Friday, November 30, 2012

Tooth and Claw, chapter seven

Prologue, Chapter Six

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

                Della opens the doorway to the trophy room, nodding to the two bloodkin standing guard.  They regard her disinterestedly; along with the stables and the dojo, the trophy room has become part of her nightly routine.
                She walks through the windowless tangle of climate-controlled halls, housing all manner of trinkets that look like they belong in a museum.  Here is a painting, here a sword; there a book, there a pendant; a scroll under glass, made delicate by age; a device of unknown purpose, corroded almost to dust.  Unlike a museum, there are no explanatory placards declaring the name and origin of each item to all passersby – Della can only guess at what was acquired when, to say nothing of the how of the matter.  That would have to wait for another conversation with Thomas, some other night.
                Her first time in the trophy room, just a few nights ago, Thomas had walked her through to the central chamber without a word.  Her senses had sharpened – yes, sharpened was the word, as though ground against a whetstone until keen and raw.  Her reflexes had quickened, not smoothly and all at once, but in fits and starts, a macabre echo of puberty.  One night in the dojo, it came to a head:  Della was restless, anxious, itching for some action as she had been just a few nights earlier, but not even an “advanced” lesson from Jamie could calm her down.  Jamie saw it, then, in Della’s eyes – Della had been feeling it all night, but Jamie already had a name for it:
                “Ahh,” she’d said, “You need to hunt.”
                But before Della could be taken out to hunt, she needed to learn some other skills – how to manipulate others’ emotions with the force of her own presence.  How to change her appearance with careful control of her posture and demeanor.  How to read another’s state of mind through subtle cues that were not only nonverbal, but nonvisual.  At one point it had struck her as magical, and she’d said so.
                “Hmph.  You should ask Thomas about magic one night,” Jamie replied.  “This is just biology.”
                And so she had, when the Elder had had a free moment to spare.  He  brought her up to the trophy room, the very top floor of the building, silent the whole way.  He walked her briskly through the tangled halls, heedless of the wonders that raced off from every intersection, arriving at last at a large and vaguely cross-shaped chamber at the center of the floor.
                There were but three items on display in this room, each upon its own pedestal beneath a skylight that let the waning crescent moon shine meekly in.  At Della’s left, there was a simple sword:  a longsword, simple in its construction but showing the telltale signs of much use.  The steel cross-guard was battered, the pommel ‘s decoration worn nearly smooth, the blade stained and chipped from forte to foible in a testament to battles beyond counting.  The leather grip, worn and aged, matched the scabbard displayed beneath.
                To the right was a medium-sized wooden box, not quite a chest, covered with intricate carvings worn nearly smooth from age and handling.  The carvings were a pattern, not a picture, but Della felt as though she could trace those knots for hours without coming back to where she’d started.
                The center pedestal held an hourglass in a simple three-legged stand.  It alone in this room was under glass, and Della saw many keyholes recessed into the pedestal beneath.  She stooped to examine the hourglass at its own level, careful not to smudge her nose upon the glass but otherwise getting as close as she could.  White grains of sand fell like snow from the top, while black grains rose like ash from the bottom, twisting and billowing among each other as they passed.  Now it was a cloud, now a tornado, now a wave; the endless swirling of the sands was hypnotic.
                “So you want to know about magic,” Thomas asked.  “There you can see a fair bit of it on display.”  He let her gawk a few moments more before continuing.  “Can you see what is magical about it?”
                “Well,” Della said, wanting to state the obvious but fearing she was missing something, “For one thing, the black sand goes up.  That seems magical.  For another thing, the sand never piles up anywhere – it just keeps going from one end to the other.”
                “Look closer.”
                “Ah, there’s a – a mirror at the bottom.  One at the top, too.  So they – hmm…”  Della squinted, focused all her attention, tried to watch the individual grains as they ran into the – no, it couldn’t be.  And yet, there it was – disbelief held her rapt for a long moment, then she found her words again.  “So a white grain falls down, it touches the mirror, then it turns into a black grain and starts floating up.  And then – yeah, at the top, the reverse happens.”  She stood, looked back at Thomas, screwed up her face in confusion.  “How does it do that?”
