| An Angel Cycle
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Shan considered in midair that there is not ever such a time for touching as when smiling. He smiled, experimentally; the Angel laughed in response and teased his hair. It began to slow, then, and he Circled away to a darker place and sank to the Floor of the world, his body's light flickering restlessly over the Rings of the Web nearby. Coming to a stop, he pulled himself upright and examined his jacket. Studs were wearing thin, now, and he resolved to remember the problem in the nearest future when time and means and places were aligned in such a way that it might be remedied with least and quickest fuss.
Walking was a treasure. He continued onward towards the darkness, and as he did there was a rustle. Stopping, Shan turned to the right and waited from his vantage within the Web as a small and dirty figure emerged from a drainage niche in the wall beyond and extended a hand.
"Master, it is you, is it not?" The hand swayed with uncertainty, and Shan grinned once more and put out his palm. The figure smiled in relief and joy; touched his hand to Shan's. "Master, please, I must speak with you on matters most now and fast. Hardness comes and darkness follows, and ere we Silver once more all things must be met that come but once a frost. Here in Downbelow the trouble stirs, and Master, in Upabove must it be set aright."
At these words of trouble and foreboding Shan's grin left him, but he nodded and followed the other into the niche and thence into the tunnels that lay beyond, a different world from Web. Shan was not a Waterman; he did not know the twists and turns and spins of this darker wetter place. The walls glowed silently here but not with stuff of Dreams; rather with cold dim glow of Pusher fields to keep the swirling wastes from clinging to the walls. They moved through six inches of muck and detritus; Shan's guide with the fluid textured walk of the veteran wader and Shan in a field of six inches of dry barren tunnel that followed his feet, leaving silver ripples behind on the murky waters.
After perhaps ten minutes, they reached an intersection and the figure paused, then motioned to Shan. Obligingly, Shan raised his hand; a silver blossom of actinic radiance lit the tunnels in all directions for the briefest moment then faded to ocher and to reds, but by that time the other had set off resolutely down one passage, assured that all was well.
As they walked, Shan passed his time by counting and illuminating individual myriad united impossible fragile immortal waterdrops as they performed their kinetic trade of height for speed, energy slipping across the barriers from potential to kinetic with no hesitation of resistance, to meet the waters below in bursts of crowned jeweled elegance of microseconds' length and ripples of chaos echoes.
* * *
Mtubi awoke with a gradual realization of the light in his room. Although the blinds were drawn, they were passing a diffuse luminescence which, he realized shortly, was abnormal. Sitting up, he scrubbed his hands over his face, yawned thrice, and stretched before examining the window again. It was still glowing. The color, however, was not one which he could recall ever seeing before, and it took a shocked moment for the memories of the previous night to rush through his head. Once they had settled, the answer became clear; infrared radiation from the material, warmed by the sun, was flooding the room.
He went to shower and dress, thoughtfully.
On the way to the station, Mtubi experimented with his vision. Apparently he could revert to a 'normal' human range through a slight conscious effort. If he relaxed, however, the strange shades of his new spectrum would ripple into his eyes, showing him heat and cold, electromagnetics and the strange pulsing movement of the blood behind the skin of his fellow passengers.
There was no response from the Circles on his skin inside the Transit capsule; apparently the shielding designed to protect the passengers from the Magfield prevented them from reacting. They had reacted weakly on the platform; the weaker station shields apparently leaked enough of the field effect to reach him.
"Red Plaza Eight. Red Plaza Eight. All passengers please be cautious of Capsule doors." The nunciate softly intruded, chivvying him from the Capsule onto the platform. Mtubi moved towards the exit along with the rush, and winced as the scanning laser seared across his newly sensitized retinas. The doors slid back; he ascended to the Plaza and waved at Velasco, who was dispensing egg-base breakfast sandwiches to customers. Velasco grinned in reply, making change, and Mtubi continued on into the stationhouse.
His office had failed to tidy itself since he'd left. So had his desk. The result, naturally, was several pounds of paper which he spent three hours working on, and was astonished to note that the level had apparently dropped as he was heading out for lunch, before realizing with chagrin that the office mail had not yet arrived. Sighing, he went for his sandwich. Velasco was waiting.
"Hey, Mister Policeman. Better from yesterday?"
"Hi Velasco. Yeah, better. No worries." Mtubi traded bills for the sandwich, juggled it with his soda for a moment before settling on to the low wall near Velasco's cart. Business, for the moment, was slow; Velasco turned to him, leaning against his livelihood.
"You look hungry,eh? Maybe need another," the vendor grinned as Mtubi wolfed down half the sandwich in rapid order.
"Mmmph. Mmmhmm," was all he could get past the falafel. Velasco turned to prepare seconds. Mtubi leaned back, moving slightly to put his back against a nearby tree. Looking up at the canopy, he watched the newfound colors of the sun flickering through the branches and smiled hugely.
Absentmindedly, he finished the sandwich and crumpled the wrapping paper, pausing to rub the Circle underneath his sleeve. It was cool to his touch, despite feeling warm to the wrist.
He regarded the wrapping paper. The garbage can was perhaps fifteen feet down the wall from his seat. Experimentally, he tossed the paper in the air lightly, willing it to move. Nothing unusual happened; the paper fell gracefully back into his grasp. He frowned at it, then laughed at his reaction to finding a limitation in his talents. Paying Velasco for the second sandwich, coins flickered in his hands, a brief cold rush of silver threading the needle of reality and Dreams while tumbling down the gravity well; tinkling in compressive impacts as they clashed in the air and in his palm. Silver winked back, reflecting yellow Sun and blue Sky and ultraviolet from the glare above. Silver. Something about a flash of silver...the boy.
Remembering the sudden discontinuity in the Transit tunnel when the boy in leather had disarmed the mugger, Mtubi tossed the paper again. When it was at the top of its arc, he thought Silver. Reflection. The feeling of silver rushed through his head, unbidden once begun in a flow of light and bending of photons into translucent arcs of mirrored scenery; tracing the energy flows between the hand and the tree and the can and the paper which bounced slightly, upwards, and remained steady in the air, a silvery flicker beneath it. Mtubi jerked upright, startled, then hastily dropped the paper (without being quite sure, as he did so, how he did it) as Velasco turned at the sudden motion. By the time he had gotten around, however, the paper was safely back in Mtubi's hand.
At Velasco's curious look, Mtubi grinned sheepishly. "Must have dozed off. It's nice out here."
