“To the Heart of the City” by Desmond Warzel
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In the youth of the world was the Age of Apotheosis, when every household and every nation thrived peacefully alongside its neighbors, the efforts of each redounded to the benefit of all, and city and countryside alike were filled with magical and mechanical wonders that would have been inconceivable in the present day if not for a few incomplete accounts among the surviving writings of the Age.
As any child who has ever blown a soap bubble can attest, such perfection — if it survives beyond the instant of its creation — cannot last; and when its time reaches an end, the entire thing vanishes inside of a moment. So ended the Age of Apotheosis. Dissension arose, nation was set against nation, and the capacity for innovation that had defined the Age was diverted toward greater and more efficient means of destruction. Afterward, only a few fragments remained to show that there had even been an Age of Apotheosis: trifling bits and pieces of a glorious, extinct culture, to be sifted from the ashes and fought over by the warlords of successive ages.
The largest such fragment, and the only one that had never been claimed by any such potentate, was the Floating City of Avaeon.
Avaeon had been unique even in its day, a great floating island all of burnished metal, the barely visible spires of its strange buildings tantalizingly suggestive of the alleged marvels within. Secure in its lofty berth, the Floating City had escaped destruction, and its inhabitants had borne mournful witness to the end of the Age. For generations they had circled the world, watching as civilization gradually reasserted itself in far-flung locales, occasionally sending down foraging parties to gather supplies — but only in uninhabited lands.
That, too, was ancient history, for at some point, order had been sufficiently reintroduced, and barbarism sufficiently quashed, that the people of Avaeon established economic intercourse with the various cities and villages below. In exchange for produce, dry goods, and other wares, they gave jewels: tiny, flawless, many-faceted, multihued, impossible to counterfeit. Drawn from an apparently endless supply, these stones, if such they were, had quickly supplanted local coinages as the preferred currency throughout the world.
Most people considered this arrangement satisfactory; for, though the people of the Floating City did not share their power, neither did they seek to rule with it.
To a young wizard named Russa, this latter fact was unconscionable.
Russa was better-versed in the seminal Book of Wisdom and the various magical philosophies therein espoused than many wizards twice her age. And did that august volume not say, on the page devoted to Alster the Striving, that “power not exercised is power squandered; and power squandered is an abomination”? And couldn’t any fool see that whatever ancient magic kept Avaeon afloat and functioning was, by even the most pedantic definition, the greatest source of power in the world?
To this end, Russa had gathered every written account she could find of the Floating City’s passing, seeking the pattern of its meanderings. There seemed to be none; but broad guesses could be made about the frequency with which Avaeon’s inhabitants took on various goods. It was such a guess, arrived at after weeks of recalculation and extrapolation, that saw Russa take up lodgings in Caddis, a smallish river town encircled by vast tilled fields; Caddis, she had deduced, was a likely place for the City to pause.
Sharing Russa’s suite of rented rooms were two accomplices: Jenrry, a fellow wizard of appreciable talent, selected for her circumspection and solitary nature, and Rondin, Russa’s apprentice, a clumsy, boorish boy of indeterminate age whose capacity for sullen complaint was never exceeded, no matter the degree of backbreaking labor Russa assigned to try and silence him.
To most, the recruitment of co-conspirators would seem to be at cross-purposes with Russa’s mission, whose only objective, after all, was the accumulation of power. But Partha the Venerated, writing long ago in the Book of Wisdom, had disagreed, advising that “to halve one’s reward is to quarter one’s risk.”
After three weeks at close quarters, however, the unsociable Jenrry seemed ready to dispense with the wisdom of her wizardly forebears, as Rondin’s constant shenanigans and protestations were becoming too much to bear. “More studies for him, Russa!” she cried. “More chores! Better still, stake him out in the yard and let him keep watch for the Floating City.”
“More patience, Jenrry,” Russa replied. “At any rate, a watch is unnecessary. There will be no mistaking the arrival of the Floating City.