                “How should I know,” Thomas asked with a  shrug.  “You wanted to see magic.  There it is.  Now you ask me for an explanation?  Explanations must invoke mechanisms.  Mechanisms imply replicable results.  Replicable results are the stuff of science.”  The condescending tone in his voice was unmistakable, but there was a challenge beneath it.
                “But it has to work somehow,” Della protested.
                “Does it, now?”  Thomas arched an eyebrow.
                “Well, yeah,” Della exclaimed, grasping at straws.  “Otherwise – if it worked a different way, it wouldn’t work this way, and if it worked no particular way, then it wouldn’t be so – so – so regular about it all!”  Della looked back at the hourglass, then back at Thomas, flustered.  “It is always like this, right?”
                Thomas nodded.  “For at least the last several hundred years.  Every moment we’ve cared to look at it.”
                Della looked back at the hourglass, trying to divine some new insight.  After some seconds, Thomas sighed.
                “You have the long and the short of it,” he said at last, “It has to work somehow.  It works one way, and not any other way.  Yet it does so by mechanisms we cannot comprehend.  And so we call it ‘magic.’  But this is really a misnomer, isn’t it?  For it was made, and it was made by someone who clearly did comprehend the mechanisms behind its function.  And so, for this unnamed maker, it was no magic, but technology:  a known principle, exploited to some purpose.”
                “And what purpose would that be,” Della asked, her eyes fixed on the mirrors at the hourglass’ bulbs.
                “As far as we can tell,” Thomas said with a sigh, “To look pretty.”

                The conversation had wound down from there, with talk of Clarke’s third law and the naturalization of the supernatural.  “Magic,” on Thomas’ view, was simply a covert way of saying, “I give up trying to understand this.”  Della would not give up, and so she came to the trophy room every night since, trying to divine some hidden truth that had previously eluded her.  She took a different route each time, walking a unique approach through the various oddments collected throughout the ages, but always wound up staring at the Sandstorm Hourglass.
                Tonight, the moon is a waxing crescent, the same thin sliver it was just four nights ago, but mirrored like the grains in the hourglass.  The gentle spotlights from the winding halls are blocked out by the doors at the end of the four corridors leading out of this central chamber; Della’s vision, keen as it is, is reduced almost to black and white.  The sky is clear, though, and the stark contrast accentuates the glint of the blade, the shadows on the box, the grains of sand in the hourglass, the shadow passing above her –
                Della instinctively darts for the shadow of the hallway.  She can feel her heart pounding in her chest – she can hear it, coursing through her ears – there it is again, in her abdomen, the rhythmic thump-thump threatening to burst through her skin.  She looks up at the skylight:  no, her eyes were not playing tricks on her – there’s someone there.  Someone feeling at the glass.  Della can see the tiny detectors near the corners of the skylight panes, even from a dozen-odd yards below.
                The intruder – female, shoulder-length black hair, white blouse and a black choker – reaches for the detector on the pane.  Something in her hand arcs – no, in the split-second before she is flash-blinded, Della can see there was nothing in the intruder’s hand.  The smell of burnt circuitry and ionized gas descends from on high.  Della watches as the intruder lays her hands over the glass, pushes, and – her fingertips reach through the glass.  She pulls at it, molding it; the moonlight distorts into ripples through the now-pliant glass, and Della can smell the warm city air wafting in from the expanding hole in the skylight.  A knotted rope, not much thicker than Della’s thumb, drops down through the hole; the intruder soon follows, in jeans with a black bag over one shoulder.  Della can smell her:  dust, roses, something citrus-y that Della can’t quite place.
                She can’t hear her heartbeat, though.
