The Disciple’s Inquiries

It had been raining on and off throughout the morning, a band of dark, heavy clouds settling over the city. For the moment it had halted, though there was a slight mist in the air. A miserable day, biting, with the wind and a damp that rotted at the bone. Disciple Hieran tramped, disgusted, through the streets to the Morning grounds, his foul mood made worse by the sight of two palanquins passing him on the road. He should have been used to it by now, but it still galled him that the Disciple of the Adept of Lastl did not have the coin to afford a rented palanquin in the rain. He cursed, not the first time, the Council for joining him to the greatest miser in the Realm. Not just a miser but a doddering old fool, more interested in his scrolls and specimens than the alkemyc arts. So, rather than practicing the art for which he had suffered years of training and disappointments, Hieran spent his days as the Adept’s errand boy.

No, it had all been disappointment and dreams denied since he had come, a supplicant, to the Council eight years ago. He had barely been a man then, though he was already a thaumaturge of some repute in his village Quilran, near Takyl. People came from villages over two days’ journey away just to have him heal their broken bones and the like. Unaware that there were men such as he in villages across the Realm, though few who were prodigies in thaumaturgy as he was, Hieran got it into his head that he should appeal to the Council to join their ranks.

And so, at fifteen, he had set out from home for Craitol, the Qraul’s city, to plead his case before the Council of Adepts. It was a harrowing journey for one who had hardly gone more than a day or so from Quilran. He spent a night in Takyl and was robbed and beaten and then spent another week on the streets of the city, begging for food and trying to find someone who would pay for his skills. When he had gained what he thought was enough coin for the journey he left Takyl, setting out for Craitol. His first two nights he spent at the roadside inns eating and drinking his fill and taking a girl to his room, only to find that his funds were nearly exhausted and the opportunities to earn more, which he had foolishly assumed would be there, were nonexistent. The rest of his journey he spent his nights in ditches under Senteur’s heavens and even had to spend two days outdoors in Craitol itself until he managed to convince the gatekeepers at the Council’s school that he was not some mere vagrant.

Fours years as a pupil passed with rigorous study of alkemya and its related arts. When he was deemed ready for elevation of rank, he submitted himself to the Council for testing, a grueling two-day affair where he had to demonstrate his abilities at drawing forth the astral aspects of various elements and shaping them into seeds of alkemy. He was judged to be of the highest proficiency and was admitted to the Council’s inner circle, though they felt him lacking in some critical faculties and so named him a Disciple rather than an Adept. He should have been happy, for most who passed the tests—and there were many who did not—were left to the Council’s outer circle to pass their days as unjoined conjurors, little grander in the scheme of things than a village thaumaturge. But instead, he was crushed by his failure to be named an Adept, a loss made all the keener by his joining to the Adept of Lastl. That hurt had not been lessened by the passage of time, mostly because his master Tehh was a man he thoroughly despised. And he had to suffer to submit, all his skill, the very astral of his being, to the service of that man, never his to be the guiding hand.

The Morning Grounds were not far from the Palace and the coliseum. Nearest the street was the public match ground and attached to it were the Morning’s betting and performing halls. Beyond that, and behind a wall, were the barracks and training fields for the players and a larger performing hall where the Morning’s musicians, actors, and dancers would put on their grander performances. There was a match set for the afternoon, the Morning’s third rank against Midday’s, which was the reason Hieran had to suffer the rain. He praised the Gods that he would not have to endure the stands.

He went to the wagering hall, which was empty but for a few bettors and the usual hangers-on, stopping first at a stand near the entrance to buy a dala drink to warm himself, before beginning to wander around. He didn’t have long to wait – a bookmaker approached him almost immediately. The man was short and a little stout, with a mess of hair that was starting to thin. His face was guarded in the way all such men were and he nodded a greeting at Hieran, which he returned in kind, neither of them particularly caring for the other’s name.

What have you?” Hieran asked.

The bookmaker shrugged noncommittally. “Depends, depends. Suppose you’re looking for some asyl. I know some people who have dealings with some Enir traders. Long story, but they just got their latest supply last week. Very good quality, you cannot find its like in this city. You’re a man of quality, I can see.”

