands like they would any common criminal, their movements brisk and efficient. In that instant, the battle was over.
Lord Founder reached her after the Blackjacks, saw immediately that the Librarian had been neutralized, and threw the net he was carrying over her anyway.
"All yours, Aberham," he said, nodding to Lord Pontiss. The Blackjack Boys spread out, some staying close at hand to watch the Librarian, others keeping watch for mages that they might have missed the first time around. Pontiss, meanwhile, stepped up to the struggling Librarian and gently put a finger up to her temple. They both went still as stone.
King James reached the Society Lords before Captain Rargo did. "Well done," he said, polite as ever. "Might I ask what you plan to do with her? Er...that is to say, what are
you doing with her."
"She's got a spell in her brain, old boy," said Founder. "Well, obviously. She's a mage. Got a lot of spells in the ol' grey matter, I'm sure. But the MU put a different one in." He passed his dragon gun to his manservant, who had appeared as though by magic once the fighting had ended, and accepted a glass of something dark red in return. "Doctor Blaine mentioned it to me. Vassari sent the Librarian a message, and got back a response saying these MU boys were in her head, what? So we aim to get them out of her head." He beamed, and took a drink. "Shouldn't take too long." He nodded to Captain Rargo, who had just then reached them. "Speaking of the MU, we should probably take a look around. Make sure they're not hiding out somewhere, check if the Library's safe, all that. I trust you can handle it, Captain?"
Rargo smiled, trying not to grit his teeth. It wasn't an order--Founder never
ordered him to do things, not after he had patiently explained that he worked for the EBSA, wasn't one of Founder's servants and no, would not "Run and see if the carriage is here"--but it might as well have been. Except he'd be the one to look unreasonable if he didn't do it, and it was
a good idea. "Absolutely, sir," he said, instead of everything he wanted to. "Do you know where the Library is, by any chance?"
"Of course not!" said Founder cheerfully. "Woman kept the damn thing hidden from Desoui for hundreds of years. It's not like it's going to be on any of the maps. That's why we need to you to go looking for it, eh?"
"Of course," said Captain Rargo. "If you would excuse me, then?" He left before a response could be formed.
"I do not think that man likes you very much," said James, watching Rargo's retreating back.
"Nonsense," said Founder, turning back to their prisoner. "Aberham! Any progress?"
When Rargo arrived at the archway where his greycloaks had been forming up and tending to their wounds, he found orders already being given. A tall, lanky man in a grey cloak stopped speaking to the men and saluted as he approached. "Memoria abiit
," he said. "Hello, sir. I am your trusted lieutenant, as I have just explained to these men."
"Right," said Rargo, turning from the lieutenant to his greycloaks, already forming up in squads. "You heard what Founder said, I take it?"
"Yes, sir," said the lieutenant.
"We've got a map of the place," said Rargo, taking his copy out of a pocket, "but it's old, and there's been enough renovations between now and then to hide damn near anything. And she's probably had time enough to bury it wherever she pleased while we were fighting our way here. Frankly, I don't think we'll manage it anytime soon."
"Might be a bit pessimistic, sir," said the lieutenant. "What is it that you are looking for?"
"Looking for the damn Library," Rargo replied. "How easy do you
think it's going to be?"
"Not very, I suppose," said the lieutenant.
Rargo gave him a long look. Something about this man was bugging him, an itch at the back of his mind that he couldn't quite figure out.
"What's your name, son?" he asked finally. The lieutenant smiled.
"Majus, sir," he said. "Stirling Majus, at your service. This name seems perfectly normal to you."
"I hesitate to ask, because I am sure you know what you are doing," James said, watching as his own men formed up with the greycloaks and began the search of the campus, "but what, exactly, is your plan here?"
"I told you," said Lord Founder. "Aberham breaks the spell on the Librarian, we ask her where the MU boys have got to, we put together a little hunting party and go bag a couple more trophies for the wall."
"Trophies?" asked James, momentarily distracted. "I thought summoned creatures vanished when slain? I assume that is what you are referring to."
"Absolutely," said Founder, discreetly moving to block the King's view of his manservant Sebastian, who was measuring the decapitated head of one of the more imposing Daimot mages. "Let's go with that. The point is, we walk away with the university, the MU gone or dead, and the only person who knows where everything is in that Library of hers."
