Chapter Twelve: Vial of Ash

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“Reports coming in from Russia as well.”

“How many?”

“Just one incident, but several people saw it. Italy spotted a veritable fleet. They weren’t doing anything, just circling in the water. Spotted by a few thousand tourists and fishermen.”

“So, containment is not an option, then.”

“With all due respect, under-secretary, we haven’t seen an event this size since the thing in—”

“—Budapest, yes, you said.”

“The point being, under-secretary, that preventing witnesses is secondary to preventing these things from doing any damage.”

“Have they done any so far?”

“They were seen destroying an American cargo ship. Only one survivor, picked up by nearby day sailors.”

“The v—”

“Secrets act.”

“The things attacked?”

“They were provoked. Workers on the cargo ship fired on the things.”

“So they retaliated, rather than attacked.”

“It seems that way, yes. However—”

“Sorry. Just. Give me a moment.”

Anwen Fordham sighs tremendously, and leans forward, pressing fingertips to forehead. Her job is supposed to be, relatively, easy. The Permanent Under-Secretary of the Secondary Cabinet was a much sought-after job, when she acquired it. It was brand new, so you could do with it what you wanted. You do all the administrative work of a cabinet secretary, but your very existence is a secret. You never meet with the Prime Minister except by phone, you don’t have constituents to listen to. Just sit back and be a civil servant.

Except. Here she is. On a Saturday. Sitting in 10 Downing Street, waiting for a meeting because some kind of space demons started massing early this morning.

“I was supposed to go boating with my husband today,” she says, staring at her knees.

“Sorry,” says the girl before her, unsure whether she’s supposed to speak or not.

“Not your fault.”

Anwen lifts her head without sitting up, resting her head on her hand. The girl, Eternia Whit-Acre, is young. A small part of Anwen wants to shout “get out while you can”.

“How old are you?”

“Just thirty, under-secretary.”

Literally half Anwen’s age, and already the girl is the highest member of Broadleaf house.

“Why are we here, minister?”

“Well, normally we wouldn’t have bothered you, but it’s the scale of the thing. Broadleaf has established a rigid code of contact, developed alongside the cabinet office. This was before your position, ma’am. Once the significance of an event passes a certain threshold, we’re required to inform the Prime Minister directly. It was established after the events in—”

“—Belize, yes. I know. I am familiar.” Anwen sits up, leans back. “I understand why we’re meeting with the Prime Minister, but I need to know exactly what I’m supposed to tell him. What do we actually want?”

Before Whit-Acre can answer, a young man walks in carrying a folder.

“Ma’am,” he says.

“Yes?” the two women answer, simultaneously.

“We’ve made contact with one of our units. Steele.”

The girl’s eyes light up.

“Steele!” She turns to Anwen. “One of our field chiefs. He was running a research operation, studying the v—” she pauses, flutters over her own words, “the abnormality, before the event.”

“And what does the person with the metallic name have to say?”

The man, who appears to be some kind of assistant, pulls a sheet of paper from his folder. “It had to be decoded of course,” he says, then hesitates over which woman to hand the paper to. Anwen motions to Whit-Acre, who takes the sheet.

Eternia reads the sheet three times before looking at the under-secretary.

“Something of a bumpy message. Highs and lows.”

“Yes?”

“Steele’s mission is compromised, due to an attack.”

“Certainly a low.”

“But, they’ve discovered the source of the, uh, things.”

“Good.”

“And there’s someone on their way there.”

“Better.”

“It’s a civilian.”

“Bad.”

Eternia starts to say more, but the second door opens, and the Prime Minister’s aide walks in.

“He’ll see you now.”

Anwen stands, adjusts her suit, and looks at Whit-Acre, who seems to be sweating more than a little. Anwen considers the options but, sadly, she’ll have to make the girl even less comfortable.

“Come along,” she says, “you’d best come with.”

“What? Me? Meet the PM? That’s not—”

“Sorry, minister, we haven’t time to argue.”

Anwen Fordham and Eternia Whit-Acre walk into the Prime Minister’s office.

Above the water, on the edge of the world, is a city amid the ice. Cut in half by a wide avenue, the city sits on a plateau, surrounded by ice walls. A thousand feet below, the frozen waters. Just visible, under the surface, are swarms of mottled pink-and-gray forms, swimming. Circling, maybe.

