Spell of Fate
by Mayer Alan Brenner
Copyright 1990-2007 by Mayer Alan Brenner. First published by DAW Books, New York, NY, November, 1990. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivs 3.0 License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0 or write to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, U.S.A.
“Auntie Leen! Auntie Leen! Look what I found!”
Auntie Leen, also known as the Keeper of the Imperial Archives, raised her eyes above the lenses of her reading glasses as the three-year-old figure of her nephew skidded to an uncertain halt next to her desk. In the midst of a frenetic bustle of waving arms she could see that both hands were empty, and the pockets exhibited no more than their typical bulge. “Very well,” said Leen. “I’m looking. What are you hiding, and where are you hiding it?”
He was tugging insistently at her hand. “Here! Come here!”
Robin had been rummaging somewhere off in the back, playing hide-and-seek with himself among the uneven aisles and coating himself with his usual cloud of grime. With her free hand, Leen slid an acid-free marker into the ancient book and closed the crumbly cover, leaving it perched on the reading stand, and picked up her lantern. Although her work area was liberally furnished with candles, thus slowing the deterioration in her eyesight, the deeper reaches of the archive had only the illumination one brought to them. How had Robin been able to see whatever he’d discovered?
As Robin trotted ahead of her off into the darkness, a blue glow spread out ahead of him, lighting his way through the crates and leaning piles of scrolls and books. Leen scowled to herself. She must be getting prematurely dotty, on top of blind, or perhaps it was mere engrossment in the book, although that was an excuse with more charity than Leen was usually willing to allow herself. Nevertheless, absentmindedness was the least dangerous explanation she could claim. Puttering about in the dust while mumbling non sequiturs was professionally expected of an archivist, but when you stopped backing it up with a lucid mind it meant trouble. One day you’re forgetting the trick tunic you yourself had given the boy with the very goal of making it safer for him to prowl through your domain, as she had done at his age when it was her grandfather at the great desk, and soon you’ve advanced to fuddling the sequence for disarming the door wards, with the immediate sequelae of an expanding cloud of archivist-shaped vapor and, of course, the election of a new archivist.
Robin pulled up next to a long spill of books and more than a few freely floating pages and stood hopping impatiently from foot to foot. The glow from the runes on his shirt diffused out through a hanging cloud of fresh dust. Come to think of it, Leen did vaguely remember a crash and thud some ten pages earlier in her own reading, but it hadn’t seemed nearly serious enough to rouse her. Leen took a look around. They appeared to have arrived at a wall, or at least a room-sized pillar. There were many similar spots around the catacombs. “Show me what you’ve found, Robin,” Leen said patiently.
Robin flopped down on his knees and felt around under the next-to-lowest shelf.
The bottommost shelf was a single thick slab of wood extending to the floor, and the next shelf above it was only a book’s-span higher, so Robin was about the largest person who would have been able to discover something that far down. Three or four books from the lowest shelf had been removed, judging by the gaps in the line of snugly fitting spines; without the added clearance, even Robin’s three-year-old-sized arm wouldn’t have had space for maneuver. “Watch!” Robin commanded.
Leen barely heard a soft click. The bookcase made a much louder creak and pivoted slowly away from them into the wall. An opening large enough for a person of Robin’s size appeared on the right side, then continued to widen until a Leen-and-a-half could have fit comfortably through. Robin took hold of her hand again and dragged Leen toward it. How long the shelves and books had been there was anyone’s guess. Leen had found a journal kept by the fourth archivist before her own tenure which set forth his theories. He had been the only member of his particular dynasty, if she recalled correctly, which explained his works not being handed down through the line as her own family had done, although in his case that was not the only plausible explanation. On the basis of flimsy (not to say cryptic) evidence he had speculated that the structure of the archive catacomb itself dated from the time of the Dislocation, if not before. Leen had her doubts. After all, the same archivist had apparently gone loony himself soon after writing his conjectures, closing his career by triggering the trivial third-bend gate and letting loose a construct that had taken half the palace strike team and three senior-level magicians to dispel. His flattened image was still embedded in the wall just past the bend, the expression on the stretched face oddly untroubled. Her grandfather had hung a tapestry over it.
Behind the sliding bookcase was a narrow alcove and the top of a tightly wound circular stair. Leen followed the unstoppable Robin down it, refusing to give in to a sudden maternal rush and tell him to watch his step. She kept her left hand on the central support pole and glanced up periodically as the stairs wound around it; it was fully two complete turns, or perhaps even a quarter more, before they reached bottom.
Leen had no idea where they were, compared to the overall layout of the Archives and the catacombs and the palace complex as a whole. The palace was the kind of place where outside and inside measurements rarely added up, anyway, with the discrepancy as likely as not to indicate that the inside dimension was significantly the larger. Still, the Archive occupied the lower levels of its corner of the complex, so it appeared reasonable to presume that the staircase had taken them down into the midst of solid rock. Or into what she had previously assumed, for lack of any particular reason to think otherwise, was solid rock.
The floor was cold and certainly felt like unbroken bedrock rather than some construction team’s marble or concrete sub-basement. Leen was no longer quite as willing to give it the benefit of doubt as she had been even moments before, though. The other two features of the room were suggestive. One was the wall that faced her at the bottom of the stair. It too was solid, and cold, and obviously thick, but unlike the floor, it was metal. Metal. Not a crude iron alloy or a thin beaten sheet of copper or some lumpish bronze implement or even a piece of the newer structural steels, either, but a deadly serious, absolutely flat, medium-gray slab that reflected its dull sheen beneath the centuries’-long accumulation of sifted dust. She had never seen a piece of metal like that in her life. As far as Leen knew, there had never been a piece of metal like that anywhere in the world. Since the Dislocation, of course. Although there was no evidence of hinge, lock, or control, Leen was certain the slab of metal was a door.
It wasn’t a certainty born of unfettered intuition. The wall adjoining the metal one on its right had its own feature. From the level of her waist to a spot above her head and for a span of an arm-and-a-half or so in width, the solid rock wall, retaining the same texture and feeling of cold stone, turned inexplicably transparent behind its coating of filth. Leen slid a finger through the grime. As the clear rock became clearer behind her finger, she could see that her initial impression was no mirage. The transparent area glowed a pale green, the green washing over her finger in a faint necrochromatic smear. Where her fingertip pressed against the wall a brighter green spot appeared beneath it. She brought her eye close to the smudge her single wipe had left.
Although it was difficult to tell exactly how thick the crystal actually was, it was incontrovertibly not thin. The depth of her forearm, at least. That it did have a far side, though, was also evident, since Leen could see something beyond it - a circular spot of green, coin-sized. A light. Not a flame, or a sorcerous torch, or a rune like the ones on Robin’s tunic, but a light of some different type entirely, a light that glowed its perfect, unceasing, monochromatic glow in the darkness where no eye had seen it for-
The light turned orange, flashed once. Then it winked off.
Leen’s head snapped back as though the light had leapt forward through the crystal and slapped her instead. She shook her head once, trying to still through sympathetic magic, she supposed, her whirling thoughts. She looked down at Robin; he was happily pounding away at the metal door, making not the slightest dent or sound, except for the very mild thump of his small hands against the material. Leen discovered she was rather proud of him, even in the midst of her quite un-Archivist-like mental turmoil. Even as the young child he was, he was revealing the appropriate inclinations of a first-class Archivist himself. One of them, unfortunately, was dredging up things better left hidden. Still, he had most likely finished his part; now it was her turn. Leen told herself to remember to get him something special for bringing her such an interesting puzzle. Interesting? Well, this was inter ...