"Right," said James. "Only, she seems kind of, ah, passive right now, with the spell in her head, and you know she was fighting us even before the MU showed up...I guess my question is, why do you think she would help us now, after we've torn down the little empire she was building? She probably doesn't like the MU for what they did to her head, but I remember fighting her before they showed up, and she absolutely hated
There was a moment of silence, broken only by distant shouts between the various squads of searchers.
"You know, I never really thought about it like that," said Founder at last. "Aberham? Maybe hold off on breaking that enchantment for a bit..."
"I really wish you'd said that, I don't know, maybe ten seconds ago," said Lord Pontiss. "That would have been a good time for it."
The Librarian's eyes opened, and they were blazing white.
"I highly suggest we run," Pontiss added.
Captain Rargo had been pouring over his map on a table made of a broken pillar and some planks when the Librarian lit up the room like New Year fireworks. He could barely make her out if he shielded his eyes. Suddenly, the sword that he had instinctively drawn seemed horribly inadequate.
"Greycloaks!" he barked, realizing a moment later that they were spread out across the campus by now, searching for the Library. So were the Champions, oddly enough, though he didn't remember himself or James giving that order. Why hadn't he kept any here? Must not have been thinking straight. Of the forces who hadn't been immediately surrounding the Librarian, there was just him and the lieutenant.
The Blackjack Boys opened up with crossbows, covering their Lords' frantic retreat, but the Librarian ignored them. Bolts ignited midair and were ash by the time they came close to touching her. The expression on her face, once his eyes adjusted to the sudden light, was one of absolute, perfect fury.
she roared. It was a real roar, too, full of bass undertones and ten thousand years of predatory instinct. She lifted off the ground, antimagic chains shattering like glass, hovered for a moment, and then shot straight up, punching through the roof without stopping.
After the echoes had died down and the debris had settled, Rargo thought to look at the man next to him. "Why the hell was she shouting your name?" he asked. It took him a moment to realize that the lieutenant was no longer present.
"Well," said Founder, getting up from behind the table, "that wasn't good."
"Quite," said Pontiss. "Your majesty, if you would be so kind to move so that I may free my foot..."
"Right, sorry," said King James. The three of them stood and dusted themselves off. Sebastian appeared and offered Lord Founder a handkerchief, which he used to wipe the sheen of sweat off his brow.
"Did any of you see where my lieutenant went?" asked Rargo. "And where the hell is my map?"
"Lieutenant Regis?" asked James. "I thought he was taken back to Doctor Blaine after the statue courtyard. His arm looked rather nasty, I thought--I haven't seen him since then."
"No, no," said Rargo, brushing aside the King's words. "Lieutenant Majus."
"Lieutenant..." said James.
"Majus," said Rargo impatiently. "Stirling Majus. He was right here. Did you see where he went?"
The King and the Lord looked at each other again. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" asked Founder.
"That 'Stirling Majus' sounds rather familiar?" replied James.
"This may sting a bit," said Pontiss, reaching out and putting a finger to Rargo's temple.
"What," the Captain began, and then everything went blank.
The man in grey paused to catch his breath under the crumbling arches of the Veridian Hall. It was always tricky, managing situations like this, but despite the complexity of the plan it had all been going surprisingly well until the Librarian had got loose. Pity about that, really. He hadn't thought that she would remember as much of the mental control as she apparently did--the last thing she should have been able to recall clearly was the relief as the sifter magi showed up to clear the way for the shakers. After that it should have all been fighting the coalition, slowly losing, getting more desperate...she wasn't supposed to remember
No use dwelling on it now. She did remember, and knew enough to have a name for the one responsible. More importantly, she knew enough to go straight for the Library. He'd managed to steer the Greycloaks and the Champions away from its location, but the Librarian? That wasn't even worth a joke. He would have to move fast.
The man in grey took a deep breath and adjusted his clothes. A crease smoothed out here, a fold flattened there, and suddenly what had been a military cloak was a simple grey magician's robe. Fantastic coincidence, that color. He'd barely had to work at the illusion.
"MAJUS!" he heard from afar, the shout once again echoing through the University halls. He winced. So loud! Was she trying
to lead the coalition to the Library? Despite the admittedly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the people attacking the Dead Campus weren't complete fools. They certainly knew enough to, you know, follow the sound of her voice
. Gods above! How he hated working with amateurs sometimes. He really shouldn't have kept her around this long.