“On that day, the sun will rise twice.”
By sheerest chance, Rondin was out in the yard when Avaeon finally made its appearance, having been banished there to see to the washing. He had spent the morning giving the chore its minimum necessary attention, while lamenting the task’s arduousness to all within earshot. The apprentice had just launched into yet another wholly extemporaneous monologue on his miserable lot in life — his fourth of the day — when the Floating City gave the first telltale sign of its approach. The sky, already a deep, cloudless blue, suddenly became impossibly brighter.
Most of the people in Caddis, recognizing this portent, retired indoors, or at least shaded their eyes. Rondin, whose short benighted life had included no prior encounters with the Floating City, stared stupidly at its brilliance from the moment it came over the horizon. By the time it passed overhead, he had been struck practically blind, and still he stared.
From inside their suite, the two wizards observed the arrival more indirectly, as their rooms were bathed in gradually intensifying light, then thrown into shadow as the City paused directly above Caddis for precisely an hour, the signal that trade was desired.
After that, the City glided silently away. It would halt again some distance outside the town, beyond the farthest farms, where those with goods to sell would assemble and await the descent of the traders.
Exchanging triumphant smiles, Russa and Jenrry made ready for their forthcoming excursion, their labors interrupted only by the jarring sound of Rondin trying to negotiate the stairs by touch, and failing.
Trade with the Floating City took place in a broad clearing, which quickly filled with farmers and artisans, wagons loaded with produce and wares, and a variety of tents and temporary structures. Business was done at night, a relief to the eyes of all involved, and the clearing was illuminated by gentle white light emanating from some unknown source on the underside of the City itself.
The City was brought low, nearly even with the treetops. Those below strained to make out the shapes of its outermost buildings; Avaeon never touched the ground, and this was as close a look as was ever afforded them. A collective intake of breath arose from the crowd — even though most had traded here before — as an aperture opened in the low, apparently seamless wall that girded the city. A staircase — broad, long enough to reach the clearing, and constructed of the same brilliant metal as the rest of the City — was extruded from the opening and some three dozen of Avaeon’s people shortly mingled with the crowd.
They were only people, of obvious common ancestry with the ground-dwellers, but they never failed to make an impression regardless: their archaic mannerisms; their exotic, colorful clothing — whether of their own miraculous manufacture, or bartered-for in some country on the far side of the world, nobody knew; the long-dead language they spoke; the gem-studded pin they each wore that magically translated their lyrical warbling into the rough local tongue; and last of all, their accommodating demeanor, free of condescension or obsequiousness.
From their vantage point amidst the trees and brush at the far edge of the clearing, Russa and Jenrry patiently watched the Avaeon traders at work. Rondin watched as well, after a fashion; though he still suffered from an Avaeon-shaped hole in the center of his vision, he could once again see peripherally, and he glanced wildly back and forth to take in as much as he could. The people of Avaeon were skilled at economic intercourse, complimentary but never patronizing; if a ground-dweller had onions to sell, he would be assured that it was a privilege to buy Caddis onions, that they were practically unrivaled in flavor on this side of the world, that they only got better with each visit.
Observing the people of Caddis, Russa could see only awe where, to her mind, there should have been fear and servility.
By necessity, the trading would end by dawn; the brisk pace of the various negotiations would ensure that it ceased long before then. At that time — just prior to the departure of the Floating City, when the ground-dwellers had either left with their jewels or, unaccustomed to the late hour, lay exhausted in their tents — Russa and her accomplices would make their move.
They had dressed in simple black shirts and trousers to ensure mobility and take advantage of the darkness, and each bore a bulky pack stuffed with magical accoutrements — except for Rondin, who bore two. They looked decidedly unwizardly, and indeed they hoped to rely entirely on stealth for their ingress — the only magic in use was a minor enchantment on their grappling hook, to mask its noise — for it was inscribed in the Book of Wisdom, in the spidery hand of Thea Wood-Bound, that “magic, to the perceptive eye, is as the lighting of a candle in blackness.”