"Oh yah, you betcha. This is the season for working outside, no question. You done with that?" Velasco motioned at the crumpled paper in Mtubi's hand, and Mtubi tossed to to him nodding. His paper ball vanished into the garbage in a practiced flicker, and he turned to his second sandwich.
* * *
Shan followed the Waterman with only a trace of curiosity as to their destination. He knew, the other knew, and the Dreams told that they would arrive in time, shortly, and before long; he played with molecules around his hands to pass the time as they walked. Flickers of excited particles flamed about his hands to bounce light from water and walls, and the Waterman turned excitedly. When Shan saw his face, he hurriedly doused the Dreamlight; but when he gestured in inquiry the other hushed him and turned to continue.
Shrugging, Shan followed as they traversed the waters.
Perhaps two klicks later, the Waterman slipped into a side passage, motioning. Shan slid in after. Worming through perhaps five meters of narrow passageway, they emerged into a medium-sized circular chamber of living rock. Within were gathered several of the Downbelow. They turned as Shan entered, and quieted their discussions, moving to the walls before seating themselves in a semicircle and turning to face the center. Shan's guide motioned him to the middle and seated himslef against the wall in the last empty spot.
Shan moved to the center of the circle and sat crosslegged, shifting his jacket into a more comfortable position, and waited.
There was a moment of silence while the Watermen looked at each other. Finally, they all finished by looking at Shan's guide, who shrugged resignedly and turned to Shan. "Master, there are things awry in the underdark. Things we cannot heal; things we cannot feel; things we cannot guide or channel. We ask your aid."
Shan looked at each of them in turn, thinking. He felt the Dreams leave him momentarily, and his self center fully in the chamber. They were his responsibility, really; there were no others to whom they could turn. He raised a hand, and received silence as they watched him. He looked once at the ceiling, then back at his guide, and nodded once, firmly. Although there was no speech, there was a palpable whisper of relief from those around the room. Shan held up his hand once more and pointed to his guide, then gestured. Name?
"My name, Master? Theole. Theole of the Blue." Shan nodded again, then signed wait. When there was a pause, he stood and called a Circle, reaching through it to touch a soft palm. The hand beyond vision and reality clutched his, then Marren stepped through the Circle into the soft glow of the chamber, her leather and shades winking back the greenish hue of the room. She smiled, once, and silver light flashed from behind her shades. Shan hugged her to him, and she kissed him once, teasingly, beneath his ear. She was shorter than he. Releasing her, he gestured at Theole, and sent her the man's name.
"Theole?" Marren asked. When the other nodded, she patted Shan's hip, and he returned to his cross-legged position. Marren sat next to him, snuggled slightly against his side, and they returned their attention to the Waterman. He leaned forward to elaborate on his pronouncement.
"Riders, there have been times in recent past when all that was has been put astray. The dance of chaos little in the Web that caught Master Shan was but one; there have been others. There are Planars among us, perhaps, or others whom we know but cannot see. They are not Trogs; they tend not the Web. Rather they hide from those above, and in their flight seek to rend and smash. Much light has left the Web since they have come; and though those above have long since sped to restore to it the silver, yet there may come a time when to do so they may be forced to enter the Web in numbers, weights and light we cannot dispel. If 'twere to come to pass then all that we have, have become, and will be, all will be as for naught; the Angel having passed us by a-night, never to return."
"Master, Rider, we ask that you journey among us and the Web in silver and in flame until the wound in Angel's realm is healed and gone, and those from whom we hide are gone into the light and the dark is sealed and safe once more." He bowed his head, and settled back against the wall.
Marren looked at Shan. He jerked his head, inviting her to continue. She smiled once; turned back to Theole.
"Theole, you must pardon me; I speak as Planar-become-Rider, and my words are not as you are accustomed to." Theole held his hands out in polite protest; she smiled, waved him down and continued. "Honored Waterman, Rider Shan and myself swear to you now that we will do what we are able and what we must to protect you and yours. We ask for any information you and the others have or may come across on where these incidents occur; and anything else you might find. You can reach us in the usual way. Is that acceptable?"
Theole smiled, nodding. There was a rustle as the company stood, and Theole approached to clasp first Shan's, then Marren's hands between his own. Shan smiled, and held out his palm. Theole's face lit, and he produced from within his cloaks a small glass phial filled with blue liquid.
Shan turned, gesturing, and although surprised, the others present drew forth similar phials, with fluids of varying hues within. When all were held out to him from the walls, making a smaller semicircle within that of the company, Shan closed his eyes and called the Deams up within him, giving what he had been gifted with by the Angel in a silent roaring glacial fire of the Ride; the energy pulsing from within to Light the chamber in swirls of Silver and of Gold. Metal hues, flickering, passing through nonexistent mighty prismatic foldings to emerge in all the colors of the spectrum plus a few others besides, to strike the phials held by the Watermen in a spray of colors and heated firmament as the phials glowed, a brilliant display of power and hue, and the Watermen tucked them away within their cloaks once more. Shan staggered slightly, spent, and Theole approached to lay his hand against the Rider's cheek.
Shan's smile, undiminished by his effort, answered him, and the Watermen filed silently from the chamber. Marren dropped the shield of Silver that she had thrown up to avoid interfering with the transfer, and hugged him.
"Love, that was beautiful. As always." She drew back far enough to see into his eyes. "We need to get you a date with an Angel, now now now." Shan nodded, still smiling, and she led him from the room, through her Circle, into the metallic slumbering world of the Web, where they waited atop a Ring.
An Angel Passed.
The Riders dropped, and it pulled them along at breakneck hurtling frozen velocity through the grey and Vector-lit tunnel of the Web.
* * *
"Sarge?" The head poked in the doorway and assumed a look of horror at the stacks of paper on his desk.
"Yes, Harris, what is it?" Mtubi gratefully shoved aside the current stack and dropped his stylus, flexing cramped fingers. The other entered and closed the door, then looked about bemusedly. Mtubi gestured at a chair, and his subordinate shrugged, then slid a stack of paper from the offered bit of furniture and sat.
"Um, sarge, it's about the skell you brought in from Transit."
"Have they ID'ed him yet?"
"Nope, that's one problem; the other is that he seems to have no idea who he is."
"Bullshit. He's not going to get away with that one."
"Well, it looks like he is gonna, 'cause the Medtechs all say he's not faking."
"Why? He didn't get more than a bump on the head-" Mtubi drew up short. There was a brief confused moment and a flash of silver, and the mugger was sprawled against the wall of the tunnel. He shook his head.
"Boss? What is it?"