Curson climbs out of the plane first. The cool air feels nice on his non-skin, but it doesn’t clear the voices whispering in his ear. The wizard, the Russian, the statue. Three voices in one, calling for him to...well.

Septimus and Jaq take the stairs and look to the nearest building. A sharp wind rips through this canyon between the buildings, the strip where the plane landed. They scan the scattered aluminum buildings, assessing the state of things.

It isn’t great. Strips of siding slap against buildings, and the suspended lights are flickering. The little illumination they throw off is welcome, fighting against the snow, which gets stronger as the minutes pass.

Deeper, past the city, the ice walls separate into a canyon. The wind there roars like a hundred trains. Even if it weren’t too narrow for the plane, the wind would render her useless.

“The city is empty,” Jaq says, flexing her hand. The bracelet reflects the low sun with more brilliance than it should. “No vody.”

Septimus scans the area, says “Remind me why we didn’t just fly over the canyon and land on the other side?”

“Take your pick. No guarantee of landing, low fuel, or the ever-popular not-enough atmosphere.”

“Seems like plenty of atmosphere to me.” He raises his voice to be heard over the wind.

“You okay, Curson?” Jaq asks.

“Improving” is all he says. The demon’s vest and slacks are at odds with the snowy surroundings, but at least the dark vest makes him easy to pick out.

“There,” Septimus says. Jaq turns and sees a low building with a fence, near the entrance of the canyon. Within the fence are six snowmobiles, each with bright orange housing.

They split up to check the vehicles. Not all of them have fuel. Jaq finds one, Curson finds one. Septimus searches for, and finds, a box full of gear. Goggles, gloves, everything you could hope for.

“You’re taking one?”

Curson doesn’t bother looking at Jaq as he examines another machine. “Any particular reason I shouldn’t?” They can both hear his voice perfectly clear in their minds, despite the wind, but they have to shout to hear each other.

“No, I just assumed you would use some kind of magic.”

“The wizard’s sword has left me.” He turns the sentence into a dead stop, thinks, then finishes it. “Reduced. Here, Septimus, this machine is complete.”

“Oh, cheers. Thanks, Curson.”

Neither of them noticed Septimus placing a small piece of metal, a single ring, taken from the armor Zloveschiy wore, into the gas tank.

Each fumbles with the snowmobiles at first, struggling to get them turned on. There’s a moment where it looks like Jaq might not be able to ride, with her broken arm. But it’s been healing much faster since the obelisk, and she has some (limited) range of motion. They practice a bit in front of the canyon before Jaq turns and dives straight in. Curson follows, Septimus last.

The wind is worse at speed, and they’re all thankful for goggles. Well, except Curson, who doesn’t need them.

Jaq starts slow, but the canyon seems to really be just a straight line, so she gradually increases speed. She nearly dies when she hears Curson’s voice, as if he were right in her ear.

“Do you know why you’re here, Jaq?”

“If I think, can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“You’re full of surprises.”

“Answer the question, Jaq.”

“What is this?”

“Answer.”

“I’m here because of you. You roped me into this.”

“But why?”

“Because I’d seen the vodyrazum.”

“Have you wondered what caused that?”

“Happenstance.”

“Jaq, you surely know better than to blame chance.”

Jaq doesn’t answer for a while, then: “What is this?”

“I want to know who you are, Jaq.”

“Foreboding.”

“You’ve gone along with all of this, Jaq. Even at its least sensible, you were there. You could have said no to me, at several points. You didn’t have to go into the temple under the obelisk. You could have turned the plane around and gone home. Why not?”

“Because this is bigger than what I want.”

“And what do you want?”

“A fat cigar and a cheap book.”

“You want more than that, Jaq.”

She doesn’t answer.

“Do you know what I think, Jaq?”

Nothing.

“I think you want to not be alone. You’ve been alone for so long, haven’t you, Jaq? Who were your parents, do you know their names? I used to, but this whole thing has run wild with my mind.”

“Shut up.”

“I think you spend so much time running cargo on your own, that the chance to work with someone else, doing something unexpected, couldn’t be confused. Maybe bring back memories of the time you worked with Broadleaf? Maybe that’s why you ran to them.”

