Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Shadows Of Polaris epilogue

The Nick Of Time

(and other abrasions)

Shadows Of Polaris


Al Bruno III


Jason Magwier remembered because the memories were all that he had, even when they were unpleasant, even when they were wrong. He remembered how even now the Regent would be organizing an expeditionary force tasked with tearing Harnett's Tabernacle apart brick by brick, and then to grind those bricks into powder.

But there was time to fetch Audra and get away, Jason Magwier was almost certain. He scratched idly at the bandage near his ribs, the place where he had been stabbed. The blade had scraped against bone, doing little real damage but hurting like Hell. A few inches in either direction and he'd have been done for. Jason didn't like to think about that.

...but sometimes I do die and every time the Heirophant
laughs a little harder...

He shook his head trying to clear it. Lorelei stood beside him, gazing at the dead bear. "I thought," she began, "I thought all the bears had been culled. The Regent's proclamation-"

"They missed this one didn't they? She was old, old and cunning enough to evade the hunters and the traps." Jason put his arm around Lorelei.

She leaned into him, "Until tonight."

"Until tonight."

They started walking again, shell casings and snow crunching under foot. Heading for the Tabernacle and skirting around the blood and the bodies. One of the shapes made Lorelei pause, "I don't believe it."

Jack Diamond was spread eagle in the snow, blood ran down from his nostrils and one of his eyes was swollen shut. His canon of a pistol was just out of reach. Jason picked it up and examined it with a bemused expression on his face, "They might say that a man with a handgun this large was overcompensating for something."

"How can you joke about this?" Lorelei snatched the pistol from his hand and took aim at the prone figure, "We've got this bastard right where we want him. After all the misery he's caused us, after what he did to my mother..."

"You can't kill a man in cold blood."

"You don't think so? You sure?" Lorelei's finger tightened on the trigger, "Can you remember how many lives will suffer at his hands in the future? Consider this a pre-emptive strike."

..."Bastard. You knew that would happen didn't

Lorelei pulled the trigger, the empty chamber clicked. Cursing under her breath she threw the pistol as far into the woods as she could. "Bastard. You knew that would happen didn't you?"

"His sins will find their punishment in due time." Jason took her by the hand and led her to the Tabernacle. Somehow the darkness that pooled around the ruins seemed deeper, more lush. By the time they had reached the building itself they were forced to grope and fumble their way to the entrance.

"I knew I forgot something." Jason said as he felt his way along the wall, remembering where he would find the door.

Lorelei asked "What's that?"

"This." He pulled a penlight from his jacket pocket. He swept the tiny beam across the twin doors.

"You had that all along? You dork!"

Jason remembered that the right side door would be jammed but the left would open with ease.

The left side doorway scraped open and Jason ushered Lorelei inside. He let his penlight beam wander around the ruined building. This place had been glorious once, a monument to one man's Cause. Now it was relic, a doomed one at that. Jason hoped that his Cause would fare better.

They pale circle of light found Audra sitting with her back against the far wall. She was turning a wallet over and over in her hands.

"Hey." Lorelei approached her. Jason stayed back, pretending to be interested in the masonry. "Hey girlfriend."

"He didn't wait for me to wake up." Audra said, "He just left."

"I'm sure he had a reason."

"I thought this was a scam and that Matt was just your patsy of choice. I never thought he was going to actually have to go through the Weir." Audra threw the wallet across the room and buried her face in her hands, "I thought you guys would be here. I thought your damn boyfriend was going to pull one of his clever little stunts."

Lorelei nodded with understanding, "I thought it was a double cross too. I figured he worked for the Monarchs. I thought we were going to trick him, use his own trap against him."

Jason signed heavily at that, "You girls give me too much credit."

"He wasn't any of that." Audra sniffled, "He was just... decent."

"...and lonely." Wandering over to them Jason ran his hands along the wall. "Think of it, he lives in one of the largest cities in the world and
yet you Audra were probably the closest thing he had to real friend in

The effort of holding back tears made her expression murderous "And I led him to this."

Lorelei stood, "Oh Audra…"

"Besides," Jason said as he and Lorelei pulled Audra to her feet, "in the end the choice was his. No one was here to make him go through that Weir. You can lead a Pendaroth to apotheosis but you can't make him drink."

"Oh God." Lorelei rolled her eyes, "I can't believe I'm sleeping with

"We should be going." Jason checked the digital readout of his pocketwatch, "Zeth is waiting for us."

Walking slowly to join them Audra kept glancing back, hoping. She paused at the castoff shirt. Kneeling she traced the streaks of blood and dirt with her wounded fingertips. Audra tore away one of the shirt's frilled cuffs. "I'd have gone with him." She said, "I wouldn't even have waited for him to ask me I would have just gone."

"I know." Jason nodded.

And Jason remembered that sometimes she did go with him but the results were always calamitous.

"The worst part is that all I can do now is worry about him." She carefully tied the scrap of cloth into her hair, "Funny isn't it? Little Miss Nihilism turning all mushy on an Outlander.”

"Not funny at all. Your cynicism is all in your head, your heart feels differently about these things. I imagine it feels different about
a number of things." Jason urged her to follow, "Come on then, we'd
best get moving."

She hung back, her voice breaking "Not just yet. Give me a few more

Jason’s voice became tense, "Audra…"

"Don't rush her." Lorelei dragged Jason outside, into the shadows and starlight "Let's give her some space."

Arm in arm, they huddled in the doorway and waited. Jason slipped the penlight back into his pocket. "We shouldn't keep Zeth

"He wont leave us."

"That's not what I'm worried about."

Lorelei nodded with understanding "So how is he going to get us back in the City anyway?"

"He knows the way to the tunnel on Nooker Street."

"Oh great, right to the heart of cannibal central." Lorelei pushed him away with a snort of disgust. "I swear I think sometimes you are trying to get me killed."

