FantasyHumor

Wearaway and Flambeau

By Matthew Hughes
8,862 words · 33-minute reading time
Bookmark


Several years ago, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois asked me to send them a story they could use in what turned out to be a bestselling anthology, Rogues.  I sent them a story titled "The Inn of the Seven Blessings," which introduced Raffalon, a thief in a Dying Earthesque Old Earth.  I decided Raff was too good a character to waste, so I began writing more stories about him and sold them to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  I later self-published them as a collection:  9 Tales of Raffalon, available as an ebook and POD paperback.

This is the first Raffalon story I sold to F&SF.

 WEARAWAY AND FLAMBEAU

 by Matthew Hughes

 

Raffalon clung to the wall of Hurdevant's keep, the adhesive on his palms holding him tight to the gray stone.  Above him, no more than arm's reach above his head, the hinges of the small window creaked again.  A moment ago, someone had opened the left-side panel;  now it was the right's turn.  Logically, the next event would be the poking out of a head.  Raffalon would be discovered, if he hadn't been already, and the consequences would not redound to his credit.

Raffalon's profession was the transfer of valuables to his possession without consultation or consent of their owners.  He'd been practicing it since boyhood and had become quite good at wall-scaling, lock-tickling, and ward-hoodwinking.  He was particularly versed in the art of the rapid exit when circumstances turned adverse.

In order to avoid such exits, he preferred to choose his own targets;  but he was not averse to hiring out his hard-won skills to others, so long as they met his fee.  And provided that the proposed operation's level of risk fitted the thief's definition of acceptable.

Neither condition applied to the present situation, however.  The risk of at least one thing going wrong, he had calculated when informed of the nature of the mission, approached near certainty.  Worse, he was about to incur the enmity of Hurdevant, whose reputation for stringency had led his fellow magicians to dub him Ironhand -- and he wasn't being paid so much as a bent sequint.

The griptight on Raffalon's left hand was losing its strength.  He pulled it free and spat into the palm, re-activating its adhesive power, then pressed it again to the wall.  In a few moments, he would need to do the same to the right hand, unless by then he was already being consumed by a blast of flame from the wizard's wand, or carried off by a summoned demon to its smoky lair, there to be used for unspeakable purposes.

A thief's credo is to avoid capture and punishment by any means necessary.  But Raffalon had added a corollary to that code:  when all is lost, at least go out with a bold face.  He now set his features into as intrepid an arrangement as he could manage, and turned his gaze upward.  He found himself staring, as expected yet hoped against, into the uncompromising visage of Hurdevant the Stringent.

"And there you are," said the wizard, as if continuing a conversation.

"Indeed," said Raffalon, seeing nothing to be gained by dissembling.

"Come up the rest of the way and through the window.  I have disabled the spell that guards it."

Raffalon spat on a hand again and used the griptight to climb another arm's length.  "Was it, by any chance, Bullimar's Differentiating Portal?"

Hurdevant snorted.  "For a small window set high in a tower?  Of course not.  It was Pilasquo's Pinch."

"I don't know that one," the thief said, working his way up to the window sill.

The magician explained that, once Raffalon was halfway through the window, its frame would have closed upon his middle, squeezing it so tightly that he would have resembled one of those wasps whose thorax and abdomen are connected by a narrow tube of chitin.

"It won't do that now?" the thief said, one leg over the sill.

"No, now get in here."

Raffalon dropped to the stone floor of the tower.  He scowled when he saw that the small, circular room was empty -- another element of the operation that the one who had sent him into peril had got wrong.

"What made you think I would use the Bullimar?" Hurdevant was saying.  "It's for doors.  Especially for hidden trapdoors."

The thief was too disgusted to answer.  A moment later, he realized that Hurdevant was not accustomed to wait for responses to his queries.  The soles of his feet became convinced that they were in contact with live coals.  Hopping about, though instinctive, brought no relief.  "Glabro!" he managed to shout.

The magician made a subtle gesture and the burning stopped.  "Glabro Malaprop?" he said, and his grim lips almost achieved a smile.  "You're another one of his?"

"Not by choice, I assure you!"  Raffalon scuffed the soles of his climbing boots against the stone floor in an attempt to cool his feet.  The action had no great effect, but the burning sensation was gradually subsiding of its own accord.

"But Glabro sent you?  And told you that the window would be warded by the Bullimar?"  The wizard snorted again;  Raffalon was beginning to think it was a characteristic action.  "Feckless scantbrain," Hurdevant concluded.  "What made you give credence to--"

But then a suspicion further clouded the grim face.  He sketched an invisible figure in the air and Raffalon saw an arrangement of lines of green light, some straight, some curved, come to hover before the magician's eyes.  After a moment, the thief realized that he was seeing a schematic of Hurdevant's estate.  His captor studied it a while then wiped it away with a wave of one long-nailed finger.

"It occurred to me," the wizard said, "that you might be a diversion.  But, no, Glabro does not rise even to that lowly rung on the ladder of cunning."  He pulled his nose then stroked its end, apparently as an aid to thought.  "I presume you were after the Sphere of Diverse Utility again?"

"I have never been here before," Raffalon.

"I am lumping you in," said the wizard, "with all the other thimblewits and donnydunces Glabro has sent since I won the Sphere from him -- quite legitimately -- in a contest of skill."

"He seemed to think you had bested him unfairly," Raffalon said.

