Being fashionably late is fine for parties, but for rescues it leaves a little to be desired. I kept that in mind as I climbed down ladders and walkways that led through the interior structure of the Brotherhood’s enormous dirigible.
Most flying ships don’t have rooms built within the gas bag as far as I was aware. The Brotherhood had theirs specially built to serve as a “private chamber” for their rituals. That made it one of the worst places to try to face them. The heart of their power.
I knew what waited for me in a general sense as I approached the closed room. There would be at least thirty of the Brotherhood in addition to the thirteen sacrificial victims. The cultists would be armed with a minimum of their ceremonial swords, though several would also be carrying firearms as well.
Assuming I was still early enough, their victims would be alive and would immediately become hostages if I looked like a threat to Brotherhood.
I’d expected that there’d be guards outside the room and was surprised when there were none. On consideration though that made sense. The only people on the airship were trusted members of the Brotherhood. The ritualists were all inside the sacrifice chamber and the ones who weren’t part of the ritual were in the regular areas of the ship where they could guard against an aerial attack. In the event one of the victims got unruly the ritualists would be able to call the other guards for backup easily enough, so why have someone guarding a door that was only closed to prevent distractions from entering the room?
If I’d been been able to retain my gear when I landed, I could have planted a few pyrotechnic charges and some smoke bombs to make a properly dramatic entrance (the dirigible was filled with Helium rather than Hydrogen, so fire wasn’t much of a worry). Cultists are a diverse lot, but enough of them tend towards the paranoia and superstition that a bit a of theater can have a profound impact on them.
Instead I very quietly opened the door and walked in. Without fanfare or saying anything, I walked down the small row in between the assembled cultists and over to the sacrifices, who were chained together. It wasn’t until I started picking the lock on the first girl’s manacles that anyone got over the shock of seeing me wander in. I’d expected that. People have a hard time processing things that are out of context for what they were expecting.
“What are you doing?” the leader of the ritual demanded. He was wearing the ever-cliched, “form-covering black robes”, etched with “mystic” sigils in “blood red” thread. His face was obscured by both a hood and a mask. For someone who, in theory, held all the power in the world within this room, his clothes spoke of a deep and abiding fear of being caught.
I turned to him, and blinked as though I was deeply confused by his words.
“Unlocking these manacles.” I said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
The Brotherhood outnumbered me forty to one as it turned out. Any two of them could have captured me immediately, but none of them moved. I wasn’t part of the script of their little play and so there was no protocol for how to handle me. That indecisiveness wouldn’t last long but it was kind of fun to watch for the few moments while they were befuddled.
“YOU!” the leader screamed and I recognized his voice.
“Hello Cranston. Or should I call you ‘Mr. Smythe’ while you’re in your make-believe clothes?” I asked.
“Kill her.” he said, confusion and uncertainty turning to anger and savagery as they so often do in men like him.
“No.” I said. Half the men in the room were armed with pistols. At my word, twenty pistols misfired. For the lucky ones the guns merely jammed. For the less fortunate, they exploded.
It was beyond a one-in-a-billion coincidence for that to happen and everyone present knew it. The world fractured hard in response to that. One more push, one more unlikely event that I demanded to happen and reality would crumble around us.
The Brotherhood couldn’t know the danger they were in, but they could see that a score of pistols misfiring at my command was something to be concerned about.
“I don’t know what kind of trick you’ve pulled on our guns, but you’re not getting out of this room alive.” Smythe said.
“You’ve searched for magic your whole life Smythe. I would have thought you’d appreciate the chance to see the real thing rather than this farce?” I said as I released the first girl’s hands and let her manacles fall to the floor.
“I’ll get the rest of you out in a minute.” I told the other people who were chained up. “Apparently Cranny wants to make an issue out of this.”
“Who are you?” Smythe demanded. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew they were wide with rage and fear in equal measures. I was being too calm, and things were too weird. Plus I’d vanished before. His superstitions were telling him I was a divine agent of retribution for his life of evil or something like that. I figured I had about thirty seconds before he decided to test that hypothesis by ordering his men to attack again.
“Jin. I’ve told you my name before. Don’t make me tell you again.” I warned him as I walked casually around the low area of the room the manacled people were in. The sacrifice chamber was a large hexagon with a sunken, circular area in the middle of the room. The circle was about three feet lower than the rest of the room. Just enough to put the people in it below everyone else without providing any cover for them.
At one end of the circle there was a set of risers that lead to a podium set above the rest of the room. That’s where Smythe was standing. At the other end of the circle, the people the Brotherhood had abducted were chained to the wall. In between the two, there was a rough stone altar. It was blackened by bloodstains that had been laid down over the course of many years.
“You are a stage magician. You know nothing of real power. I don’t know how you got here or why you have come but if you thought to rescue these cattle then you are as doomed as they are.” Smythe said.
“Do you think this is power Smythe? Destroying lives?” I asked.
“The power over life and death is the greatest power of them all.” Smythe said, fervor rising in his voice.
“No. It’s not.” I said. “Even a child can end a life with a gun. Destruction is easy.”
“You think so, but so many of the cattle we cull would disagree. Even if we armed these wretches, they would not be able to take a life, not even to free themselves.”
