Edrick staggered from the Saint Ishael Inn, the hood of his cloak drawn tightly around his head despite the humid warmth of the summer dawn. Pedestrians skipped out of the way as he stumbled past, wanting nothing to do with this drunken leper.
Every part of his body, whether it could or not, begged to retch from the revulsion he felt. Waves of it crashed through his mind and rendered him virtually senseless. His mind screamed at him to stop, screamed that he was going to die if he didn't. He took step after agonizing step, and then, exhausted, he stopped. Stopped fighting it and let it take him over. The nausea became tolerable, his back straightened, and in a moment he was healthy as could be, at least as far as any passerby would be concerned. In a defiled and violated way, he was proud of himself, of his ability to temporarily resist such unspeakable horror. He had managed it for four blocks before it overwhelmed him. Now he relaxed and let his urges drive his feet. He knew well where he was headed.
His master stayed in an "abandoned" castle on a hill high above the city, overlooking the endless Sea of Clouds. The crumbling fortress had been abandoned since before Bastion was first settled five-hundred years ago. Its only modern visitors were curious children, adventurous lovers, and the occasional hopeful anthropologist. How Carnival managed to hide his extensive and well-appointed chambers from them, Edrick could not fathom. How and when he could have secretly rebuilt the decaying walls and shattered floors was even more mysterious. Perhaps the door was a portal to another world, that only opened for those Carnival wished to admit. It wouldn't be terribly surprising, given the forces Edrick had seen him wield. But then again, there were feats that Edrick wouldn't have guessed to be more difficult than mind control that Carnival seemed incapable of.
He passed Bastion's spawling dockland, his head at least free to pivot and watch sailors unload sacks of flour and crates of fruit from newly arrived ships. On the eastern side of the harbor, huge cranes bobbed and swiveled to unload the largest sailing vessels he'd ever seen: seven masters, nearly four-hundred feet long each, towering five decks above the waterline. Truly a unique sight. Edrick wished he could stop for just a moment and watch their hulls ever so slightly bob with the waves, and the gulls that softly spiraled around their masts and sang their songs. Even more he wished he had an easel with him, to capture the scene and the sun cresting the mountains behind it. It had been far too long since he had last held a brush in his hand.
Only in Bastion had he seen the trade routes that such ships plied anywhere near so developed. The Sea of Clouds was the largest sea he'd seen, and possibly the largest body of water in the world. But for all he knew, there could be larger ones within the Thorn. Perhaps even the massive oceans of yore still existed, crammed together into some alien corner of the planet. Once, it was said, those oceans were spread across much of the world, and people followed their currents around the globe as readily as fish. And travel by land was apparently just as easy. There were no toxic deserts penning in entire civilizations.
Edrick's feet kept soldiering tirelessly on, and before long he had to turn his head away from the harbor or risk his neck.
The castle laid at the top of a winding, overgrown dirt path that led from the western side of the harbor to the squat hill that had once guarded it, when such defense had been necessary. Edrick entered the ancient structure, stepping over rubble and roots, seeing his way by the wan sunlight melting through the partially-collapsed roof - not that his phantom feet needed any light to find their own way. He walked down one corridor after another, dozens of them altogether, turning at the ends sometimes left and sometimes right, as if he were dancing out an elaborate entry code. Finally he arrived at Carnival's door. He reached for the handle, an iron ring that made him think of dungeons and prisons, but then a slight wave of nausea purled over him. Carnival liked for him to knock. So he did.
"Come in, Edrick." The voice was deep and darkly sultry; inviting, but predatory, as a wolf entreating a sheep. Edrick could picture him licking his lips as he spoke.
He entered into Carnival's cozy lair. Gaslight lamps illuminated leather and mahogany, and somewhere he could smell burning lavender. The sudden change in atmosphere made him reflexively catch his breath, as though he'd entered a sauna through a freezer.
And then like a long-missed friend his self-awareness bubbled back into him; things seemed to become clearer, and his thoughts more fluid. After being enthralled for so long, it felt more like ascending to a higher level of consciousness than regaining something that was rightfully his. Only in Carnival's presence was he restored to his true self. And it made his betrayal hurt a hundred times worse.