"Nothing. Nothing. Ah, have they gone through his personals?"
"Yeah, 'course. First thing. Nothing, though."
"How about the powergun? Was there a serial number on it?"
"No, it was filed off, no mean trick in itself; the damn thing's impressed into the diamond flashguide in the main chamber. The techs say it's a miracle he didn't flaw the guide and have the whole damn thing blaze up on him. Apparently the flashguide was narrowed, which erased the number but kept its shape correct. Bronstein in Arms told me that you lose some range and power due to a less efficient 'packetizing' of the plasma, but-"
"Skip it. Who made the thing, then?"
"It's a Regulus SA Nine/Five. That's for sure. Problem is that without the serial number…" Harris trailed off and shrugged.
"Right. Send a full set of pix of the thing to Regulus anyway; maybe the models differed enough they can at least give us a lot number. In the meantime, who was the cit that got coshed?"
"Oh, that's an easy one. His name is-" Harris fumbled his notebook out of his pocket, flipped through it- "Sanderson. He's District chief for Transit Ops; maintenance, tunnel work, etc. etc. He's okay; got off with a bump on the head, nothing taken."
Mtubi looked up from thought at the last. "Nothing taken because the skell had no time? Or nothing taken because he was supposed to get worse, and that was the point of the whole thing?"
"No idea, boss. As far as I know, you were there too fast for it to have gone any further either way."
"Okay, but why in the middle of the Plaza like that? Whoever this guy is, he had to know that he couldn't get away with anything serious that took more than a couple of seconds, and there's always off-duty cops hanging about there."
"Maybe he was going to cry for a medic, call it a heart attack, take his wallet?"
"That's damn thin. Why not just pick on someone in a safer place?"
"Dunno. What d'you think?"
"I think this guy was targeted." Mtubi stood and moved out from behind the desk, pausing to rummage in a precarious pile of forms balanced atop a defunct copier. Finding one in the middle, he skimmed it, still talking. "Here. List of muggings in the Central and Plaza districts over the past month; we got a memo because Transit people seem to be getting hit with much greater frequency."
"Okay, playing advocate here, is that because Transit HQ's across Plaza from us? Maybe they're just a lot of them around."
"Nope. They put in the logs for the past-" Mtubi flipped pages –"eight weeks. The Transit personnel hits have only happened in the past two. In the six weeks prior to that, one Transit employee was mugged out of a total of fifty-six incidents of all kinds, four violent. In the last two weeks, fourteen have been hit, fifteen with our boy yesterday."
Harris leaned back, looking a bit disturbed. "Christ, I hate it when the things are late too, but that doesn't mean I'm going to take it out on the guys that run the system. What about the perps?"
"No information. Only caught two of them; both small-time — wait a minute."
Harris rocked forward at the pause. "Something?"
"Yeah. Look." Mtubi passed over the form, pointed to a line. Harris read it quickly aloud, brow furrowing:
"Blah, blah, unknown ID, blah, powergun? Filed off serial number? What the hell's going on?"
"That," said Mtubi grimly, "is a very, very good question. Where the hell are they getting these things anyhow? I see maybe two a year; they're hot, and the military doesn't let Regulus build that many of them. Now two street hitters have them? Both attacking Transit employees? Within two weeks? No way."
"I'm with you. Hey, it says the gun from this prior hit got stuck in Evidence. His court date hasn't come up yet. Think it's still there?"
Mtubi smiled toothily.
Harris sighed. "Yeah, I know, I know, I'm going. Gawd, boss, I hate the forms down there." He broke off as Mtubi theatrically surveyed his desk. "Okay, okay, but I'm a grunt, and you're the boss. Seems like you should pay for that somehow…" his voice faded as he left the office, eager body language belying his griping as he headed downstairs for Evidence.
* * *
Tunnel walls reflecting the pinkish coolness of his hue, Varien of the Rose crept along the storm drain. One hand, within his robes, was clutched tightly to the warm pulsing heat of a phial, his hand blocking the hard-edged glow that emanated from it. The other pulled him slowly along the rough concrete floor of the tunnel, pebbles and gravel within the cement matrix slowly shaving skin from his hand.
He held the phial against his side, where the blood issued forth in slow pointless rivulets that stained the robes beneath him and the floor behind him with trails of darkness deeper than and hidden by the gloom. A rat (or mouse, Varien couldn't tell) flushed from the shadows ahead of him and darted past, headed for the safer dark of the tunnels through which he'd come. Varien smiled ruefully, pressing the phial tighter. The blood was slowing, rosy light weaving the injured tissues and coagulated fluids together into scarred but whole flesh; but the light from the phial was fading as its energy was spent in reckless floods. Varien struggled to a sitting position against one wall of the drain and lifted his robe to inspect his side.
Almost done. Closing his eyes, he pressed the dimming phial to the few remaining spots, wincing as the torn flesh wrinkled and flowed together. Finally, his wound healed, he gasped in relief and tucked the phial away in a pocket within the robe before staggering to his feet and continuing on his way with one hand remaining in contact with the solidity of the wall to guide and support him. For the thousandth time, it seemed, he closed his eyes and Called, but there was no answer. Whether this was due to the weakening of his power, or the fear of his brethren, he did not know; charitably, he assigned the blame to his reduced circumstances and pressed on.
The water avoided his feet, with studious feigned indifference. The ripples of the cold rush parted several inches before his toes and spun around his soles before reflooding the area immediately behind his boots. The clear area was slowly shrinking, he noted, as his power waned further. With a slight relaxation of his frame, the water poured eagerly forth to break against his boots rather than avoid them. The energy saved from this small economy was of a miniscule scale, but at the present it seemed to throb in readiness as it built within him.
Behind him some several hundred meters, the intruders followed. He could, through long familiarity, hear the soft splashing of their march. Turning his head rearwards in the now pitch darkness, his retinae flared slightly with the impact of stray photons from their portable floodlights despite the many twists and curves which separated them. They were coming steadily closer, and Varien turned determinedly about and continued to stumble down the drainage tunnel.
So intent was he on the wall with which he navigated, the tree branch caught in the current passed entirely unnoticed, and as his ankle turned on it, he barely had time to clutch frantically at the pocket holding the phial before falling heavily to the floor and hearing the sickly crack of his skull against the unyielding surface.
There was silence for a moment while the stars cleared from his vision leaving a darkness shot through with whorls and streaks of phosphene color. They failed to fade, and he realized as if from a great distance that the reason for this was that they weren't artifacts in his vision, but the flickering reflections of the floodlights drawing closer back down the tunnel. He made a single herculean effort to rise, but failed and lay back instead, gasping as the frigid water passed around his head in burbling chaos patterns.