                It’s something that Della had grown used to:  being able to hear a cacophony of heartbeats underscoring a roiling din of conversation.  Now, in the near-silence, the only heartbeat Della hears is her own.  Jamie said something about being able to quiet one’s heartbeat, though – a nifty trick, though she hadn’t taught it to Della yet.  Now the intruder is pawing at the casing over the Sandstorm Hourglass, pulling it back in ripples and gobs.  If she doesn’t do something –
                “I can’t let you take that.”  Della steps out from the shadows, summoning all the presence she can muster.  The intruder turns on her heel, her athletic shoes making a slight squeak on the polished hardwood floor.  In the second she takes to size Della up, Della sees her face clearly:  a young face, but worn; her skin is pale and waxy in the moonlight; her cheeks are hollow, but not with hunger.  There’s a placid emptiness behind her startled eyes; then, recognition.
                “You again,” the intruder says after a moment.  Now Della takes another turn at being startled.
                “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
                “Ah, but I have most certainly seen you,” the intruder replies, now at ease.  “And now I am seeing double.”  She glances pointedly over Della’s shoulder.  Della turns, quickly; nothing is there – she turns back, and the intruder is reaching for the hourglass again.
                “Hey!”  Della reaches for her left shoulder – the intruder swings her arm around in a circle, breaking Della’s grasp, but takes a step back anyway, to Della’s right.  “I said, I can’t let you take that.”
                “Then it seems we are at an impasse.”  The intruder shrugs.  They regard each other for a moment.  Della is positively itching for a fight, but she can’t read anything from the intruder’s stance.  She’s just… standing there, just out of reach.  “You can run and fetch your dogs, but I will be gone.  Or I could try again for your trinket, but you would strike.  So.  Here we are.”
                Yes, Della thinks, Here we are.  She drops into a combat stance.  The intruder takes another half-step back, tosses her empty bag at the foot of the hourglass’ pedestal.  Della circles to her right, around toward the wooden box, trying to pin her quarry between pedestals.  The intruder stands, fecklessly upright, only her eyes following Della.  Della keeps her distance, hoping she can out-bluff her opponent’s nonchalance –
                It doesn’t work.  Right as Della would achieve a position of advantage, the intruder smoothly steps wide away from her, arcing toward the sword.  Uh-oh.  But she makes no move to grab it.  She just – stands there, looking imperious and unassailable.  Her heartbeat.  Of course.  Gotta minimize that activity.  Can’t give away a heartbeat.  Della focuses, formulates a plan of attack.  “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Jamie told her a few nights ago in the dojo.  Nevertheless, any plan was better than no plan at all – Della thinks three moves deep, then moves in:  a right feint to the jaw.
                As expected, the intruder dodges ever so slightly – a half-step to her right, a drop of her center of gravity.  Della follows up with a left jab, again at her opponent’s jaw – the intruder shifts her weight, brings her own left hand up to deflect the blow.  But she is slow, slower than Jamie during practice – Della easily slips her right hand back in, her fingertips aligned to deliver a pinpoint strike in the hollow of her opponent’s armpit.
                She doesn’t see it coming at all – Della connects, the intruder staggers – Della lunges past her, grabs the longsword from its stand.  She has no formal training with weapons, but she imagines it as an extension of her arm, swings it around to get a sense of its weight, then balances it as she would her own fist, had it been extended a yard.  Her stance is dropped comfortably back, though her opponent has recovered and now faces her.
                The intruder gives nothing away, though:  a smile, a nod, a half-heard “hmph.”  Still, Della is satisfied – not first blood, but maybe first contact.  And now she has the advantage of a weapon.
                Three steps ahead worked last time, let’s try five this time.  Della bobs about, watches her opponent’s gaze, then moves in – a feint with the tip of the blade toward the intruder’s eyes.  She peels away to Della’s right, away from the hourglass; good.  Withdrawing the blade, Della telegraphs a haymaker with her left hand; as the intruder raises her right for the obvious block, Della withdraws again, a left roundhouse kick already on its way.  The intruder’s left forearm comes up to block, even as her right elbow comes down – Della pulls back once more, twisting just a bit out of stance to deliver a final feint with her left –
                No – no good.  The intruder has seen through the ruse, slams her left palm into Della’s sword arm.  The blow connects, sending Della off-balance.  She shakes her head, readies for another round – but the intruder is upon her, right fist leading toward Della’s face.  A swift, straight punch – but Della sees it coming, dodges to her own right while she lifts the tip of her blade toward the intruder’s heart.
