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Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 3 months ago



“So, Lorist, how do you think the world ended?” The Wizard’s question was purely rhetorical, of course. “Or shall I just tell you how your world will end?”


Lorist Bernard reached reflexively for his gun, but just then his guide performed a complicated ballet move of some kind. He stepped in front of Bernard from the right, flung his right hand out as if to ward off the Wizard, then continued the gesture in a sweeping motion as he spun around to face Bernard.


A flash of light and blast of thunder interrupted Bernard’s annoyance, and he found himself hurtling backwards through the alley. His guide managed somehow not to land on top of him—he must have been far more agile than he looked.


“What was all that about?” Bernard gasped.


The guide practically yanked him to his feet. “No time to explain! We need to be out of here, fast.”


They ran down the alley, as Bernard tried to regain the night vision the flash had cost him. He suspected that his guide had tried to shield his eyes as much as his body, and he realized that he would have been completely blind otherwise. Of course, this just made it necessary to explain that he hadn’t needed the help.


“I had a gun, you know.”


The guide grunted as he did something to a section of wall, causing it to push back like a reluctant door, just enough for them to pass through. “Yes, and he had body armor. What of it?”


The secret door crunched back into place. Bernard thought he heard a slight click this time. “He had body armor? I thought Wizards only wore cloaks and robes.”


“Fire Wizards always wear body armor on the job, Lorist. They work with explosive and flammable materials, so they need protection from their own handiwork. Their cloaks are fireproof, and the armor helps them survive flying bits of whatever they blast. You Lorists really don’t know much about Wizards, do you?”


It was a rude question, and Bernard would normally have made the man pay for his insolence, but now that they were in a darkened maze inside an unknown building, he decided to ignore the insult.


“We know that they are frauds. They claim magical powers that really derive from a perverse brand of chemistry.” He paused. “Anyway, how do you know so much about them? And what did you do to that…that…” Words failed him for once.


“I didn’t intend to do anything to him—nothing lethal, anyway. We do not willingly open the door to Hell for anyone, no matter how eagerly they seek it by their folly. All I did was increase the flammability of the air around him. His clothing should have protected him, and I would have moved you to safety before he recovered. But he must have packed his equipment carelessly—no real professional leaves pouches open or overloads them. There’s always a chance of backfire or blowback. But he made a mistake, and the stuff in his cloak blew him into the afterlife.”


He reached up and pulled down a long plank. It seemed to be attached to something at the other end, and it held firm as they walked across it instead of the floor. Bernard could not help but wonder what would happen if he stepped off the plank, but even a Lorist’s curiosity had reasonable limits.


After a few more minutes of the labyrinth, Bernard found himself in a large room. Where his escort had gone, he could not say. The figure seated before him, however, needed no explanation, even if he demanded one.



“So, how do you think the world ended?” King Alfonzo asked.


Bernard sighed involuntarily. Every Lorist had to answer the question whenever he put in an appearance. It was a pity they couldn’t scare the rabble into awed silence like the Wizards. That thought reminded him of the last time he had been asked the question, and he found himself suddenly less bothered.


“It is the position of my college, sire, that there was probably no one cause for the End. Anyway, there are so many conflicting theories, and so little proof, that even speculation seems rather reckless. We must weigh the possibilities….”


King Alfonzo chuckled. “It’s a pity I never studied topiary; I might make something at least ornamental of all your hedging.”


Bernard hoped futilely that he was not blushing. “The barbarians and rabble say that Lorists will never give a straight answer,” his mentor had said. “They say this, because they have not the intellect to comprehend their own questions, much less the reasoned response of a well-trained mind. Yet we must not allow them even this false feeling of superiority. Your training should let you come to the point, not wander about like a barbarian trapped in the maze of his own muddled thoughts.”


“Forgive me, sire, I did not mean to babble,” Bernard replied immediately.


King Alfonzo smiled amicably. “Nor did you—not yet, anyway. I am well aware of your college’s position. I simply wondered about your own. You do have beliefs of your own, don’t you?”


Bernard couldn’t help liking the king; for one thing, he talked like a Lorist, only more direct. “I do, sire; they just happen to be those of my college. The question is so complex, and the events themselves so remote…” He shrugged.


The king nodded. “True. Only a fool would believe in a simple, obvious answer to such a question—and you are no fool, I trust. Nor am I; kindly remember that. I am not asking out of idle curiosity, much less to annoy you. You no doubt are aware how many kingdoms and would-be renaissances have risen in this area over the past century or so. Mine promises to be more enduring, and that raises a problem of its own.


“They say history repeats itself. Whenever a great catastrophe occurs, people continue to see its shadows in whatever follows. Their very certainty that it will strike again destabilizes society.”


Bernard stared at him. “Pardon me, your majesty, but have you studied…” He hesitated, suddenly unsure how to end the question.


“I have never attended one of your colleges, no. Growing up as a vagabond has its advantages, though. There are more educated people among the castoffs than you may think. Not every would-be Lorist or Wizard quits because of incompetence, and some are excellent teachers.”