Apart from these initial preparations, Russa had no plan; there was no reliable information to be had about the City proper, only rumors and outright fabrications. To proceed in the face of such uncertainty was a risk unconscionable to most, but “to venture nothing was to gain nothing,” a sentiment so intuitive it did not warrant inclusion in the Book of Wisdom.
The appointed hour came; the ground-dwellers dispersed or retired, the representatives of Avaeon carried the last of their purchases into their City, the great staircase was withdrawn, and the light that had illuminated the temporary marketplace was gradually extinguished. Russa, Jenrry, and Rondin made their way swiftly out of the woods and soon stood panting beneath the City’s outermost edge. At Russa’s silent command, Rondin produced a coil of rope and knotted one end to their grapnel, which he then hurled into the night sky.
Russa winced as the grapnel, grossly underthrown, caromed off the City’s underside and thudded to the ground at Rondin’s feet. The impact had been silent, courtesy of the grapnel’s enchantment, but there was no telling how far the City’s metal skin might have carried the vibration.
In fact, Rondin’s ill luck with the grapnel very nearly ended their enterprise before it had begun. By the time he finally got it over the outer wall and caught it on something, the City had begun to glide silently away. The three invaders barely managed to catch hold of the rope in time to avoid being left behind.
Russa was nearly deafened by the air rushing past her ears as the City rapidly gained altitude. Above her, Rondin gamely climbed toward the wall, his overactive mouth momentarily still now that his life was at stake. Below, Jenrry clutched the rope with tight, white-knuckled fists, gaping in awe as the land fell away beneath her.
“Get accustomed to it,” said Russa, just loudly enough for Jenrry to hear. “This is how we view the world from now on.” Jenrry nodded, swallowed, and began to inch carefully up the rope. Ordinarily, a wizard had little to fear from falling, but the elements needed to effect the usual protections were stowed in their packs.
Rondin and Russa clambered over the wall and Jenrry followed soon after, hauling in the rope behind her. One of Avaeon’s many reputed magics made itself immediately plain; now that they were inside the City, there was no longer any wind. Russa extended a hand over the wall and it was instantly buffeted by the air currents stirred up by the City’s movement. This was subtle magic; Russa had sensed no barrier before, nor did she now. She wondered if it were proof against all undesirable weather.
They had ended up in a narrow alley. On either side of them, a pair of the City’s great golden buildings arched into the night sky. The precise contours of the edifices were hard to discern; they followed no known architectural principles. There were no evident windows or doors. The alley was paved in black stone, polished to a high gloss, as was the street into which it fed.
Russa moved to the mouth of the alley to keep watch while Jenrry and Rondin sorted out the gear. As far as she knew, she was the first ground-dweller to look out on the Floating City of Avaeon from within.
It made such a grand impression that she found it difficult to concentrate on any one detail. Buildings, arches, and abstract sculptures atop great plinths all vied for her attention, while a maze of ebony streets insinuated itself between them. At each intersection, a white globe floated overhead, apparently unanchored, and gave off soft light that bathed the street below but tapered into shadow before it could glare off the metal buildings. Nobody seemed to be out wandering the streets at this dark hour, though surely somebody, somewhere, was at work storing the evening’s intake of fresh goods.
At the rear of the alley, Jenrry and Rondin had unpacked and donned their disguises; Russa followed suit. She had painstakingly crafted all three ensembles herself — Rondin being too clumsy with both magic and needle to achieve the tiny, perfect stitches — from artists’ sketches she had uncovered during her research. Each was a loose pair of trousers over which was worn a blousy, knee-length shirt, all in seemingly random patters of bright colors. The clothes worn by the traders earlier in the night had seemed to resemble Russa’s creations closely enough; she hoped there wasn’t some detail she’d overlooked that would give them away.
