A deferential knock came from her door. Quiet introspection time was officially over. The door opened a crack and a face made from molded brown leather and brass-rimmed glass lenses peered around the door frame. Aleph recognized him immediately, it was Prospero, one of the small army of the non-biologicals who worked for the Duke’s Own. Here, and most other places in the Aether, they were simply known as Watchmen.
“Excuse the intrusion,” he said in a voice that sounded like someone with a tenor harmonica shoved down their throat. He stepped into the room carrying a tablet in one of his brass-bound wooden hands. “His Grace thought you should see this,” he said, holding out the tablet for her.
In shape, Prospero looked like a cross between an anatomical dummy and scarecrow designed by a Victorian industrialist. In truth, this wasn’t far off the mark. Not many remembered anymore, but he and his like were surplus bought after the Great War and put into service here.
He stood precisely six feet tall and wore the black uniform and jacket of one of The Duke’s own. On his sleeves were the silver rank insignia of a Corps Sergeant Major, a wreath of nightshade around an empty hourglass. From under the sleeve of his extended arm, she could see articulated wrists of dark mahogany and gleaming brass wheels that constantly spun and paused to spell out new lines of sigils. She always thought that the little wheels were what the combination locks on a hyperkinetic briefcase would look like.
She took the offered tablet. The glowing screen was opened to a news report from The Sand Network, one of the largest tabloid media networks covering most of the Aether. Below the title image were the words, “The Sand Network: We Get Everywhere.” The headline splashed across the screen read “Necromantic Terror!!” Under the headline, a picture showed a scene illuminated by work lights where a group of police in disposable Tyvek suits and green gloves clustered around a tent set up at the base of a maple tree with yellow and black crime scene tape.
“A massive manhunt is underway for a person involved in the killing of a woman in her mid-thirties earlier this evening in Vancouver. The body of the woman was found this evening in Memorial Park after being discovered by a local dog walker. Our sources claim that Necromancy is suspected to have been involved in the assault. If proved, this will be the first recorded death from Necromancy anywhere in the Aether in over seventy years.”
“The Alchemist’s guild has not commented on the case and at the time of this report, they have not returned our queries. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Police Department has released this artist’s rendition of a man who is wanted for questioning in relation to the Memorial Park murder.” A photo-realistic image of a man in his twenties with features that could have belonged to Stirling Haig’s slightly heavier fraternal twin was included with the story. “Anyone with any further information is asked to please contact the VPD.”
Aleph made a disgusted sound. None of her children would be awake for another nine hours and it would take her at least half an hour to get to Memorial Park, possibly more depending on traffic. It was no coincidence that there was a war memorial less than a few hundred feet from where the police had set up the forensic tent. She needed to get to Vancouver now to see what the hell was going on.
“Please tell Penhold I’m going to Vancouver to take the carver in hand,” she said to Prospero, who backed out of her way as she moved through the door.
“When he asks, what should I tell him that means, exactly?” the watchman asked.
“Good question,” she said, swinging her leather jacket over her shoulders. “I’ll let him know just as soon as I do.”
She took the stairs two at a time and jogged through processing. The room smelled like burned coffee and stressed cop. A nominally human desk constable was booking a grumbling creature that looked like a fifty-kilo mound of pizza dough. It had been confined in a clear plastic barrel on a wheeled cart. A single pseudopod extruded from a hole in the barrel and was filling out paperwork on the counter with a ballpoint pen. Neither of the two looked happy with the arrangement.
Aleph pushed through the front doors of the Armoury and down the stairs. The White Bridge rose in an arch ahead of her beyond the gate, a smattering of people making their way across its length. She forced herself to slow to a brisk walk. Running would only be fuel for the gossip mill and there would be enough of that with news of a necromancer at large.
She strode around the to the back of the Armoury, her boots crunching quickly on the white gravel path, to a small walled garden. Asphodel was a lightless world which usually meant planting a garden of anything other than mushrooms would have been futile. Being the Duke in charge of biggest shopping destination in all the known worlds gave Penhold the latitude and vast budget to show off though. In a fit of extravagance, he’d commissioned the Alchemists to create a miniature sun for the garden when the Armoury was first being built.
The miniature star was confined in a sigil-etched diamond globe that rose above the garden each day to bathe the plants and trees in life-giving light. Since it was night at the moment, the little garden was lit only with soft blue LEDs that lined the path and gave the garden just enough light to see by.
