The Boy Who Cried Wolf
rating: +32+x

"Ahhh, flesh!" Darius sprang back from the tele-cogitator, slapping a hand over his natural ear as a squeal of feedback erupted from the machine. He shook his head and sat down again, calling up status reports.

Lottie's tousled head poked in through the door. "You okay?"

"I'm fine. Our mole ripped out his wire. Aren't you supposed to be sleeping?"

"Can't sleep." She bounced on her heels, thunking heavily against the metal floor. "Gonna stay up till the wings get back. I wanna hear all about it."

"Our new alchemist didn't keep you busy enough?"

"Too busy. We tripled grenade production," she boasted with a grin.

Darius oohed appreciatively and patted the acolyte's shoulder. He turned back to tap out more commands as he spoke. "Good work, we're going to need them. Since you're so full of energy, would you do me a favor, Miss Lottie? Stop by the Inventor's workshop and ask her to come listen to this last burst I just got. Say it just like that - 'this last burst.' And then swing on down by the armory and inventory the razor wire?"

Lottie saluted. "Can do!"

Madame did not realize the servants were gone until morning, when she awoke with no dress laid out and no teapot steaming by her bedside. Her senses confirmed a house too quiet, the courtyard empty and still. She had taken the time to wash up, dress herself, and drink a glass of cold water from the carafe.

Her footsteps clacked softly down the hall and stopped outside her sons' bedrooms, which stood across from one another. With the lightest of touches, she slammed open both doors. Her arms extended out into the rooms, unfolding new elbows like a paper fan. Two startled yelps sounded, then suddenly went silent. Reeling them back in with a crunch, she hurled Herman and Aloysius out their respective doors to slam against opposite walls. The paintings hung there rattled, but did not fall. The brothers slid heavily down to the floor.

Herman looked up in horrified recognition, Aloysius in horrified bewilderment. Their mother's serene expression did not change. "Good morning, my sons. I see you have slept very deeply indeed."

Aloysius sputtered, finding his voice again. "G - good morning, Mother. How might we be of service?"

"Do you know," she replied with a tilt of her chin, "I was just asking myself the same question."

The body of her eldest began to twist and elongate, his mouth locked open in a rictus of silent agony as his arms stretched out over his head to join with his feet. His whole body thickened into the shape of a wheel and shuddered upright. The wheel rolled down the hall, picking up speed as it went, and bounced off the ceiling on its way downstairs.

She turned to her youngest. "What did you do when you returned?"

"Hauled Aloysius up the stairs myself, then sent George off to the servants' quarters," Herman said. All technically true. She would know if he lied by his pulse, by the tension in tiny muscles across his face. "I didn't think you'd want to come home to a puddle in the foyer. And any mistakes he makes, I can't fix."

"Indeed," Madame said with a tiny frown.

Herman melted into a fleshy tangle, knotted up like macrame, except for his head. She wanted him listening. The fingers of Madame's right hand extended, then extended again, long and white-knuckled and spiderlike, to lift him off the floor. She strode down the hall at the same steady pace as before.

"I hold Aloysius more fully responsible," Madame said pleasantly. She lifted the twitching skein of her younger son above her head as she descended the staircase. "He forgot himself, and indulged to the point of incapacity, which does not excuse his lapse of duty. But he was not sensible when you returned. You were."

Morning sun filtered into the parlor through sheer curtains, which had not been drawn. There were no signs of disarray. Every ornament was in place; even the pillows on the sofa leaned at the same angle as the previous day. Not an attack from an enemy, then, nor some simpleminded rival hoping to pass this off as the work of common thieves. Madame stepped over the coil of Aloysius, and went down the hall to the kitchen.

Her nostrils widened as she stepped through the door. Much had happened here. Fear, desperation, rage, despair - excitement? She sniffed again, then frowned and drew her hand back into itself, dropping Herman on the floor. His skull concussed when it struck; she repaired it. "You bled in here last night. How?"

He gulped like a fish out of water, mind still unhinged from pain and the lack of familiar sensations, such as lungs filling with air. He managed to squeak, "M'dnight. Snack. Cut m'self."