The first light drew even with him; then another, and another, and finally five figures holding lanterns were circled about him. There were murmurs of a hurried consultation; then, one lantern clicked off. As its owner brought up the Planar weapon, Varien closed his eyes, uncapped the phial within his robe, and in a smooth movement brought the phial out into the light, upside down. Rose lightning spilled from it, and this final expenditure of his energy shot through him in a sudden giddy burst. As he finished forming the Circle, the gun fired.
Varien died immediately, his head burnt beyond recognition; however, the powergun bolt hit the small silver section of space immediately before his forehead and split into thousands of actinic blue needles. While the majority of them rushed on to sink their energy into Varien, others lanced out and upwards at crazy angles. None of the surrounding victims remained unscathed, and shouts of pain and surprise coincided momentarily with the crazed strobing of swinging lantern beams, until one of the ricocheting energy spikes pierced the butt of the powergun stuck into one of the remaining four men's belt and the chargepack it contained.
The resulting flare of plasma vaporized all liquids for fifty yards up and down the tunnel, including water, glass, and blood.
Then the steam receded and the water rushed back in to cover the blackened horror where the group had stood.
* * *
Theole bowed his head at the sudden flat whoom from the tunnels, feeling Varien's last tight fierce triumph before the black. Weeping silently, he turned away and began to run as best he was able through the narrow passages, his help having been too late. The sadness was there, as expected, but Theole was shamed to feel the core of anger there as well, and he clutched his burning cobalt phial to his breast as he half ran, half stumbled through the underdark, wishing for the clarity of the Rider's dreams.
Master, he called through his tears, master? Master Shan? Help me, please, master, Varien is dead. Varien has been killed, master, oh, please, answer-
The answer, when it came, shocked him to the core, unfamiliar and tentative.
HELLO? WHO IS THIS?
Master? Theole stumbled around a corner into an alcove of darkness, wet and stones and settled down to his haunches. Hiding the phial's brightness with his body, he closed his eyes and called again. Master Shan?
WHO IS THIS?
Master, this is Theole of the Blue.
THEOLE OF THE…BLUE?
Yes. Varien has been taken by Planars; his water is mixed with the earth. Please, we need your aid.
There was no reply, and Theole hid, and wondered, and feared.
* * *
Mtubi, waiting for Harris' return from the evidence room, was leafing through the Transit muggings report when the voice came, shocking the paper from his grasp and causing him to reach out and grasp his chair arms in reflexive fear.
Master Shan? Help me, please, master, Varien is dead. Varien has been killed, master, oh, please, answer...
"Hello?" Mtubi glanced at his phone; there were no indicators lit. He punched the Answer key anyhow. "Who is this?"
The answer came, but not from the phone. Mtubi finally realized that the words were forming in his head, and the regular background babble of the Bookings area outside had vanished. The voice sounded, querulous, and Mtubi repeated the question.
Master, this is Theole of the Blue.
"Theole of the-" he stopped, looking around the office, then continued without speaking. Blue?
The voice answered, speaking of wrongs, of death, and pain; Mtubi shuddered at the wracking grief before grabbing up his trenchcoat and bolting for the exit.
He burst from the lobby onto the Plaza, looking about him frantically, but there was no-one watching, or looking back. Pedestrians went about their daily business. Velasco's cart was gone, he noted; the hour was late, and lunch had passed. Forcing his breathing to slow, he made his way to the small park where he sat for luncheon, and sat back against the oak tree that sheltered the area. Looking around revealed no one watching, and Mtubi closed his eyes.
Help, he thought. What do I do? While thinking about it, he strained, listening inside for Theole's voice, but there was only silence. Frustrated, he cast about, but his new senses were dim and unfocused; there were no voices nor thoughts to be found. He opened his eyes. Without being exactly sure but at the same time feeling the positive direction of his answer, he got up and hurried off across Plaza, making for the Transit.
Reaching the platform, he slapped his badge against the reader and pushed through the gate. Something was missing; he couldn't feel. Cursing with realization, he tore off his coat and dug frantically into the pockets. The circles were there, jingling softly. Ignoring the studious disinterest of his neighbors on the platform, he slipped on the four circles. The fifth had remained on his waist. Slipping the coat back on, he turned right and ran for the end of the station. The indik clicked soundlessly, moving from 2 minutes to 1 minute until the next Capsule.
Mtubi reached the end of the platform just as the lights of the approaching Capsule appeared around a bend in the tunnels past the far end of the station. He jumped off, taking care not to turn his ankle, and sprinted into the darkness perhaps thirty meters. Behind, the hiss of pneumatics indicated the Capsule was taking on passengers.
Although he wasn't sure if he was far enough from the platform (three rings; this close to the station, they were spaced ten meters apart) he had no more time. Checking once more that his coat was securely belted, Mtubi reached for the nearest access ladder and began to scale the Ring. As he did so, he called out with his fading strength, but there was no reply from Theole or anyone else.
Atop the Ring, he cinched his coat once more before looking back. The Capsule had closed its doors. There was a swiftly rising whine as the Magfield came up, and he had time to note that the cockpit was lit, an engineer barely visible behind the smoked glasteel. Then the Capsule was moving, and he turned to face down the tunnel-
Whining, rising, enfolding him; the Capsule slips by beneath, moving slowly still but gathering speed. The Magfield is distorted, the demands of acceleration and inertia calling a higher color and sound from the Vector generators within the Ring. The glaring orange rings of the Capsule's outer field rings washes over him, and Mtubi drops into the space behind it.
-a rushing roar, a sound, a sight, a taste of colors and of wind, no time, no time, the field is weakening as the Capsule picks up speed, but it's still to o powerful and before he can react Mtubi feels his arms smash into the rear of the Capsule's hull. His elbows and wrists collapse in a white flare of pain, but the absorbed shock is enough, and no bones break; he reflexively pushes, hard, despite the agony which results, and then he is within the Ride, flaring into silver space and time four or five meters behind the Capsule. He can feel the power surging through the Circles into him, burning his skin with cool and icy fire. The streams of proton radiation flow past him; electrons smash into his skin and flare briefly into silver light. The Capsule is gaining, now, and receding slowly into the distance, strobelight from the passing Rings flickering in his peripheral vision, and Mtubi instinctively flinches back from the floor of the tunnel as it nears him. There is a flash of silver, and he bounces slightly back upwards before settling gently onto the surface at a blinding speed. There is a membrane, almost, between his coat and skin and the surface; he can feel the striations of the Webfloor, but there is no friction save for air resistance, and with a compulsive flexing of will the silver flares briefly into actinic light and then fades entirely, and he is sitting on the floor of the Web with the Dreams running from his mouth with the taste of cool purple and the texture of ozone, pooling on the ground at his feet.