The three trespassers finished secreting their various magical implements within their voluminous clothing. Russa made a final, cautious inspection of the streets, and signaled that all was clear.
“We move. By morning, with any luck, this City will have a new master.”
Dawn was near, and they had traversed every inch of Avaeon’s streets and alleys, employing all manner of divining magic, but to no avail. Russa was not surprised; they had no idea what they were looking for. Nor did the City itself yield any clues; there was no writing anywhere in sight, and the functions of the various buildings were anything but obvious.
Their exploration had grown frustratingly repetitive, the skewed geometry of the City was giving Russa a headache, and they were about to lose the darkness. The time had come for more direct action. For had not Inoki the Cruel written in the Book of Wisdom that “that which cannot be taken, can be demanded”?
They would have to conscript a native.
They had already encountered two, having turned a corner and nearly collided with a man and woman apparently out for a stroll. Their disguises had passed muster, and an exchange of curt nods had sent both parties amicably on their way.
When next they met one of Avaeon’s own — this time, a solitary man — they were better prepared; Russa brandished a magical stone within whose chaotic facets lay the power to bend his will to her own, and Jenrry and Russa had readied magics to incapacitate him if he resisted the charm and tried to flee. Here fortune smiled on them: not only did Russa’s stone work perfectly, but the man wore one of the translating pins that facilitated interaction with ground-dwellers. He might have been one of the traders on his way to bed, his duties concluded. At any rate, his eyes barely had time to widen in shock before he succumbed and was docile.
“You are beholden to me,” said Russa. A musical voice of indeterminate sex emanated from the man’s pin, presumably rendering her words in his language.
The man responded with a short, many-toned stream of syllables. “It is so,” was the pin’s interpretation.
“Very well. Time is short. You must take us to the location from which the City’s movements are controlled.”
“You must obey me. Do you understand?”
“My two colleagues are capable of ending your life in many interesting ways, if it should come to that. Do you understand?”
“I would have you take us to the location from which the City’s movements are controlled. Do you understand the directive?”
“Then obey it.”
“There is no such location.”
“No such place exists that you know of?”
“Is it possible that such a place exists that you do not know of?”
“Strictly speaking, it is possible; practically speaking, it is not.”
“Who rules this City?”
“Who is your master or immediate superior?”
“No such person exists.”
Russa heaved a sigh. She did not lose patience easily, and Rondin’s enduring tenure as her apprentice proved it. This man threatened to test the limits of that virtue.
They needed some hint as to the nature of this place if they were to proceed. She presented the stone once more. “Though you remain beholden to me, I wish you to think more freely, so I am loosening my grip on your mind. Do you feel it?”
“Where would you take a ground-dweller in order to best show off the grandeur of your fine City?”
“Ground-dwellers are forbidden to see the City. It is one of very few rules. A ground-dweller found in the City would be returned safely groundward.”
“Never mind the question, then; simply obey. Take me to the place that best displays the grandeur of your City. Use your judgment; you have nothing to fear unless you betray me. Do you have a place in mind?”
“Are you permitted to go there?”
“Anyone may go anywhere.”
“Then lead. And speak to no one.”
They followed their guide through the increasingly familiar streets and halted in front of a low, heptagonal building; like its taller brethren, it had no apparent doors or windows. The man approached a particular spot on the near side and, holding his hand at waist height, moved his palm from left to right across the building’s surface. Ruler-straight cracks in the metal appeared from nowhere and resolved themselves into the outline of a door, which swung inward of its own accord.
“Can anyone open these doors, provided she knows where to place her hands?” inquired Russa of her thrall.
All was blackness within the building, but when the man walked in, tiny floating spheres, smaller kin of the globes that lit the streets, flickered to life. They illuminated a roughly circular room whose floor, ceiling, and single continuous wall were a vibrant white. Spaced irregularly throughout the chamber were head-high pedestals topped with discomfiting metal and stone figures that seemed to possess more than the usual number of dimensions. Russa wondered whether these were simple art objects or if they served some further function.
