Lee Arthur Chane
YEAR 742 OF THE GREAT BARRIER
Alone on a hill, the Healer watched the Minik village burn. Through the smoke, she heard the screams of dying men, violated women, terrified children. Through the smoke, she saw blue-white flashes of magic slashing, burning, mutilating. Through the smoke, she saw the men MageLord Starkind had brought north, murdering the people she had come to help.
In her hand she held her cloth bag of potions for pain, nostrums for nausea, compresses, bandages, sutures, and splints. In her mind, she held her own skills, wisdom, knowledge, and experience… and her own measure of power; but the soft magic of which she was a skilled mistress could do nothing against the hard magic of the MageLord.
The Healer had come to help the Minik. Now all she could do was watch them die.
The MageLord’s men rode away. The screams had ended long before. The smoke remained, like a funeral shroud drawn mercifully across a ravaged corpse.
The Healer descended the hill and passed through that shroud. As the light faded toward night, she searched the smoldering ruins for anyone left alive. She found nothing but corpses.
All the Minik she had come to help, the Minik she had come to love, had died-slain by the swords and spears and hard magic of the MageLord and his Mageborn followers.
She climbed the hill to the south of the village once more. The north wind blew the mingled smells of death and smoke into her nostrils. She breathed deep of that acrid stench… and breathed deep of hate.
This cannot stand, she thought. This will not stand.
The MageLords’ reign must end.
She turned and stalked away into the night, the north wind at her back.
YEAR 775 OF THE GREAT BARRIER
(YEAR 128 OF THE REVOLUTIONARY CALENDAR)
Anton, bare back cold against wet stone, bare feet colder on wet cobblestones, waited in the rain for the old man to leave the mansion.
He’d waited there the night before, a warmer night than this, but the “Professor,” as the storekeepers on Hawser Street had called him, had stayed in, even though for a week before that he had gone out at the same time every night. But tonight, right on schedule, the door to the rented mansion opened and closed, and the Professor descended the front steps, wearing a heavy black coat and gloves, face hidden beneath an umbrella. He climbed into the waiting cab. The driver, dry beneath his own umbrella, clucked to the horse and flicked the reins, and the cab clattered across the cobblestones of the courtyard, turned down an alley, and trundled off toward the glow of gaslights.
The instant it left the yard, Anton pushed away from the wall and dashed across the cobblestones, feet silent, water running down his back and dripping from the ragged bottom of the short pants that were all he wore: he’d left his only half-decent set of clothes tucked away somewhere dry, to warm him when he had finished this night’s work. A miasma had descended on the port city of Hexton Down, sickening many, killing a few; if he fell ill, he had no physician to turn to… hadn’t had one since he was twelve, five years gone, before his mother died, his father took to drink, and he fled to the streets to avoid the beatings.
The old house where the Professor had taken up lodgings had been empty for a long time before that… empty, but not unused. Long since, Anton had discovered a basement window that could be opened despite its lock, if you had the knack of it, and he had spent many a night in the house since, mostly wet, cold nights like this one.
He’d searched the house from top to bottom, several times, and found nothing of value in it; every room was neat and clean and dry, but empty of so much as a whisk broom. At the back, the house connected to a warehouse, and the warehouse, at its far end, opened onto the dock. Obviously it had once belonged to someone with shipping interests. Anton had been very careful, as he’d explored, to leave no trace of his presence, fearing the owners, if they discovered the house had been broken into, would find the loose basement window and seal it up for good.
But tonight he had more in mind than simply sheltering from the rain. The old man had money, lots of it. Box after box, some small, some large, had been delivered to the house since he had rented it: some to the front door, many others to the warehouse. There had to be something of value in there… maybe even something that could buy him passage on a ship, away from this hellhole and off to the Wild Land. They said anyone could make a new life for himself in Wavehaven or the towns and villages beginning to spring up inland, and Anton desperately needed a new life. If the black cough or the bullyboys didn’t get him, the press-gangs would, and Anton didn’t fancy spending his next few years, probably his last few years, in either a mine or a man-of-war, thank you very much.
The rain might chill him, but at least it also made it unlikely anyone would notice his silent dash across the cobblestones, or when he vanished from sight down the narrow space between the Professor’s house and the one next door, also attached to a warehouse on the docks, and also empty. The storekeepers said the Union Republic’s economy had taken a turn for the worse and many businesses had gone bankrupt, but since his own economy hardly could get any worse, he hadn’t personally noticed.
Anton crouched by the basement window and held his breath as he pushed at one corner, then twisted the frame. Had the owners fixed it …?
They hadn’t. The window popped from its latch and swung inward. Anton turned around, stuck his legs through and, scraping his belly on the brick, slid over the edge and dropped to the smooth stone floor. The barely gray square of the window did nothing to illuminate the pitch-darkness, but Anton knew where the stairs were, over on the other side above the lamentably empty wine rack.
He crept across the floor, hand outstretched, until he felt the banister. A moment later he was up the stairs and pushing at the door into the kitchen. It swung open with the sound of a cat being strangled, and he froze, listening hard, but the rest of the house remained silent, and so he stepped through.
The three tall windows provided enough light to show that whatever the Professor might be doing in his rented mansion, cooking wasn’t part of it. Bowls and vials and mortars and pestles cluttered one table, but when Anton crept over and bent down to take a sniff, he recoiled. It smelled like a brothel’s outhouse.
He did find a passable loaf of bread on a sideboard, rather stale, but he’d had worse. Taking it with him to gnaw on, leaving a trail of bread crumbs behind-there was no point in trying to pretend he hadn’t been here this night-he searched the rest of the house.
The Professor seemed to be camping rather than living there. Whatever had been in the big boxes, it hadn’t been furniture. He wasn’t even using the bedrooms upstairs. The living room held a folding cot, with a tangled blanket and a rather tortured-looking pillow. A small table bearing a couple of smeared plates, a battered knife and fork, and a halfempty bottle of wine completed the furnishings. Anton picked up the wine bottle and swigged from it to wash down the last of the dry bread, then continued his search.
He grew more and more frustrated as he went from room to room and found nothing… nothing of value, anyway. The warehouse, he thought. Everything must have gone in there.
He knew where the door into the warehouse was. It had always been locked when the house had been empty, and so it was this time.
But this time, a key hung on a peg by the door. Anton inserted it into the lock, turned it… and the door swung soundlessly open.
The warehouse’s windows, high and narrow beneath the eaves, gave little light. Anton stepped forward, expecting the floor to be at the same level as the house’s…
… but it wasn’t. His foot found nothing. He flailed for something to grab hold of, failed to find it, and fell.