Mtubi closes his mouth, deliberately; the power builds slightly in him, then there is a last almost-sigh of photons from his trenchcoat and the tunnel fades slowly to its normal gloom. His vision is normal until he lets go, then the flickering wash of radiation returns in impossible colors and shapes, and he stumbles off the edge of the Web, then tries once more.
The answer is wordless but powerful. Nothing more than the essence of query, an inquiring push. He reaches for it, blindly, and with a flash, there is a silver circle in the air in front of him and the boy in the sunglasses and leather jacket steps out into the tunnel and gives him an unbelievably wide grin.
Mtubi moved to the tunnel wall, leaned there, tried to force his heart rate down as he had his breathing. Instantly concerned, the other moved to touch his shoulder. The contact was cool, smoothing the turbulent flow of energy through him, and Mtubi felt the world reordering itself, the power falling into channels and reservoirs of his body and mind to leave his vision and senses clear. He raised his head to look at the other, to find the boy smiling slightly but still with a serious look of concern.
Raising his hand, Mtubi clasped his shoulder firmly. The grin flashed again, then the boy gestured to the ground. Slowly, they both sat.
* * *
There came no answer, and Theole rose to his feet to continue on his way down the storm drain. The others in the tunnels would have heard the sound of Varien's last stand as well, and would converge on the spot. Even the familiar Planars, the Webtenders and the guardians may yet arrive with light and noise to investigate. Theole must be far away if such occurs.
Reaching an intersection, he consulted his phial; it glowed blue fire when passed rightward, and to the right he went, tucking it back into his robes with a sure hand. The tunnel intersected with the Web some few meters along; the storm drain ceiling descended until Theole was crouching to walk, then suddenly the ceiling vanished and he was traversing the Web in a drainage trench that cut across the tunnel.
Not being comfortable in the Web proper, Theole hurried along the trench, comforting in the cool flow of runoff water along the bottom. The water sang softly to him, telling him of its turns and falls; he could feel the curves ahead in his path from the tinkling song of the flow about his feet. Concentrating, he reached forward, seeking out obstacles that he could not pass-
Which was when a hand roughly jerked him from his reverie, falling on his shoulder. He had time for a brief yelp of surprise before he was hauled roughly from the drainage trench to the level of the crossing tunnel. He was pushed to the ground; by the time he could turn his head to see his attackers, a bright lantern was thrust into his face, forcing him to throw up a hand to shield his eyes.
"Oh, look," said a sarcastic voice, "it's another damn monk." Before Theole could respond, a heavy boot smashed into his face, and the world went blessedly dark.
Mtubi jerked upright at the same time the boy next to him did so. Looking at the other, he saw a look of determination and almost, but not quite anger; Mtubi drew back involuntarily at the flicker in the other's eyes. Without knowing why, he blurted out "Theole!"
The other, startled, turned to him and grinned quickly, nodding, before his features lapsed back into a grim mask. He gestured for Mtubi's hand; when it was offered, he seized it and with the other began a quick pass through the air. Mtubi had no time to follow the pattern, as a silver circle appeared almost instantly. Then, with a strength that was astonishing for one so slender, the boy stepped through the circle, pulling Mtubi with him.
They stepped out into a darkness shot with reflections. Some three meters before them, a trio of shapes stood, aiming lanterns away from them at a fourth figure; a man, kneeling by a head of cloth.
No, not cloth, thought Mtubi. Theole. Anger was rising in him, now, and he clasped his pistol preparatory to stepping forward, but his arm would not move. Looking down, he saw the other was holding his wrist, shaking his head. Without understanding, Mtubi nodded and released the gun butt. His companion turned to the scene before them as the kneeling man straightened and brought his boot back to kick the sprawled figure.
Before he could complete the motion, there was a hot flash of silver. The boy stood beside him, in full glare of the lanterns, and the four men shouted in surprise at his appearance. Before they could react further, however, the boy reached to his side and gently touched the kicker on the shoulder. That one shuddered, then flew backwards into the wall of the tunnel, despite the fact that the boy had not visibly moved his hand. Sunglasses winking in the glare, he turned to the other three, who were recovering; their motions told Mtubi that they were reaching for weapons.
Remembering the admonishment of his companion, Mtubi leapt onto the back of the leftmost man, his shout ringing in the tunnel. As intended, his unexpected appearance from behind them caused the other two to freeze momentarily, and before they could react, the boy had touched both of them as well. They merely looked at him after the silver flash, then crumpled.
Meanwhile, Mtubi had borne his target to the ground, and smashed the other's forehead against the stone and dirt. Dropping the lantern, his victim collapsed bonelessly. Mtubi stood, brushing himself off, and nodded at the boy, who smiled back before turning to the sprawled figure in robes that Mtubi assumed was — what was it? — Theole of the Blue.
Whatever his name, Theole was decidedly unconscious. The boy gently touched his face and wrists, but there was no response. Mtubi noted that there was blood running from Theole's nose and lip; not quickly, but copiously. Apparently the boy's first victim had had time to deliver at least one blow.
Mtubi knelt beside Theole. The boy turned to him and nodded; at which, Mtubi gently turned Theole on his side to ensure that he didn't aspirate blood, and with his handkerchief began to wipe the blood from his face. Looking about, he spied the drainage trench. With an appropriated lantern, he looked down; there was water, and it appeared to be fairly clear. Since he didn't intend for Theole to drink it, he dipped the handkerchief in the cold flow and pressed it gently to the unconscious man's forehead. Theole stirred, moaning, and slowly rolled over onto his back, raising a hand to his nose. Mtubi sat back on his haunches.
"Well, now." The voice, from behind him, was completely unexpected. He started once, badly, then caught himself from toppling with an outstretched hand and turned, now sitting. A girl (the same girl as before, he noted somewhere) was standing with his companion, smiling. She stepped forward a pace and offered him a hand. When he reached out, she lifted him to his feet almost effortlessly and pushed the sunglasses up over her forehead.
"Who are you people?" Mtubi heard himself asking.
"We' — well, who or what we are will wait. My name is Marren."
"Marren?" The named was familiar. "Marren Kindart?"