Well. Time to fix that little mistake. She knew where the Library was, but he knew ways in and out that he doubted even she realized existed.
King James and Lord Founder were talking when Captain Rargo came back to reality.
"Doctor Blaine told me," said Founder. "After Vassari had gotten his reply from the Librarian, he got a little note from someone calling himself Stirling Majus, telling him to mind his own business. The Doctor figured he was the head of the sifters, and I can't help but agree. Some kind of spymaster, was my impression. Yourself?"
"I, ah," said James, sounding uncomfortable. "Well, the Doctor sent a message to the MU later on--after the one he told you about, I think--and got a response back signed with that name. And, I, ah, I don't necessarily condone this, mind you, but sometimes people read the Doctor's mail, and, ah..."
"Let's leave it at that, shall we?" said Founder. "Looks like Aberham has done his work."
"What the hell did you just do?" said Rargo, blinking.
"Aberham went rooting around in your head for a bit," said Founder.
"That is not what I did at all
," said Pontiss.
"He poked around in your brain," said Founder cheerfully. "Picked through your memories and saw which were false and which were forgotten! He knows all your darkest secrets! You are forever marked by this vile magician! Forever
, feeble mortal!"
"I know I don't say this often, Ben, but could you shut up for a minute?" said Pontiss, in as polite a voice as he could manage. Remarkably, Founder stopped talking. "You mentioned Stirling Majus," he said to Rargo, "which is a name that we have been associating with the leader of the sifter magi. So I checked to see if you had the same sort of mental enchantment as the Librarian. Which you did, to a lesser extent."
"What?" A dull, throbbing headache was slowly making itself known in the back of Rargo's skull.
"Is there anything about the past, mmm, say half an hour that seems out of place?" asked Pontiss. "Especially concerning your Lieutenant Majus?"
"Majus?" asked Rarjo, trying to concentrate. "I don't know any..." He trailed off. "Oh, ****."
," the man in the grey cloak had said. "Hello, sir. I am your trusted lieutenant, as I have just explained to these men
"He directed the search," said Rargo weakly. "Just took charge. Greycloaks and Champions both. I...why didn't I..."
"All gods damn it," said James, disgustedly. "He was right here, and none of us noticed. Right here
." He kicked at a nearby rock, glaring at it as though it were directly responsible for hiding the sifter mage.
In the silence that followed, all four men distinctly heard a voice, screaming in the distance. "MAJUS!"
"I would be willing to bet," said Founder slowly, "any sum you would care to name, that she is going to the Library."
"No bet," said Pontiss.
"Furthermore, I would wager that our dear friend Stirling is going in a similar direction," Founder continued. "Shall we see if we can find them?"
The Librarian stared at the scene before her with horror. Here, for all to see, was her worst nightmare, dredged up from the back of her fevered dreams and placed before her eyes. Surely this was a dream, it must be; for this to happen was unthinkable, horrific beyond comprehension.
The books were gone. As far as the eye could see were bare shelves. All the magic, all the knowledge and wisdom of a thousand years, gone.
"Impressive, isn't it?" said the man in grey. "Took some doing, yeah, but it wasn't hard
, not by any stretch of the imagination."
She turned towards him, fists clenched. Tiny lightning bolts sparked from her dress to the ground, leaving trails of embers drifting in their wake as they lit up the dust.
The man in grey gave her his most charming smile, and spread his arms wide. "Couldn't have done it without you!" he said.
They heard the voices, but they couldn't find the source.
The main problem was that they didn't have enough men. They had collected what they could of the troops that Majus had sent on their futile search, but it was becoming readily apparent that he had, in fact, directed most of them back to Dogma. Rather than waste time hunting them down, they elected to press on, in the hopes of interrupting whatever it was that Majus had wanted them gone for. Now, though, they didn't have enough to give the huge hall a proper search.
"It's got to be close," muttered Founder. "I can hear them clear as day!"
"Quiet," said Pontiss, pacing the edge of the antechamber where they had started hearing voices. "If there's a hidden door here, you know I'll find it. In the meantime, I want to hear this."
"Stop casting," said the man in grey.
"What..." came the voice of the Librarian, echoing about the room. It was the echo that was making it hard to tell what direction the sound came from. The Librarian's voice certainly didn't help matters--it sounded as though she hadn't spoken in months. She cleared her throat and tried again. "What have you done?"