She considered asking, but the sculptures were evidently beside the point, as the man led them straight across the room and through yet another previously nonexistent door. This time it was a corridor, but the motif carried over; all was white, and colorful abstract paintings lined the walls on both sides. Though Russa had never appreciated art, she found herself intrigued by these pieces. She resolved to learn about them, once her reign over the City was secure.
Their progress continued in much the same fashion; galleries alternated with corridors, and the weird nature of the art increased in proportion to the distance they had traveled.
“Are you certain of your hold on him?” asked Jenrry through clenched teeth. “We are going in circles, and gradually descending as well. We are being cornered, or led into a trap.”
“Is it much farther?” Russa asked of her servant.
“We are nearly there.”
“Well, then, Jenrry,” said Russa, “if our deaths are imminent, we won’t have long to wait.”
Finally their guide halted at the end of one particular corridor. “On the other side is the grandest place in Avaeon.”
“In your opinion?”
“In everyone’s opinion. It is the true heart of the City.” He gestured the door into existence.
No white globes sprang to life when they entered; the only light in the room was that which spilled in from the corridor, and the walls and ceiling were left in shadow. The floor was of brick, with mortar showing between; Russa thought it a jarring contrast with the polished sheen of the other floors and the streets outside.
But the masonry, however enigmatic, could not hold Russa’s interest for long; her attention was quickly commanded by the enormous stone hovering in the center of the room. It resembled one of the little jewels with which the City’s traders paid for their goods, only many hundreds of times larger, and irregularly shaped — or so it seemed at first glance. Russa observed its tapered lower half and the bulges spaced around its upper circumference and quickly deduced that it had been cut to resemble a heart — an actual heart, not a romanticized abstraction.
For their part, Jenrry and Rondin stood transfixed by the sight, and understandably so. Though it did nothing to illuminate the chamber, the colossal jewel possessed an inner light all its own, which on closer inspection proved to be an aggregation of thousands of tiny radiant points, as if all the twinkling stars of the night sky had been drawn together in one place.
Some moments passed while the three trespassers regarded its beauty. The temptation finally grew too great for Rondin, who had despaired, quite vocally, of ever finding anything worthwhile in this venture; he lunged for the stone with both hands. The force of the resulting shock deposited him on the seat of his pants, where he remained, whimpering to himself.
“We must reach it,” said Jenrry, withdrawing a tapered ivory wand from her sleeve. “If we fail to gain the City’s power, we can at least gain its riches.” She gestured with the wand, and bolts of primal energy streamed forth from its tip. Ordinarily sufficient to dispatch man or beast, here the energy dissipated harmlessly around the stone.
Undaunted, Jenrry recited an incantation; on the final syllable, great gouts of flame shot from her outstretched palms; once again, the stone remained unmolested, the fire having been directed around it by some unseen force. She tried several other stratagems, bringing the powers of every known element to bear, and for naught.
Though she was not quite Russa’s match, Jenrry was well-studied in the Book of Wisdom. The page of Kell the Intolerant, apart from its dense blocks of abstruse magical theory, contained many fine philosophical pearls, the best of which was this: “An apprentice is like a jackass, but thinks less and eats more, and is just as easily dispatched at the end of its usefulness.”
Jenrry offered Rondin a hand up, which he accepted. In one motion, she pulled him to his feet, tripped up his near leg with her own, and shoved him back to the floor, plunging him into the lower portion of the heart-shaped stone’s protective field. The field sent shocks through his body, but Jenrry marshaled her own power to prevent him from being flung back as before. There was a grisly minute of twitching and screaming from Rondin as Jenrry held him in place beneath the stone, and then all was silent. Either the field had exhausted its power, or Rondin’s inert body was blocking its emergence. The stone fell, coming to rest in the small of Rondin’s back.