Carnival stood beyond the room, looking out over the sea from a small balcony. His red cape held him in stark contrast to the reborn sun, and his curtain of lightening-white hair stood in stark contrast to the cape.
He had quite a fancy for that dark hue of red. It looked as if just a sliver of bloody dawn had bled into the deepest midnight and there found home. The color was expressed throughout the sitting room: on furniture, walls, and carpet. Not so much as to make the room dully uniform, that would be unlike Carnival, but enough to make one wonder just how much someone could like a single color, and such a foreboding one at that.
"Come out here, Edrick," Carnival called softly without turning. "Those clouds on the horizon come quickly. This time of year, we have to take advantage of every hour of clear sky we can get, no?"
Unanswering, Edrick walked obediently to stand beside him and stared down at the waves crashing into the jagged rocks far below. He'd considered jumping every time he'd been here, but he could never bring himself to do it. Besides, he was sure that Carnival would be able to stop him, somehow.
Carnival took his time before turning to Edrick, his full, red lips pursed in a knowing smile. Besides those lips and his eyes, his features were as ghostly pale as his hair, and flawless as diamond. "So to what do I owe this visit? I don't recall requesting you."
"It wasn't my choice," Edrick replied dumbly, still contemplating the long fall to the tideland below.
"Ah, well, there's only one thing that could mean, then. You know something you're sure I'd want to know! Excellent. What ever might it be?"
This time Edrick did meet his eyes, and held hard. "Your spell is losing its power. You should have seen the spectacle I made on my way here." Then he summoned up all that was available and spit it into Carnival's face.
Carnival didn't even have the decency to look startled, just amused. He produced a handkerchief and gently wiped it all away. "Very well..." he sighed.
Edrick hardly had time to brace himself before a wave of putrid nausea brought him to his knees. He could feel that regained chunk of his spirit being delicately pulled away, but he latched onto it and refused to let it budge. The world withdrew as he focused his entire mind on holding itself together. The pulling became stronger and stronger, and his resistance to it soon crossed every boundary it had before reached as he was suddenly seized by a courage he didn't realize he possessed. The pulling shed its delicacy and became wild and savage. He could feel his mind being turned inside out, it's contents leaving it like an upturned bag, and distantly he could feel blood filling his mouth as his teeth gnashed at his tongue. Every last one of his thoughts and concerns fell away, except his determination to thwart Carnival, and he was met with the agony of a thousand deaths as the fabric of his being was gradually shredded into emptiness.
And then, just white, and a far off light. Floating...
Carnival looked with disgust at the shivering heap curled at his feet as it gurgled its answer. "They got into the archives... they're... going tonight."
And then Edrick was returned to himself in crushed and twisted pieces.
Carnival turned to gaze thoughtfully across the sea, as Edrick twitched and pointlessly rambled beneath him. "You're right. You truly are becoming difficult to control." He looked down unblinkingly into Edrick's lolling eyes, his own like haunting, scarlet probes searching there for a seafloor which they could no longer find. Then he sighed, almost sadly. "And so must this day be your last. I doubt I could paste you back together quite right after those shenanigans, anyhow. You know, if you really knew the truth, maybe you'd see why this is necessary. And I suppose I can now tell you that truth. The truth behind every one of this world's lies. And then you will welcome your death."
"This is the same garbage we've been looking at for months," Rhee groaned, stiffly forcing a dusty book back into one of the monolithic bookcases that, along with the many hallways snaking away from the main chamber, turned the archives into a formidable maze. It was a motion she was embarrassingly used to. She'd begun doing it in her sleep lately. Walking up and down endless aisles of ancient tomes, thumbing through one here and one there, but eventually putting every one of them back in its place. She couldn't live like that for much longer. Just like she couldn't live sitting in a monastery back in Mypell. She longed to get back out on the road. She didn't even need the destination that these books were supposed to give her. Just fresh air and changing scenery. "The same, vague, useless garbage. Just more of it."
"Truly..." Ras agreed from far up a ladder, searching through a shelf too high up to bother numbering. He harbored a similar angst for movement, she knew. But he was so dammed locked up about his feelings. He'd been like that since she'd met him, but she suspected he'd been different, once. The stories he told of his adolescence, and how he'd behaved in such and such a situation, just didn't jive with that sort of personality.