"Well, that's precisely the problem with the poor dolt:  he only seems to think."  The wizard clapped his hands to signal that a new chapter was about to open.  "Now, what to do with you?"

"May I suggest--"

"You may not."  Hurdevant spoke a syllable and moved three fingers in an unusual way.  Raffalon's power of speech deserted him.  "I sent back the last one inverted, wearing his innards on his outside.  It doesn't seem to have made a useful impression."

The captive waggled eyebrows and pointed fingers at his mouth to signal that he had a suggestion.  The wizard gave him back control of his tongue and Raffalon said, "Perhaps I could bear him a verbal message?  A stern lecture and an unambiguous warning not to test your patience in future?"

"I have," said the wizard, "no patience.  If I did have any, I would not waste a scrap of it on Glabro."  He thought again then raised both eyebrows and a finger.  "Do you know, you present me with an opportunity.  I've been experimenting with a synthesis of Ixtlix's Sprightly Wearaway and Chunt's Descending Flambeau."

"I'm not familiar with either," said Raffalon.  "I would be delighted to hear about them.  Especially from one with such a fine speaking voice."

Hurdevant returned the thief a dry look.  "You seek to delay the moment.  Also you offer flattery, to which, unfortunately for you, I am immune."  He gathered up the skirts of his robe and said, "I will need to refresh my memory.  We will go to my library."

He crooked a finger and said an obscure syllable.  Immediately, Raffalon's feet followed Hurdevant out of the door.  The two men descended a spiral of stone steps to another level of the manse, then wove their way through a maze of corridors until they came to a strongly barred door carved to resemble the face of a fierce creature with inset ivory fangs.  It was only when the wizard set his hand to the portal's latch, causing the thing's nose to twitch, that Raffalon realized this was no carving;  it was an actual boldruk, enslaved and dragged up from the second plane, compressed into the dimensions of a door.  Had the thief approached it without Hurdevant's protection, the fiend would even now be digesting his bones.

Beyond the boldruk was a high-ceilinged room, the walls lined with shelved books of many shapes and sizes, bound in a plethora of materials, from cloth of gold to dragonhide.  Some of their spines were lettered in scripts Raffalon could identify only as ancient. 

Hurdevant crossed to a high shelf and took down a small libram bound in yellow chamois, then stooped to lift a large folio of parchment sheets clapped between wooden boards.  He carried them to a lamplit table and opened both, flicking through pages until he found what he sought.  As he set himself to memorizing the words and gestures of power, the lamp dimmed and shadows encroached.  Raffalon smelled a sharp tang of ozone and saw the wizard's hair lift slightly from his head while his eyes changed color several times.

"There," said Hurdevant, closing the books.  He looked at the captive and rubbed his palms together.  "Once both spells are operating, I'll have to send you to Glabro.  That means a third cantrip, but I'll just use a simple sending spell.  The fluxions should adjust themselves."

The wizard turned to a mirror hanging between two bookcases and touched its frame here, there and a third place.  "Now to find out where Glabro is."  A moment later, he said, "Ahah, there he is, in his pitiful excuse for a garden."

"What will happen to me?" said Raffalon.

"Ixtlix's Sprightly Wearaway causes you to dance a comical jig until you expire of exhaustion.  Chunt's Descending Flambeau consumes you in a brightly burning flame, from the top down.  Together, they should make quite a spectacle.  And the sight of two spells in combination must remind Glabro that I will always be one too many for the likes of him."

He ordered Raffalon to step away from an armchair upholstered in pale leather -- "It was my father's," he said.  "Literally.  I don't want him scorched." -- and mused aloud that the thief had done him a favor by appearing just when he was ready to test the conjoined spell.  He had been planning to use a reanimated corpse, but said that their lack of ardor vita meant they never burned as hotly as did a living man.

And, as a bonus, the circumstances allowed the wizard to put an elbow in Glabro's eye -- an activity in which he delighted.

Raffalon made a last try.  "Perhaps, in gratitude for my having done you all these services, we could dispense with the dancing and burning?"

Hurdevant returned him a disparaging look.  "But that would negate your contribution.  Do you not see the logic?"  He rubbed his hands again and said, "First the Sprightly Wearaway, then the Descending Flambeau, then the sending.  I'll say goodbye now."

Raffalon made to protest, but the wizard again silenced him.  Hurdevant assumed a precise posture then uttered the mantra of the dancing spell, meanwhile raising his arm only to bring it down in a long sweep as he came to the final syllables, two fingers pointing at his target.

The thief experienced a sensation as of tiny bubbles effervescing through his flesh, an unbearable inner tickling.  His knees bent and he leaped into the air.  No sooner did his feet reconnect with the carpet than he began to execute high kicks and daring saltations, left, right, left, and right again, while his arms alternately flew up over his head then descended so that his palms could smartly smack his buttocks.

The wizard declared the effect to be excellent.  Then he gathered himself, took a new stance, and began to intone Chunt's Descending Flambeau.  Raffalon could not hear the oral part of the spell over his own heavy breathing and rump-slapping, but the gestural component was impressive.  It concluded with a rapid rolling of one wizardly hand over the other and a double snap of thumb and middle fingers.  At that point the thief's hair burst into flame.

Instantly, Hurdevant spoke two short words and struck his knuckles together.  Just as instantly, Raffalon was no longer in the magician's library.  But neither was he in Glabro's garden, surrounded by the other wizard's erotic topiary. Instead, he was . . . nowhere.

