Mayer Alan Brenner – Spell of Apocalypse

FROM THE GROUND, the bird was an infinitesimal white speck lost against the isoluminescent glare of the midday sky. From the perspective of the seagull, however, the ground and its features were clearly apparent in all their multiplicity and confusion. Below it now as it circled in its leisurely bank was the sparkling band of the Tongue Water, to its right the smoky bulk of the manufacturing district and beyond that the widening mainland, to its left the great city of Peridol. There was more than just scenery transpiring down there under the bird’s dangling feet, though. The seagull’s unhurried path was carrying it around a wide coil of dark smoke that mounted even higher, curling and roiling, until an onshore breeze took it and shredded it into streamers and ragged sheets. Following the pillar of smoke downward took the eye into the midsection of a tall bridge. The bridge currently spanned the water less effectively than it likely had even a short time before. The center reach of the roadbed was obscured by steam clouds that were replacing the dark smoke with a puffier white. Here and there, where the steam parted, a few dying flames could be noted, and in more numerous other locations the surface of the water itself was visible through the bridge floor, rimmed by jagged holes and the raw edges of ruptured steel. Wedged up against and partially underneath the bridge on its upstream surface, glinting and glittering, was a prodigious cliff of ice. Even to the seagull’s inexpert eye, it was clear that the steam clouds had resulted from the contact, in the not-too-distant past, of the shorn-off crown of the iceberg with the incendiary fires. Since the center section of the bridge was exhibiting – in addition to the roadbed damage – a prominent sag and list, of dire structural import, it was also apparent that the supporting influence of the iceberg’s bulk was keeping the larger part of the bridge from collapsing full-on into the water. A slender crag of ice that had not been clipped on contact with the bridge still towered over the upstream mass of the iceberg and loomed at a perilous angle over the bridge itself. Curiously, the uppermost section of this ice needle seemed to bear within it the crushed remains of what might have been a modest fishing boat. Spectacular though these sights were, the seagull’s interest was not primarily architectural.


Crowds of people were apparent on every side; on the bridge itself, on the river-bank grandstands, even a few remaining bobbers in the water or on small boats being ferried to the shore. Flocks of other birds wheeled about as well, those of sea and land keeping largely separate but all diving periodically to snare some useful morsel from the water or the crush on land. With a glance back over its shoulder the seagull verified it was being trailed at a respectful distance by a congregation of other gulls, panting and bedraggled from some recent exertion though they appeared. A few large sea-creatures were still visible too, as looming shadows beneath the surface or as splashing wakes of foam. Confused by the abrupt end to the Running of the Squids but still attracted by the lures, a school of leaping marlin were trying to thread the tight gauntlet beneath the bridge and break through to the open ocean downstream. A lingering leviathan, wisely deciding against pitting itself against the bridge, was beating its way back upstream against the current. The gull stood on a wingtip and spiraled down toward the bridge and the Peridol shore. From the swirls of soldiers, rescuers, gawkers, and hangers-on an occasional character stood out. Heading off the bridge into the city was a man who stood a full head taller than even the heftiest of the crowd around him. The man stood out even further by virtue of the breadth given him by the people in his immediate vicinity, even at the expense of hurling themselves bodily away to either side or of flinging themselves to the ground. The bird had descended low enough to catch the dull glint from the man’s nicked battle sword, but the glower on his face would clearly have been sufficient by itself to open the path in front of him. The man also had a bundle slung lightly over one shoulder, something that was either a six-foot length of crisped meat fresh from the spit of a street rotisserie, or, improbable though it might have been, an actual still-or-barely living person. The gull cawed twice and then flapped vigorously, gaining altitude again as it launched itself over the city. Beyond the fashionable estates mounting the slopes of the Crust, on its way toward the palace complex, the bird spied a churning mob surging along a boulevard, howling and hurling offal and the traditional rotten produce at something up ahead. As the vantage point changed, this something resolved itself first into a sizable contingent of soldiers, and then in their midst a stout ox-cart.

