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Behind him, the rest of the steagle emerged from the rent between the planes: a segmented tail that ended in a pair of sharp-edged pincers. These now joined the front of the creature in its attack on the barbthorn, and their reinforcement proved decisive. Though the tree’s thorned limbs continued to beat and tear at the steagle’s hide, raising a spray of pink ichor and gouging away wedges of flesh, the unequal battle was moving toward a conclusion. The tentacles and pincers tore the limbs from the tree and severed its roots from the stem, flinging the remnants into the hole that had been the crypt. The barbthorn’s roars became cries that became whimpers.
And then it was done. The steagle snapped and cut and broke the great tree into pieces, filled the hole in the earth with them. At the last, with discernible contempt, it arched its tail and, from an orifice beneath that appendage, directed a stream of red liquid at the wreckage. The wood and greenery burst instantly into strangely colored flames, and a column of oily smoke rose to the sky.
The steagle, somehow airborne, floated around the pyre, viewing it from several angles. Its passage brought it within range of the multicolored microcosm of the overworld, which hung in the air, untroubled by the violence wrought nearby. The steagle paused before the orb. Its eyeless face seemed to regard the kaleidoscopic play of colors that moved constantly across the globe’s surface. One of its minor tentacles reached out and stroked the object, paused for a moment as if deciding whether or not it fully approved of the thing’s taste, then curled around it and popped it whole into the steagle’s maw.
The mouth closed, the creature turned toward the rent in the membrane between the planes, and in less time than the man who called himself Grolion would have credited, it was through and gone. The air healed itself, and there was only the burning devastation of the tree and the shattered garden to indicate that anything had happened here,
The man had watched the final act from atop a rise some distance down the road. Here he had found Shalmetz and Groblens. The latter was too winded by the combination of pell-mell flight and a life-long fondness for beebleberry tarts, but the former had greeted him thusly: “Well, Grolion—if that is even an approximation of your name—you certainly invested that situation with a new dynamic.”
The traveler was in no mood to accept criticism; he answered the remark with a blow that sat Shalmetz down on the roadway, from where he offered no further comments. After a while, he and Groblens made their way back to the village. The other man waited until the eerie flames subsided. Toward evening, when all was still, he crept back to the manse.
The house had collapsed. The hole that had been the crypt was full of stinking char. Of his bag and its contents, he could find no trace. The only object left unscathed was the lead coffin, whose incised runes and symbols had somehow protected it from the otherworldly fire. It was not even warm.
The man used ropes and pulleys to haul the object from the pit. In the same outbuilding that had held the tackle, he found a two-wheeled cart. He lowered the coffin onto the vehicle and pushed it away from the stink and soot of the burned-out fire. He admired the emblems and sigils that decorated its sides and top; he was sure that they were of powerful effect.
When he had wheeled the cart out to the road, he set his fingers to the coffin’s lid and pried it loose. He had hoped for jewels or precious metals; he found only fast-rotting flesh and wet bones, with not even a thumbring or an ivory torc to reward his labors. He said a harsh word and threw death’s detritus into a roadside ditch.
Only the coffin itself remained. It might prove useful, if only for the figures carved into it. But now he saw that with the removal of the contents, the signs and characters were fading to nothing.
Still, he believed he could remember most of them. Tomorrow he would carve them into the lead, then cut the soft metal into plaques and amulets. These he could sell at Azenomei Fair, and who knows what possibilities might then arise?
BACK IN the early sixties, when I was busy becoming a teenager, my eldest brother was into science fiction. He would leave paperbacks and pulp mags around the house, and I would take them up and devour them. One was an issue of Galaxy with a story called “The Dragon Masters” by someone named Jack Vance. I read it and was transported. As I moved toward my twenties, whenever I had nickels and dimes enough, I would haunt used bookstores, vacuuming up sf as fast as I could. Any day that I came across a new Vance book or a mag with a new Vance story was a good day.
By my mid-thirties, I had pretty much stopped reading sf in favor of crime fiction. But I still bought and read anything new by Vance; once, when I was supposed to be on vacation, I lay on a hotel bed and did nothing all day but read Suldrun’s Garden, the first Lyonesse book. Now, forty-five years after I first encountered him, Jack Vance is the only author I reread, and I never cease to fall under the spell.
In a well-run world, prominent geographical features and wide, impressive plazas and boulevards would bear his name.
TERRY DOWLING The Copsy Door (#ulink_310e1f22-9606-502a-aa8a-18e0af044566)
ONE OF the best-known and most celebrated of Australian writers in any genre, winner of eleven Ditmar awards, four Aurealis Awards and the International Horror Guild Award, Terry Dowling made his first sale in 1982, and has since made an international reputation for himself as a writer of science fiction, dark fantasy and horror. Primarily a short story writer, he is the author of the linked collections Rynosseros, Blue Tyson, Twilight Beach and Wormwood, as well as other collections such as Antique Futures: The Best of Terry Dowling, The Man Who Lost Red, An Intimate Knowledge of the Night, Blackwater Days and Basic Black: Tales of Appropriate Fear. He has also written three computer adventures: Schizm: Mysterious Journey, Schizm II: Chameleon and Sentinel: Descendants in Time, and, as editor, produced The Essential Ellison, Mortal Fire: Best Australian SF (with Van Ikin) and The Jack Vance Treasury and The Jack Vance Reader (both with Jonathan Strahan). His most recent book is the fourth and final Tom Rynosseros collection, Rynemonn. Born in Sydney, he lives in Hunters Hill, New South Wales, Australia (www.terrydowling.com).