Russa stared, wide-eyed. She hadn’t thought the recalcitrant Jenrry capable of such direct action. “You should really ask first before doing such a thing,” she said. “I invested a great deal in him, not that you could tell.” Ignoring her, Jenrry hefted the stone — the effort required both hands, and all of her strength — and gazed into its depths. For Russa’s part, the thing had shed most of its mystique when gravity had reasserted control over it, but Jenrry remained captivated.
Russa scowled in consternation. Time was slipping by, they were now a man short, and they were getting nowhere fast. A fragment from the Book of Wisdom, inscribed therein long ago by Groff One-Hand, rose unbidden to the surface of her mind: “There is power that rules, and power that distracts, and the one obscures the other.”
She turned to their enthralled guide, who had been watching the proceedings impassively. “Are we in any danger as a result of removing that stone?”
“What is its function?”
“It serves as a symbolic marker of this location.”
“What powers does it possess?”
“Is the stone the reason you brought us here?”
“Then show me.”
With a gesture the man closed the door behind them, bathing the room in darkness. Russa drew her wand, but, confident of her hold over him, she resisted the impulse to strike out in self-defense. Her eyes slowly adjusted, and the walls of the chamber grew distinct. It was, she now saw, a circular chamber, whose continuous wall exuded a dim light of its own.
No, not a wall; a window, reaching from floor to ceiling, and circling the room entirely, except where the door interrupted. The space beyond was nearly black; still, Russa could discern shapes there, enormous but indistinct. There was also the suggestion of movement.
Russa approached the window, wand at the ready, meaning to gain a clearer view of what lay on the other side. She placed a hand against the curved pane to steady herself — and immediately recoiled. Where she had expected to find cool, solid glass, she had instead touched something warm and flexible, perhaps even slightly damp. And had the window itself moved slightly at her touch, or had she imagined that?
Steeling herself, she drew as close as she dared, peering through at the shapes beyond. Most of these were stationary; either large, bulbous masses or slender, elongated strands. A few smaller, spherical entities drifted to and fro, their languid motion suggestive of a fluid medium. Directly ahead, so far distant that it was almost lost to sight, lay yet another large shape — stationary like the others, except that it seemed to convulse every half-minute or so.
A smile spread across Russa’s face. “Jenrry, come here,” she said. “You must see this. We are standing within a living being. ‘True heart of the City,’ indeed.” Jenrry didn’t answer.
Russa closed her eyes, slowed her breathing, descended into a near-meditative state. She placed both hands on the soft, pliable window — more properly regarded, she now realized, as a membrane — and sent tendrils of thought out into the black space beyond, seeking another consciousness, however primitive, however foreign. For long minutes, she probed the unknown breadth and depth of the living City, looking for a mind of some sort, and she was moments from giving up when she understood that she’d been dancing around its edges the entire time. The creature’s consciousness existed on an unimaginably grand scale — literally too big to see.
She gathered her seeking thoughts into a single strong tendril and surged forth, penetrating deep into the mind of the City. “You are beholden to me. You must do as I command. You do not have the option of disobedience. You must go where I so command. You are beholden to me.” Over and over, she repeated the words as she tried to insinuate herself into the City’s consciousness.
But she failed; not, she supposed, owing to any particular intelligence on the City’s part, but because its mind was simply too massive. She could gain no foothold; it was like fighting a wildfire with a single bucket. She turned back to the others in the room. “Jenrry, perhaps the two of us, working together — ”
But Jenrry was not there. Rondin’s body still lay where it had fallen, and her thrall still stood near the doorway, awaiting her next command. Jenrry, however, had vanished, and so had the heart-shaped stone she’d bought with Rondin’s life.
Russa rarely took betrayal well. She considered pursuing; but her mental struggle against the City had endured for some time, and surely Jenrry had long since escaped. At any rate, Russa could summon little anger. Loyalty was not a quality to be admired, but a weakness to be exploited; she wouldn’t have hesitated to sacrifice Jenrry, as Jenrry had done Rondin. “I honestly hope she succeeds,” said Russa to no one in particular. If Jenrry was smart, she would settle in some far country, well out of Russa’s way, and enjoy her riches. It was a pity that the great stone would have to be cut into smaller gems, but left intact, it was useless; no one in the world was wealthy enough to trade for it.