"You're sure this is the only isle with Collapse-era stuff?" Ras called down to their chaperone, a scraggly haired academic who had introduced himself as "Master Archiver Dr. Fox". Or Faux?
"Quite sure, yes," the bespectacled man replied from where he leaned against a shelf enjoying a coffee. "The rest of the archives are occupied by tax records and the like. I'm sorry our collection doesn't meet your expectations."
The guy seemed nice enough, but that was the first convinced-sounding answer he'd given about the archives. Rhee figured his position was some sort of sinecure for a disgraced researcher or something. Probably just as well, most of the time. She got the impression that the archives weren't often visited. The chairs and tables were settled with a fine layer of dust and the shelves lacked the mild chaos characteristic of well-used libraries. Besides herself, Ras, the archiver, and a silent Ice Hill guard babysitting them, the archives were empty.
Once in a while a laugh or the sound of a chair scraping against the tiles reminded Rhee of how much livelier the rest of the Grand Library of Bastion was, back beyond the locked gate leading out of the royal archives, where wealthy university students sat around tables scribbling out notes. She'd never had the money to attend university, but she'd known plenty of people who had, and she smiled to remember skipping her silly duties at the monastery just to keep them company while they did the same.
"You don't even know," Ras began, starting his climb down the ladder. "We were supposed to find everything we needed in Bastion. And all we've found is dust... and a lot of rain. It's like some jerk ran around the world burning everything that mentioned the Tower in anything but the wispiest terms. And all we're left with is the knowledge that it's 'East'. East East East. As if East is a bar downtown that everyone knows or something. Even ancient map coordinates we could work with. Or some vague-ass relative coordinates... 'near the ruins of New York.' or something. Just something."
Well maybe he heard my thoughts. That was about the most frustration Rhee had ever seen him exhibit. "New York?" she asked curiously.
"Just a name that popped into my head. Hey, I have to use the restroom. Is there one in here somewhere?"
Dr. Fox gestured for Ras to follow as his feet touched the ground. "As a matter of fact there is. This way. Evans, stay here and help Ms. Lightshield."
Ras followed Fox past shelves full of what looked like 'tax records and the like' and then down a short hall. Only a small portion of the archives was dedicated to history, he realized. It was a little bit disappointing - he had been led to believe the archives to be some sort of secret mecca of historical studies, and relative to any other single collection he'd seen, he supposed it was, but after he'd snooped through dozens of smaller libraries, he could find nothing new here. Nothing at all. But no time to grumble about that. A memory and a lust had quietly mixed in his head and demanded a decision...
The doctor stopped and began to open a door "It's ri-"
Ras grabbed his head and bounced it off of the stone wall before he could finish his sentence, and then crouched to rifle through the downed doctor's pockets. It wasn't long before he rose again with a key ring holding three keys. He carefully dragged the man into the restroom, and after trying all three keys managed to lock the door with the last one.
He stealthily jogged back out into the archives and followed an outer wall to the very back of the huge chamber, carefully listening for any indication that Rhee or her guard were moving.
There he quickly found the solid wooden door that Fox had earlier told him guarded "classified" documents, which even he didn't know anything about. Ras breathed a sigh of relief when another of the keys slid smoothly into the lock
Beyond was a round, empty antechamber, and beyond that, a massive, steel vault door. Ras leaned in close to examine it. It boasted two combination wheels as well as two key holes, both of which were far too large for any of Ras's three keys.
Well shit, he thought, scratching the back of his neck and thinking of the unconscious man he'd left on a bathroom floor. Maybe this wasn't one of my better ideas. He grabbed one of the wheels and spun it in frustration. Nothing. Naturally.
Ras shook his head and checked over his shoulder. He wouldn't have much time before the guard came looking for him and Fox. He shrugged hopelessly and raised his eyes towards the ceiling. "God, if what's in here will help me find the Tower of Babel then please help me open this door!" he requested as loudly as he dared. Thenhe steepled his hands and bowed shallowly, feeling a little bit ridiculous, but at the same time feeling some small spark of answer inside of him, and then spun the wheel again.