In the mordant tale that follows, one that takes us through an enigmatic doorway to a place outside of space and time, he shows us that the race isn’t always to the swift or the victory to the strong…
The Copsy Door TERRY DOWLING (#ulink_310e1f22-9606-502a-aa8a-18e0af044566)
When Amberlin the Lesser stepped into his workroom that spring morning, he found his manservant Diffin staring out of the Clever Window again. The workroom was in the uppermost chamber of the east tower of the manse Furness and looked out over a silvery broadwater of the Scaum, then across the Robber Woods to far Ascolais. It was where Diffin was always to be found when his chores were more or less done, watching the old red sun made young and golden again by the special properties of the glass.
Not for the first time that morning, Amberlin wondered if the strange lanky creature had found a new way to slip his holding spell.
“Diffin, I was clear in every particular. You were to consult the Anto brothers about the state of the Copsy Door and bring word at once.”
The loose-limbed creature trembled with what the ageing wizard hoped was appropriate contrition, but which he suspected was more likely suppressed mirth, then swung his long face reluctantly from the window.
“No, master. You were most specific. I wrote it down on my little slate, see? You said to fetch word and bring it to you here at once. Since here is here, I did precisely as you instructed and hurried right back.”
“But I was out in the garden. Someone had neglected to water the lillobays and quentians again. Did you not hear them weeping?”
“Not at all. My mind was firmly on my task. And since you were not here any longer—”
Amberlin raised his hand. “As you say. Well, now I am here and I am dreaming of penalties. What word from the brothers?”
“The Copsy Door has formed, true and sure, as you predicted, master, and will no doubt last the day before slipping off again. The brothers have been hiding it behind the baffle screen as you instructed and will continue to honor their agreement in every respect. Once you find a way inside, then it’s a full quarter for them of whatever is within.”
“To which their response was?”
“Nothing but the happiest of smiles, master, and an idle remark that perhaps a third share would mark you as a benefactor to watch. They are actually stalwart, good-natured fellows, clearly maligned in the tales of those who do not know them as well as you or I.”
“Indeed. You told them I am wary of any of the tricks for which they are also known?”
“Just so, master. They are not too sure of what ‘wary’ means in the sense you use it, but they said that it was always good to have the full measure of one’s skills appreciated.”
“You said nothing else?”
Diffin shook his loose-jowled head. “Only that my name was Diffin, in the event they had forgotten and there was a gratuity on offer.”
“They said nothing else?”
“Nothing. I would have written it on my slate. Ah, wait. Now I remember. That they would hope to expect you at mid-morning.”
“What! It is that now! Diffin, you are far too lax!”
The creature pulled at his long chin as if deep in thought. “Perhaps I wrote it down and the slate is faulty. That would explain much.”
“Perhaps you will benefit from fetching my Holding Book so we can refresh our memories on the more instructive aspects of Genial Compliance.”
“But, master, there is no time! While tidying up, I took the opportunity of placing that least kind of books safely in the west tower library to give it a change of outlook. Also, as you well know, the book is so heavy and now resides at the top of a very tall bookcase. Would it not be better if I saved you the trouble and made recompense by staying here and keeping a sharp and dutiful watch for strangers and vagabonds approaching?”
Amberlin turned, regarded the wonder of a golden sun in the clear blue sky of aeons past. “Through the Clever Window, of course?”
“Oh yes, master. There are erbs reported out by Callow Tree. If they dare come this way, then they will look so much friendlier under a yellow sun.”
CLOSE BY the confluence of the Scaum and the River Tywy, the archmage Eunepheos the Darke had once built the splendid shadow-manse of Venta-Valu, an edifice of cunning pentavaults and intricate schattencrofts, the whole set under six fine dormers crowned with ghost-chasers and spin-alofts in one of the classic styles of Grand Motholam.
The centuries had been kind to the structure, all things considered, but following Eunepheos untimely vanishment into the Estervoid, supposedly at the hands of his great rival Shastermon, steadily, inevitably, the cohesion spells had spoiled and Venta-Valu had fallen into ruin. The intricate shadowforms were soon plundered by visiting adepts and shadow-factors, and much of what remained was leached away by shadow-wights and other creatures drawn to compressed darkness, so that, by the 21
Aeon, the residence was little more than a handful of glooms and hollows scattered along the riverbank, too insubstantial to bother with.
Except for whatever lay behind the Copsy Door. Eunepheos had been as wily as any of his fellows, and had installed what appeared to be a particular cellar or basement that remained both sufficiently corporeal and yet resistant to all attempts at entry. Sealed by a here-again, goneagain Copsy Door calibrated to the protracted time-values of its maker’s favourite requiem, it was set into the embankment well above the Scaum, as if left as a deliberate taunt to the greedy and the curious.