Around him, as well as above and below, was a featureless gray void.  He turned and twisted -- or at least thought he did;  without visual referents, he could not be entirely sure -- but on all sides there was nothing to see.

It was a moment before the thief realized he was no longer kicking and slapping.  Nor, he found when he touched his scalp, was his hair on fire.  Well, that's good news, he thought, although he would reserve judgment on his overall situation until he had more facts to work with.

He looked again in all directions, then realized that in this place, direction might be a meaningless term.  He tried listening, but heard nothing.  Nor was there any scent, and the air had no taste when he extended his tongue.

It was at that point that another realization came:  there could be nothing to sniff or taste because there was no air.  When he moved a hand from side to side, he felt no breeze stir the hairs on its back.  Moreover, it occurred to him that he was not breathing.  Nor needed to.

He wondered if he were dead.  But his new environment matched none of the several hells and four paradises that had ages ago been identified by astral travelers.  Raffalon's knowledge of the nine planes -- two below his own, and six above -- was not extensive, but he was sure that none of them consisted of undifferentiated noneness.

Wherever he was, he was better off than he would have been had Hurdevant succeeded in sending him, cavorting and blazing, among Glabro's artfully pruned bushes and shrubs -- probably igniting a few before he expired.  But, having acknowledged that fact, he saw no need to settle for it.

What I need, he told himself, is to get out of here and into somewhere that's an improvement.  At that thought, his mind conjured up an image of a tavern he favored when he was in funds -- the Badge and Buckle, it was called -- where the ale was never frowsty and the barmaids were liberal in all the ways that mattered.

As he contemplated the mental picture of the place it occurred to him that he was seeing a simulation that was a good deal sharper and more detailed than his imagination could usually achieve. 

I'm not imagining it, he realized, I'm seeing it.  The how and why of it completely eluded him, but Raffalon was more given to practicalities than theoretical constructs.  If he could see it, perhaps he could get to it.

He reached out, but the picture -- if it was a picture -- was beyond his grasp.  He tried to stride toward it, but his legs moved without moving him.  He swept his arms before him as if he were stroking through water, but there was nothing to push against, and he made no progress.

Frustrated, he hung in the emptiness.  But a thief's mind, though not as subtle and capacious as a wizard's, is not without the ability to make connections.  I thought of the Badge and Buckle, and there it was.  What if I think of moving toward it?

He did.  And did.

Now it was as if he were just outside the tavern's tap room, which was at the moment mostly empty.  Raffalon had chosen mid-afternoon as the optimum time to invade Hurdevant's tower, reasoning that the wizard might well be occupied in his workroom, distracted by wizardly endeavors.  That was less than an hour ago, and the tavern had not yet attracted the usual supper crowd, many of whom would stay on to become the usual all-night-carousal crowd.

He examined the scene:  a couple of grim-and-bitter drinkers, nursing their tankards and grievances through the day;  a dust-smeared traveler making a meal out of whatever was left over from the lunch menu;  Boudin the barman, busy behind his counter with preparations for the evening rush;  and Undula, the older of the two barmaids, cleaning off a table in the far corner.

He reached out and his hand encountered its first resistance since he had popped into this nonplace.  It felt like a wall;  but when he pressed, it seemed to give a little, like the side of a tent stretched taut between poles and pegs.

I thought of the Badge and Buckle, and there it was, Raffalon said in his mind.  I wanted to move toward it and I did.  What if I now will myself to be there?

His first thought was to seek to burst the membrane that separated him from the tavern.  But before he could concentrate on doing so, some part of his mind warned that, once broken, such a barrier might not be reparable.  And who knew what might then ensue?  Perhaps the tavern, the town, the realm, and all the worlds beyond might pour through into the emptiness.  That couldn't be a good result.

Instead, he focused on the tap room, then on him in it.  As the thought crystallized, he felt a tingle along the front of his body, a sensation that then passed all the way through him to exit from his back and buttocks.  And when it had passed, he was standing in the Badge and Buckle.

Only the traveler had noticed his sudden appearance, and the man quickly averted his eyes as sensible strangers do when confronted by events that are none of their business.  Boudin looked up from a stack of glasses and said, "Raffalon!  What'll it be?"

"Something strong," said the thief, seating himself at an empty table, his back, as always, to the wall.  "I have some thinking to do."

Raffalon was a thoroughly schooled thief, having served a full apprenticeship under Gronn the Shifter and being then duly accepted into the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors.  He had since added twelve years experience to his training and was thus well versed in the complexities of his art.  But when an opportunity presented itself, he did not disdain to ply the simple technique of in-out-and-away.  It was his grasping of such an opportunity that led him to become the unwilling servant of a minor magician who called himself "Glabro the Supernal," but who was more widely known by the sobriquet Hurdevant had used:  Malaprop.

The thief had been walking the back alleys, looking for possibilities, when he happened to pass Glabro's house.  He saw that the small door to the rear courtyard was half-open.  On the tiles just within lay a bulging satchel.  Next to it, propped against the door jamb, was a staff of the kind foot-travelers use.  The picture was clear:  someone had been about to depart on a journey, but remembering at the last moment something left behind, had stepped back into the house, leaving staff and luggage at the gate.

Raffalon stopped, looked both ways along the alley, then into the courtyard.  Both were empty.  He stooped and opened the satchel, rummaged within.  His fingers touched a dense, smooth object even as his eye caught the gleam of gold.  He seized the prize and stood up to depart.