He sighed and pressed his forehead against the vault, pounding a fist against it a few times for good measure. Then he forced himself to think instead of how he was going to get himself and Rhee out of the situation he'd just landed them in. The best idea he could come up with was attacking the guard from behind and then hoping that there was a back way out somewhere. Otherwise they'd have to leave back out through the main library and hope that no one noticed they'd somehow lost their chaperones. But either way they'd both have the law after them. No, it would probably be better to just answer for it and get it over with. Damn, he scolded himself for letting his desperation get the better of him. For letting it drive him to such impulsive foolishness...
His thoughts were interrupted by a thunderous boom that echoed through the room and sent his ears ringing. The walls visibly shook and the vault door groaned welcomingly.
Ras smiled at the sound and once again calmly laid a hand on the wheel. "Thank you."
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, drew his concentration away from everything but the cold steel in his hand, and spun.
He blinked in surprise and waited, expecting at least some kind of click. When none was forthcoming he yanked on the handle, but the door still didn't budge. "Damn you!" he shouted, kicking it. "Don't lead me on like that!" He kicked it again and again, pent up frustration at all the fruitless miles come and hurdles jumped driving his foot into the steel.
He turned to find Rhee standing in the doorway regarding him quizzically. "What the hell are you shouting about and what are doing?"
He turned back to the vault and scratched his chin. "Trying to curse the almighty into helping me rob a vault. You got any better ideas? Remember what Dr. knocked-out-in-the-bathroom said about what's in here?"
"Doctor what in the what?" she asked in disbelief. "Seriously? Have you finally cra-"
Another, much louder boom rocked the room. If Rhee's balance wasn't so trained she might have fallen over, but she maintained her composure expertly. "Yeah, I do have a better idea, actually. Let's get out of here. That sounded like an explosion. That guard went to check out the first one. The gas lines might be blowing or something."
"Ah..." It suddenly dawned on Ras that if the explosion wasn't God's doing then, well, it must have been that of someone else. "Right then. Probably a good idea," he admitted.
"There's an exit right near here, I think. It looked like it can open from the inside. Let's go."
"Wait a second! Wait right here. I'll be right back," Ras said, running past her and back out into the archives.
She watched him run off, tapping her foot impatiently. Another explosion rocked the room, this one coming distressingly close to knocking her off of her feet. One of the chandeliers ripped from the ceiling, crashing to the top of a bookcase and bursting in a ball of flame. The case roared alight and blossomed quickly into a burning monument of wood and paper, sending ashed crisps of invaluable documents into the air to rain down throughout the library.
Ras still hadn't returned when the burning bookcase collapsed into a neighbor and set off a cascade that turned a whole row of bookcases into a whirling inferno. Rhee could feel the heat from it and turned to inch nervously closer to the exit, just in time to catch a wrist aiming a knife at her throat.
She feel backwards under the weight of the attack and used her momentum to knee the attacker in the groin. He grunted and dropped his knife harmlessly to the floor, but quickly recovered and seized her throat. She desperately clamped onto his wrists and tried to pull them apart, but barely even succeeded in lightening the pressure. She struck out again and again with her legs and knees but couldn't make any solid contact. There was no face looking into hers. Only an unreadable veil of black fabric. All she could do was choke dryly and struggle.
Then she saw the head above hers suddenly jerk to the left and the vice grip on her throat released. She threw the assailant off, grappled on the floor for his knife, and jammed it between his ribs before falling back gasping and coughing.
Ras knelt beside her. "Rhee," he shouted over the din of the roaring flames. "Can you get up? We have to go. The fire is spreading fast."
She nodded weakly, still coughing, and staggered to her feet.
Ras clapped her on the shoulder. "Better get your breath back quick coz you're on point duty. I have to carry this sack of bones," he said, gesturing to the unconscious Dr. Fox at his feet.
"You were serious!" she croaked, falling into another fit of coughing.
"Don't talk, just go," Ras demanded, pulling Fox over his shoulder. He winced at the crackling roar of another bookcase disintegrating to the ground.