Quite,” the Disciple said. “That’s not what I’m interested in today, though. I’m wondering about the odds for today’s match. I’ve heard one of your stringers has gone missing.”

A merest shrug of the shoulders. How am I to keep track of the comings and goings of these players?

They probably don’t have a replacement just yet, he only went yesterday.”

The bookmaker waved his hand, “Pssh. He wasn’t much of a player, you know. Could hardly manage a toss. He wasn’t moving up the rankings, surely. No one’s going to notice him missing, I can assure you of that.

No, no sense throwing money after this today. There’s no coin here,” he said, gesturing about the hall. “Besides, it’s going to be raining all day. Who wants to be sitting out in that? Now I have to, mind you, but I certainly don’t encourage such behavior. No, your coin is better spent elsewhere. I happen to have the acquaintance of a few of the finer dancers of the Morning who will most certainly be free this afternoon. Why pay market price in the arches when a finer commodity is on offer and at fair coin?”

Quality again.”

Indeed. Fair coin for fair coin.”

Sadly, I am on official business.”

Aren’t we all.”

Hieran smiled slightly. “From the Palace.”

The bookmaker went silent, frowning. Hieran increased his smile. “You wouldn’t happen to know a gentleman named Fennen? A Morning supporter.”

He was around,” the bookmaker said.

He was a Palace guard,” the Disciple said, followed by a shrug from the bookmaker. What of it?

He was killed yesterday, in the alley of one of the Morning drinkeries. You probably heard. His face was disfigured.”

Another shrug, though Hieran thought he detected some nervousness about the man. The wrong answer was now a dangerous proposition. If people were having Palace guards murdered they would not hesitate to do the same to an odds man.

He owed you money,” Hieran said, gesturing to the betting hall. “A great deal of money, am I correct?”

I wouldn’t know. I didn’t take his bets.”

Hieran stared hard at the man, waiting. “I wouldn’t know,” he repeated.

I am not a Magistery, obviously, but I do have the authority of the Gver to arrest you.”

On what basis?” the bookmaker demanded. It was Hieran’s turn to shrug. What did it matter? He did not take his eyes from the bookmaker’s.

He has no debts with us,” the bookmaker said at last.

Hieran let out a silent Ah. “How were they settled?”

The bookmaker had turned to stone, not even blinking. He did not answer.

Coincidences and more coincidences, all very convenient. Fennen’s debts gone though not paid, and he murdered. A no-rank ball player vanishes at the same time and no one knows a thing about him past or future. In fact, no one knew anything – how long he had been with the Morning in Lastl, who he had spent time with, what he had done.

He had wandered through the betting hall and then over to the theater where some actors were running lines for that afternoon’s performance and received much the same response. Everyone knew who he was speaking of, but whether they knew what had happened to him or not, they kept silent. A series of shrugs and avoided glances was all he got in return for his questions. How thick they all were.

It was to be expected, of course, and no one had bothered with coming up with a lie yet, which suggested that they did not attach any real importance to the man’s disappearance. They simply saw no need to cooperate with a Palace man. It was not unheard of for a stringer to vanish without reason. They hardly made enough to keep themselves in food, and at some point most were forced to admit that they were not going to rise through the ranks. A merchant wanting to have his rivals good stolen or anyone looking to have some brutality done to someone would come looking for just such a man, and if the money was good enough, well, why bother coming back?

He went into one of the barracks and began speaking to a hungover stringer, having talked his way past the gatekeepers and into the compound. The player’s face was such an ashen color that Hieran felt ill just looking at him. He wasn’t getting much out of the fellow beyond grunts and “Lazul was a good sort,” so he decided to press on and see who else he could find that might volunteer more, or at least let something slip. He was met at the door by two hired swords, northerners by the look of them, who blocked his way with their short blades.

I am from the Palace,” he told them as though unfurling a passkey.

