Saturday, January 17, 2009

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.

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