                No deflection.  It connects.
                Della plants her right foot, raises her center of gravity, and drives the blade home.  A cry – “Augh!” – a heartbeat – thump-thump – There it is!  The intruder’s heart beats erratically, fades, and goes silent once more as she falls to the floor.  Della draws out the longsword, flicks the blade to empty the fuller, wipes it on her jeans and replaces it in its stand.
                “I told you,” she says in triumph.  “I can’t let you take that.”
                She walks out of the room to fetch the guardsmen.  The halls wind before her; she traverses them with easy confidence.
                “Hey,” she says.  The guards look up at her.  “Someone tried to break in.”  The men look at each other in disbelief, look back at Della.  “Don’t worry, I got her.  C’mon.”  The men gather themselves and follow her to the central chamber of the trophy room.
                But the intruder is no longer there.
                “No, no, no,” Della says, “I stabbed her with that fucking sword.  She was just here.”
                The intruder isn’t all that’s gone.

                “What is that awful smell?”  Thomas wrinkles his nose as the elevator opens.  He steps out to the trophy room’s foyer, rage and intrigue practically brimming upon his face.
                “I – ” Della sniffs, recoils at the scent of decay, and looks down at herself.  Her jeans.  Of course.  The intruder’s blood stinks to high Heaven, but Della hadn’t noticed it in all the confusion of the fight.  “Look, that’s not important!  You need to see this,” she says, turning to the trophy room.  Thomas follows, the guards in his wake.

                “She came in through there,” Della says, pointing at the wrinkly hole in the skylight.  “She disabled the alarm, and then just – pulled the glass apart.  I don’t know how.  We fought, and I ran her through with the sword, and then I came to get the guards.  When we came back, she was gone, and so was the Sandstorm Hourglass.”
                Thomas paces across the room, staring at the blood spatter, the skylight, the casing that until recently held his greatest treasure.  He glances about the room, eyes narrowed.
                “And you were here the whole time,” he asks Della.
                “Yes, I fought her myself!”
                “Did you, really?”  He stares at Della.  She shrinks under his gaze.
                “Yes, I swear it!  I can’t – I don’t know how else to tell you – I tried to stop her!”  Her desperation is palpable, her honesty unquestionable.  Thomas is satisfied.  He withdraws.
                “Very well.  I believe you.”  He shrugs his shoulders and breathes deeply.  “We need to talk to someone else, now.  Come with me, Della.”  He starts for the exit, then stops in consideration.  “You two,” he says to the guards, “Forget the rest of the trophy room.  Stand guard here until we get this fixed.”

                On the way to the garage, Thomas pages Herman and fills him in on the situation.  Glass and sensors need to be replaced.  Extra sentries must be posted.  Thomas rattles off names, Herman acknowledges.  Della follows behind him.
                They walk through the garage, Della a step or two behind.  He stops behind a fire-engine-red 1978 Porsche 911 SC.  He nods, and gestures to Della to sit inside the vehicle.  The keys are already in the ignition.  Thomas stomps on the clutch, fires the ignition, slams the Porsche into reverse, and slides out of the parking space.    The vehicle spirals down a floor and screeches to a halt just short of the kiosk’s guard lever.  The attendant recognizes Thomas, nods him through, and lifts the lever.  Thomas drives into the night.
                “So,” Della says, “I take it my sequestration is over?”  She cocks an eyebrow at her driver.
                “Absolutely not,” he says, popping the clutch and slamming the shifter knob home before accelerating once more.  “But another concern has superseded it.”
                “And what might that be,” Della asks.
                “That smell,” Thomas says.  “It’s not blood.”  Della sniffs again.
                “Decay,” she says.  “So this wasn’t a vampire.”
                “You have the right of it,” Thomas says, “But once more, that’s not the whole picture.”  He is intent is upon the task of driving; still, Della senses a mote of approval sent her way.  She takes the bait and tries for more.