They did not reply, one of them simply stepping aside to allow him room to pass, jerking his head as he did so. Hieran considered arguing the point but decided against it and allowed himself to be led outside. The two swords walked on either side of him, neither bothering to sheath their swords, leading him along a path deeper into the Morning grounds. They were given a wide berth by everyone they passed, which was disconcerting, and he was taken to what he assumed was the estate of the Morning Chair. It was a sprawling building, three storied, with balconies and what looked like some walled gardens behind.

A servant let them in, observing their passage without expression. Panic seized Hieran once he realized that they were not going to throw him off the grounds. Instead they led him downstairs past the wine cellar, and through another basement before coming through a door to a cell. They stopped and one of the men unlocked the door while the other leveled his sword at Hieran. He glanced about, trying to get what bearings he could in the gloom. The smell of earth was heavy in the air.

Once the door was open, the man gestured with his sword for Hieran to enter to the cell. He almost refused, ready to make his stand there, but thought better of it. It wasn’t like they would kill him; the Chair of Morning could not afford to defy the Gver in such a way. The whole situation was bizarre. Why, if he was on the right track, draw such attention by imprisoning a Palace representative?

Stepping into the cell, he started to say, “This is outrageous, you understand,” and then one of them struck him hard on the back of the head. He fell to the floor with a grunt. Another blow and he felt as though he were floating atop an ebbing tide. He tried to look up at his attackers but he had no sense of whether he was actually moving his head or not. All he could see were waves of color that swirled across his vision. Another blow and the colors went, the gloom descending to dark.

from Realm of Shadows

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Now Available: It Came From Above

Monolith

When the object appeared in his pasture Frank was convinced it was alien in origin. Not only was it unlike anything he had ever seen, without solid shape or form, constantly shifting, it hummed at a pitch just beyond the range of his hearing. It seemed impossible that it could be anything other than an artifact from space. When the Concern, the corporation conducting secretive research in the area, claimed it as their own he was absolutely certain of its true nature and of his need to get it back at any cost.

A short story by  Clint Westgard
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Protocols

The wind did not begin to subside until late the next evening and it was not until the following morning that they awoke to a day glorious and calm. He had work to do around the yard in the morning, chores and repairs on one of the tractors, so it was only after lunch that he left, telling Emma that he was going up to check on the water at the lease. The dugout there had been low the day the object had been taken and there had been no rain since.

Though Emma had given him a look as though she suspected he were up to something, he had no intention of confronting the Concern about the object. He had thought about it the night after their argument and throughout the next day and had decided against it. He knew Emma well enough to understand which of her threats she would make good on. Stubborn as he was, even he could recognize that the object was not something that was worth risking his marriage.

The aftereffects of the storm were evident everywhere as he drove north. Ditches were filled with drifts of a fine powdery earth, almost like sand and several of his neighbors’ yards had trees that had been uprooted. There was a grain bin lying crumpled and warped atop Werner’s hill, an amazing site, for the nearest bins that could have been carried here were at Barthels, over two miles away. None of the power lines were damaged, as far as he could see, which told him that it had been blown high enough to clear them. The fences along the road were all filled with detritus, anything that hadn’t been weighted down had been scattered across the country.

The dugout in the lease was as low as he could remember it being. Two cows were standing right at its center with water up to their waists when he drove up. Unless it rained in the next few days he would be trucking water up here by next week. He swore to himself thinking of how much time that would take. Three quarters of an hour each way, with half an hour to fill up the water tank. Two trips every other day. That would be three mornings gone a week at least, to say nothing of Tommy’s pasture, which he would be hauling water to soon enough as well.

He was about to head home, his head filled with worry for what the rest of the summer would bring, when the ground where the object had been caught his eye. The grass had not recovered at all, had in fact turned a brittle shade of brown. It cracked underneath his feet as he walked across it, and each step was marked with the outlines of footprints. He could feel the color go from his face and he crouched down, as much to steady himself as to inspect the grass. He prodded the individual strands delicately with his fingers and they crumbled to dust at his touch. Cursing under his breath, he pulled the knife from the front pocket of his jeans and dug into the ground to expose the roots below. They too were utterly desiccated.