"Yes." The girl (woman, actually; Mtubi noted that despite almost elfin features, she had mature eyes) frowned slightly. "How do you know my name?"
"You're a missing person. Reported as a missing person, I mean. I'm, uh, I'm a detective."
"You're police?" She seemed startled, and dismayed, and turned to his companion. The boy shrugged elaborately, and reached out to take Mtubi's hand. Pushing back his sleeve, the boy tapped deliberately on the circle of metal there.
"Oh, my God. Oh. Hang on." The woman sat, heavily, against the wall, and reached out a hand without looking. The boy released Mtubi and was instantly kneeling by her side. He tapped her knee until she looked into his eyes, and they were quiet for a moment. Then the woman nodded. He patted her hand, and they both stood, turning to Mtubi.
"Shan says you're a good man, and I go by his word."
"Shan? Is that his name?" Mtubi gestured at the boy.
The boy nodded, smiling widely. Marren nodded as well. "Yes. His name's Shan. Just Shan. You may hear him addressed as Master Shan from time to time."
"By who? And why?" Mtubi was increasingly lost, but struggling gamely for understanding. "Wait, shouldn't we get Theole to a more comfortable place…" He turned to find Theole sitting up, one hand to his bleeding face. There was a blue glow coming from behind his palm. Mtubi trailed off to silence, and simply stared. A few seconds later, Theole lowered his hand to tuck something back into his robes. His face was unmarked save the remains of some dried blood; Mtubi offered him the handkerchief, unsure of what to do. With a smile of thanks, Theole took it and began to scrub the stains from this face. Mtubi turned back to Shan and Marren.
"Yes, Detective, we should." Marren glanced at Shan, and when he nodded, turned back. "Shan tells me you've seen us travel."
Mtubi nodded. "I've done it, I think. I'm not sure. I was a bit confused. But I made a circle-" he waved his hands somewhat vaguely- "and when I went through, I was, well…"
Marren raised her eyebrows. "I see. That's quite good, actually. Wonderful. Then we needn't walk. Love?" This last was directed at Shan, who nodded and closed his eyes. A now-familiar silver circle opened, and Marren took Theole's hand. Shan looked at Mtubi's offered hand, then grinned and shook his head, gesturing. Mtubi looked at him, then grinned back and stepped through the circle to
They were on a mathematically flat plain, so large that Mtubi could see no deviations or distortions. The sky was black, the ground silver; stars sprinkled above them shone brightly and steadily. Before he had time to panic, hands took hold of him from both sides, and he looked about to see Shan and Marren grinning at him. He swallowed, then grinned back, nodding, and the four of them (for Marren still had Theole with her other hand) stepped forward once and were
This persisted for a moment, until there was a cool blue flare of light. In the illumination, Mtubi could see a medium-sized room, with equipment whose familiarity was a shock in his present state. Several hammers, a bin of spikes, three rigs which had to be argon welders, and a shelf full of various metal parts crowded the walls. A single door was visible, closed; Mtubi assumed, from the color of the floor and an unknown feeling, that it would open into the Transit Web.
The light was coming from Theole's hand. Mtubi moved to the door and threw a switch; with a comfortingly familiar tinkle and click, flourescent fixtures came on. Theole nodded at him and tucked his hand back into his robe, the light dimmed; in that brief moment Mtubi saw that the object he held was a small transparent phial, filled with a clear blue liquid.
The others were making themselves comfortable on what seats there were available. Theole sat cross-legged on the floor, while Shan and Marren, arms tightly linked, sat on a heavy metal cart whose platform rode on low wheels. Mtubi sat back against a wall before speaking.
"Is someone going to explain to me what's going on?"
"I suppose we must, now," said Marren, still holding Shan's hand. She held their clasped hands up, examining them as she spoke; she wouldn't meet Mtubi's eyes. "I have to ask a favor, first."
"You can't tell anyone where I am. Who filed the missing persons report, anyhow?" With the last, she looked up.
"I don't remember. One of my men mentioned it to me in connection with an explosion in the Transit system last year."
Shan looked up, his face somber; Marren squeezed his hand tightly. "We remember that."
"That's right, I saw you, Shan, right after it happened."
"Were you there?" The words were sharp, and Marren was looking at him intently now.
"Yes, I was on the platform. I was hit in the head by a piece of debris; it took some time before I could go into the Transit without thinking about it." Mtubi shuddered involuntarily at the memory. "Anyhow, I saw Shan in midair — were you riding that Capsule?"
Shan nodded, his face still serious.
"Anyhow, I saw him, and one of my detectives mentioned that someone had seen Marren-" he nodded to her "-behind another capsule some weeks before."
"Shan and I stopped riding through stations shortly after that." Marren's voice was slightly absent; Mtubi guessed that she, too, was remembering. "Shan was behind that one because he wasn't able to drop once the Angel came apart."
"Angel? Is that what you call the Capsules?"
"Why not? Because it's clothed in light, and because it's powerful and good, and because we follow them." She smiled. "And, of course, because it's romantic. Riders of the Angel. Better than Hitchhikers of the Transit Web, don't you think?"
Mtubi had to grin, he couldn't help himself. "Yes, I see what you mean. Still, this doesn't answer nearly all of my questions."
Marren sighed. "Yes. Well, sit back, this might take awhile."
This is Marren's story.
This is the tale she told.
By the time she'd finished, Theole was listening with eyes closed in rapt attention; Shan was still sitting beside her, his expression a small smile, and Mtubi was leaning forward in fascination. He realized with a start as she finished that his legs were asleep. While massaging them, he spoke.
"That's…extraordinary, you know."
Marren shook her head. "After what you've experienced, you can call it that?"
Mtubi was silenced, struck by her words. Finally he nodded. "You're right. I'm not sure what I've experienced. But that's extraordinary, nonetheless."
"You can call it whatever you want. I don't even call it anything, anymore. It's just who I am."
"What did you do, before, that is, up there?" Mtubi waved at the ceiling.
"When I was a Planar, you mean." Marren grinned suddenly, the elf laughing, and Shan grinned with her.
"What's a Planar?"
"Planar. From plane. The surface is a plane."
"Am I a Planar?"
"Yes. For now."
"What decides it?"
"How you use the gift you've been given by the Angel and the Rider."
"The Angel is the Transit capsule, of course."
Her anger was sudden and sharp, the cracking of a silken whip. "If it is, then you'll be Planar until you die."
Mtubi raised his hands in defense. "Peace, peace. I'm still a Planar, yes."
