Snow slashed at the skies of Cardanea like an orchestra of white knives. Accompanying the snow, as was often the case, was the bitter, biting cold; as disoriented as Justin was, his cognitive abilities had recovered enough to scold him for not wearing a heavier jacket. His jeans were soaked, his hands rubbed raw.
When Justin breathed, steam rose from his mouth – as if he were a dragon. This did not make Justin feel better. He did not feel like a dragon.
Justin couldn’t stop shaking.
That didn’t seem much like something a dragon would suffer from.
Still, he was exhausted, and found it difficult summoning the willpower just to raise his head, let alone standing up. His head throbbed. It hurt to move his lips, they were so cold. Justin didn’t know how long he’d lain there, or even how long he’d been conscious.
There was, in the distance, a great creaking sound – like an avalanche born of steel and rust. Justin felt a little panicked, but remained where he was – very still. A sharp tang hit his nostrils – he saw smoke through the trees.
No. Still there was the groaning, the shrill screaming of metal, the broken sounds of something mechanical moving through the snow. Something heavy. Justin heard the clankclankclank of gears against gears, felt the hit of adrenaline warm his body. Adrenaline spiked with fear.
The smell got stronger. The sounds got louder. Justin coughed weakly, not bothering to cover with his hand. In a surge of bravery, he sat up suddenly. Less than half a kilometer in front of him rumbled the beast, edging closer and closer…
He hadn’t gotten more than a glimpse of it, but what he did see inspired enough terror. Easily twelve feet tall – a giant – and made, as assumed, of battered iron or steel. Pipes, like the horns of the devil, spat black smog into the clear sky. A giant made of frosted grey, its face marked by a red and orange war-mask, eyes leering, watching, tracking… it was more demon than machine, and it was edging closer.
It had arms, yes, but Justin had read enough trashy science fiction to realize that they functioned as some kind of automatic chain-gun; he felt, rather than heard, the whirring, the clicking, of bullets and bullets and bullets –
“Oh,” said Justin.
He scrambled. He ran. It was a deeply courageous act. As he ran, he saw white, stumbled, ran as fast as he could. It was snowing in Cardanea. That did not help. He slipped, slid, fell, chased by the creature of the mask…
“Jade,” said Justin.
He knew he’d be safe if he could reach the trees. If only it wasn’t so damn cold! If only his head didn’t hurt, if only he was fitter, if only he’d worn something more suitable… the trees were close.
He heard the whirring, knew it for real, heard it with his goddamn ears. There was a flash of nothing, and dark red fell upon the pure white. Stumbled, fell, and couldn’t get up. He saw his leg, mangled by blazing iron; a misshapen thing burst right open by the bullets. There was a little pain – like stubbing your toe – but nothing else. Despair, perhaps, but the pain was minimal…
Oh, he hurt. He screamed. He wept and he begged. But there was no pain.
“RETAIL RECOMMENDED PRICE US$16.99 (CAN $18.75) AU$29.95,” said the machine,
hovering over Justin. He knew the beast would enjoy this, would savor it…
There was a crack – it split the air like a gunshot.
Like a gunshot.
Justin saw the men rise, dressed in heavy white, from the snow. They were once invisible – still only blurs upon the landscape, silver firearms the only giveaway. Another crack. Another. The machine whirred.
Saved by the Cardanean knights, bullets whirring through the iron – a considerable lack of ricochets which Justin was quite thankful for – Justin tried to pull his meager body away from the machine. He failed. Soon, however, the masked beast toppled, falling to the side with a marvelous crash.
A pallid soldier moved towards Justin. “Blasted leg,” said the man, nodding to another. “You’re going to be alright, I think, not that you deserve it – stupid, isn’t it, messing around out here? We’ll take you home, fix you up…” Justin could only see her eyes, the face covered with the white mask. It reminded him of surgical attire – he was bleeding…
“Got a name?” asked another soldier, moving to pick Justin up by the arms.