                “So someone was able to send a corpse our way,” she says.  “That explains why our intruder smelled of roses and citrus.”  Thomas nods, his mouth curving slightly up at the corner.
                “Indeed,” he says, slaloming between cars in the midnight traffic.
                “And now,” Della guesses, “We’re going to see someone who would have the power to send such a creature our way.”
                Thomas nods, engine-braking to stop at the red light.  He takes a deep breath, looks crosswise into traffic, and puts the Porsche into gear as he pops the clutch once more.  “Good work.  But we are not visiting an enemy.  Alice is an ally, and we simply have a few questions to ask her.  Follow my lead, don’t talk out of turn, and observe carefully.  You may learn a thing or two.”
                Before Della can respond, their light is green; the Porsche accelerates, slamming Della against her woolen seat; her shoes dig in to the carpeted mats covering the floorboards.  She takes a moment to consider, but already they are sliding into a great glass pyramid, slowing to a stop before a man who looks pleased to park a rare vehicle from a bygone era.  Thomas slides a bill of unknown value from his coat into the valet’s hand, and takes Della by the fingertips as they walk into the Luxor.

                Hallways and elevators later, Della is looking at a classy young lady, trying to ignore the stench emanating from her jeans where she wiped an ancient blade not thirty minutes before.  The young lady taps a finger against her chin, sizes Thomas up, and speaks:
                “So, Tommy.  You here to settle a debt, or dig yourself deeper?”
                Thomas sighs.  “I’m afraid it’s the latter.  Unless I’m right.”
                Her eyes go wide.  “Oh?”  Her chin spins a low half-circle, sending her eyebrows into a wild arc.
                “Did you send someone to steal my Sandstorm Hourglass?”  Thomas stares at Alice, cold and even.  She meets his glare, seems to read a layer deeper, and glances at Della.
                “No,” she says at last.  “But your young cohort is here to set the matter straight, isn’t she?”
                Thomas nods.  “Della was present at the theft.  It was less than an hour ago.  I’d like you to scrye it, if you please.”
                Alice takes a deep breath.  “Very well,” she says after a beat.  “But you must understand – you’ll be thrice indebted to me after this.”
                Thomas nods again.  “Believe me, I’ve got currency to spare.”
                Alice chuckles under her breath.  “Very well,” she says.  “Just a moment.”
                The frail woman, all blond hair and blue eyes, tugs briefly at the collar of her white-on-black paisley blouse as she opens a drawer in her desk.  She pulls out a waxy substance, pinches a quarter-sized ball between her fingers, and rolls it ‘round and ‘round.
                “What’s that,” Della asks Thomas.
                “We call it tallow,” Alice responds.  “It’s the stuff of magic,” she says with a wry grin.
                “You told me,” Della says, folding one leg over another, “That magic was simply misunderstood technology.”  She cocks an eyebrow at Thomas, doing her best to look condescendingly studious.
                “Oh, it is,” Alice says, sparing her friend an awkward moment.  “And you’re about to see a fair deal of it.”  The waxy ball in her hands has begun glowing, and now it rises from her hand into the air.  Alice pulls at the edges, stretches it into an oval, and ignites a fiery blue halo about it.  She slides her chair around her desk, to sit beside Della and opposite Thomas.  “Young Della, and the Sandstorm Hourglass,” Alice asks.  Thomas inclines his head, his expression mute as a mime.
                The waxy ring fills in, a fly-on-the-wall view of the trophy room’s core chamber.  Shapes and figures resolve into an over-the-shoulder view of Della as she faced off against the unknown intruder.
                “And now I am seeing double,” the intruder says, her eyes shooting right at Della through the scrying window.  Before Della can react, her own apparition says,
                “Hey!”
                The phantasmal Della reaches for the intruder’s left shoulder, but she swings her arm in a wide circle.  “I said,” Della’s shadow says, “I can’t let you take that.”
                “Then it seems we are at an impasse,” the intruder responds with a shrug.  They regard each other for a long moment.  “You can run and fetch your dogs, but I will be gone.  Or I could try again for your trinket, but you would strike.  So.  Here we are.”