"Don't worry, Fergus won't touch us."

"You sound awfully sure."

"It's simple, Fergus lets us through." Jason approached her, ran theback of his hand across her shoulder, "And we give him back his Amaranthine Crystal."

Lorelei pushed him away again "What? You and Zeth stole their Amaranthine Crystal? How are you two still alive?"

"Ah that's the beauty of it, they don't know it's stolen. We replaced it with a perfect duplicate made of glass." Jason Magwier grinned conspiratorially as the Pole Star shone down on them like a watchful eye full of secrets.

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Shadows Of Polaris chapter six

The Nick Of Time

(and other abrasions)

Shadows Of Polaris


Al Bruno III

Chapter Six

The trap had left Audra unconscious, Jack pondered her as she hung there by one arm. Finally he muttered to himself, "Better safe than sorry." and hefted her over his shoulder. There was a snap and a spark; her fingers left behind five tiny spots of scorched flesh as they were pulled away from the wall. "Wait up Trager."

Audra stirred with a moan and then fell unconscious again.

Do something! Matthew thought as he struggled and cursed, For God's sake you broke a Whosiewhatsit Crystal that's got to count for something! But the more he fought the harder they held him. "Somebody!" He cried, "Somebody help! Somebody!"

"Fear not Outlander." Constable Trager said as he led the Sentries back into the treeline. "It will all be over soon enough. When your mind and your body have been properly adapted you will finally understand your place in the greater scheme of things."

"Snip snip." Jack laughed.

Matthew dug his heels down only to find himself dragging furrows in the snow and dirt. He shouted Audra's name over and over but she didn't react, not even a twitch. So much for his hopes of her playing possum. If they were going to make it out of this it was up to him.

Closing his eyes he prayed. He tried to call some great and benevolent power down from above to help him. Matthew had never wished this hard for anything in his life, maybe because he always suspected none of his aspirations or dreams would ever come true. Gritting his teeth he tried harder, turning his focus inward. Audra had told him that everyone had a spark of magic in them. Where was his? He wasn't even sure what he was looking for. Was it like recovering a lost memory? Or more like flexing a rarely used muscle? Matthew felt like a child leaping at the clouds in the hope he might somehow fly.

The Sentries released him and he stumbled forward.

I did it! I really did it!

A crash filled the air. Matthew turned to see a tree fall. The Sentries moved to defensive positions in front of their Constable as a dark shape lumbered out of the woods. The bear raised itself up on its haunches and roared a fresh challenge. Starlight and shadows left its fur dark and its eyes gleaming. Its breath steamed with every roar, its snout dripped.

Looking upon it Matthew knew that it was old, it was dying.

No not it. She. It's a she.

Jack laughed, "If it ain't damned one thing it's another." He drew his Desert Eagle and took aim at the beast.

The bear dropped down to all fours again. The ground reverberated with the impact. The she-bear moved with startling speed. The Sentries barely had time to fire before the beast was on them. The Constable began to chant, her voice sibilant and frantic.

Oh God what am I doing? Matthew charged forward tackling Jack Diamond as he fired. Both men tumbled backwards into the snow and mud. Audra hit the ground a few inches from them but didn't stir.

The bear howled with pain. Arcs of blood streaked the snow. One Sentry was scrabbling to get clear of her. Another was disemboweled and crying like a child. The third sentry was lying near the chanting Constable and he was lying perfectly still.

It wasn't easy to keep Jack pinned, he spat and he struggled. Twice Matthew saw the barrel of the gun lurch towards his face, twice he had to push back with all his might. Jack Diamond pulled one of his hands from the weapon and reach into his pocket. There was a metallic click.

Knife! Matthew thought as he grabbed at Jack's other wrist, Knife!

The bear was nuzzling at the gut of the last living Sentry. He screeched and flailed at the beast's snout.

Still chanting the Constable drew her saber, the blade was shimmering, it steamed against the cool night air.

"Bear or no bear." Jack whispered, "You are dead meat on a fuckin' stick."

The switchblade left the fingertips of Matthew's left hand slick with blood, a dozen tiny slashes crosshatched his stomach and thigh.

It's only a matter of time before he gets me good with that thing. Matthew thought, And then it's all over for me, all over for Audra, all over for everything.

Turning from the bear, Constable Trager approached the struggling men, her blade raised high.

Jack was flat on his back, Matthew straddled him. Shifting his hand Matthew gripped his adversary's wrist and twisted, trying to shake the switchblade loose. He was so intent on this that his hold on Jack's pistol hand loosened.

Matthew froze at the sight of the thick gun barrel zooming towards his head. He threw himself to one side as Jack fired. The boom of the pistol set his ears ringing, muzzle flash seared across his face.

The blast knocked Constable Trager out of her boots and sent her tumbling back through the snow and mud. The bear was on her before she could even cry out.

Head spinning with the smell of cordite, Matthew rolled onto his side to see Jack Diamond shaking his head with disbelief. He seemed to have forgotten that Matthew was even there.

Matthew kicked him in the face as hard as he could. Jack grunted with surprise and toppled. Matthew kicked him a few times more just to be sure.

Raising himself to his knees Matthew saw the bear approaching. She wove and stumbled, her maw soaked with gore, her hide pockmarked with bulletholes. Matthew was too drained to move.

The bear turned away from him, sniffling instead at Audra's supine form.

"No!" Matthew snatched up Jack's pistol and pulled the trigger. All he heard was a dry click. "Damn it!" He shouted and threw the heavy pistol at the beast, striking it in the flank.

Snarling the bear wheeled around to face him, her hackles raised. Patches of blood trailed beneath her, her breaths and growls were watery and torpid. It was almost a relief to surrender to his doom.

Better it wastes its last moments on me. I got Audra into this nightmare. I will get her out if it.