“I’m – I’m Reed’s assistant, Justin, I work, at the bookshop, I mean I work at the bookshop,” said Justin, very aware that he was raving. Still, he knew he couldn’t stop. “Can you get me back – back to the shop? Reed’ll be, he’ll be angry, dock my pay…”
“Reed?” he saw the medic raise an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t be talking about Archivist King Reed, would it, Mike?”
“Wouldn’t have an idea,” replied the soldier named Mike. “Charlene, don’t think he’s from around here, though. Seems unlikely. Clothing wasn’t made for snow. If he’s a visitor, he’ll need to go through the Lord Archivist regardless…”
“Yeah,” said Charlene. “Tssk. Denim. Impractical.”
“Justin,” said Justin. “My name is Justin!”
The soldiers exchanged glances. Mike gave orders to the half-dozen others; they were to continue the patrol.
“You hungry, Justin?” he asked, kindly. “We’ve got the finest pancakes you’ll ever taste.”
“So hungry pancakes yes,” said Justin.
Soror Twist passed the fictional Reed the Bookseller as if he wasn’t there at all. She found the real Reed sitting in the kitchen, shaking, sipping black coffee. Twist knew that he wanted her to think that he was reading the newspaper, but they both know that he couldn’t. He was too frazzled.
A mop and bucket sat next to him. The bucket read PROPERTY OF REED’S BOOKS but if it was alive, it kept silent. Reed had mopped up the fictoplasm as best he could, but it would take months of reweaving the reality of the place before the black would fully fade. The blood of sorcerers was sticky stuff indeed.
“Twist,” said Reed, managing a smile. “Good of you to come. Cherry with you…?”
“She’s being massaged, pampered and given very thorough counseling in one of Sunsorta’s finest health resorts,” said Twist. “That’s why I’m late, sorry. I’ve liquidated everything Vic owned, too. We’ve got a million or so in worthless,” she said, meaning cash, “And a Babilu shard and a half otherwise. Don’t know what he did with those blasting rods you set him up with, but they’re gone. All his other talismanic gear has gone. It’s all vanished.”
Reed nodded, staring into his coffee. They knew what that meant.
“They didn’t know what the real stuff is,” said Reed. “Left the worthless books. Good for us, I suppose… what do you mean, ‘half a Babilu’?”
Twist sighed. Her magnificent red hair shimmered accordingly. “He’d had a thing for composing, apparently,” she said, “Music. We’ve got a Babilu shard, but it’s written in notes and staves. I can’t understand it.”
“Ah,” said Reed. “Always the tricky bastard, wasn’t he…?”
“Yeah,” said Twist.
There was a silence in the kitchen.
“Should I try and get the body to Blackwater? Did he mention anything about wanting to be buried with the world? Tradition and so forth?”
“No,” said Twist. “He was adamant about that. He wanted a traditional funeral, in the normal sense. Buried – tombstone - the lot. Apparently his Mum doesn’t know that he was into all the scary fiction shit… hah, oh, we had a laugh about that one.”
Twist took Frater Vic’s body and five Babilu shards – more wealth than most sorcerers would own in their lifetime - leaving Vic’s musical piece with Reed. Before she left, she asked to see Justin.
“Ah,” said Twist. “Got a fictional backup?”
“Not yet,” sighed Reed. “There’s a lot to do today. Maybe he’ll be easy enough to find. Still not sure what exactly triggered the escape…”
“Might’ve been the pancakes,” said Twist wryly, having noticed that the kitchen was full of empty bottles labeled CARDANEAN SYRUP COMPANY.
“Maybe,” said Reed, but he didn’t elaborate.
It had taken an hour for the two soldiers to carry Justin back to Archival City. They’d cleansed his wound as best they could, removed the bullets, and fed Justin the clear sap that would plunge him into a deep sleep.
Before Justin met a second unconsciousness, he saw the outskirts of Archival City. It seemed as if most things in Cardanea could be seen only in half-taken glimpses or rushed glances – Justin saw the great gun-towers, made of rusting iron, defending the city. There were at least half a dozen of them, built upon the tall stone and metal walls, and they surrounded the entire capital.
The clouds above Archival City were a dark grey, the colour of gravel, and it soon began to rain. Justin remembered feeling the lashes of freezing rain before the sap took hold and he fell into sleep.