Or such was his intent.  What actually happened was that the golden thing refused to budge from its hiding place.  Reasoning that it must be far heavier, and thus even more valuable, than he had supposed, the thief applied both hands to the task.  But still, he could not lift the thing.

Frowning, he bent his legs -- Gronn had always taught that a sprung back was the reward of an unthinking burglar -- and sought to take a better grip.  That was when he discovered that he could not remove his hands from the prize.  He was still squatting and tugging fruitlessly when Glabro glided smoothly out of the rear door of his house, pointed a black rod at him and said something that made Raffalon's world go dark.

He awoke to find himself in the wizard's workroom, his hands no longer stuck to the bait, but his limbs stapled to the stone wall by iron brackets.  His trousers were down around his knees and the wizard was fastening something about those parts of himself that Raffalon -- indeed all sensible men -- most carefully guard from sudden impacts.

Glabro straightened, saw that his captive was fully with him again, and said, "Jhezzik, a brief half-squeeze."

Instantly, Raffalon knew a pain the like of which he had never encountered before, and which he was certain he never wanted to encounter again.

"I see I have your attention," the wizard said.

"Every jot," the thief assured him.

"Excellent.  Then here's what you will do for me."  In a few short sentences, he explained that the thief would go to the manse of Hurdevant and gain entrance to the tallest tower, in whose topmost room he would find an object called the Sphere of Diverse Utility -- he showed an image -- which Hurdevant had unjustly wrested from its rightful owner, Glabro.

To ensure that the thief undertook the mission without delay, the sprite known as Jhezzik would accompany him there and back again.  "Although it will not go in with you," Glabro said.  "Hurdevant's grinnet would sniff it out right away and come rushing to seize it -- which would be as unpleasant for you as for Jhezzik.  So it will see you there then wait for you to emerge with the Sphere.  And, of course, accompany you back here."

Raffalon began to protest on several counts:  Hurdevant's defenses were unbreachable;  he was known to be unremittingly watchful;  the Guild had a mutual non-interference agreement with the Ancient and Worthy Council of Wizards and Thaumaturges.  He got no further before Glabro bade Jhezzik intervene.

"As for the defenses, he uses Bullimar's Differentiating Portal.  I will teach you a counter-word to nullify it.  You will go just after lunch, when he putters in his workroom.  None will know of it, save you and I."  When Raffalon attempted a fresh argument, he added, "And, of course, Jhezzik."

Thus did Raffalon find himself clinging to the wall of Hurdevant's tower when the wizard opened his window.  Which led to his unexpected passage through the gray noneness.  Which had delivered him to the Badge and Buckle, where he now sat, sipping a second beaker of strong arrack, his thinking done and his plan set.

He called to Boudin behind the bar.  "Is that boy about, the one who washes pots?  I have an errand for him."

Shortly after, for the promise of a coin, the lad raced off toward Glabro's house, a sealed note in his pocket.

The thief was still nursing his second arrack when Glabro entered the tap room.  The wizard gave the place a suspicious eye, but seeing nothing to threaten him, he advanced to sit at Raffalon's table.  He peered at the man opposite from a number of angles before saying, "Why are you intact?"

"Instead of inside-out, like your last operative?"

" Hurdevant told you that?"

"We had," said the thief, "a brief conversation."

"And then?"

Raffalon sipped his arrack.  "Is it possible, do you think, to combine two major spells?"

Glabro's greasy brow contracted.  "Unlikely, but it is far from my area of interest."

"How about two major spells plus a third to transport their target to your workroom?"

The wizard's head drew back and his chin tucked itself into his neck.  "Impossible!"

"Specifically, Ixtlix's Sprightly Wearaway and Chunt's Descending Flambeau.  I don't know the name of the transporter but it involves two syllables and a gesture like this."  He struck his knuckles against each other.

"Ridiculous!" said Glabro.  "The fluxions are inharmonious.  No synergism of--"

"He did it," Raffalon cut him off.  He described the kicking, slapping, hair-igniting, vanishing.

"My topiary!" Glabro cried.  But then he caught up with what Raffalon had been telling him.  "But you did not appear before me!"

"Exactly!"

The wizard had the look of a man who realizes he has missed a clue.  "So--" he began.

"Tell me," said the thief, "how many planes are there?"

"Wait," said the magician, "we were discussing what happened to you."

"We still are.  How many?"

Glabro shrugged.  "Nine."

"And does any one of the nine include a formless, featureless void?  With neither up nor down nor sideways?"

The wizard's face expressed irritation.  "No.  Now what about--"

"A void from which one can see any place and go there simply by an act of will?"

"Never mind all th--"  This time it was Glabro who interrupted himself.  "Wait a moment, you're saying that you were in such a nonplace?"

Raffalon raised his beaker in an ironic toast.  "Now you have it."

Later that evening, they were in Glabro's workroom.  Raffalon paced nervously as the wizard stood at his lectern, before him a yellow-bound book of the same edition that Hurdevant possessed plus a handwritten parchment scroll, partly unrolled and held down by bric a brac.

They had agreed that there had to be a test.  And the thief was the only choice for its subject.  He had, after all, shown that he could go and return;  besides, only Glabro had the wizardly wherewithal to cast the three spells.  But now that the moment approached, Raffalon's enthusiasm began to wane.