The bear drew closer, her snout inches from Matthew's face. So close that he could smell the stench of the blood and shit clinging to its fur. It was so close that Matthew could see his reflection in the beast's eye. There was something else as well, something glistening within the heart of that murky silhouette. He peered at it with a feeling that was not quite wonder not and quite dread. It was Polaris, he realized, the Pole Star. Above them, it shone through them, it connected them.

...he feels the pain of her wounds, old and new and the weariness that nests in her bones. Half-blind and alone she had been roused from her fitful slumber by the scent of intruders. Every instinct had told the she-bear to stay in her den and let the strangers pass but she could not. She knew that if she closed her eyes again she would never waken, she would be lost to the yawning dark that had claimed so many of her kind. And there would be nothing left to mark her passing no cubs, no mate, nothing.

She would be nothing.

That was enough to drive her to her feet, enough to set her stalking her quarry one last time...

Matthew and the bear exhaled together. The darkness intensified, making it seem the whole world was fading from existence. There was no tabernacle, no Audra, and no stars save for the Pole Star.

Only Polaris remains and we are lost in its shadow...

The bear stumbled forward a half step, her slimy nose brushing his cheek. It wouldn't be much longer now, Matthew just knew.

Tentatively the bear licked his face, her tongue tracing along weal of blood and saliva from his chin to his ear. The bear managed to lick him three more times before she fell to her knees. A gurgling sound escaped her throat as she struggled to raise herself back up and failed.

Kneeling beside the beast Matthew kept quiet vigil, stroking its fur and staring into its eyes. With each of the bear's shallow breaths the world seemed to fall back in place around them- the stars, the ruins, the bodies.

When it was over Matthew stared purposefully at Harnett's Tabernacle. He lifted Audra up easily and carried her to the shelter of the
decrepit building. He shouldered the heavy iron door closed. He cradled her limp form close to him for a little while but not too long for he knew if she awoke he would loose his nerve.

Gently he set her down on the cold floor and tried to make her as comfortable as possible. He allowed himself to kiss her once, briefly and chastely. Then he stood and pressed the palm of his hand against the stone archway.

Gold light flooded the chamber. Against the far wall, behind the altar, a section of the stonework shifted like haze. The Wier was open.

"The stars are right. Ursa Minor is in ascendance. The Pendaroth
is among us now 'an unlick'd bear-whelp that carries no impression like the dam'."

"...going to Harnett's Tabernacle is suicide."

"...The Pendaroth is the first. He will gather the Valiant Ones to his side"

"...all they know is you go through that Wier and you don't come out."

The stone of the wall was rippling now, frothing and bubbling like magma. He cast off his shoes, frilled shirt and wallet, piling them on the floor. A warm alien wind filled the air and tousled his hair. Grinning with anticipation Matt crossed through.

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Shadows Of Polaris chapter five

The Nick Of Time

(and other abrasions)

Shadows Of Polaris


Al Bruno III

Chapter Five

Matthew would have fallen flat on his face if not for the pain, it locked his muscles in place; it set his heart struggling to beat. There were dark patches forming under his skin, where blood had oozed between the muscle and flesh to form slowly expanding Rorschach patterns. He said "...You're not even a real sorcerer... just a student..."

"I'm very gifted everyone says so." Fresh light blossomed at her fingertips, it was white like the heart of an inferno.

"...if I'm strong enough... if I can break one of those...things..." Matthew sobbed, "then why am I letting you do this? I've got what I want. I know the way out. Why don't I just kill you?" Matthew knew that when that light touched him his skin would wither and his bones would turn to jelly, but he wouldn't die. Oh no, she'd still have plenty of time for her interrogation. "...why don't I just..."

The light swirling within her hand became more and more swollen, "Because you are- because they- It's-"

The light dwindled to a pinprick. The tension holding Matthew's body locked went with it. He began to pitch forward but when he saw Audra grab for him he recoiled away "...don't... don't..."

"Matt. Matt I'm so sorry." Audra stroked his bruised cheek, catching his tears on the back of her hand. "I thought you were one of them. I'm so sorry."

"Well I'm not." He wanted to pull away but he didn't have the strength. When her fingers whispered through his hair he closed his eyes and shook his head, "I'm not one of them. I'm not one of you. I'm not one of anything."

Audra shushed him.

"I'm nothing." He was shaking all over. It felt like something had broken loose inside him, something that could never be repaired. "I'm nothing. I never stood for anything. I never won anything. I never did anything. I just took what I got and didn't ask questions."

"Calm down. Take a deep breath." She hugged him tight, cradling his head, "You're just shook up that's all. It happens when your guide tries to kill you."

"If I died here what would it matter? One less software developer in the world, so what? I haven't talked to my parents in years. My girlfriend and I don't really love each other, we're just too lazy to break up. I don't have any real friends, the only people that call me are bill collectors." He whispered into the soft crook of her neck, "I'm nothing."

Audra grabbed him by the hair, raised his mouth to hers and kissed him just lightly enough to make him open his eyes. "We are all nothing. That's the beauty of the world."

Matthew loosed a long shuddering breath and sagged into her arms.

They stayed that way for some time; he too drained to move and she content to hold him. Even though she'd just tried to kill him, he felt safe in her arms. More than that, he felt different in her arms. Maybe it was the way she called him Matt; nobody ever called him Matt- even his parents called him Matthew.

And she was so warm, her heat washed over him; the aches in his body subsided before it. Her hands traced lazy circles on his back. The sensation left him feeling blissful and morose all at once.

"We are all nothing." She got that right. We can fly to the moon and make cities out of magic but it doesn't change anything. We still have wars, despots, intolerance and castration. No matter what we accomplish someone will just come along later and tear it down. I should just stay right here in this cave, live like a hermit.

Maybe she would stay with me. Matthew kissed her again, tentatively.
She pushed him away, he wasn't sure if this was a good sign or not.