Madame sighed. In her rush to punishment, she'd already changed him enough that this explanation could not be checked. More fool she. She turned and stalked back to the parlor, re-molding Herman's body and willing it to slither along at her heels.

Aloysius had managed to partially straighten himself. His features drooped and sloughed as he pulled them back into place. "Mother," he gasped, choking down a whimper. "May I know what I've done?"

"Other than appear weak in public at a critical time?" He shrank back at this, but she continued. "You don't happen to have four otherwise useful servants tucked away in there, hmm?"

The young man shook his head, his half-melted face falling. No point in trying to repair it now. Though he'd learned to unfold pockets of non-existent space within his own body just that summer, Aloysius couldn't have subsumed that much flesh yet even if he'd wanted to. Besides, that would've been stealing from Mother. Losing something that belonged to Mother was… almost as bad.

With a wave of her hand, he fell back, twisting up again.

Madame clasped her hands, tapping her thumbs together in thought. Her will grasped the two of them. Again and again she fused their flesh together in impossible contortions, then let it flow apart, like a nervous gambler shuffling a deck of cards.

There was now, of course, a logistical problem as well as a tactical one. The Kiraak ceremony could not be delayed. She had to be the one who raised it, from flesh she'd nurtured in her own womb. She had worked too long, called in too many favors, twisted too many arms and other appendages to bring this plan to fruition to see it falter now.

"Good mo - " Lucretia padded down in her nightdress, stifling a yawn. She blinked, mesmerized by her brothers' roiling flesh. She could have watched it for hours. "What have they done this time?"

"They lost the entire staff," Madame murmured, still tapping her thumbs. She let the boys' bodies come to rest in two separate, quivering heaps. Their faces were recognizable, though they had no mouths. "And neither one seems to know anything about it."

"Oh, drat. That's the second time this year." Lucretia hung her head, twisting a lock of auburn hair. "They grew bold again so soon!"

"You mustn't blame yourself, my dear," her mother reassured her. "The lessers have much of our cunning, and they may well have thought the delay would make them impossible to track."

Lucretia tittered at this. "Well they won't try a ship, this time."

Madame shook her head. "That is a discussion for another day. We must leave as soon as possible."

"I'll make us some tea, get dressed and fetch the horses," Lucretia said, turning to head down the hall.

"Yes," Madame replied, eyes on her sons, hands suddenly still. "The horses."

When the Fullers' cart turned into the lane, Lucretia was driving. Though the pony held to a smart trot, the young woman lounged at her ease.

Up ahead, her mother sat in the carriage-box behind matched Arabian mares, which were bulkier than usual. Separating out a young man's bodily systems and redistributing them across the interior of a horse was an easy task for Madame, yet gratifyingly stressful for her erring sons. The horses' simple minds were held in deep repose, while the boys labored to pilot their unfamiliar forms at a demanding pace.

It would do. She had been pressed for time.

After two long days on the road, the head of the mare which contained Aloysius was drooping, her flanks slick with sweat. The parts of the horse's body which came from him had never pulled a carriage before, nor done much else in the way of hard labor, and were utterly exhausted. Herman's horse was in better shape, but still puffed and blew when Madame reined them to a stop.

Curious heads turned here and there around the temporary camp. The two visible Fullers had remained aloof the previous night, and slept in the carriage. Whispers of speculation had passed the length of the column, rumors swirling like autumn leaves. Now they would learn what their would-be leader had up her sleeve.

The aristocratic colonists who brought Nälkä from the Old World had known great success in breeding for otherworldly talent, but until recently had been so widely scattered that little organization was possible. A number of individuals claimed the title of Karcist, with social and religious authority over their kin to match. Madame sought to unify them into a single group. Only a demonstration of unquestionable dominance could reconcile these local leaders to accept what amounted to a demotion. Most saw the benefit of taking on the role of her Võlutaar — her advisers and, when push came to shove, her enforcers.

The mares tossed their heads and opened their mouths, letting loose a torrent of frothy red slime. A few low chuckles and approving murmurs sounded as the onlookers put two and two together. Horses cannot vomit naturally, and even Madame wouldn't have dared to come without a child she intended to sacrifice. When the confused beasts finally spat out two bundles of stained and rumpled clothing, the young mens' bodies had almost completely re-formed. Someone off in the shadows began a slow clap. Nobody joined them.