Glabro looked up.  "Ready," he announced.  An odor of ozone pervaded the room, but the wizard's eyes were not changing color as Hurdevant's had -- instead they alternately bulged and subsided, apparently in rhythm with the man's pulse.  The effect was not an attractive sight, the thief thought.

He stood in a clear space where bidden by the other.  Glabro took a moment to steady himself, then spoke the words of the jig spell -- meaningless to Raffalon -- and brought his hand down in the same sweep, ending with the finger-pointing.  The high kicks and rump-slapping began.  Moments later, what remained of the thief's hair ignited.

Now should come the cantrip that would send Raffalon on his way.  They had agreed, in case events did not go as planned, that the third spell should move him no farther than to another clear space on the other side of the room.  Glabro could then extinguish the blaze before it could consume him.

But as the fire burnt almost to the roots of the test subject's hair, the wizard went pale and rocked a little unsteadily.  Casting two powerful spells in rapid succession had taken much out of him.  He had to put a hand on the bench to steady himself, take a deep breath and blow it out.

Meanwhile, the thief capered and burned.  The skin on top of his head was becoming uncomfortably warm.  Finally, Glabro recollected himself.  He uttered two syllables and struck his knuckles together.  Instantly, Raffalon was adrift in the void, his limbs still and his scalp tender but unseared.

He rallied his faculties and conjured up an image of the wizard's workroom.  As before, a clear view of the place appeared before his eyes.  He could see Glabro coming from behind the lectern to examine the spot where he had just been, peering at the air and floor through a hollow tube of brass.

Raffalon willed himself to approach the scene.  The image grew larger.  Arrayed on the workbench were three objects:  a plain wooden cup, a gold candlestick, and a fist-sized, purple crystal.  The thief concentrated on the trio, drawing himself closer to them until they were within arm's reach.  He put out a hand and again felt resistance, as if a taut membrane separated him from the experimental targets.

Now he left his arm outstretched, just short of the barrier, and willed the limb to pass through it.  He had no sense of motion, but felt the same tingling as before, starting at his fingertips and moving at a moderate pace up his arm.  But by the time the sensation had reached his elbow, his hand had closed around the cup.  Now he willed arm and hand to withdraw from the wizard's workroom.  A moment later, he floated in the noneness, and when he opened his hand, a wooden cup hung beside him.

Back in the workroom, he could see Glabro, eyes abulge, staring at the spot where the cup had been.  Raffalon readied himself again and repeated the exercise, this time retrieving the heavy metal candlestick.  Soon, it too floated beside him in the grayness.  He noticed, before he let go of it, that here it had no weight at all.

Then he went for the faceted crystal and drew it smoothly to him.  This was a crucial part of the experiment, because it was a receptacle for the storage of arcane power -- not a great deal of mana, but neither was it purely mundane -- and both thief and wizard were anxious to know if such could pass through the barrier.

It did so without hindrance, Glabro observing with his tube to his eye -- then watching again as Raffalon reversed the process, restoring cup, candlestick, and crystal to the bench, before willing himself through the membrane and back into the workroom.

The wizard comprehensively examined the test objects then the man who had moved them.  He pronounced them unaffected by any measure he could take.  The crystal, when properly handled, delivered a flow of colorful energy that the magician captured as a liquid and poured into an alembic.

"Perfect," he said, holding up the vessel and making the stuff swirl.  "Completely unaffected."

"I will rest a little while," said Raffalon, "then you can try the spell that regrows hair.  After that, we will make our first foray."

Glabro had placed the Sphere of Diverse Utility on a plinth in his study.  It was no longer his most prized possession, but it still deserved pride of place among the wealth of thaumaturgical artifacts that adorned his shelves and lurked within the drawers of his cabinets.  His overstocked library would have been the envy of any wizard in the Three Lands -- if, that is, he had ever invited a colleague to peruse his collection;  but he never would, because any of them would soon discover volumes that had gone missing, under circumstances so mysterious as to be baffling, from their own.

A conclave had been called, at the estate of Yssanek the Paragon, to discuss the scourge of disappearances.  The attendees had eyed each other with suspicion, and veiled accusations had been whispered when allies put their heads together.  Familiars and gate-guardians had been summoned and grilled -- in one case, literally -- but all inquiries had led to indefinite conclusions.

Glabro had attended the assembly, but no one had deigned to seek his opinion or invite him to join any cabals.  He went home wrapped in secret smiles.

For his part, Raffalon was storing up treasures of a more worldly sort.  The wizard paid him in coins, weighty ingots, and sacks of gems.  And in that regard Glabro was unstinting, his acquisitions having given him the means to whip up chestfuls of precious goods on demand.  The thief bought a small house with strong walls and doors and built an even stronger room in its basement, where he stored his earnings, safe from his fellow guild members.

He and the wizard had established a "system without a system," as Raffalon put it.  They made their strikes at different times of day and night, and never at regular intervals.  They chose their victims and their targets randomly, so that no pattern would allow their prey to predict their next raid. 

Sometimes the thief would watch from the void as snares and ambushes were prepared for him, then will into being a portal to some other part of the target's manse, where he would stage a noisy diversion.  When the defenders rushed there to respond, he would return to his original view of the trap, delicately extract the bait, and be gone before the alarm could be raised.

It was a happy time for the partners.  Glabro found that he was perfectly suited to the life of a secret gloater.  Raffalon was considering early retirement, perhaps to open an academy to train the next generation of purloiners.