"Audra, I was thinking that-"

"We need to get moving."

"I need to tell you something, something important."

She kissed him again, "Matt, I like you I really do but let's be honest here, you and I are literally from two different worlds."

He straightened up and pulled himself to his feet, "You're right but I just I wish I'd have met you under different circumstances."

"Wish in one hand, crap in the other, see which fills up faster." Audra put her arm around his waist. They walked out of the mouth of the cave to find themselves standing on the boundary between craggy foothills and a forest of bare trees, their branches heavy with snow. The icy ground crumbled beneath their footsteps.

The walls of Olathoe were nowhere to be seen. Matthew looked back into the cave "How long were we walking for?"

"The City was constructed from an old Trianog design. It warps the distances around itself." Audra paused, trying to gauge her bearings from the positions of the stars.

Matthew nodded "Magic."

"Exactly." She set off down the sloping incline to the woods, "The Tabernacle isn't far now."

For a moment Matthew stared at the sky, wondering which star she had chosen to guide her. The Pole Star winked at him enigmatically. "What is a Harnett's Tabernacle anyway?"

Slipping into the maze of barren sycamore trees Audra made sure he was following before she began speaking, "Almost a century ago, give or take, a man from your world tried to storm Olathoe. Somehow he found a weir and used it to bring an army of well-armed Outlanders through."

Matthew interrupted, "What's a weir?"

"It's like a gateway, a passage between worlds. Boring types call them Apertures."

"Are they named after Jason Magwier?"

"No." She snorted derisively, "Weir is derived from the Old English word for a levee or a dam. Magwier isn't even his real name, he just thinks he's being clever. Trust me, he's not."

"So Harnett brought an army through..."

"Oh yeah. He brought his little war right up to Olathoe's gates. His army littered the area with trenches and machine gun nests. The powers that be in the Cty didn't understand that kind of warfare, their strategy guide was like something out of King Arthur. It was magic versus machinery and there were heavy casualties on both sides."

"I'm surprised he did that much damage." Matthew cast a glance backwards, to the madness he'd escaped from but the night and the clusters of trees obscured his view. At least in the City he'd had the glow of the nearby streetlights to navigate by, here he had nothing.

Anything could be hiding in these woods. You wouldn't even know until you were right on top of it!

That thought made him hurry up, and nearly hurry face first into a tree. Thankfully Audra hadn't seen him, she was too busy talking, "Harnett was a brilliant tactician and a good politician. He somehow managed to recruit support from dissident factions within the City itself. He found supporters everywhere, even within the Council of Mystagogues. A minority of them decided to throw in their lot with Harnett, they broke off from the Council and formed the Great Western Council of Mystagogues. Of course that led to the ones left behind renaming themselves the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues."

"What's with the East-West division?"

"Not sure, I think its a cultural thing." She paused, rechecking the stars and then looking this way and that.

The woods here didn't look any different than the woods anyplace else, Matthew wondered what she was looking for. "So did Harnett take the City?"

"No. He came close, very close but in the end his greatest strength became his greatest weakness."

"His fortress."

"Exactly." She patted his chest and set off walking again.

Matthew followed her and then stopped suddenly, he looked down, his eyes widening in horror, "My God!"

"Matt?" Audra spun around.

"What did I step in?" Matthew wrinkled his nose in disgust. Whatever it was it was huge and stank to high heaven. It curled up around the edges if his shoe and oozed into the lace holes.

Cautiously edging forward Audra's worried expression broke, "Looks like a bear turd."

"This is disgusting!" Matthew limped in wild circles, dragging his foot through the snow, trying to clean it. He stopped suddenly, "What a minute did you say bears? Out here? There are bears?"

"Well, we are in the woods and bears do shit in the woods."

"Are we safe?"

"Calm down, bears are more scared of people than we are of them. Don't you read National Geographic?"

Clumps of ice and snow fell from a tree as he scraped and shook his shoe against the rough bark "It's winter. Shouldn't all the bears be hibernating?"

"Maybe this one has insomnia. Maybe it's an old piece of poop. Don't stress out about it." She took his hand and led him forward, he limped after her "Anyway, what did old Harnett in was that Weir. He relied on it too much. As the body count rose and rose and rose he started to loose support within the City. They'd wanted a quick coup, not a meat grinder. Then..."

"Then what?"

"...then the doorway between our world and his stopped working. No more reinforcements, no more supplies."

"Ouch." Memories of playing Risk filled his head. He always seemed to find himself falling back again and again until he was left with a pitiful garrison on Iceland and nothing more.

"Suddenly the tables were turned and he was the one under siege. He held out for almost a year but eventually the rulers of the City toppled the walls of his fortress and slaughtered Harnett's army to the last man."

"Including Harnett?"

"Oh yeah. When the siege was over the only thing left standing of the
fortress was Harnett's Tabernacle and even that was in bad shape."

The trees gave way to a clearing. At first Matthew thought he was looking at a cemetery; a field of worn stones protruding from the snow at crooked angles with a tiny chapel at the center. That must be the Tabernacle. He realized. Drawing closer Matthew could see that the stones were not gravemarkers but slabs of stone that marked where the fortress' foundation had been. The blocks of granite were worn with the passage of time and marked at the corners with thick gouges.

Looks like a scratching post. Matthew thought and then immediately regretted it. A big scratching post.

Audra led him towards the chapel on a route that seemed to take them past every cluster of stones and every outcropping of rubble.

Matthew asked "Why do they call it a Tabernacle anyway?"

"Well Harnett being the messiah complex type built a church around his Weir back to your world. Besides tabernacle sounds a lot more impressive than Hanrett's Church doesn't it?" The building loomed ahead, it's walls and ceiling sagged with age but the heavy iron doors in the front seemed to have withstood the test of time. A heavy silver ring hung in the center of each door. Audra grabbed hold of one of them and pulled. Four tries later she said, "Don't just stand there, give me a hand with this."