As for Russa, her course of action was clear. It was obvious that she could never control the Floating City; it was equally obvious that its people — amounting to nothing more than an infestation — did not control it, either. Thus, the matter was settled; if she could not inspire respect and fear as Avaeon’s master, she would do so as its destroyer.
She considered: a direct assault on the heart would be best, but with what element? The liquid filling the body cavity would douse flame, disperse acid; perhaps lightning or primal energy would avail. In any case, there was also her escape to consider; once she compromised the membrane, she was in danger of drowning in the City’s fluids.
Distracted by these musings, Russa failed to notice the wave of thought until it crashed through her mental defenses. She was driven to her knees by the sheer force of the intrusion. Her mind was being smothered; she scrambled to mount a counterattack, but could gain no purchase. She braced herself for the final assault, but it never came.
Instead, she was flooded with emotions and images: a great dreadnought of a beast, the last of its kind, prowling the skies in a vain search for a mate; an ever-rising tide of loneliness and despair; the rise of mankind; alternating periods of unwarranted fear and unwanted worship from these first people; the painful erosion of ancient memories, until there was only logic to reassure it that there had ever been more than one of its kind; the discovery of magic, culminating in the Age of Apotheosis; a chance encounter with a group of empathetic men and women; the evolution of its pact with them over generations, from a simple exchange of shelter for companionship, to pure and unconditional love for the multitude upon its back, including its willingness to alter its very form to accommodate them comfortably.
The City’s presence in Russa’s mind abruptly withdrew. She struggled to her feet as she tried to assimilate all that she had seen and felt. Her nerves hummed exquisitely, almost painfully, as if the outpouring of love that had concluded the City’s tale had exceeded their capacity.
She regarded the heart of the City, longingly, one last time. Navigating gingerly around Rondin’s body, Russa strode past her thrall and out of the room. In her absence, the man would gradually regain his wits, and he could see to Rondin in whatever manner was customary in Avaeon.
Back through the alternating chain of corridors and galleries she went. By the time she emerged onto the street, the sun had cleared the horizon. Though the metallic buildings shone more brightly than gold, they did not blind; some unseen force filtered the sunlight. A few of Avaeon’s people were about, but she managed to reach the alley through which they had entered the City without attracting any attention. Their packs were gone, as was the rope and its enchanted grapnel, spirited away either by some curious citizen or by Jenrry as she had made her escape.
Russa made ready the magic that would assure her safe descent. She peered over the low wall at City’s edge. The wind suddenly whistled in her ears. Below, trees the apparent size of clover slid smoothly by. She turned for one last look at her would-be dominion, before vaulting over the wall and drifting gently downward.
Her decelerated fall allowed her plenty of time to begin planning. She would have a great deal to do when her feet touched the ground once more, for she still intended to amass obscene amounts of wealth and power, and to force the world to kneel at her feet. She would simply have to achieve these things in a more traditional manner. Certainly, a place awaited her in the pantheon of history’s greatest wizards, as well as within the Book of Wisdom. Among the many insights preserved on that page would be these: “To destroy that which is irreplaceable is not a victory, but a tantrum;” “Power spent in an impossible endeavor is power wasted;” and “A world with no mysteries is a world not worth ruling.”
|Desmond Warzel is the author of a few dozen short stories in the fantasy, SF, and horror genres. His tales can be found on genuine dead tree in magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction and anthologies like Unidentified Funny Objects 2; in handy electronic format at websites like Abyss & Apex and Tor.com; and in ear-pleasing audio on podcasts like The Drabblecast and Cast of Wonders. He is thrilled to add Kaleidotrope to this list. He lives and writes in northwestern Pennsylvania.|