"And here I thought it was obvious," chuckled a voice that of them only Rargo had heard before. It was an innately likable voice, though entirely too pleased with itself. "I did what I've been trying to do for years now. Look around you, darling! I pulled off the crime of the century!"
"Years?" muttered James, searching for hidden switches.
"Delay," said the man in grey.
"Years?" asked the Librarian, on cue.
"Why did you think we were trying to get into Redress Street?" asked the voice of Majus. "Seriously, why? We could have walked across the bridge or pulled into the docks any day of the week and no one would have noticed. No one did
didn't notice! We've been in the city ever since we realized this library of yours existed! Oh, and we had such plans!" He laughed. "Redress Street! Oh, Redress Street! What a beautiful place! It was the tunnels that we were after, of course."
"The tunnels! Your library is underground, darling, don't know if you noticed. And there's tunnels leading into it. Small ones, off in the corners, maintenance shafts that never get used anymore, but enough. We got our information from the government Archives, but I think there's a church in Oldtown that knows about them too. We were going to set up shop in Redress Street and just funnel books out slowly, moving out the back. You'd never have noticed." The sigh was barely audible. "And then, the Blackjack Boys came in. Annoying people, right?"
"He's casting," Pontiss said. "Try not to act on any impulses or emotions that you can't verify are your own."
"Let your defenses fall," said the man in grey.
"How the hell are we supposed to tell?" Founder demanded, as the Blackjack Boys started setting up an antimagic field.
"Let your anger subside," said the man in grey.
"So we tried a different direction," said Majus, and the antimagic meant that his mental suggestions were starting to come through as well, in a weird warping around the words he spoke. "Silas Mok was mapping out the tunnels under Southside Black for us when you killed him. A pity, that. I mean, he was kind of a scumbag, but still." He laughed, delighted. "And then! Then you just invited us in!
I couldn't believe it! And thus, this! The crime of the century!" He couldn't stop laughing. "Like, half the city is convinced we're an invading army or something, you know? Setting ourselves up to rule like Desoui? Which is hilarious! I mean, who would want to rule this place? Especially when we practically got invited to steal the most valuable thing in it!"
"I am so
pleased that you hold such a high respect for my collection," the Librarian said, in a voice edged with frost. "Now what have you done with it?"
"Kill yourself," said the man in grey.
"Oh, it's long gone," said the voice of Majus. "The biggest trove of lost spellbooks this side of the mountains? Oh yes, you can be damn sure we wanted that. You think I would come out personally for anything less? Frankly, you should be taking my presence as a great compliment!"
"Kill yourself," said the man in grey.
"The presence of a mere thief is no great honor," said the Librarian. "And you can dispense with your mind games. That won't work on me a second time."
"Kill yourself," suggested the man in grey, hopefully.
"I said stop it," said the Librarian. "You are a trickster and a common thief, and if you do not tell me where I may find my book you will find yourself wishing for something so sweet as pain
The other mage, for some reason, found that to be just about the funniest thing ever.
"Seriously?" he choked out. "Do you--you don't even--are you for real? You? You with your fancy little college gig and your precious seven-element system? You
are threatening me?
Holy bells, this was worth the price of admission! Seriously! Oh gods above I can't stop laughing this is a problem I need to breathe."
"You are walking a dangerous path with your tongue, thief," said the Librarian, in tones that would have slain a lesser man. Even this one took it as a sign to sober up a little.
"You don't--okay, I know
you're not this stupid," he said. "Look, it's...it's like...how do I even begin? I don't even...I even went and introduced myself! Stirling Majus! I've been signing that name to every letter and putting it in every conversation I've had since coming here, and no one's gotten the joke yet? Not even you? Is there something in the water here that removes your ability to process wordplay? Stirling Majus! Stirling, as in the adjective
. Majus, as in literally
one letter away from magus. I even kept the same initials! What is wrong
with you people?"
There was a pause.
"You," said the Librarian, horrified comprehension in her voice. "I know of you."
," said the Standing Mage. "For ****'s sake, how many hints does a man have to drop?"
"Also, now that you're distracted by the revelation of who you're dealing with: kill yourself. Slowly."
It was about then that the screaming began.