"Oh yeah. Sorry." He'd been half expecting her to open the door with a spell or a secret handshake. Blushing at his lack of chivalry Matthew nudged her aside, took hold of the chilly metal ring and gave it a solid yank. Nothing happened. He tried again. Still nothing. "I think
it's stuck."

"OK let's both try it." Audra ducked under his arms and took hold of the ring on either side of his hands. She said, "OK on the count of three…"

On the count of three they both pulled. The hinges squealed, the
door inched open.
Matthew didn't know which ache was worse, the ache in his arms and shoulders or the aching sensation he felt from her body pressing against his. Maybe they were from two different worlds but that was no reason why she couldn't come over to visit. Was it?

"Almost there." Audra breathed in angry hissing puffs.

"I don't suppose-" he joked, "I don't suppose there's another way

Audra stopped pulling and just stared at him in disbelief. Matthew offered her an uncertain shrug. She let go of the ring and walked over to the opposite door. It pulled open easily. Audra gave his arm a squeeze, "Matt, I think you're getting the hang of this place. I really do."

The interior of the Tabernacle was lost to darkness and shadows. Matthew said, "Maybe we should have brought a flashlight."

"Maybe you should watch this." Audra said with a smile. She stepped into the building and pressed her hand against the inside of the arch. A flicker of illumination bled out from her fingertips and spread out along the walls. The light traced patterns through the masonry, pouring out from between the bricks. To Matthew it looked like the kind of light he'd find shining through his Venetian blinds on a rainy February morning, but at least it was light.

Of course, this being Olathoe, the Tabernacle looked nothing like a tabernacle on the inside. It was stripped bare, empty floors, empty walls and a roof that seemed to groan under the weight of generations of neglect.

Pretty non-denominational looking.

Off in the distance there was a yawning crash, Matthew spun in place "What was that?"

"Calm down Matt, its just snow and ice falling off the trees. Haven't you ever-"
She stopped, unable to move her hand from the stone archway. "Oh no… Oh shit…"

"This isn't some Goddamn silly scam after all." Jack Diamond stepped out of a shadowed alcove, he looked like he'd been thrown out of a third story window dragged over a gravel road and set on fire. His gun however, was gleaming and unblemished, "You really think this rube is the Pendaroth. You do don't you?"

The light streaming from the walls darkened, its shade matching the trails of blood beginning to trickle from Audra's nose and ears. She spoke through gritted teeth, her expression murderous "Get out of here Matt!"

He grabbed for her, "Not without you."

A single well placed shot from Jack caused a section of the archway to explode into a shower of shrapnel and dust. Audra squealed and fell to her knees. Matthew tumbled backwards into the arms of a trio of Sentries. A Constable stood nearby, her posture rigid, her expression cool.

"There he is?" Matthew half-heartedly pointed at Jack Diamond. The Sentries' only reply was to grab Matthew's arms and wrench them behind his back.

"Not this time." Jack smiled. "Me and Trager go back a ways."

"But they- he just killed a bunch of Constables and Sentries. Your people! Don't you guys have radios?"

Trager's smile was tight-lipped, "From what I understood the massacre at the Prophet's Cul-De-Sac was all your fault. Besides, Jack Diamond's employers will pay handsome compensation fees to the Regent for his part in the disturbance."

Jack spread his arms wide, "See? Money can buy you happiness."

The red light set Jack Diamond's onyx earring glittering, Matthew recognized it, "Chesseni sent you didn't she? You're one of those cannibals aren't you?"

Jack shrugged, "I dabble."

Constable Trager stepped forward and began examining Matthew like he was a horse on the auction block "It was obvious enough where you were going. We had blocked off every other avenue of escape."

"Besides this little bimbo thought that he was the Pendaroth." Jack shook his head, "Him! The Pendaroth would never wear a shirt like that!"

Matt rolled his eyes, "What are you talking about?"

"Don't listen to him." Audra groaned.

"You didn't tell him?" Jack Diamond said, "You didn't did you? I take it back you're not a little bimbo you're a little bitch."

"Takes one to know-" Audra started before Jack silenced her with a viscous backhand.

Matthew lunged forward but the Sentry held him fast. Constable punched Matthew three times in the gut. Trager said, "The man is speaking to you. You better listen."

"Thanks babe." Jack said, "So here's the deal Outlander, sugartits here could have hidden you away and waited for all this to blow over. She could have called in some favors with that family of hers but she brought you here because Harnett's Tabernacle is where the Pendaroth is supposed to be created."

"He's full of shit Matt!" Audra groaned "Don't listen to him."

Jack Diamond slapped her across the face again, "You save that mouth girl."

"...I don't understand." Matthew said.

Constable Trager rolled her eyes "The Aperture that is Harnett's Tabernacle is broken Outlander. It no longer chains our world to yours."

"Where does it go?"

Jack laughed a little, "Nobody knows, all they know is you go through that Wier and you don't come out."

Matthew nodded with realization, "Unless you're the Pendaroth."

Trager sniffed, "The Pendaroth is a myth, a fairy tale."

A hungry leer forming on his face, Jack holstered his pistol, "Damn straight."

Matthew looked back to Audra, she had slumped against the wall, the paleness of he skin making the blood trails on her face stand out all the more. "Let her go." Matthew said, "Everything that happened tonight was my fault not hers."

"Oh do grow up." the Constable chuckled softly, "There is a reason we have pooled our resources here and now. We get what we want- a potential source of sedition expunged, and Jack Diamond gets what he wants- the girl."


"Oh yes." Jack pulled the pin from Audra's hair and chortled at the way it flowed down her shoulders. She flailed weakly at him with her free arm. "Oh fuck yes."

The Constable turned to go, "You would be advised to take your carnal pleasures elsewhere Jack Diamond. This place is a locus for insurrectionists and criminals."