He said nothing when he returned home for supper, though he could feel Emma’s watchful eye upon him. They went to bed wordless and he again found himself staring at the ceiling waiting for sleep to steal him from his thoughts. That night it would not though. Try as he might he could not forget the ruined, brown patch. Would anything grow there again? And was the object having the same unseen effect upon him even as he lay there? It was a terrifying thought to say the least.

The next morning he awoke tired and with an aching head. His jaw had been clenched tight through his fitful sleep, his anger not dissipating, even through his tumultuous dreams. He drank his coffee and had his porridge in silence, Emma watching him as she ate her toast. When he was done he pushed aside his plate and his cup and stared at her. Their eyes held for a moment and then she closed her eyes, warding herself for a blow.

I’m going to the Concern today. That fucking thing killed a bunch of grass up in the lease. They’re going to have pay for it.”

Emma offered no reply, her face impassive, as he left the house, letting the door slam in his wake.

He went into town after he was finished with the chores, getting some parts at the Agro Centre. On his way back he turned off the highway and headed down the road to the Baas. The three long barns loomed up before him, still the same white they had been when the Dutch company had been running pigs there. A chain link fence surrounded the yard now, which also had a dozen or so trailers near its entrance that acted as offices for the Concern employees. The trailers formed a sort of informal blockade between the gate and the barns where the research was done. There was also a small hut at the entrance where everyone had to check in before being allowed into the compound and Frank stopped there, asking to speak with Hildeck. He was sent to the largest trailer where he found the manager and a young woman he did not recognize.

Frank, this is Katy Miles. She’s actually working on the project that, uh, you encountered,” Hildeck said as he motioned for him to sit.

Frank stared at her fiercely, derision and rage written plainly on his face, so that Hildeck cleared his throat and motioned for her to leave, which she did, her face flooding with relief. “What can I do for you Frank?”

That fucking project of yours is killing my grass.”

David frowned and leaned forward. “How do you mean?”

Where it was, all the grass is dead. The roots are dead. It’s not coming back.”

Well,” Hildeck said, leaning back in his chair, “That is strange.”

That’s one goddamn word for it alright,” Frank said. “I touched the thing. What the hell is it going to do to me?”

David started up, as though he had been awoken from his thoughts, and waved his hand. “Oh, it’s been fully tested. We have people working with it all the time. No long term effects have been observed.”

I bet.”

I wonder if we could get a look at that grass though. It might help the team get a handle on what happened there.”

Frank smirked and took off his ballcap, running a hand through his hair. “You don’t have a clue what happened do you?”

Well, I certainly don’t. It’s a little outside my expertise.”

Not a clue at all,” Frank continued, ignoring Hildeck. “You know what the thing is supposed to do?”

I’m afraid I can’t really discuss that, you understand. We have certain security protocols,” Hildeck said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “Now, to get back to your pasture, we’d certainly like to get a look at that. Can we discuss getting access? We’ll gladly pay of course.”

I know you will.”

David cleared his throat. “Well then. I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement.”

I’d like to see the thing again.”

The prototype?”

Yes,” Frank said leaning forward in his chair for emphasis.

I’m afraid that’s impossible. We have protocols and I don’t think I can get permission. We’ll gladly pay our standard access fees. And of course for the damage the prototype did.”

Frank did not reply, standing up and walking out the door, leaving Hildeck to stare after him in disbelief. He got in his truck, spinning out as he turned around to head back out to the road, slinging gravel across the yard. He flew home, pushing the needle to 160 kilometers, oblivious of the other traffic on the highway. The radio was on but he talked over it, cursing Hildeck and the Concern for stealing the object, and Jennings for letting them. It was clear to him now that they had no more idea of what the thing did than he.

When he pulled into the yard he saw that Emma’s car was gone. He sat in the truck for a moment unable to quite process what he was seeing and then ran inside, calling her name. There was no answer and as he looked through the living room he saw that all of Colton’s toys were gone. There was a note on the kitchen table that read: I’ve gone to Mom and Dad’s for a few days .I’ll call on Saturday and we can talk. He slumped into a chair holding the note up and looking at the words, not reading any of them.

from It Came From Above