It turned out to be the mosaic in the floor, which was kind of unfortunate because it meant they spent five or ten minutes searching the walls first. Pontiss was the one to figure it out, as he had said he would. It was enchanted, of course, but he was a gentleman explorer, and had some experience with breaking down ancient wards on secret doors. It didn't take him long after figuring out where it was before he had it open, the tiles of the mosaic falling away to form a broad staircase leading down, to a pair of double doors that shone like the sun. They were already open, just a crack, enough for the smoke to leak out.
Inside the Library, things were a mess. Rank upon rank of empty shelves greeted them, standing like wooden soldiers on the floor. A great scorched scar tore through their midst, the only sign of the exchange between the Standing Mage and the Librarian. Of the Library itself, the books that had made it what it was, nothing was left, and of the man in grey there was no sign.
"This is going to be...difficult to search," said Captain Rargo, staring out across the Library. Try as he might, he couldn't make out the far wall.
"Might not have to," said Pontiss. "If we want to find Majus, that is. We'll have to go through the place to look for anything the MU might have missed, obviously, so we can salvage something to base the new university off of, but if we're looking for Majus, I do recall overhearing that the tunnels went to Redress Street."
"He also said that Silas Mok was mapping tunnels under Southside," James pointed out.
"Yes, but we don't know where those come up," said Pontiss. "However, I seem to recall Cornelius telling me something about smugglers using the water mains just offshore of Redress in the past month or so..."
"So Redress Street," said Lord Founder. "I'll have my carriage brought around."
The boats were as solid as timber and magic could make them, rocking gently in the current that flowed through the tunnel. There were only two left, now, where once there had been dozens tied up at the makeshift dock. Similarly, where there had once been a score or more of sifters working nonstop to shift books and priceless artifacts, there were now only four, one of whom was sprawled on the brick pier, unconsious. Every now and then a drowned rat would drift downstream. It was happening more often now than it had been when they were loading things, the man in grey noticed.
"So you all saw the rats lined up on the shore unconsious, and you figure someone's drugged the water," he said, not quite believing what he had heard. "Dumped sedatives in or something. That part I get. But...Ekelson just stepped up and took a drink? Just like that?"
"Just like that," one of the others affirmed, shifting from foot to foot. "You know how he always is with potions and drugs and all that 'there's only one way to know for sure what it does' stuff that he's always spouting."
"I thought he'd broken that habit after the whole...you know, the thing with the tiger," said the Standing Mage.
"I thought he had too, boss," said the other.
They watched sleeping and drowning rats drift past in the current for a moment.
"You know," said the Standing Mage, "when I asked the Librarian if there was something in the water, I didn't expect there to actually be
something in the water."
"You think it was the Doc?" asked another sifter.
"Got to be."
"Want us to have a word with him, once this is over?"
The Standing Mage considered it. "Maybe," he said. "Not soon, though. Business needs attending to." He kicked a rock into the underground stream. "You know if this stuff is contact, or does it need to be ingested?"
"No idea," said the other.
"Well, best not risk it," said the man in grey. "We can hoof it from here. They won't have doped the lake--we can still grab one of the fishing boats and no one will be the wiser. Come on."
"Is that entirely safe?" King James stared at Lord Founder as the Society gentleman struggled to reload his dragon gun in the cramped confines of the carriage. "We are in a rather small space here, and I hate to consider what would happen if, say, that pipe you are currently smoking happened to set off one of the bags of black powder that you seem to have formed your throne out of."
"Perfectly safe, I assure you!" said Founder, the motions of speech throwing embers from his pipe. "Or at least safer than most of my hobbies, eh? Eh? Sebastian! Ball!"
Sebastian handed his master a neatly polished iron ball, which Founder unceremoniously jammed down the barrel of the gun.
"You think the message got through to Dogma?" asked Pontiss, for the third time.
"Course it did," said Founder confidently. "Army that Majus sent away will be marching down Redress Street as we speak. We'll get this chap, never fear! Rat in a trap!"
"My Greycloaks at least will be there," said Rargo, who had sent a separate regroup order through EBSA channels rather than relying on the ESGE's messenger birds. Founder had assured them all that the birds were completely reliable, having been trained personally by "A jolly old boy with a townhouse on Peshing Ave," but Rargo had deep suspicions about the delivery capabilities of a creature with a brain smaller than his thumbnail. He was pretty sure James had sent his own message through different means as well, which was good. The more messages sent, the more chance one would get through in time to mobilize the undoubtedly confused troops. He only hoped that the Standing Mage's magic didn't leave them out of the game any longer than it took them to get to Dogma.