"How about having one of your guys stand guard for me then?" Jack said without looking away from his prize.

The Constable smiled thinly, "I think not."

At an unspoken signal the Sentries began to drag Matthew away. He was facing backwards and the thought that the last thing he might ever see was Audra being violated all but drove him mad.

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Shadows Of Polaris chapter four

The Nick Of Time

(and other abrasions)

Shadows Of Polaris


Al Bruno III

Chapter Four

"Ok! Up and at'em! Naptime is over."

Matthew awoke with a gasp. Had he been holding his breath? It certainly felt like it. Audra was nudging him gently. He had half a mind to ignore her and go back to sleep. The dream rambled around in the back of his head. There was something unpleasantly familiar about the way it left him feeling- it was like his college days when he would wake up the morning after a cram session with information stirring disjointedly around inside his skull.

Hangover. That's it. I have a hangover. It must have been the brandy. Matthew thought as he tried to remember how to stand. It came back to him after a few aborted attempts.

"I swear I have never heard such snoring in my life." Audra was already on her way to the door, "You sounded like a rutting Vlodek."

"If you say so." he groaned as he followed her, steadying himself on the pews, "How long was I asleep for?"

"Three maybe four hours. You needed the rest."

“I don't feel rested."

"Stepping between realities can do that to you." She kicked the door open. It was eerily quiet. "Magwier calls it dimension-lag."

He paused in the doorway, even the starlight was too bright for him. His eyes found the Pole Star easily. It bore down on him, mocked him. "Do I get to go home soon?"

"Sure." She led him back along the path to the open gate. He followed her quietly, "Hey Matt."


"Are you mad at me?"

"For what?"

She shrugged, "For any of this?"

"No. You’ve been-" He stepped out into the street. The lights were on again but the streets were empty. After all the noise and commotion Matthew had expected to find bodies piled like cordwood at every corner. He had expected shell-shocked looking survivors and flaming buildings. The streets however were clean and empty. the houses were all still standing but their doors were torn from their hinges, their every window hollowed out and gaping. "Jesus Audra what did they do?"

"An example was made"

"All this over me?"

"Shhhhh!" She put a finger to her lips.

"Who's going to hear?"

"Just in case."

That quieted him a little, "This was all done because of me?"

"That and the guy in the bear skins." She explained as they hurried from one empty street to another, "He should have known better than to talk about the Pendaroth in a public place."

"What's a Pendaroth?"

"Nothing you need to worry about."

"Bullshit! The guy in the bear suit said that the Pendaroth would be an Outlander. They're after me because I'm an Outlander. Don't tell me these two things have nothing to do with each other!"

"You're not the Pendaroth. If the Pendaroth comes he will have chiseled abs." The sneer fell from her lips as she rounded the corner to see a Constable walking alone down the middle of a vacant street. She pulled Matthew into one of the naked doorways. They huddled in the shadows, pressed together, trying not to move or breathe. They watched the Constable stride on by, waiting until he had rounded a corner.

A few blocks later they were back among the populated neighborhoods. For the hour there were a lot of people milling about and it was easy to blend in. All the houses were painted in shades of red and pink; every house had large undecorated bay windows facing out into the street. Backlit by neon, men, women and the occasional shaved primate strutted before those windows trying to catch the attention of the pedestrians filing past. When a particular pedestrian did take notice they entered the house and a thick velvet curtain was drawn across the bay window.

"It isn't what I think that's at issue here." Matthew said, "What is the Pendaroth? I think I deserve to know."

"All right. All right. The Pendaroth is the First. He will gather the Valiant Ones to his side and lead them to victory against the Monarchs. If you believe that kind of thing."

"Do you?"

Audra hook her head "No. If the Monarchs are going to be stopped we have to be the ones stopping them instead of just lying low and waiting for some mythical version of the Super Friends to come along and save us."

"Good point."

"Besides you're not the Pendaroth."

"Yeah. You said before. The abs thing."

Leaving the red and pink houses behind them they cut a zigzagging path through slumbering neighborhoods. Soon the opulent looking houses and strange cathedrals gave way to slums and strange-looking doorway shrines. Their goal was in sight, Audra pointed to it, "Here we are."

"Great another wall." And this one was the tallest of all, at least sixty feet of seamless granite. "How are we going to get over that?"

"Easy see that building there?" She pointed to their left, where an entire section of the street had been blocked with a tall chain link fence. A tall square building slouched against the wall.

Matthew didn't like the look of the razor wire at the top of the fence "Yeah."

"There's a tunnel down in the basement. We crawl out and from there its just a hop, skip and a jump to Harnet's Tabernacle." she approached the fence and began breathing heavily. It sounded to Matthew like Lamaze breathing.

"Wh- what are you doing?"

She turned to him, "Give me your hands Matt."

He was going to demand to know why but the look in her eyes told him he was better off just going along with her. Audra's grip was strong and warm, uncomfortably warm. She breathed out one last time then began chanting. Flashes of light began dancing before Matthew's vision, it was as though he was caught in a swarm of fireflies.

My God! We're...we're glowing!

The light became painful, his eyes began to water. He wanted to rub them but Audra refused to let go of his hands, or stop chanting for that matter. All he could do was close his eyes tightly.

"It's Ok. You can open your eyes now."

He did. The glittering lights were gone "We're... we're on the other side of the fence."

"A simple spell of conveyance."

"Then why didn't you just convey us over the wall?"

"That is no ordinary wall. I try and pull a stunt like that and all that will be left of us is a thin gray paste."

"I'll take your word for that but why is there a chain link fence around the whole damn block?"

"The residents here practice anthropophagy, it tends to annoy the neighbors."