"We see how your eldest is repaid for his foolishness, Gabrielle," came the clipped voice of Mr. Jellick. He lifted his stein in Madame Fuller's direction.

Madame pursed her lips but did not reply. She disliked her given name, which Jellick knew. Yet his misdirection allowed her to save face, and she needed his faction's support.

"I wasn't overcome that badly," Aloysius protested. Still shaken from his ordeal, he had missed the byplay, and his pride was hurt. "The problem was — "

"That you were so sloshed I had to haul your ass upstairs in a bucket," interrupted Herman. "A platoon of Mekhanists could've run through the courtyard in a brass battlewagon for all you knew about it."

Nervous laughter rippled around the campfire. Madame's incipient frown smoothed away. Inwardly, Herman swore at himself. Why was he defending her? Two days stretched out across the inside of a horse had brought all his old reflexes back to the surface.

"But - "

"They could've set their watches to your snores!" Herman quipped. He caught his brother's eye and glanced urgently up at their mother.

Aloysius's mouth made a small "o" as his brain finally caught up. Madame had been angry at them in the first place for making her look weak. Losing servants, disposable as they were, would also make her look weak. "Ah… well, yes. How fortunate that my little half-brother was around to drive them off! Couldn't have been too difficult, even for you." He managed a credible sneer.

The tension in the air was broken. The laughter reached a crescendo. One corner of Madame's lips tugged upwards. Young ladies collapsed into hiccups; young men slapped their knees and came up with their own variations on the joke. Even Mr. Jellick took refuge in his drink to hide a chuckle.

As the brothers staggered off to find clean clothes and unhitch the horses, only Lucretia's gaze followed them, her eyes narrowed in speculation.

Driving the cart the next morning, Herman's stomach was in knots. Every so often he'd spot a raven perched in a distant treetop and find himself hoping it was made of iron. Every possible way his plan could go wrong played itself over in his mind.

He glanced down with a start as something oozed its way up around the boards of the seat next to him. The undulating mass seemed familiar. Sure enough, it flipped inside out to reveal the folds of Lucretia's traveling gown. As her arms solidified, she gave the dress a sharp shake, releasing a cloud of road dust.

Herman snorted. "Showoff."

"I'm entitled," his sister preened, flipping her hair over her shoulder. She leaned forward, smiling into Herman's face as she clasped one of his wrists with both hands. Her fingers were conveniently near his pulse point. "I got your message."

"Oh," he said, remembering the party. It seemed like a year ago. What had he said to her spy? 'Ma's going to taste great, only a matter of time'? If he'd known their mother's plan, he would have kept his mouth shut. He shook his head. "Sis, you know I'll say any damn thing to flatter somebody who's likely to serve me up with the hors d'oeuvres."

A lone man on horseback trotted past, headed for the front of the column. The ürma painted on his saddlebags directed the attention of ordinary travelers away from the group; the patrollers also kept watch for less ordinary threats.

"Hiding from clockwork knights, milady?" called the outrider, tipping his hat.

"Oh, yes!" Lucretia exclaimed, pretending to faint. "Save me, kind sir!"

He laughed, nodded respect to the two of them, and rode on.

Lucretia turned to Herman again. "Is something …unexpected going to happen tonight?" Her touch on his wrist was feather-light.

"Just a joke, sis," he said. His voice was level, but Lucretia's smile grew wide.

"Your words say no," she whispered, "but your heart says yes."

She waggled her fingers, her legs already reshaping to ooze back down towards the road. "Off to meditate! See you soon!"

Herman growled and wished he had something to break.

A crescent moon hung like a scythe against the treetops. The first line of celebrants filed out in loose circles around the edge of the clearing; their garments sported horns and fur and feathers. Solemn chants rose and fell, a few voices adding in animal sounds.

Most numerous were the Zend, who, like Herman, had for the most part been born to members of the group and perhaps had a trace of power. The lowest rank of worshipers, the Orin, served the great families and were educated in their faith, yet weren't necessarily of them. Those who survived this night hoped to win a more elevated role for themselves or their offspring.