They had agreed to a long hiatus before their next outing, but Raffalon came to the wizard's manse a week before to discuss the intended target -- the curio collection of Firondel the Incomparable -- and plan a reconnaissance.  They made themselves at ease in Glabro's study, where the wizard conjured up a flask of the golden wine of sunny Abrizonth, though that fair land had drowned beneath the invading waters of the Stygmatic Sea ten thousand years before.

The magician sipped from his long-stemmed glass and indicated a well worn tome that lay open on his table.  "I have been researching the phenomenon that is enriching us," he said.  "And I have found something of interest."

"Will it put more gold in my strongroom?" said Raffalon.  And when the answer was in the negative, he shrugged and drained his glass, then held it out for a refill.

"At first," said the wizard, "I thought we had discovered a tenth plane -- such a thing is theoretically possible -- but one which the Demiurge left unfilled when he assembled the universe."

Raffalon made an noncommittal noise and looked out the window.

"But then I came upon this,"  -- he indicated the old book -- "that we got from the highest shelf of Zanzan's library."

"While he rushed off to see who was trifling with his menagerie of fanciful beasts," said the thief, adding a short, dry laugh.

"I had to summon up a ghost from Old Edevan to help me translate the script."

"Old Edevan?"

"Fourteenth Aeon."

"Never heard of it."

Glabro showed mild irritation at the interruptions to his flow.  Raffalon noticed but offered no apology.  "In any case," the wizard went on, "it's a record of how the present version of the universe was--"

"There have been others?"  Raffalon was not interested in the answer.  He liked to goad the magician occasionally;  he had not forgotten the touch of Jhezzik.

"Several.  Now let me finish.  This is interesting."

The thief waved his hand in a somewhat regal manner.  "Pray proceed."

"The nub of it is that, for convenience's sake, the Demiurge first built himself a workshop."

"Sensible."

"It was a setting that enhanced his axial volition, which of course was already vast."

Raffalon swallowed the mouthful of Abrizonth he'd been swishing about his teeth.  "What's axial volition?"

"The technical term for what you would call 'will.'  It's what the universe runs on.  If you have enough of it, you can become a wizard.  If you don't, it doesn't matter how much studying you put in, your spells will always dissipate like a fart in a fresh breeze."

"Really," said Raffalon, holding out his glass.  "A little more, I think."

Glabro handed him the flask and the thief poured for himself.  "The thing is," the wizard went on, with enthusiasm, "he seems to have left the workshop still standing after the work was finished."

The thief shrugged.  "Perhaps he kept it in case he needed to modify things later."

"I suppose," said the magician.  "He might decide to adjust the gravitational constant or add some more colors to the spectrum."  He paused to pursue the thought on his own.

"So what about Firondel's curios?" said Raffalon.  The flask was now empty, and in a moment, so was his glass.

"If I've got this right," Glabro said, "that thing you call a void is actually the primal chaos from which everything was made."

Raffalon shook his head.  "Chaos is busy-busy, everything higgled and piggled together.  The void is nothingness."

"No," said the wizard, "chaos is the seeming nothingness from which the four elements of creation -- matter, energy, spirit, and gist -- are generated."

"Something from nothing?" said the thief, feeling a stir of interest.  "By axial whatsit?"

"Exactly."  Glabro consulted the tome.  "And it may still be workable."

Raffalon sat up straighter.  When his brain was engaged, it was capable of cutting through fog straight to wherever profit might be found.  "Are you saying that, in the void an act of will creates something from nothing?"

"I suppose I am."

"What kind of something?"

"Any kind."

"And how much of it?"

"That would depend on the strength of the axial volition.  The Demiurge's was powerful enough to generate an entire universe."

Raffalon was thinking now.  His will had been powerful enough to show him anyplace he thought of, and to let him penetrate the barrier between chaos and creation.  "Hmm," he said.

"Of course," Glabro was saying, "there might be repercussions . . ."

But the thief was not listening now, though he did say,  "Hmm," one more time.

Raffalon hung in the void.  Before him, seen as if through a window, was the tabletop on which Firondel the Incomparable kept his remarkable collection:  a small cube of immortal flesh said to have been cut from the heart of an incarnate deity;  a sextet of ivory figurines that, when brought into proximity with each other, performed simplified versions of a hundred classic dramas;  the curved horn of a beast long thought to be mythical;  a lens that permitted views of the fifth plane, adjusted to make them comprehensible to third-plane eyes;  a thunderstone found in the belly of a great fish;  and several other singular items.

The thief examined the surroundings for traps and defenses.  And found one:  above the table, concealed by a masking spell, hung a mechanical spider equipped with injector-fangs loaded with a powerful soporific, poised to fall upon any hand that reached for one of the small treasures.  But Raffalon had learned that, when viewed from his present vantage, objects or persons supposedly screened by magic were nakedly visible to him.

Having surveyed the scene, as a good thief should, Raffalon now opted to pause before continuing the operation.  Since his discussion with Glabro, he had been thinking about what the wizard had revealed concerning the effects of will exercised in the Demiurge's workshop.  He now held out one hand in the void, and willed that something should appear in its cupped palm.  Nothing happened.  He concentrated.  For a moment, nothing changed.  Then he felt what he could only describe as a ripple pass through the void around him, and through his own being.  He felt the sensation go down his arm and exit through his outstretched hand.  And when it was gone, in his palm lay a pea-sized globe of purest gold.