They walked to the house, there was garbage and debris strewn everywhere. A fine coating of greasy cinders seemed to cover everything. There were people everywhere but they seemed more interested in rooting through the ruins than in paying attention to the strangers in their midst. Matthew was being watched however, every few steps he seemed to catch Audra stealing glances at him.
"Is there a problem?" He asked.

"Matt, when we get in there I want you to keep it together. Don't flip out at what you might see going on. I'm not gonna let anything happen to you."

He slowed his pace, hanging back as she mounted the steps to the building. The place looked to Matthew like your stereotypical crackhouse, run down, boarded up and covered with graffiti, "What am I going to see?"

"Nothing you need to really worry about. They won't bother us as long as we pay the toll."

"You need my wallet again?" Matthew asked as he stepped up behind her.

She laughed a little and led him inside, "No."

By now Matthew had believed that he was used to the fact that the exteriors of Olathoe's buildings had very little to do with their interiors. This place however wasn't bigger on the inside it was cleaner. It wasn't just clean it was sterile, more sterile than some hospitals. The cool smell of antiseptic hung in the air. Every inch of the white linoleum that covered the floors and walls was polished. Large paintings and strange-looking statues adorned every wall and corner. These were real paintings, nothing like the collections of lines and colored blobs that the Dean had used to decorate his study. These were paintings Matthew could understand; paintings of oceans, landscapes and dignified looking people that were probably long dead. Hung on the wall between two of the paintings was a small woodcut in a silver frame. Intricate and faded it depicted to Matthew what looked like a man hard at work, A craftsman perhaps, wearing an apron and bent over his workbench.

The sculptures were all museum quality. The strangest of the lot was the one to his left- a purple trapezohedron set upon a tall marble
pedestal. Matthew couldn't believe that people with a house this nice would leave their front doors unlocked. "Close the door behind you." Audra whispered.

"Shouldn't we have knocked?"

"They know we're here." Audra exhaled, she was shivering slightly. "They probably smelled us from a block away."


A small crowd of people stood at the top of the stairs; there was a striking family resemblance. The women all wore black, some carried sleepy children in their arms. The men wore white, and a look of smug superiority.

Jesus! It's only a few hours until dawn and they look like they're on their way to a fancy dinner party.

Doesn't anyone around here sleep?

"We are not interested in new initiates." One of the women spoke, her hair was streaked with strands of gray. "If that is why you're here than you've made a mistake."

"What is your name?" Audra waited until they had gathered at the foot of the stairs before she spoke.

"I am Chesseni."

"Well Chesseni, we need to get out of the City. The Sentries and the Kuen-Yuin are pursuing us."

The older woman nodded thoughtfully but said nothing.

"So..." Audra started speaking again, "we need to use your tunnel."

"We have no tunnel." The tallest of the men said with a grin. "The tunnel is a lure, sweet smelling honey to catch flies."

Matthew gasped at the sight of his teeth, they had been filed down to sharp points. A quick survey of the greedy smiles bearing down on them showed they all had done this, even the children. "Uh, maybe we should-"

She silenced him with a wave of her hand "Listen to me! I am Audra DiMico of the Seventh Circle of the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues. I am sure we can come to some sort of an accommodation."

"Ah a sorceress." Chesseni said icily, "An acolyte really."

The lead man licked his lips "When was the last time we dined on the meat of a wizard?"

"Six years ago my darling Fergus. And he was a true Mystagogue, one of the Third Circle."

The 'anthropophagi' were moving slowly off the landing, insinuating themselves in every doorway, closing off every avenue of escape. Some of the children were drooling in anticipation.

Keep it together she says. How am I supposed to keep it together when they're eyeing me like a box of McNuggets?

"You ate a Preceptor?" Audra laughed a little, "That must have been gamy." She walked up to Fergus, meeting his gaze. Everyone in the room seemed to tense at her approach. "I know you can kill us. I know how easy it would be for you." She brushed up against him, he was a full head taller, "But let me ask you something, are you in the mood for meat or for flesh?"

Chesseni's face mirrored Matthew's expression of disbelief. Fergus just chuckled, "What's to keep us from taking you by force? From taking everything by force?"

"Nothing." Audra reached up and scraped the back of her fingernails against his cheek. "But we all know how much more fun it can be with a willing participant."

"Now I have heard everything." Chesseni said with a flip of her hair, her neck was covered with hickeys. "Haven't we toyed with these two long enough?"

"Maybe the toying has only begun." Audra pressed herself against him.

Matthew stared long and hard at that trail of hickeys, they wove a trail up from her shoulder to the back of her triple pierced ear. The earring that hung from that ear was black and familiar looking.

Fergus's smile became a leer, "What are you proposing girl?"

"What do you think? You help my friend here get to Harnett's Tabernacle-" She flicked her thumb at Chesseni, "And I'll give you something to think about when you're pounding away on the Bride of Frankenstein over there."

There were giggles at that and a few stifled gasps. Matthew saw the knife first, he shouted "Audra!"

Chesseni was on the sorceress in training, the point of the blade dimpling her throat. "You think your spells and your pedigree can protect you? I could kill you a dozen ways before you even began an incantation."

Audra kept her eyes riveted on her target "But Fergus is not going to let that happen. Are you Fergus?"

Matthew raised a finger, "Uhm, can I say something

"Let her go Chesseni." Fergus said.

"Are you out of your mind? You're going to let this little whore waltz in here and make demands?"

"Killing them would be wasteful. Our larder is more than full. And its a fair trade, we'll both get something we want."

Chesseni shouted, "I forbid this!"

"I second that!" Matthew added but no one seemed to pay attention.

Fergus pulled Audra from Chesseni's grasp. Audra gasped a little with pain, a trickle of red running down her neck. Fergus picked the girl up in his arms and kissed at the trail of blood. He walked up the stairs, a line of young men forming a queue behind him. "Luther." he called back, "Take the Outlander to Harnett's Tabernacle and don't eat him. Not even a taste."