One or two stumbled on the small, round stones that littered the ground under the blanket of fallen leaves, but everyone kept to their pace and their places. For now they watched and waited. The sacrifices would come later, under the heart of the temple Madame was about to raise.

The inner circle followed, transformed by their own will to demonstrate power and precedence. Aloysius's head was gone, his torso a jagged, vertical mouth whose fangs overlapped to jut past the eyes set in his shoulders; his forearms split into writhing tongues instead of hands. Lucretia skittered on tall, segmented legs, her body extruded into colorful folds like a sea slug, glistening with toxins. The Jellicks towered behind them, twin columns of broad, intestinal cylinders twisted like vines. One of the few surviving members of the southern delegation had an exaggerated feminine form; innumerable infant arms extended from her skin to conceal the curves of her body instead of clothes. Her face was furred with arachnid mandibles. Another, from the west, had sculpted himself into a single smooth, blank surface. He held up one enormous eye with a muscular arm as an endless procession of faces rose up through his skin, screamed silently, then sank back.

All in all there were nearly a score of local Karcists, drawn from around the continent to cement this alliance and prevent their rivals from getting the upper hand.

Madame Fuller followed last. She was naked and still appeared human, but did not shiver in the icy wind. Her youngest child walked before her, fully clothed, eyes turned resolutely downward. For some reason the only thought he could keep in his head was that he didn't dare look at the sky.

As Herman reached the center of the clearing the chants changed tempo, swelling into a harsh refrain. A stone rolled away from his foot as he suddenly halted, no longer in control of his legs. His mother's voice, behind him, rose in an Adytite doom-song more than a thousand years old. Herman had read a copy of it himself, curled up in a corner of the library, fingers tracing out faded runes to sound out the harsh, ancient words.

That, and the familiar wet cracks of his mother expanding herself to do serious work, seemed likely to be the last things he would ever hear.

I called for any who would hear me,
Demanding to know the purpose behind such bloodshed,
And the Grand Karcist appeared before me
And revealed unto me a most abominable truth,
"The world is an altar and each death is a sacrifice
To the Ravenous Gods of Suffering and Pain."

Someone in the outer circle tripped and cried out. Their scream blended in with the chanting; in the corner of his eye, Herman saw flames ignite at the hem of their robes. He looked up. A flock of ravens swept across the moon.

Simultaneous explosions thundered in a near-perfect grid across the width of the clearing. Some celebrants were ripped apart by the blasts; others staggered, howling with agony as their gaping wounds caught fire.

A handful from the outer circle made a dash for the wagons parked along the trail. They came up with rifles, pistols and whatever ammunition had been on hand. Some ran straight back up the trail, looking frantically around for an enemy no one could see.

The few who tried to dart back through the underbrush stopped short, struggling, ensnared in the strands of razor wire strung from tree to tree.

Meanwhile, the inner circle sloughed off layers of flesh which had taken the worst damage. Most had reserves of living mass stored up from fallen foes or victims.

The Karcists began to grow, carving themselves into weapons.

Aloysius roared, rearing back on legs which bulged with muscle and poised to jump. The appendages at the ends of his arms lengthened, whiplike, now ending in a pair of hooked claws. Mr. and Mrs. Jellick leaned towards one another, twin trunks of coiled flesh which rooted to the spot and shot up into an enormous tree. Its thorny coils lashed the air with glistening, venomous spikes. The small, soft arms clinging to the southern Karcist lengthened, fusing together. Her new fists gripped dagger-sharp splinters of bone; her arachnid head expanded in all directions with chittering cracks.

Lucretia folded most of her legs up around her body like an armored second ribcage. A set of white-feathered wings shot out from between them. Two in the front sprouted into long, wicked pincers, wet with the same toxins that had coated her body. A layer of skin oozed out through the underside and slithered off to hide in the bushes.

A lucky shot from a rifle chimed off of unseen iron wings. A soldier blurred into view, chains flying wild as they plummeted. The western Karcist ripped a face off his back and hurled it at the soldier, coating their wings and head in viscious, clinging red. More Mekhanists dropped concealment as they took damage or dove towards the field to engage.