Ah, said the thief, and so.  He tucked the bauble into an inner pocket of his upper garment then repeated the exercise, this time concentrating on a jewel.  Again, the ripple passed through him, and when it left his fingers he saw that he held what poets call a gem of purest ray serene, and thieves a nice bit of sparkle.

He put the jewel with the gold pea.  The experiment was concluded.  Next time, he would make preparations:  first he must expand his strongroom to several times its size, so that it could hold all the abundance he intended to will into creation and pass through the membrane.  No, better yet, he should buy himself a manse.

But first he had to complete the lifting of Firondel's curios.  He adjusted his point of view so that he was now seeing the mechanical spider from above.  His eye traced the pattern engraved on its gold-chased back then his hand reached through the barrier and turned its activating screw from energetic to inert.  The threat of the spider thus neutralized, he repositioned himself again so that the membrane was just above the tallest item on the tabletop.

  The thief had become so skilled at working from the void that he could will the intervening membrane to be mere inches from whatever prize he had come to collect.  To anyone observing from the third plane, all that could be seen of Raffalon was his fingers and a portion of the back of his hand -- and then only for the moment it took to appear and seize the item.

He reached for the thunderstone, drew it into the void, and popped it into a satchel suspended by a strap from his shoulder.  Next he picked up a silver flute known to have been played by the siren Illisandra.  Into the satchel it went.  Then, one by one, the six thespian figurines.

Methodically, he stole Firondel's treasures.  The second-last was the cube of deathless god's heart.  But as he reached for it, it moved away of its own accord, crossing most of the tabletop to stop at the farther edge.  Raffalon, lulled into a routine, did not think to withdraw his fingers, reposition himself, and try again from closer up.  Instead, he merely extended his arm through the barrier until his fingers closed on the wandering morsel of meat.

But when he picked it up, he felt resistance.  The cube was on the end of a string that had been used to lure him.  Immediately, he dropped it, but immediately was not fast enough.  Even as the fragment of godstuff was falling back to the table, a steel manacle was closing around Raffalon's wrist with a fateful snick.

He pulled, but the only effect was to make taut a strong chain that connected the ring around his limb to another bracelet -- and this one was around the wrist of the man now coming out from under the table:  Hurdevant Ironhand, his grim features set into an image of triumphant vengeance.

The wizard pulled, but his strength could have no effect on a man anchored in the Demiurge's workshop, although the steel slid down onto Raffalon's exposed hand and compressed the bones and sinews, causing him pain.  Now Hurdevant was moving his free hand in a complicated pattern and speaking a string of syllables -- but again to no effect;  magic could not trouble the membrane.

That left only one option.  If the robber could not be pulled into the world, the wizard must go to where he hid.  Hurdevant seized Raffalon's hand and thrust it back toward the barrier.

This suited the thief, whose quick mind had already assessed the situation.  Hurdevant no doubt thought that his thaumaturgical arts would serve him well once he had his adversary cornered.  But magic had no effect in the void.  It was a place where only will mattered.

Hurdevant, as a wizard in his prime, would be equipped with willpower well beyond the ordinary.  Raffalon had no illusions that he could match him.  But the thief knew the ground, and the magician did not.  While Hurdevant was learning that magic was of no avail, Raffalon would be willing a last unpleasant surprise for the man on the other end of the chain.

He focused his will, and the wizard came through the barrier.  The thief saw two surprises register on the other man's face:  first, at the nature of their surroundings;  second, when he recognized Raffalon. 

"You!" he said.  And now that look of savored revenge was coming back.  The wizard lifted his free hand, crooked its fingers in a certain manner, and began to utter a spell.

But Raffalon was already at work.  He willed a pair of adamantine shears to appear in his unfettered hand.  In an instant, they were there -- I'm getting better at this, he thought -- and a moment later the chain was severed.

He let the shears float and saw that Hurdevant had already digested the meaning of his spell's failure.  Now the wizard reached into his robe and came out with a springer, which he deftly cocked with a practiced motion.  Raffalon had no doubt that the barbed tip of the missile in the weapon's slot would be coated with poison.

There was nowhere to flee and no time to create an exit;  it always took several heartbeats to pass through the membrane, and Hurdevant's dart would make sure that one of those beats would be Raffalon's last.  He needed to will something into existence that would change the dynamic of impending events.  And he needed to do it now, as Hurdevant raised the springer and aimed it at his belly.

As a boy, Raffalon had been entranced by tales of adventure and derring-do, in which stout-hearted individuals faced down terrors and won through to rewards of great renown.  One of those tales had featured a monster that had so frightened the young lad that it came to him several times afterwards in nightmares.  The shaggy, brutal creature of some storymaker's imagination remained Raffalon's private definition of the worst thing that could happen.

On impulse, he willed it now into existence, just behind Hurdevant.  Thus, as the wizard's finger tightened on the springer's release, a thick, muscular limb, clad in matted gray fur and ending in a paw tipped by two claws like black crescent moons, slid around his waist.  The weapon dropped from the wizard's grasp as he was hoisted backwards and upwards -- the monster was oversized -- and delivered to its serrated fangs.

The thing ate the wizard in two bites.  Then its yellow eyes fell upon Raffalon, and the thief remembered that, in the story, the creature's appetite was insatiable -- and that, in his worst dreams, it pursued him wherever he fled. 

He willed it to disappear -- to no effect;  perhaps the Demiurge had another workshop for destruction -- and so he willed instead the existence of a portal through which he could exit the void and find help.