                Della, Thomas, and Alice watch the fight.  They see Della run the intruder through the heart with the sword, they watch Della flick the black ichor from the fuller, they observe Della’s departure from what seems to be a victory.  And then they watch as the intruder rises from the floor, gives a wink to the scrying window, and pulls the Sandstorm Hourglass from its pedestal.
                Then something very strange happened:  a door to the left of the scrying window opened, and two sets of footsteps ran across the floor.  A woman shouted, “Safe passage!  We got safe passage!”  The intruder smiled and nodded, her head tracking the footsteps as they passed behind the scrying window, out of view of Alice and the bloodkin.  A door at the other end of the corridor opened, and the footsteps disappeared as it shut.
                The intruder climbs back up the rope on which she had descended.  The rope itself is pulled up less than a minute later, and then Alice closes the scrying window.
                “Well,” Alice says after a beat.  “I can say for certain that that wasn’t any of ours.”
                “How can you be so sure,” Thomas asks.
                “Necromancy has been forbidden since the setting of the seven seals,” Alice says without missing a beat.  She inclines her head toward Thomas.  “Anyone who would do such a thing would set off seven different alarms in any of our headquarters.  It would be –“ she stammers.  “We would have bigger fish to fry than your tiny little trinket.”
                “So she wasn’t a vampire,” Della interjects in the ensuing silence.
                “No,” Alice says, pulling her chair back around to sit behind her desk.  “You fought a revenant.  Which is, in a word – worse.”
                “How worse,” Della says, drawing out the syllables with her mounting confusion.
                “Worse,” Alice says, “Like finding out your fever isn’t due to garden variety flu, but Martian Death Flu.”  She cocks her eyes, unsatisfied with the analogy.  “You got infected in the hospital,” she continues.  “It’s not a regular bug, it’s a super-bug.  And now you’re not sure what the prognosis is.”  She stares knowingly at Thomas.  “Now you need a wide-spectrum antibiotic.”
                “But we don’t know whether it will work or not,” Thomas finishes.  He breathes deeply.  “We just roll our dice and take our chances.”  Alice smiles grimly and nods, her point driven home.  Della looks between the two of them.
                “But wait,” Della says after a moment.  “I thought I killed her.  But – what’s a revenant?”
                Alice nods, props her elbows upon her desk, and steeples her fingers in rapid succession.  “A revenant is a reanimated corpse,” she says at last.  “You fought one.  She let you win.  You, by rights, should have thought you’d won.  Nevertheless,” Alice shrugs her shoulders and rolls her eyes, “You got played.”
                “And so she took the hourglass,” Della finishes.  She grits her teeth.  “While I wasn’t looking.”
                “That’s right.  So now the question is, what did she want with it?”  Alice looks pointedly at Thomas.
                “Don’t ask me,” he says with a shrug of deniability.  “I don’t even know what it was for.”  He and Alice regard each other for a moment, then Thomas shakes his head.  “This is all beside the point.  We know that she’s a puppet, but we need to know who’s pulling the strings.”
                Alice thinks for a moment before responding.  “Well,” she says, “There are two possibilities.”  She lets Thomas nod in comprehension before continuing.  “Either one of ours has worked around the seven seals,” and Alice rolls her eyes to communicate how seriously she takes that possibility, “Or someone is working from beyond the seven seals.”  She narrows an eye at Thomas to let him know how serious this possibility is.
                He takes a deep, deliberate breath before replying.
                “Your alarms have not been triggered,” he says.
                “Not a one,” Alice replies.
                “So that leaves us with the matter of who could work from beyond them.”
                Alice nods.  Thomas leans his elbows and steeples his fingers upon her desk.  “Narrow it down for me,” he says, narrowing his eyes.
                Alice’s eyes glow brightly for a moment, seem to stare beyond Della and Thomas.  “There’s not much to narrow it down from,” she says, her eyes darting along invisible threads.  “We’re looking at either a godlike mage, or the god of death himself.”
