Monday, November 19, 2012

Tooth and Claw: Chapter Six, part two

Note:  This has been moved to the start of chapter seven.

                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 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 had 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.  “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, taking a different 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 halls 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 – reaches for the detector on her 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 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 own 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.

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