Only one such place came to mind:  Glabro's workroom.  As Raffalon appeared out of the air, the wizard looked up from the book he'd been reading and said, "How did it--"

"Coming behind me!" the thief shouted.  "Destroy it!"

Then his feet hit the carpet and he ran for the door, seizing the latch and yanking it hard.  Behind him, he heard Glabro say, "What's--" and then a sharp take of breath as the nightmare willed itself through the membrane in pursuit of its next meal.

Unfortunately for Glabro, he was not much talented in the art of wizardly improvisation.  While he was assembling a spell in the forefront of his mind, the monster swept aside his study table and sank its cruel claws into his middle.  Raffalon, at the other end of the corridor and fleeing down the steps at his best pace, heard the scream and then the sounds of crunching bones.

By the time he reached the bottom of the steps and opened the door into the wizard's back courtyard, he could hear the beast's slobbering vocalizations descending the stairs.  He flung wide the gate and bolted into the alley, slamming it shut behind him.  Moments later, he heard the skreek of its hinges being torn from their posts.  He put on more speed.  Raffalon had often been pursued -- desperate chases were part of being a thief -- but never had he run with such conviction.

Glabro's manse was on the crest of a hill that ran down to the city gate and the road to Carbingdon.  The thief sped along the cobblestones, leaping down the occasional flights of marble steps, until he came to where the road debouched into a small square.  Here customs inspectors examined incoming wagons and mule trains and the watch apprehended ne'er-do-wells.  There were always men with weapons about.

As he entered the square, he need not look back;  he could hear the ogre's claws clicking on the stones behind him;  it was closing on him.  He saw the halberdiers clustered near the gate, their faces turning toward him in surprise as he raced toward them, shouting, "A monster!  A monster!"

Then he saw their expressions change as the beast came into view.  Raffalon had never cared for guards of any kind -- their interests and those of thieves were almost always opposed -- but he vowed to give a warm thought to these men as they charged their weapons and formed a resolute line -- through which he passed by scrambling between their legs on hands and knees.

The halberdiers slowed the nightmare.  It reared up on its hind legs and swatted at their points, roaring and slobbering.  Raffalon ran on through the gate, then paused long enough to look back.  He saw a team of cannoneers reversing one of the great guns that stood behind the crenellations and depressing it to aim down into the square.

He had not gone another ten paces before he heard the boom of the weapon followed instantly by the crack of its missile exploding.  After that, he heard no more roars -- only a hubbub of voices as the crowd formed.  Raffalon kept going;  the incident of the ogre would attract inconvenient questions.  He walked some miles out of the city, to where an inn stood at a crossroads, and used his gold pea to buy himself supper and a bed. 

In the morning, he walked back to the city, but avoided the gate.  Using a entry route and methods known to the Guild, he made his way to the house where he kept his strongroom.  He watched from concealment for most of the morning, but saw no signs that the house had become of interest to anyone other than himself.

Finally, he sauntered up the walk.  While he was getting out his key, he noted that the almost invisible hair he had pasted across the crack between door and jamb was still in place.  He went in and found no trace of an intruder.

Whistling, he hoisted the sack that contained Firondel's curios and descended the hidden passage to his strongroom.  He opened the great door and stepped within -- to find that the space was empty.  Worse, he was plunged into sudden darkness and surrounded by a roaring wind.  When the noise stopped and light returned, he was in a place he had only seen from the outside:  the headquarters of the Ancient and Worthy Council of Wizards and Thaumaturges.

He looked about him at the figures seated on the tiers of benches and saw no friendly faces.  The questions began, and the inducements to give satisfactory answers.

Raffalon stuck to a plausible story:  Glabro, resentful of Hurdevant in particular and generally jealous of his worthier colleagues, had planned the entire exercise.  The thief had been a mere hireling, and knew nothing of the spells the wizard had woven to defeat their wards and defenses.  He did not mention the Demiurge or his workshop.

In the end, if he was not totally believed, he was not totally disbelieved.  "What shall we do with him?" said Zhazh Optimus, the current chair of the Council, when the wizards understood that they had gained all the satisfaction they were likely to achieve.  Several suggestions were advanced, while Raffalon trembled.  After a few moments, he interrupted the argument.

"Whatever you do to me," he said, "please don't let it be what Glabro threatened me with if I did not perform."

Zhazh eyed the thief the way a bird eyes a worm.  "And what would that be?" he said.

Raffalon recited, as if by rote, "Ixtlix's Sprightly Wearaway, Chunt's Descending Flambeau, and a spell that would send me into the desert."

"All three together?" said a spectrally thin thaumaturge.  "It would never work.  No harmony of fluxions."

The thief made a gesture expressing his inability to judge the matter.  "I only know what he told me," he said.  "He'd done it to someone once.  It sounded awful."

"Hmm," said Zhazh.  He went to one of the bookcases in the Council chamber and ran his finger along the serried spines, looking for a particular volume.  "Hurdevant had a theory about synthesis." He found the tome he was seeking and opened it.  "And if Glabro could do it . . ." 

He paused, a finger halfway down a page, and smiled a wizard's cruel smile.  "Ixtlix's Sprightly Wearaway, Chunt's Descending Flambeau, and a sending spell, you say?"

"Oh, no!" cried Raffalon.  "Not that!  Anything but that!"

This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.


Author: Matthew Hughes

Like this story? Tip Matthew to support their work.