Marren looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "Maybe not forever." The admission was soft and half to herself.
There was a brief silence, during which Mtubi absentmindedly retied the belt of his trenchcoat. The coat was showing wear at the rough treatment, he noticed sadly, but was still familiar, and perhaps that was what was important. He looked up.
"Does anyone tell me how to use what I've been given?"
Shan grinned fiercely, and shook his head. Marren laughed, as did Theole. Mtubi had almost forgotten about Theole, so silently had he been sitting with his knees up and arms around them. Marren answered.
"Nope. You figure it out. That's the secret, down here, for all of us. You have to tell us who you are."
"I'm…" Mtubi started, but Marren cut him off.
"No. Not who the Planar is. Who you are, down here. We know you're a Rider. Which one, we have to wait and see. There are several kinds of people down here. You, I, and Shan, we're Riders, for obvious reasons. That gives us power. With power comes responsibility. Theole-" the other nodded, "-Theole is a Waterman. His power is the water; his gift is in the water. He cannot talk to the Angel, though; that's not his path. From time to time, a Rider gives unto him, unto his Water. Theole is of the Blue."
"Of the Blue? He said that, before, but I'm still not sure what it means." Mtubi glanced at Theole, who sat up suddenly, gaining presence among them without growing in size. Marren gestured to him.
"Theole, tell him."
Theole stood and reached into his robe. His right hand came out holding the phial Mtubi had seen before; this time, he held it between thumb and forefinger so that it was visible to all. The clear liquid within was deep blue, as was the glow from the phial; the reddish brown of Marren's trousers washed to dark grey in the cyan light. Theole held the phial out to Mtubi, whose new vision was a chaos of flux lines and fields emanating from the phial at the center of his view. Tentatively, he reached out a hand. Theole placed the phial gently in his palm, and all three looked at him expectantly.
Puzzled, Mtubi examined the phial. It wasn't, he noted, stoppered; rather, it was a continuous smooth unbroken shape, whatever the material. Whatever was in it wasn't coming out without breaking the phial. The phial rested in his palm, the warping of space around it slowly flowing to match the contours of his hand. The sight was disturbing; it seemed to Mtubi that the phial's shape, in the impossible color and field of his sight, was melting into his. He looked up to see Theole nodding, satisfied. Dropping his vision to normal, he could see the phial's glow increasing, and his hand was faintly reflective with the Silver flickering around it.
Hastily, he returned the phial to Theole, who laughed. Marren spoke up. "You're a Rider. Theole's a Waterman. The Angel speaks to him through you."
"I am Theole of the Blue." The voice was unexpectedly deep, different from the smaller one he'd heard in his head. "Listen, Planar, Rider; I will tell you my story."
Mtubi sat back as Theole began to flicker blue shades from his robe, and glanced at Marren and Shan to see them listening solemnly. He turned his ears and eyes back to Theole as the other began.
This is Theole's Story.
This is the tale he told.
"Do you understand now?" Theole asked gently.
Mtubi shook his head slowly. "No."
"Good. Then there is hope that you will."
Mtubi looked up at the other three. "Look, tell me this- are there more like you? How many? What do you di down here?"
Marren smiled. "We live. We Ride. We heal. We play. Does there have to be anything else?"
"I suppose not. I'm just snowed under. All right," said Mtubi, drawing himself up and stretching, "can you at least tell me what the system is like down here?"
"What system?" Marren grinned again.
"You. Theole and…others like him. Others like you. Others like me. How does it work?"
Shan held up a hand, and Mtubi subsided. Although the other didn't speak, his brow furrowed as if he was turning over explanations in his head. Finally he shook his head, and pointed at Marren, then and himself.
"I don't understand. Her and you?"
Marren stood, moved to the other side of the room and faced the wall before speaking. "No. He's the reason it all started. How it came to be was my idea." She spun, fixing Mtubi with a piercing look. "This is my world, Planar. Do you understand? Mine. I didn't start it. I didn't even create it. But I defined it. It's the way it is because of me."
Shan, Mtubi noticed, was looking at her as she spoke with a troubled look. Theole had reseated himself, and seemed once more to be the slightly smaller person he remembered from their first meeting. Marren continued.
"I was an engineer. A Planar. Shan came to me, like I told you, and he brought me here. He showed me what I could do. So I did; and he did. The rest came later, when I realized that I didn't ever want to go back up there. I couldn't bear the thought of being alone down here; even with Shan, it's not the same. I needed- I needed-" she broke off, frustrated.
A purpose, Mtubi silently finished, but waited quietly.
"Anyway, I thought about what it would look like. All the lost children. She smiled suddenly. "Did you ever read Peter Pan, detective?"
Caught off guard by the subject change, Mtubi shook his head. "No. Child's book?"
"Yes. One of the earliest; written long ago in England. When there was an England. It's a story of three children taken away to live with the Lost Children on a magical island, led by the icon of the child who never grows up. Peter Pan. Shan isn't Peter; that's for sure, but this place- " she spun, arms outstretched to take in not only the small room but the endless klicks of tunnel and Web and passage around them, under City, under the bottom of the top of the world- "this place, this is Never-Never Land, Peter's Island. There are lost children here, too; Theole is one, his compatriots are others; I'm one, Shan was the first. There are adventures, and you can fly; there are galleons and fairies and all that."
Mtubi looked at her as she stopped and turned back to face him. She was smiling, and there was a point of color in her cheeks, a slight flush. "I know, that sounds like a romantic fantasy. But it's true, and there's an important reason we created it. There is evil, too; up there, mostly, but recently, down here as well. We have to stay together, detective, and watch the Pirates carefully, for if we don't, they'll surely win the next battle."
With that, she sat back down next to Shan. The latter clasped her arm strongly, a slight worried look wiping itself from his face as she turned to him and smiled before resuming her story.
"Look, I know it sounds crazy. But the only way to stay down here was to build a society; otherwise, there wasn't much point to being an AngelRider. Without what comes with the title, the Dreams aren't any good except for escaping; illusion and fantasy. That's fine in small doses. But like it or not, we have to return to this world from time to time in order to stay ourselves; and when there, you can't just wander the tunnels. I can't go back up, either; I'm changed too much to understand or tolerate it. I'm used to darkness, now, and colors they've never even dreamed of. I can hear them in my head, wherever I am; the rushing, and the blindness and the deaf ears that can't hear me and the Angel. I can hear Shan and the others, as well, but that's a song; the Upabove is a cacophony."