                “Wait,” Della says, shaking her head.  “You’re telling me,” she says to Thomas, “That there isn’t just magic that works however and whyever, but there are also gods who bring zombies into the world to do their bidding?”
                Thomas and Alice sigh, almost in unison.  “Listen,” Alice says, “You don’t know much of the world.  That’s fine.  We’ll give you a crash course in metaphysics, then.  The world exists in three planes,” and Alice’s fingers draw sparkling horizontal lines across Della’s field of view.  “We’ve got the Mortal Coil, where you and I live,” and the middle line sparkles and swirls.  “Then there’s the Ethereal Stream above, and the Howling Void below.”  The other sparkling lines brighten and darken, respectively.
                “Now,” Alice continues, “You, and I, and rocks and trees, and all living things and every bit of the world, we all call down the Stream to be what we are.”  Tiny sparkles stream down from the upper line to the middle, what Alice had dubbed the Mortal Coil.  “We do the things we do, and that’s that, as far as it goes.”  The sparkles flow down into the darker line.  “There’s waste energy, though, and that’s claimed by the Void.  It’s the force of entropy, as your physicists tell it:  the ‘tax’ on existence.”
                Figures in the illustrative Coil spark and dance about, gesturing hither and yon.  “We all call down the Stream in bits and pieces,” Alice continues, “But some of us are able to call it down more than others.”  One of the Mortal figures shines blue, and the stream flowing through it shines brighter as it passes through to the Void.  “We are able to work our will upon the world, but at a price.  Even as we call down the Stream to force our will upon the Mortal Coil, the Void reaches up and takes a piece out of us.”  The shining figure loses a substantial chunk of its luminosity, and widens its own stream to the Void.
                Della stares in rapt attention.
                “Light shows like this are child’s play,” Alice says, dismissing the apparitions with a swipe of her hand.  “But calling down material effects, such as, oh, a window on the world –” Alice gestures to the space where the scrying window once floated, “Or a trade of short-term luck for long-term fate, these require a bit more… substance.”  She absently taps the tallow on her desk.  “The Void can reach up and pull quite a bit out of us, if we don’t pay close attention.”  The light show fades.
                A moment passes.
                “So our hourglass was stolen,” Thomas says, after letting Della digest Alice’s lesson.  “I want to get it back.”
                “Well,” Alice says, tapping her chin, “There are easy ways, and hard ways.”  She regards the bloodkin Elder for a moment.  “You’ve already  increased your debt by having me scrye the theft itself.  You really ought to look into video security.”
                “We don’t register on camera,” Thomas says, shaking his head.  “You know that.”
                “It’s not for you or your kin,” Alice responds, rolling her eyes.  “It’s for situations like this.”
                “And if we’d had video cameras,” Thomas says, rolling his own eyes, “Then our thief would presumably have disabled them as she disabled the shock detectors on our safety glass.”
                “Fair point,” Alice says after consideration.  “I’ll talk to Jennie.  She’ll doubtless have someone who can turn you on to another lead.”  Thomas eyes her skeptically.  “No charge,” Alice says with a wave of her hand.
                “Very well,” Thomas says through his teeth.  “You know how to get a hold of me for whatever you need.”
                Alice nods.  “And for whatever you need,” she says with a wry smile.  “Those crazies at the end?  Any idea who they were?”  Thomas furrows his brow.  “No?  All right.  I’ll look into it.”  She leans back in her chair and steeples her fingers before her face.  “You need anything else?”
                “No,” Thomas says.  “I think we’re done for now.”
                “Righty-o, then,” Alice says as Thomas and Della walk out of her office.

                “So,” Della says, back in the Porsche.  “That went well.”  Thomas sets his jaw.  “She seems to be a real asset.  Not, like, a liability or anything.”
                Thomas looks Della in the eye as he pops the clutch, waiting to peel out from where their valet has left the vehicle.  “You will find, if you live long enough,” he says.  Thomas’ limbs jerk furiously, and the Porsche accelerates swift and smooth into the flow of street traffic.  “That a favor owed to a mage is weighed not by the debt incurred, but by the knowledge gained.”

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