The iron chains of each four-person wing worked in concert with the soldiers' metal fists and feet to rip their enemies apart; teammates swooped past to set the bloody chunks ablaze. Some larger Karcists fended off multiple units, who pelted them with projectiles or spread out to slice them apart with lengths of reinforced wire. The icy leaves that had shrouded the ground were quickly churned into a smoldering, sodden mélange of viscera and sheared-off scraps of iron.

Madame herself had pocketed enough flesh to build a cathedral. She swelled from the center of the group like a cancerous mountain. Needle-toothed, grinning gashes opened on her surface to spew lumps of her own burning flesh back into the sky. Wet, leathery wings separated from her back and shook themselves out as insectile claws extended from a rapidly condensing thorax. Eyes grew everywhere. Traveling mouths swarmed towards her new head with a chorus of rising howls, as cries of mindless anguish trapped inside Madame for years burst loose.

She lunged up with a powerful downstroke that swept nearby combatants off their feet or out of the air, her cavernous maw snapping shut to swallow a nearby Mekhanist whole.

The Inventor plunged from above in a vertical stoop, her stream of shouted curses drowned out by the din of battle. The steel plate which normally covered her arms jutted forward in the grip of skeletal metal hands, forming a two-handed sword which hummed a single high, clear note. Her blade caught the lower edge of Madame's teeth and sliced her from chin to stern, cauterizing as it cut. Its passage spilled a torrent of disordered guts and a single, blood-drenched soldier.

Nearby wings took advantage of the opening and focused a fiery barrage on the beast. The Inventor rose back up and went for Madame's wings, cutting them to ribbons as she dodged return fire from the howling mouths. Soldiers swarmed the monster's flanks, ripping out chunks with bladed chains and hurling fire into the wounds. Slowly, like a great ship sinking into the sea, Madame broke apart and thudded to the ground piece by piece.

A skeletal, bird-winged monstrosity, small only in comparison with Madame, had fought to defend her with more savagery than skill. It had wounded a number of assailants, aiming for narrow expanses of brown skin amid black iron. Those scored by its claws listed dangerously in the air, their flight paths going ragged as toxins gripped the parts of their bodies that were still flesh. But in the end it, too, disintegrated, shattered by the spikes of multiple units who collapsed around it and all burst away at once.

Aloysius had cornered Doris near the edge of the trees. She was out of grenades, and her natural left arm hung limp, pierced by a sliver of bone. He yanked her towards his gnashing, vertical mouth in a series of irregular jerks. Overhanging branches shook loose a light dusting of snow as the Mekhanist's wings labored to keep her aloft. Each time she burst one set of hooks apart with her chains, he'd lash out with the other. Aloysius was accustomed to working indoors, one-on-one, and thus neglected to watch his back.

The rest of her wing barreled past, on their way back from exhausting their own ammunition on Madame. One planted a metal foot along Aloysius's spine, their chains reaching around to grapple his fangs, pulling him off balance with his mouth stretched open. The other two spiraled up past the edge of the treetops and came back resupplied, pelting him with missiles from top to toe. He fell back, writhing, and went down in flames.

Turning to find no enemies left whole, the wing exchanged handclasps and celebratory shouts. Three rose to scour the nearby trees for wounded Mekhanists or fleeing foes. Doris herself hung back, only pausing on her way to the medics to drag her burning assailant off to the pile at the center of the clearing. Others scattered across the battlefield were performing the same duty.

Most of the flesh in the growing heap had once been Madame: occasionally a smoldering lump would spasm, as if trying to to pull itself together. Alert sentries answered this with fire.

A column of smoke curled up past the moon's tilted smile.

From the moment the bombs went off, no one paid any attention to Herman. For the first and last time in his life, that suited him just fine.

He escaped the initial grenade blast by sheer luck. It took some ingenuity to avoid being absorbed in the expanding bodies of his mother and her friends, but he was light enough on his feet to manage it.

Past the initial ring of shrubbery, much of the forest bracken had been cleared out. The Mekhanists had had two days to prepare the site, and they were thorough. At a crash to his right and the sound of crackling flames, Herman ducked back behind a tree. He peered out slowly. The Jellicks, sliced clean through across the midsection, had toppled into the forest, thorny pseudopods thrashing as they fell.