Rhee wrenched the knife free from the dead attacker's ribcage. He was outfitted completely in black leather, just like the men who had stopped her earlier in the week. She ripped the veil away from his face, not knowing what to expect from someone who hid behind a mask without eyeholes. The head of a serpent?
It was just a man. Young, blonde, and eerily smiling a martyr's smile. That smile told her enough about their enemies to send a shiver down her spine. She hastily pulled a satchel from his back and threw it over her own before setting off in a jog towards the hallway she suspected they could escape from, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Ras was keeping up.
They didn't have to worry about the door being locked. It was smashed in and leaning against the wall beside its frame, its metal hinges bent and crumpled. Just outside lay a battering ram that although small would have taken several men to propel through such a door. The doorway led onto a narrow balcony overlooking Bastion's city center from near the very top of Ice Hill. It was empty. Anyone else that had been behind that ram had entered the archives.
The only way to the ground seemed to be a rope dangling from a grappling hook on the railing. Ras set Fox down and slapped his face to no avail. "Wake up, dammit!" He must have hit him much harder than he'd meant to. "Rhee, how are we going to do this?"
She peered over the railing, scanning the distance to the steeply sloping ground below. It must have been over fifty feet. Maybe as much as seventy. She had no idea the hill dropped off so quickly on this side of the building. In the front it sloped so gently that it was hardly any slope at all. "I guess one of us will go down first and then... we tie the rope around his wrist and lower him down?" she suggested, her voice raspy.
Ras lifted one of the man's wrists dubiously. "That had better be a dammed tight knot." He looked hopefully over his shoulder into the archives, but he could see nothing more there but raging tongues of flame. Suddenly one of them burst from the doorway, bowling him over with its winds and coming only inches away from enveloping him. He scampered out of the path of destruction, unceremoniously dragging Fox's obscenely limp body behind him. "Go, hurry!"
Rhee didn't kneed to be told twice. She threw herself over the railing and half slid, half scrambled down the rope. She couldn't stand on the steep ground below and had to let herself fall forward into it, awkwardly grabbing purchase in the dirt with her rope-burnt hands. The rope snaked away from her back upwards to the balcony, and more quickly that she would have thought possible, Fox's body began it's ungainly descent, dangling like a ragdoll. We are really, really good people, she thought dryly. They'd be halfway down the hill by now if they had just left him. Then again, Ras did knock him out unprovoked.I guess that gives us some obligations.
As soon as the man was securely on the ground beside her, she slashed the rope right above his wrist and started sawing carefully at that tourniquet of a knot. Ras slid down next to her just as she managed to free Fox's paled wrist. "He should be safe enough here. We need to go. I have a bad feeling whoever those people are, they're after more than just books."
Carnival rolled through the night clouds above Bastion, occasionally peeking through the bottom like a spy in a vent to see his handiwork in progress. Far in the distance the Grand Library of Bastion lit the darkness like a funeral pyre, glazing the clouds for miles around with flickering red and orange. It was as if the city slept under an undulating blanket of flame.
The fire might spread, he realized. The outside of the library was mostly stone and would probably stand, but its mass of inside contents were evaporating into the flames to be carried away into the night air as little germs of inferno. He wasn't quite sure whether he wanted that or not. To die was good. But he'd prefer to deliver to the people of this city a cleaner death than fire and smoke would.
He had to fight the urge to move any closer to the scene. He wished he could watch all of those little ants scurrying about just to make sure those two troublemakers looking for the Tower were no longer among them, but he assumed that God (and oh how he hated to call that thing by such a title) was keeping an eye on them, and to be seen by it would be, at least for now, to die, and to lose. He needed Time on his side before he could risk such an encounter.
Carnival continued to watch the blaze for a time, his thoughts however often distracted by other matters. Eventually it grew weaker, and he grew bored. Watching the deed his little minions had carried out erupt into success heartened him, but his inability to even get close to it bitterly reminded him of how much work he had left to do. Soon, however, he would be ready to travel below, into the framework itself, and there he knew he could find everything he needed.
I'll probably go back to an older chapter later and give Edrick some more characterization. His imminent death wasn't the reason for the lack of it. I didn't expect him to die in this chapter! Will also need to make him act oddly, I guess.