"Got lights on the right, guv!" shouted the driver. "Looks to be a fair number!"
"See?" said Founder. "That'll be the troops. Right on time."
"If ye don't mind me interruptin' guv," shouted the driver again, "I'd appreciate it if 'Bastion could light the coach lamps! 'S startin' to get a lil' dark up here!"
Sebastian was moving before Founder had stopped giving him the order to, leaning out the window with a handful of matches.
"I don't like this," said James. "This is a mage we're hunting. A sifter. He could slip right past us, could be gone with the sun, and we'd never know."
"We'll find him," said Founder. "Never fear."
"Guv!" shouted the driver, "you might want to take a look at this!"
Here was the scene.
There was an intersection of three streets, two coming together and merging into a single road that led straight to the Redress docks. Two people were standing in that intersection, a completely unremarkable woman and a tall man in a grey robe, about a hundred feet from the pier and the boats tied up there. A third man was drifting in mid-air, unconsious, held aloft by a wand, and a fourth was accepting a hand up out of a hole where there was usually a drainage grate. Of the two streets that led to where they were, one had just filled with soldiers as the massed ranks of the Greycloaks and Champions turned the corner and saw the mages up ahead. It was in the second or so of shock and recognition on the part of both sides that Lord Founder's carriage had made an appearance on the other merging street, coming around the bend on two wheels.
Soldiers on one street, Lords and Kings and Captains down the other, and a hundred feet to the dock. There was no way the mages could make it out of there, and it took everyone involved about half a second to realize that.
"Well, ****," said the woman who had been levitating the unconsious Ekelson.
"That about sums it up," said the Standing Mage as Founder's carriage skidded to a halt, disgorging its passengers with weapons in hand. The soldiers on the other street broke into double-time, the front rank pulling swords and the second bows.
"Got a plan?" asked an unnamed sifter.
"Surely do," said the Standing Mage. "Kenyi, you can do that thing with the water, right? So if we can get to the boat, we're clear?"
"We ain't getting to a boat, boss," said the woman sifter.
"I dunno," said the man in grey. "I think we'll be fine. You two get Ekelson to the boat, and I'll...I'll just do a few card tricks for these fine fellows, yes?" He grinned.
The sifters looked at each other, and shrugged. He was the boss. He had a plan. That was good enough for them. "On our way," said the woman.
"Right," said the Standing Mage as the others turned and started moving quickly for the docks. "All right then." He cracked his knuckles and rolled up his sleeves. "Time to put on a show."
He took one step forward and delicately cleared his throat.
"WHO DARES OPPOSE ME, MASTER OF ALL MAGICS, GREATEST ARCHMAGE OF THE AGE?"
The sound was deafening as far away as Dogma.
"FOOLS, ALL! BEHOLD, MY TRUE POWER!"
The Standing Mage threw up his arms, and the lake behind him burst open. sheets of water fell from the massive head, the claws, the wings that opened batlike from its back, unfolding to blot out the fading sun. The dragon rose from Lake Brecombe like the wrath of an angry god, and when it opened its mouth its voice was fire. Soldiers hardened by months of combat against monsters pulled from other planes screamed when they saw that head turn towards them. It was a primal fear that flooded the streets, an absolute refusal to believe that something that big, that malicious, could possibly exist. Some were frozen with terror. Some threw down their weapons and fled. Some, to their credit, stood their ground, raising bows and blades against the beast, even as its roar drove all sound and thought out of the world.
"This is the greatest moment of my life," Lord Founder said, and fired. As though the sound of his gun were the cue, a hundred arrows flew from the riot of soldiery, rising to pierce the foe. A moment after Founder's iron ball passed through the dragon's eye, the arrows, marked with lead symbols by the Blackjack Boys, tore the illusion to shreds. By that time, of course, the Standing Mage had almost made it to the boat, moving at a full sprint, his robe pulled up to his knees so as not to trip on it.
"All gods dammit," roared Founder, as the Standing Mage dived into the boat without slowing down. The woman sifter standing at its prow began chanting, and the boat leapt into motion as though launched from a bow. "Gods dammit! I wanted that head for my wall!
There was silence for a brief moment, broken only by the soldiers a street over settling themselves back into some semblance of order.
"You're talking about the dragon, right?" said King James.
"Absolutely," said Founder. "Let's go with that."