“You poor deluded idiot. That’s not a sign of their weakness. It’s a revelation of the strength of their humanity.”
“The strong are the ones who survive. What you call ‘humanity’ dooms them to death at the hands of those who wield real power.” Smythe insisted.
“We are all doomed to die. That’s not what matters. What matters is how we chose to live.”
“What matters is what we make of the world and only the strong have the power to change it.” Smythe said. I was surprised he was playing along with this and debating with me. I guessed that the trick with the pistols had rattled him more than I’d imagined it would.
Or Madelaine Deckard was helping me.
I felt outwards and sensed the fractures I’d made tearing slowly open at the force she was unconsciously putting on them.
“The smallest pebble can start an avalanche. Even one voice can change the world, no matter how small, or alone it might seem to be.” I replied.
“We shall see how your voice can change the world then. Chain her to the altar and make her scream!” Smythe commanded.
I laughed. It wasn’t a comforting sound. Neither was the predatory grin that twisted itself across my lips. I was so very tired of holding back. Of putting up with Earth Glass. The moment they laid a hand on me, things were going to end in fire. Black. Unending. Fire.
I felt a hand touch mine and looked down.
Madelaine Deckard, still chained up, was looking at me with pleading eyes.
The Brotherhood had no idea of the danger they were in, but, on some level, Madelaine did.
I looked at her, and sighed. There were still good people here. It was a foregone conclusion that the world was going to crumble, at least locally, but that didn’t mean that I could give up on the people who were here.
“No.” I said again. At my word, the burly men who had risen from their seats to apprehend me slipped and fell into the circular pit, breaking their knee caps and shin bones.
It was the final straw. The world shattered.
And I caught it.
It took an impossible amount of power to hold each microscopic fragment of the world together. That wasn’t a problem. I’m an impossible girl and power is not a limiting factor for me. Holding the fragments together was the only way to prevent the fracture from spreading any further than the room we were in, so I didn’t have a choice except to keep them there. The problem was, the moment I stopped focusing on the holding the room together, reality would vanish and the fractures would spread over the rest of the planet.
“Oh God! What are you!?” Smythe cried over the screams of pain of the men who’d been crippled by their falls. The rest of the Brotherhood had risen from their chairs but were frozen in place. The ones who’d been aggressive enough to follow Smythe’s orders were in obvious agony and unable to move, but there wasn’t anywhere the others could run to either.
“I’m one small voice.” I told him.
“Guards! Men! There’s an intruder in the ritual chamber!” Smythe called into an intercom on the podium.
“I’m afraid your men are indisposed.” Way replied over the intercom.
“What…what have you done?” Smythe asked, fighting a losing battle to keep his terror out of his voice.
“Something terrible.” I told him.
“What do you mean?” Madelaine asked.
“I broke something that should never have been broken.”
“Can you put it back together?” she asked, following the metaphor if not fully understanding what I meant.
“Not like it was.” I explained. My first instinct said that the best thing I could do would be to shatter the rest of the Dreamlit barrier around Earth Glass and then reimagine the world in my own image. It would mean forever changing the fates of everyone who lived there and limiting them to the sorts of futures that I could conceive of. It would also mean that the world would change drastically from what it had been.
“Die!” Smythe said. He was mad with rage and fear and, I think, miffed that I wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. I didn’t cause his gun to explode. It simply clicked on empty cylinders.
“Looking for these?” I asked him, tossing the bullets from his revolver in my hand.
That enraged him further. Drawing his ritual knife from his robe, he leapt off the podium at me and slammed the blade into my chest.
I smiled back at him at pointed at the hilt. He looked at it and noticed the lack of blood where he had “stabbed” me.
“Trick knife” I said as he pulled the hilt back to discover that the blade had collapsed into the handle.
He threw the worthless knife away and reach for my throat with his bare hands.
I stopped him with a finger on his forehead. He froze in mid-lunge, still as a statue.
“Pressure point.” I said and then added “Not really.”
I snapped my fingers and the manacles fell off of the people who’d been abducted.
“I’m sorry that took so long.” I said.
“What’s going to happen to us?” one of the abductees asked.
“We’re going to get you home safe and sound.” I said.
“And what about what’s broken?” Madelaine asked, aware of how wrong things still were.
I thought about that. If I spent years at it, I might be able to slowly patch the over the hole I’d punched into the world. It wouldn’t be exactly the same, and I’d need to stay in this affected area for the whole time, but it would limit the damage to this one area. It would make the dirigible something like the Flying Dutchman – an exceptional bit of weirdness in an otherwise very plain world. I’d miss out on my apprenticeship and I’d wind up as a recluse who couldn’t leave the dirigible, but inside it things would be however I wanted them to be.
As deals went, it was kind of crummy, but sometimes we’re stuck with the cards we’re dealt.
My world would be no bigger than the inside of the airship. It was going to be pretty boring, living the life of a recluse, but at least my friends could visit me when they were on vacation.
I felt a wild, insane joy tear through me.
Sometimes we’re stuck with the cards we’re dealt, but even the lowliest magician in the world knows at least a few card tricks.