Lashed down to the bed of the cart and apparently encased in partial stonework to boot was another man. He shared with the berserker the same expression of grim determination. It was more difficult to read his face, however, since his head was all but obscured behind its bindings and a mask-like cage. As had happened with the hulking berserker, several gulls detached themselves from the trailing flock and began to loop deliberately above the cart as the lead bird swooped away. The great city held far too many urgent sights for the bird to give even fleeting attention to each one. Accordingly, it passed over without a second glance another human figure sprawled prostrate in the refuse-heaped mud of a narrow back alley, its eyes fixed on yet another fire off across the city up ahead. In truth, a second glance would scarcely have revealed more information concerning this particular human. The trash covered the body so thoroughly that even its sex could not so easily be determined, and as for its status among the living or otherwise, well, certainly no sign of breath or movement disturbed the stillness of its repose. But then if the seagull had chosen to be comprehensive about it, it would have most likely had no trouble finding another dozen or two people in similar circumstances at that very moment somewhere in the city. Was the city not, after all, Peridol, foremost in the known world in every leading category, urban violence not least of all? Whether the gull indulged in this particular depth of reflection was obscure. Its purpose, on the other hand, could scarcely be doubted. As it gained altitude, the second black cloud-pillar ahead revealed more of its base behind the intervening structures and low hills. Where the fire on the bridge had been dying under the melting ice, this new one was clearly in the prime of its life. Such were the volume of the leaping flames and rolling fireballs and shooting pyrotechnic flares that its source was wholly shrouded. Anything from a single building to a full block or more might be in the midst of being consumed.

Beneath the seagull now, reeling down the center of a street, was another ragged and disheveled man. He was both singed and dripping sea water, and like the others the bird had singled out for closer inspection his face was set in a grim expression of bleak determination. As the bird watched, the man staggered and almost fell on his face, obviously pushing across the limit of his endurance. He managed not to go down, though, and instead continued the last vestiges of his dead run. Short of exhortation, there was no purpose to be served by lurking overhead; either the man would collapse or he wouldn’t. If he remained on his feet, it seemed likely to the gull that the man would ultimately arrive at the same destination as its own. Although if he didn’t show up – for whatever reason – the bird was going to be more than a little put out. It flapped vigorously again and headed for the fire. Owing to the precaution of approaching from upwind, it took several minutes to reach the scene. Braving the unstable updrafts, the seagull side-slipped its way toward the column of smoke and executed a careful dive. One street-facing building was the centerpiece, although at least some of the adjoining structures were a clear loss as well. Whoosh! – another fireball rolled out of the smoke and ascended toward the bird. The gull slid out of the way, feeling its tail feathers crisp, and glided toward more stable air. Had it heard any cries from the fully engulfed facility below? – detected any signs of life? No, it decided, it had not. As the bird dropped to a perch on a gable across the street, the remainder of the roof fell in, sending forth a fresh shower of embers and flaming sparks.

The front wall leaned over toward the fire and then blew into vapor, floor by floor, from the uppermost peak straight down to the foundation. A civic firefighting team had their gear spread out on the street in front of the building. Their sorcerer was making futile passes in the air, watching rain clouds begin to condense and then get immediately shredded to bits by the churning hot vapors. His associates were wielding a hose leading back to their water wagon. The declining trickle from the nozzle, though, spoke to the imminent depletion of their supply. The gull fluffed its feathers and settled down to wait. There was undoubtedly more to come. The Great Karlini lurched through the streets, hoping it had been just a delusion, just a fever of his overwrought brain, just a sign his mental house of cards had taken an inconvenient moment to spring into ruin. But if there was a sign, it was clearly not found merely inside his own head. The evidence was apparent off ahead, in the column of coiling black smoke winding and twisting its way above the rooftops. And he’d thought he had left pandemonium behind him at the Tongue Water. Or no, he had scarcely thought that at all. At the instant that horrible, despairing cry had split his head he had known that no matter the level of discord at the Running of the Squids, the true affliction – or at least the affliction closest to his own interests – would be found far across town. The cry still hung in his ears. Levitation, Karlini thought, why didn’t anyone ever come up with workable levitation? But he was putting all his remaining energy into running.

Even if there was levitation he’d have no reserve to spare to invoke it, or any other spell-work for that matter – not that he could think of any spell activity that would be particularly helpful just at the moment. Resurrection was another concept endlessly discussed, endlessly debated upon, that regardless still eluded even the gods, as far as anyone knew. Whether it existed or not, though, it was what he’d need. Bad planning, bad planning and irresponsibility, and he had no one but himself to blame. He’d have no one else to blame for the rest of his life. If he hadn’t been so drained and exhausted from that outof-control effort against the ice sorcerer – what was his name, Dortonn – and then his unexpected bath in the Tongue Water, perhaps he’d have still been able to think of something, to be there when Roni had needed him – That shriek, that dying shriek – Or was it the sign of death? Might there be hope? Things even less probable had somehow managed to squeak themselves to an acceptable resolution, before. But this time? This time? Then somehow he had arrived. The whole block seemed to be on fire. His arms reaching forward, feeling the air, Karlini plunged toward the flames; then, as his waterlogged clothes began to steam and his face began to sear he came limply to a halt. Maybe she hadn’t been there. Maybe it was just Dortonn’s final diversion. In his reverie, he had actually begun to consider hurling himself to immolation in the flames when he suddenly felt himself beaten roughly about the head, and then seized with a sharp pinch on the shoulder. “Oh, it’s you again, is it,” said Karlini, not even bothering to glance around at the seagull; he knew the bird far too well by this time, having been haunted by it since this whole thing had started, somewhere off in some desert. “Thanks for saving my life, I suppose, not that I’ve done anything with it but screw up when people needed me.” People? Karlini thought.