Amberlin believed he finally knew the way in.
Now, studying his reflection in the Safe Mirror as he prepared himself for his journey, he was by and large pleased with what he saw. He was in his final years, no doubt, like the old sun itself, but was still impressively tall and certainly formidable-looking in his dark green robe set with old-gold frogging, maiden-thread serentaps, and gilt curlicues. His long grey hair and stylish tripartite beard held by its three opal clasps still had enough flecks of black, and he liked to think his eyes were bright with resolve and old-world cunning rather than an excess of brandywine, rheum, and too many late nights spent reading in front of the fire. He felt as ready for the Door and the brothers with their interminable schemes as he could ever hope to be.
And while Amberlin knew better than to let the Copsy Door be the sole answer to his troubles, hope remained the only meal worth having these last few decades. If not this, then what else was there? Nearly a century before, at the full blush of his powers, he had known upwards of fifty spells and cantraps. He could recite them from memory—the intricate syllables and pronunciations uttered just so—even the most exacting convolutes, glossolades, and prattelays, with no need of spell books or prompt lists, no reliance on the often fractious, sometimes duplicitous sandestins and daihaks in his employ to whisper embarrassing reminders.
But then, even as years and failing memory had worn those fifty-plus spells down to a zealously guarded twelve, Amberlin had experienced his worst of days.
In the workings of an ancient feud, specifically a longstanding dispute over the ownership of a particularly fine gossawary tree in the Robber Woods, that spiteful parvenu Sarimance the Aspurge had blighted him with Stilfer’s Prolexic Inflect, so that the syllable patterns of every spell Amberlin then uttered, every conjuration that he could still remember, were tweaked, spoiled, and sent awry in some way or other: by a lengthened vowel here, a protracted consonant there, a sudden diaresis shift or interogative. Something once as trivial as renewing the Genial Compliance on Diffin—an utterance of seconds—now required an hour of careful concentration, while only rarely did a spontaneous conjuration prove effective in any way.
What an embarrassment to engage in that trifling exchange with Tralques at the Iron Star Inn that day and then, having invoked his greatest display spell, Aspalin’s Fond Retrieval, being left to explain why he had countered the upstart’s dazzling conjuration of a troupe of performing silver dryads with nothing more than a lowly earthenware teapot reciting bawdy ballads from the Land of the Falling Wall. What an agony to escape the deodand at Wayly Corners, then from his refuge in the tossing heights of a lamplight tree see his Astemic Sunderblast turn an entire hillside into yellow flowers with softly chiming wind-bells. The deodand had either been discouraged by the sheer novelty of the display, or had more likely wandered off out of boredom, but Amberlin had been left to justify to neighbors and curious passers-by why he had preferred to stay aloft swaying in the breeze for four hours instead of simply blasting the creature outright.
The whole affair had given Amberlin a not altogether unwelcome reputation for subtlety, capriciousness, and new-found stoicism. Some even called him, and never entirely in jest, Amberlin the Philosophe, and drew pleasing if somewhat off-handed parallels with his fabulous namesakes, Amberlins I and II, two of the mightiest after Phandaal in all the long history of Grand Motholam. It could have been worse.
But Amberlin knew it was only a matter of time before the spiteful Sarimance, that upstart Tralques, the Anto brothers themselves, or even that wilful mooncalf Diffin brought forth the various bits and pieces they knew and saw how it truly was, and he found himself the laughing-stock of Almery, Ascolais, and beyond, the punch-line of the season’s joke.
Amberlin glanced at the antique chronometer floating above his desk. It was well past time to be on his way. Fortunately, the housekeeping and protection spells for Furness required but a single one-syllable word, and today took merely fifteen subvocalized attempts before luck had it safely in place. Amberlin strode briskly down the path, then, with a single glance up at Diffin gazing at a sun that no longer was, he gripped his staff firmly and set off across the water-meadow to where the remains of Venta-Valu stood in the roseate morning light.
THOUGH AMBERLIN’S few remaining spells had become ordeals of frustration and dismay, with even a text as fundamental to sound wizardry as Killiclaw’s Primer of Practical Magic hardly worth the trouble of opening, he possessed other adjuncts borrowed, bought or bequeathed to him through a long lifetime that required no utterances at all. If he were reasonably careful, he could still present as someone to be approached with caution and crossed at great peril.
One such possession was the antique baffle screen the Anto brothers now used to hide both themselves and the cellar Eunepheos had wrought so long ago. As Amberlin strode along the riverbank, he fitted the yellow key-glass coin to his left eye and revealed both the Copsy Door and the brothers wilfully hiding amid the more substantial of the old manse footings.
It was hard to know what passed for humor or wit in those sly, selfserving minds. Now, by remaining quiet, it seemed as if they wanted to make Amberlin lose face by having to ask that they reveal themselves.
“Let us be about it then!” he called, taking care to direct his gaze precisely at where each was concealed, and was pleased at how swiftly the grins left the startled, moony faces. Now both scrambled to their feet and stood, burly, copper-skinned and practically hairless in their humble village work-smocks and thick leather aprons, giving silly grins again.
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