"This brings me back to my original question," Mtubi put in as she paused for breath. "What does this society look like?"
Marren sighed. "This will take a while. Let's start with the basics. Shan and I are Riders, AngelRiders in full. You've seen — and done — what that means. We dance with the Angel, and bring the power back from the Web." She raised a palm, and a flickering silver fractal shape spun above her open hand for a moment before evaporating into flashes of varicolored light. Mtubi sat back, startled and then fascinated by the steady glow of changing color that replaced it. "This is something I just learned to do. I don't know what the Dreams are for; I don't even know what they can do, except for a few tricks. So I experiment. So does Shan. I suspect you have too. Shan mostly works on the Ride; the transfer and the storage; I work on manifestations that don't require props or people…art, I guess. There are others; they all work with the Dreams in their own way. And now you're here."
There was a brief silence. Mtubi broke it. "What does that mean?"
"Just that. You've been given the Gift of the Circles; you're an AngelRider too, now. Not everyone can Ride; very, very few. Perhaps a tenth of a percent of the people Up there."
"How can you tell? I mean, before you try it? What happens if…"
"…if you're not a Rider and you try?" Marren finished where Mtubi broke off. "It depends. Usually you just fall to the ground from the Ring; the Mag and Vectorfields don't flex in the peculiar way that they do if a Rider is wearing the circles."
She grinned wryly at Mtubi's surprised look. "I told you, I was, or am, an engineer. I know how the Web works. I did a project on it in school for my first degree. But I still don't know what makes some people different. We've gotten better and telling, though."
"How? I remember someone touching me, at night, Dreaming."
"Yes. Shan found you during a Ride. He recognized you when we met in the Web with the mugger, and he gave you the Circles because he knew you could hear the Dreams."
Mtubi raised his wrists and turned them over, appraising the metal circlets on them. They were still mirror-bright, unmarked by fingerprints. Experimentally, he touched one; no print showed. The other three laughed. He looked up, confused.
"It's okay." Marren sobered, but was still smiling. "We've all tried. We don't even know what they are, really; Shan can make them, using the Web itself, but I don't know what happens to them that makes them into this. As near as I can figure, when the metal distorts, it traps a curent of Vector energy in it, and freezes it like a superconductor can trap a current and hold it there. I believe the things are some measurable percent energy by mass, but I haven't experimented. Probably I never will; there are some things that it's more fun to have than understand."
Mtubi considered this. "Is Theole's phial made of energy?"
Marren grinned. "You're getting it. We don't know. But we want to. That's the whole point! Can we take the power with us away from the Web? Yes. For how long? We don't know; not long. Shan keeps trying to find ways to 'store' it, but he doesn't leave the Web much at all. Neither do I. Some Riders do, but very few. Imagine if you could take this into space! Think of what you could do, what you could accomplish, with just what we know already. And we don't know anything, really."
"Will you ever try that?"
"I don't know." The words fell upon the room, silenced it. "I don't leave the Web either. Maybe we never will, and the point will be moot. But now you're here."
"You're the first one of us who, and I'm assuming this, wasn't running from something. You don't have a reason to avoid the Upabove. Maybe you'll be able to come and go. Besides, we were waiting for you."
Mtubi held up his hands in a warding motion. "Waiting for me? What do you mean? For how long?"
"Since the evil started. We had learners, healers-" she nodded to Theole-" and Riders, but no Guardians. That's you. Guardian. You're a policeman, right?"
"The you're the first. The Guardian of the Angel."
"Me." A mischevious grin. "I just made it up."
Theole, up to this point silent, got to his feet. The others fell silent, waiting. After a few moments with his eyes closed, Theole moved to Mtubi and held out a hand. Mtubi shook it, confused. Theole smiled. "Welcome, Guardian. Welcome, Rider. My fellows call me, and I must go. Will you succor me?"
"Succor… what?" Mtubi looked to Marren, behind Theole's back. She mimed holding a small object; the phial, Mtubi guessed. Looking back at Theole, he nodded guardedly. Theole's smile returned; grew broader, if that was possible. Reaching into his robe, he produced the phial and held it out towards Mtubi. When Mtubi moved to take it, he pulled it back slightly; when Mtubi retreated, abashed, he smiled and held it out again."
Ah. Mtubi remembered Marren saying that the Riders brought the power; but how was he to do that? He'd never tried. Ah well.
Closing his eyes, Mtubi visualized the phial. It glowed slightly in noncolors, field lines surrounding it. He could taste its' surface; see its presence in the air near him. He tried to see a bridge between himself and the phial, a bridge of silver. Nothing happened, although he could feel the power build. Think. I'm missing something. Theole's phial. Theole…aaahhhhh. Theole of the Blue. He built a filter in his mind; placed it in front of the silver glow in his hand. He imagined it stopping the red, the green, the yellow; the slot in the spectrum that was Blue coursed through him, and his body flowed through it-
The room spun back and away in crazy shards, the stone and concrete and steel and energies of the Web coursing around him in comforting reality while the Dreams laughed and ran races in his head. The two blazing points nearby were, he could feel, Shan and Marren; they waited quietly to see what he would do. Theole was a calming darkness, a sink of energy; he held in his hand an empty space. The colors burst from Mtubi in whorls of impossible hues to mix and swirl and flutter around his head with the longtime Dreamtime Webcrazed energies and as his head began to pulse with the power of it he felt the filter flex and surge and the energy pour from his as through a hose; his vision dimmed into a reddish hue as the silver halo that surrounded him stretched itself and extended to the phial and Theole's form. Inches from Theole's body, it shifted cured convoluted chromomorphed into a rain of cyan, indigo, lapis, almost turquoise; the many shades of the color that Theole wore about his body in this strange otherlit darkened basement of a world, and Theole glowed faintly as the power sank in to him and into the small spot of space enclosed by the phial and as Mtubi's vision faded down , washed from red to dark red to brown to black he felt himself falling forward, energy gone, but a bright shining cool hand touched his arm and Marren bore him back up to his feet; helped him sit against the wall, sweating and shivering with the sour taste of lactic acids and broken ATP in his mouth as the muscle exhaustion reached up and claimed him. Struggling, he kept his eyes open for a moment, long enough to see Theole tuck away the phial and move to him to lay his palm across Mtubi's forehead leaving the thanks and wonder stained there in patterns of aqua regia scarring and improbable reflective sparkles and then he left and the blackness opened and Mtubi felt his toes sink as the edge of the abyss crumbled; falling, it was a grateful feeling, and finally there was nothing at all-
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