Aleph wove past stone benches, weathered dolmens, and around broad tree trunks. The path was created to break up the space and provide the privacy people needed to be alone with their thoughts. Thankfully the garden wasn’t busy and Aleph quickly found a hollow where she was more or less private.
Aleph bowed her head and in the space of a heartbeat the universe twitched, probability looked the other way to see what happened, and the little garden niche was filled to overflowing with over a hundred black crows.
Aleph took a moment to adjust to the new feeling, being a flock put her in a weird mental space. As long as she had a solid goal in mind she’d be just fine, but anything that required planning was an exercise in futility. She was literally of a hundred and thirty-one minds about everything.
The flock waited, holding unnaturally still for the space of a few seconds before the far edge began to beat into the air, the rest staying grounded until it was their turn.
Aleph rose into the air on hundreds of black wings and began streaming across the Market. Above her, the black sky was the usual starless dome, while below the city stretched out past the horizon in a riot of colours.
Asphodel was the only world that all others could reach in a direct hop. Because of this unique feature, it was the largest nexus of commerce and culture in the Aether and had been for thousands of years. It was also one of the few places in all the worlds where the use of magic was explicitly permitted.
The Wandering Market was currently bouncing around the eastern edge of what in Vancouver would be Gastown, but here in Senak was the Artisinal District. It would be more than just a quick hop to get to Memorial Park from where she was now. She resigned herself to the flight and beat her wings steadily while the city scrolled beneath her.
There was a lot of overlap between the different worlds of the Aether. She liked to think of the different worlds like they were soap bubbles. They were separate, but if you blew on them, you could watch the rainbow sheen of soap on the surface migrate across to the others. They influenced each other, tugging events this way and that, often in surprising ways.
Many of the streets and some of the neighbourhoods in the two cities had the same names, and even the name, Senak, was a bastardization of Senakw, a native village that had existed on the shores of the Burrard Inlet back in her Vancouver.
The fact that Asphodel was a dark world hadn’t stopped those who saw the opportunity of a world everyone could get to easily. They’d lit up their cities and towers with a rainbow of spotlights, enchanted flames, and since the middle of November, millions upon millions of Christmas lights. They’d even opened portals in the air leading to other worlds; sunlit alien skies shining down on them from above. True, none had their very own miniature star, but even so, the once-dark world now had cities that glowed brighter than a neon reactor core.
Without the prohibition on magic, the buildings here were larger and more impressive than anything she’d find back in Erde. Art Nouveau buildings could be literally grown in place, their stone vines and lilies indistinguishable from the real things. Basaltic columns had been drawn up whole from the bones of the earth by elementalists to give the buildings that angular Art Deco flare. It wasn’t that the ability to use magic gave the architects here any more imagination or even made construction any less expensive, what magic did was let them take their designs further than anything created with regular old steel and concrete.
By the time the first members of her flock overflew the war memorial that gave Memorial Park its name, she’d been travelling for a quarter of an hour. Memorial Park in Senak was a large cobbled square surrounded by souvenir shops and convenience stores. Black cabs, that looked nothing like the cars in Vancouver, honked and chivvied for position along the edges of the square to pick up and drop off visitors.
Inside the square, Gothic arches, each with their own attendant customs agent, grew out of the cobbles in concentric rings from the cenotaph in the middle of the square. Even at this hour, the square was teeming with Christmas shoppers staggering back home under the weight of their purchases. Memorial Park wasn’t the only place with gateways, but it was the most convenient, and technically, the only legal to get in and out of Senak.
She glided her members down into an empty side street that backed one of the 24-hour convenience stores that faced into the square. It wasn’t clean, and it smelled like two-week-old nacho cheese, but it gave her a place to change unnoticed.
She paced out of the side street, now back in her wingless form, and into the bustling square. There was no time to reapply the beige-pink pancake makeup she usually wore when going incognito. Even in the middle of a Vancouver winter, the whitest of white people were never as pale as she was. The sunglasses would have to go as well. It was hard enough to get around in the dark without handicapping herself with dark glasses. People would just have to cope with her appearance on this visit.
She moved purposefully through the square and jumped the line of grumbling tourists to the arch leading to Vancouver. She didn’t recognize the black uniformed border guard, but apparently she recognized Aleph because she waved her through with only a quick flash of her badge. She should have at least checked her for contraband, but Aleph wasn’t going to bust her chops about it tonight. She stepped through the gate and into the darkness between worlds.