Strands of nearby razor wire broke off with irregular spangs. Herman eased forward, ducked under a stubborn wire and trudged out into the woods, trying to stare up and over his shoulder in every direction. As the clamor faded in the distance, he felt a kind of effervescence in his spirit. Hope and Herman Fuller had not previously been introduced. It was dizzying.

Deep in the underbrush, close to the ground, the smoke was still so thick Lucretia didn't dare form anything like a nose. Carefully, she extruded two slender eyestalks, poking them up through the branches. It was enough to track the soldiers' movements. They descended at regular intervals to cut away burned flesh from the pile, letting the fire spread deeper inside it. The Mekhanites clearly intended to leave nothing behind but ash.

Even if she were the only survivor, this was an opportunity not to be missed. A shiver of anticipation rippled across her form. There, in the clearing, was a feast the likes of which she might not see again for centuries. Mother's death was a potent lesson on the dangers of being too visible. The head that wears the crown is the first to meet the guillotine.

She stretched up her eyestalks for another look. A long, slow swivel revealed only a handful of winged figures in the sky. They hovered, facing one another, their gestures revealing an agitated conversation. Perfect.

Almost the first living flesh Lucretia encountered, oozing in under the base of the bonfire, was her elder brother's akuloth — a tiny creature melded with the essence of his power.

Finding the worm intact was better than having his entire living brain in her hands. She would have laughed till she cried if she'd had a face. Now all she had to do was tuck away everything she could that hadn't burned yet, put Aloysius back together, and convince the vain fool that he had rescued her.

She wriggled deeper into the heap of gore. Herman was right. Mother was delicious.

"It was devastating," Mitterling lamented. He leaned over the bar, adding another pinch of bicarbonate to his soda water and a liberal dash of bitters. The bartender had left the bottle. "To learn this brilliant group had been disbanded — myself, excommunicated! — on the very night of such a great victory? For the first time I regret these eyes. I wish I could weep."

From what Hezekiah had seen of the Inventor-Militant's work, the Mekhanite leaders were not merely fanatics, they were fools. But he hadn't ridden all the way to Concord to watch the engineer marinate in regrets he could not drown. "It astounds me that such excellence would be swept aside over a point of doctrine. I came in answer to your letter myself, Herr Mitterling, to reassure you that Marshall, Carter and Dark knows how to value excellence. Your work with us will not be tethered by rusty, outdated theologies."

A commotion sounded in the street outside, rising above the steady patter of hail. The barkeep peered out the window and quietly lowered a hand beneath the counter.

Mitterling patted the salesman's arm. "You are a fine lad, Mr. Carter. It will be good to work again. But to see alchemy itself forbidden, just when I had some hope of returning… " He stared moodily into his drink and gave the counter a small thump with his fist. "Fleisch! The last power source added to the Book of Errors was radioactive metal, after the Daevite Wars! How is that a precedent?"

The shouts outside grew in volume; Hezekiah's ears perked up at the sound of a familiar, angry voice. Of all the people he'd never expected to see again! As rapidly as he could within the bounds of politeness, Hezekiah paid his tab and Mitterling's, handed the engineer the travel vouchers and letters of introduction he'd brought along, set his hat firmly on his head and dashed out the door.

The deputy sheriff let Hezekiah into the holding cells, then stomped off to root around in his desk drawers. The salesman had walked in, doffed his hat, slapped a slightly oversized pile of currency on the desk and demanded a receipt for the payment of Herman's bail. The deputy disliked being ordered around, though he did pocket the bribe.

The cells' lone occupant looked up from his slouch, but made no move to rise. He looked well for a man who'd just narrowly lost a fistfight with a gaggle of policemen in a hailstorm. "Zeke. Your uncle's firm hiring horse thieves these days?"

The salesman laced an arm through the bars, propping his forehead against them. "Alleged horse thieves. Ensuring an informant's charges are dropped is a trivial expense."

"And here I thought you cared." Herman's sarcasm was amused, not offended.

Zeke blushed, not bothering to turn his face aside. He had almost forgotten the man could smell pheromones. "You know, before I knew your background, I'd hesitated to ask. And failing that, wondered if you had a sister."