Jaq wants to think ‘shut up’ again, but she can’t form the thoughts. Which is fine, for Curson. Because she’s focused on him, focused where he wanted her to.

She is so focused on Curson’s voice that she doesn’t even hear Septimus’ snowmobile explode.

There was an orange flash, and then he was flying through the air. In the strange mind that comes during the moment of catastrophe, Septimus’ thought was not “I’m flying”, but rather “the ground is falling.”

Then he hit the ice wall. He started spinning. Slid down the wall. Landed.

When he wakes up, he doesn’t know how much time passed. The light in the canyon is low, purely because the walls are so high, so he can’t discern any change. The fire that must have been lit when the snowmobile blew has already gone out.

He stands and checks himself. He’s sore all over, but nothing seems to be broken. Small mercies. He takes time to breathe before checking out the wreckage.

Septimus has made a pattern of surviving situations that, by all rights, should have killed him. Sometimes it’s luck—another guy running out of bullets. Sometimes it’s his own doing, like when he first met the vodyrazum.

It was him and his men, on a perfectly normal transport mission. But the ship was attacked, and he fled. That’s the whole story.

But that’s never the whole story is it?

He forces down the memories of shouting and pain, and looks for his gun. He finds it, but no spare bullets, just the few already in the weapon.

Soon, in that frozen place, the ghosts of his past start to talk to him, and he remembers Gordon. One of the men who died that day. The man Septimus loved, and sometimes hated, because nothing’s ever simple.

The man was caring and kind, and smart. But when his moods turned foul, he could be a painful man to know. In dark times, times of fear, that is the Gordon that Septimus thinks of.

Why are you here? He would ask.

Septimus could answer that question in a hundred ways, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter why he’s here. So when the Gordon of his mind’s-eye pops up and asks Why are you here? What are you doing?, Septimus has an answer.

“I’m here because I’m here. That’s all there is.”

That doesn’t silence the ghosts, but it doesn’t matter.

He walks.

Kuda Zloveschiy looks upon her works. A beautiful fusion of modern science and ancient magic. All around the world, her vodyrazum are preparing for the next stage, but here, at the bottom of the world, is the most important place.

Four obelisks. Not like the temples that have been found around the world. These are new constructions, man-made, under her direction. They stand in a pit a thousand feet deep, reaching down to the ocean beneath the ice.

The obelisks crackle with vermillion bolts of energy, not unlike lightning.

She stands, without armor or avatar, at the top of a tower overlooking the obelisk pit. She’s feeling her age, now, a little shake in her limbs, so she sits. The controls before her are dark, as their function is complete. Hanging around the room are monitors which, soon enough, will allow her to watch the world be ripped apart.

Behind her is a burst of orange light, a combustion of fire. It lasts only a moment.

When she turns, there’s a man, of sorts, standing in the room with her. The stout, muscular figure has a tremendous amount of curled hair, and a long beard that’s streaked and forked. He wears a suit of dark purple, and holds a cane. The cane hides, she knows, a blade.

“Furcas,” she says, with a smile.

“The girl is coming here.”

“I control Curson now. He will handle her.”

Furcas steps forward, not looking at the scientist. He looks out on the pit. He doesn’t smile, but a light appears in his infernal eyes.

“All of the workers have been converted to pure biomass, and given up in offering. The vodyrazum are ready to attack, whenever I give the command. Soon enough, this world will be ours.”

“Assuming the girl doesn’t stop us.”

“She won’t. What is it about her?”

“She is a victim of happenstance. A quirk in the chaos of totality.”

“That doesn’t mean anything, actually.”

“The universe is not separated into discrete portions. As demons may come to your world, so may others. I fear the girl has been touched by something beyond my experience.”

“You’re a demon, what’s beyond your experience?”

“Most things.”

The demon clears his throat, and finally looks at Kuda.

“The girl is dangerous because I don’t know what she is, but I know that she’s been touched by outside of Earth or Hell.” He looks away again. “So everything is complete?”

“Yes. We need only give the order.”

“Then give the order.”

Kuda smiles and goes to a nearby console, carved with strange forms that look almost, but not quite, like symbols of science and math. At the top is a dial, in the middle of a ritual circle.

She draws a small vial from a case nearby, and sprinkles the ashen contents onto the dial.

She turns the dial, and, around the world, the attack begins.