"Just a damn minute here!" Matthew grabbed something expensive
and fragile looking and flung it to the floor. It shattered noisily, sending fragments flying everywhere, "She is not going to party with any of you! Do you hear me?"

They heard him and he sure as Hell had their attention. Audra's eyes were as wide as saucers, "Matt! What did you do?"

Fergus paused on the steps, he spoke without bothering to turn around, "I think perhaps you had better mind your manners. This
sweet girl is making a sacrifice for you. I'd hate for it to be in vain."

"I don't want her to sacrifice anything and I don't need your tunnel! We'll find another way out. Now put her down." He became aware of Chesseni staring at the floor; the knife had slipped from her fingers. Actually most of the anthropophagi were staring at the floor. There were chunks of purplish-red glass around his feet.

"My love." Chesseni cleared her throat uncertainly, "The Outlander has shattered the Amaranthine Crystal."

"What?" Fergus spun around, neatly smacking Audra's head into the banister. "What kind of a trick is this?"

"No trick I saw him do it..." Chesseni paused, it was almost as though she couldn't bring herself to speak the words, "...with his bare hands."

There was a loud slam as several of the finely dressed people scrambled into the drawing room and locked the door behind them. Matthew didn't know what they were so upset about but he pressed his advantage, "If you don't put her down I'll do worse than wreck your pottery. I've had just about enough of you weird-ass people and your weird-ass city."

For a few seconds Matthew just stood there glaring, feeling his pores starting to bead up with nervous sweat. Chesseni kept looking
from him to the shattered crystal at his feet. The boys on the steps waited, poised. "Show them to the tunnels." Scowling with disappointment Fergus let Audra slip from his hands, "And clean up that mess."

Chesseni bowed and gestured deeper into the house. Audra frowned at Matthew as they followed their guide down the main hallway to a slender metal door. There was an ivory key on a chain around Chesseni's neck. She unlocked the door and led them down a twisting stairway.

Tendrils of frost worked their way up the walls, their breaths came out in puffs of mist. Matthew could hear the whir of air conditioners on their highest settings and the delicate scrape of sharp metal sinking into something soft. A gagging sound erupted from Matthew's lips as they reached the bottom landing. Slabs of meat hung from glinting silver hooks, smaller portions were arranged on a long table. A squat figure in a leather apron was hard at work sloughing the flesh from a plump human leg. It was a perfect mirror of the scene from the woodcut. The butcher tensed at the sight of them but a nod from Chesseni was all it took to send the figure back to work.

"Oh my God." Matthew felt his knees go weak, "Oh my God."

With a sharp tug of the hair on the back of his head Audra straightened him up again. She whispered "Cut the dramatics. I'm on to you."

"They're… they're…"

There was a large cabinet at the end of the room; it brimmed with everything an aspiring meat dresser might need. Chesseni pushed it aside to reveal a downward sloping passage. "This will bring you out
beyond the walls. If you try to get back in this way I'll kill you both myself."

"Yeah, yeah whatever." Audra said with a wave of her hand.
Matthew followed her; he could feel Chesseni's smug gaze burning into his back.

Now this is an escape tunnel! He thought. The walls, ceiling and floor were clean and smooth, Matthew felt guilty for not wiping his feet before entering. What looked to be Christmas tree lights lit the way for them, Matthew was grateful they were there when Chesseni pushed the butcher's cabinet back into place. He'd blundered through enough shadows.

Cannibals. He still couldn't believe they were a family of cannibals. Sophisticated cannibals no less- with their satin dresses and silk suits. How could they live with themselves? Didn't they understand what it was they were doing? They were killing people and eating them. Why?
Ultimately all they were doing was turning people into shit. There was nothing noble or edgy about that- it was just sick.

The passage began to widen. They smooth floor and walls gave way to uneven nooks and crannies. Matthew could hear water dripping and bats squealing. The trail of lights ended at the mouth of the cave. He could see starlight just a few yards ahead. "We made it." he laughed a little, "We made it Audra."

The sorceress in training slowly turned around, her hands and her eyes were incandescent "Who are you?"

"Very funny." Matthew took a step backwards. He was savvy enough in the ways of Olathoe to know that shimmering body parts always meant trouble.

Bolts of bluish light arced from Audra's hands to her eyes and back again "Who are you? You're not an Outlander, you blew that cover
back there. You're little trick with the Amaranth Crystal gave it all

"What are you talking about?" Matthew could feel his fillings starting to ache. "What's an Amaranth Crystal anyway?"

"Who do you work for? The Monarchs? The Gray Mandarin? I mean to find out."

"This is crazy. We're almost there!"

"Don't pretend you don't know what I talking about." The light blazed from her, illuminating the cave like a searchlight.

He raised his hands to protect his eyes, "Well I don't. And stop glowing like that it's making me nervous."

"It damn well better be making you nervous." She lashed out with a tendril of energy. Matthew shrieked and fell back against the cave wall. "I should have seen it, I should have suspected! You've been playing dumb all this time. No one could be as lucky as you! No one!"

"Stop! That hurts!"

"It's supposed to hurt fuckwit. It's going to hurt worse before I'm done. I showed you all my escape routes. I showed you everything! What were you going to do with them? Sell them to the Regent?"

"Please Audra, don't do this." Pain skittered spider-like along his nerve endings, "I saved your life."

Audra laughed the scintillation around her darkening, turning bloody. "Bullshit. I didn't see that happen. Besides the day an inbred half-wit like Jack Diamond gets the drop on me will be a cold day in Hell."

"All this because I broke a piece of glass?"

"I can't believe I trusted you! Who do you work for?"

"An... an... Amaranthine is something... what is... Why?"

"Amaranthine Crystal is invulnerable to just about everything and don't pretend you don't know that!"

"But I don't..."

"Who! Do! You! Work! For?" Audra punctuated each word with a fresh burst of agony.