Well, yes, but not just people. They might have been estranged (another matter that had clearly been his fault) but she was still his wife, and the person he’d intended to spend the rest of his life with. Was his wife? Had been his wife. Had been his life. So Karlini continued to stare, sweat and other fluids running down his face, his skin blistering from the heat, his breath coming harsh and twisted, trying still to get his mind back in gear, as flaming timbers crashed and smoke billowed and prospects turned to ash; he failed to notice when the seagull screeched and flapped off to another part of the crowd, or when it returned, bringing others with it. What does a guy have to do? Jurtan Mont had been wondering as he and Tildy watched the fire brigade try to contain the disaster and keep the entire block from going up, and hope to stop the flaming embers from jumping streets and buildings and leapfrogging across the district. He had been through quite a lot in the last day himself, culminating with his last-possible-moment nick-of-time arrival to pull his sister out of the building to safety on the street. But did his sister bother to thank him? Did she bother to notice him? No, all she’d done was keep edging away from him and staring at the fire. Of course, he was still covered with filth and reeked from his lengthy encounter with a hill of night soil, but he had unmistakably saved her life. What did she want from him? She wouldn’t answer his questions, either. Answer? Jurtan doubted she was even listening to him. Her information might be important, too. Take the guy she’d been with. Who was he, anyway? Why did Jurtan’s music sense keep hitting him with warning slidehorn wails whenever the man was around? And then what had happened to the fellow in the Karlini lab? Had he set the fire? Was he dead, or if not where was he now? How could Jurtan protect his sister if she didn’t even have the good sense to realize she needed it? Then all of a sudden she had opened up. But had it been to tell him what he needed to know? Hah! “So what happened to you since yesterday?” she’d said.

“I was chased. I escaped. I got lost. I don’t want to talk about it,” he’d concluded. Okay, so it hadn’t been the smartest thing to say, even if she did have him miffed already. He should have taken the opening to start engaging her in conversation, and then steered things to the topics in which he was interested. Instead, she’d immediately tuned him out again. And then, while he’d been trying to think of a new wedge to crack open her shell, they’d been dived on by this crazy seagull; dived on and virtually shoved down the street back toward the raging fire. Ahead of Jurtan, his sister faltered. “It’s Karlini,” she said uncertainly. Who do you think it would be, with that seagull involved? Jurtan thought, but he was proud of himself that he hadn’t actually said it out loud. “Well, maybe he knows what’s going on.” “He wasn’t here,” said Tildy. Before Jurtan could say anything else, the seagull slammed into him again with its webbed feet extended, knocking him forward and into his sister. The music in his head, which had been playing a pretty demoralizing dirge, broke ranks with a mocking accordion wheeze.

Jurtan seized Tildy around the wrist and yanked her forward. “Come on,” he said, “before that bird decides to do us in.” She dragged along behind him in a dazed shamble. A moment later, Jurtan saw that the one in the real daze was the Great Karlini. He looked as though he’d just lost his last friend. His last – so that was it! His sister had neglected to mention anything about Ronibet Karlini in her recent experiences. Becoming aware of their presence with him now, Karlini took in the Monts’ own charred and ashcovered appearances. Tildamire’s arms and face were fried a bright shiny red and her sleeves were barely more than clinging soot. “You were here?” Karlini stated. “What about Roni?” “Inside,” said Tildy, “I think.” “What happened?” With her eyes too wide and her voice too shrill, and her words, when they came at all, trickling out in short meandering bursts, it was plain that Tildamire was barely still in this world herself. “He was different. It was almost like he wasn’t the same person at all. But he threw a fireball at Roni, and it – she -” “Who?” said Karlini. “Who threw a fireball?” “The guy with no name.

The Creeping Sword.” The air went out of Karlini and he slumped even further. “Him? Are you sure? What do you mean he wasn’t like the same person?” “There was – I mean, it looked like light was coming out of his eyes. He looked crazy, out of his mind, he was tearing up everything, and then he threw this fireball and everything went white, I couldn’t see, and -” “Excuse me,” said a loud voice. Karlini swung around and saw a hefty man in heavy padded oilskins and a stout hard cap with a wide bill brim; an axe swung at his side in a belt sheath. The man had sweat running off his burly mustache. “Fire Chief Cinder. Are you connected with this building?” “Damn it, yes,” Karlini said. “Then what’s inside? Why is it burning so hot? You been storing anything toxic we need to worry about?”

.

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Updated: 14 December 2020 — 19:22

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