"Not anymore." Herman's laugh was a handful of gravel. "You're barking up the wrong flesh, Zeke, not that I blame you. Many a heart's been broken on these rugged shores." An elegant wave indicated his own bedraggled face.

Levering himself to his feet, Herman strolled over to lean companionably against the bars. He tapped a finger to his forehead. "But I do have a proposition for you."

"Say on, cruel sir. My heart will mend." Zeke replied, placing a hand over his heart with a slight bow. "Business is my one true mistress."

"At least a dozen Karcists from around the country recently died in a fire," Herman said, his smugness almost palpable. "Very mysterious. Some of them, tragically, left no next of kin."

"A lamentable loss. Great houses standing empty, crops rotting in the fields - "

"Books." Herman insisted. "Old Sarkic books, sitting around for the taking. I've been to most of these homes. This is stuff that'll melt your face if you don't know how to read it right." He shook his head with a smile, as if at a fond memory. "My family's kind of magic isn't for me, and I don't have the resources for a cross-country trek. But there's got to be something I can work with. Something that'll give me an edge."

"Why, Mr. Fuller, I do believe we can do business." The insular Sarkites were hardly frequent customers, and their lore was sought after in certain circles. Zeke grinned. One of the advantages of being Ruprecht Carter's own nephew was that if he found something of interest to one of the other partners, he could risk taking it straight to the source. "Tell me — have you heard of the Wanderers' Library?"

Green mist enveloped the two men, then swept back as the Way furled itself shut. Bookshelves of every description stretched into the distance. Behind them, the ceiling climbed slowly up, braced by fluted columns of something grey that wasn't quite stone.

Up ahead, the shelves gave way to a rough archway of the same material. It opened into a broad cavern; the dim light showed other, identical archways scattered around its edge. Bundles of phosphorescent purple lichen dripped from the ceiling in delicate strands at irregular intervals. Each strand was enveloped by a cloud of spores, which danced in the eerie light but never fell. A figure in a floor-length traveling cloak stood beneath one of them. Their posture was one of deep contemplation: hood thrown back, eyes closed, drawing slow, deep breaths. A plume of spores swirled briskly around their head.

Hezekiah cleared his throat. He had managed not to show his nervousness when explaining the situation to the senior partner's secretary, but interrupting the man himself at his studies was another matter. "Mr. Darke?"

Darke exhaled, his eyes snapping open to focus immediately on the two of them. The spores fled upwards in a cloud towards the lichen strand.

"Who — Ah. You're Ruprecht's nephew. Hezekiah, wasn't it?" He strode forward, brushing irritably at his nose. "The L'gzzilit are meticulous historians. Which almost makes up for their unorthodox methods of recordkeeping."

"Good of you to remember me, sir," Zeke replied.

"Nonsense. That alchemist you sent me was competent, for a change."

"In fact," the salesman brightened a bit, "it was through Mitterling, indirectly, that I became acquainted with Herman Fuller."

Herman nodded. "Pleased to meet you."

Zeke continued, "Mr. Fuller has knowledge of the locations of several collections of Sarkic literature in good condition, some of which may have recently become… ownerless. He also seeks guidance in a course of thaumaturgical study. I surmised you might take an interest, sir, and your granddaughter was kind enough to conduct us here."

"'Ownerless'?" The senior partner tilted his head at Herman. "How did they die?"

"Alchemical fire," said Herman, the smugness creeping back in. "Stank to high heaven."

"Rare books and recent intelligence, yes," Darke murmured. "Abigail knows my tastes. My thanks, Hezekiah, that will be all." He waved a hand in a fluid motion; the salesman evaporated in another cloud of green mist.

Herman had almost caught that gesture. The other man began to stroll down the aisle, his face thoughtful; Herman fell into step beside him.

"Before we get to the recent news, I must think on what literature to recommend. Tell me, which languages do you read?"

"English, Latin," Herman tilted a hand from side to side. "Schoolboy Adytite."

A crack of laughter escaped Darke; he raised the back of his hand to his mouth as if the sound had surprised him. "Schoolboy Adytite! Hah. Young Fuller, I foresee you are going to be a pleasure to teach."

The corner of Herman's mouth crept slowly up. That was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to him. He gazed around the Library hungrily, wondering how long a man would have to live to read it all.

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