Bernard wasn’t sure what to make of this point. He had been told to welcome all new information if he could be sure of its accuracy—and somehow there was no doubting it in this case. Yet it was certainly also disquieting. He had known people who had left the college, and not all of them had seemed stupid to him, either. He would have liked to pursue the subject further, but just then the king returned to the original topic.


“The so-called End of the World was perhaps the most stunning catastrophe to befall mankind since the Flood: the collapse of a globalized civilization not too long after it arose. Since then, all government, all learning—in short, everything that resembles the stories of the world before the End—is viewed with skepticism. And that skepticism can destroy a young kingdom.


“So I am quite serious about discovering the reason for the End—if it can be known at all. If it was a freak circumstance, then there’s no problem. If it was something that could happen again, I want to know, so I can try to prevent it. But in either case, knowledge will be a weapon against skeptics who would undermine the kingdom.”


“I sympathize with your position, sire, but I do not see how I can help.”


“There is a rumor that could be dangerous to the kingdom. I want you to join my men in investigating it and dealing appropriately with whatever you find. It may relate to the End, but even if it doesn’t, the rumor must be dispelled before the Wizards use it to foment rebellion against my rule.”


“I still don’t see how a Lorist can help with that, though I would be delighted to thwart the Wizards.”


King Alfonzo rose from his throne and strode to the wall on his left. There was a large if primitive map of the area on the wall, and he pointed to a spot in the southeast.


“You have heard of the Gate of Hell.”


This was a statement, not a question, and Bernard nodded before he found his voice. “It is a curiosity, and a dangerous one, sire—but nothing more.”


“It is much more,” the king declared. “You have also heard of Morgan the Wise.”


“The renegade? Of course, but what does he have to do with the Gate of Hell? Was he trying to get past the cavern entrance?”


“He succeeded. Remember what I already said: the fact that someone chooses to leave his college does not make him an idiot. Most renegades are unscrupulous, though I believe they have been driven to it.” He paused and gave Bernard a significant, almost accusatory glance, then continued. “Morgan was no ordinary treasure hunter. He specialized in ancient artifacts, and his methods of finding them were unusually scientific. He developed many devices to help him, and based on his findings, he told one of my agents that there is some kind of active technology in the area of the Gate. He also devised a way through the Gate itself. But he never returned—or so some say.”


“What do you mean?” Bernard asked. “Either he returned or he didn’t, and if he didn’t, it just means that there was another death trap beyond the Gate proper.”


“There was a merchant caravan in the area not too long after his expedition disappeared. I arranged that, because I wanted to know what had happened, and he had traveled with the caravan for some distance. They made what they thought was a discreet visit to the Gate—you may not know it, but some merchants have a superstition that it is possible to gain an omen there concerning business deals. Anyway, they went there at night to check the Gate unseen. But they were seen—and attacked. I had thought that Wizards might interfere, so I had one of my men provide the merchants with extra weaponry. That was the only thing that saved them, for though there were not that many attackers, they were rather hard to eliminate. According to a merchant who survived the battle, one of the attackers was Morgan.”


“Well, he was a renegade—” Bernard began.


“He was dead.”




“All the attackers were dead men, at least according to the merchants. Most of the weapons I had given them were chemicals such as some of the Wizards use—the sort that incapacitate a man. There is no defense against those chemicals except a facemask, and none of the attackers wore any such protection. Yet it turned out that only some fireworks my friend Bartholomew prepared were able to destroy the attackers, unfortunately leaving no trace.”


“The merchants must have been drunk,” Bernard ventured. “Many of them deal in drugs, you know.”


“Not these. I make a point of knowing all about the people I have working for me. I probably know some things about you, for example, that would surprise your professors.”


Bernard started slightly, but he made no comment on the remark. Instead, he stuck to the main point. “But surely you don’t believe in the dead rising up to attack people.”


The king smiled. “As a Christian, I do believe in the Resurrection, but this does not sound like what the Bible describes.”


Bernard tried to conceal his surprise. So the rumors were true—the king really did consider himself a Christian. Or perhaps he was better at posing than most. Yet politically he did have more to lose than to gain from the stand.


“Perhaps this is a Wizard trick, then,” Bernard suggested. “I have heard of some who claimed to have raised the dead in some form, but when we investigated, it always turned out to be fraud. Either the so-called corpse had not really been dead or the Wizard had used some kind of mechanism to make it move around a bit. Yet this does sound far more ambitious than any of that.”


“It does. You should also bear in mind the possibility that not everything the Wizards do is trickery. In any case, there are therefore two reasons for your presence in the expedition I am mounting. The first is the only one we shall publicize at all—which is to say that we shall make a show of keeping it secret, but if it happens to leak out, we shall only express annoyance. That reason is for you to make another probably futile check at the Gate of Hell for pre-End technology and information, especially concerning how the world ended. The second reason is to assess the threat and expose any fraud. My men could do that at least as well as you can, but your conclusions will be respected. Your college should stand behind your conclusions, at least in general, and the other colleges should follow them.


“In a way, there is also a third reason: I hope that by appointing you to this task, I shall gain the goodwill of your college and of the Lorists in general. I do not promise to give you the college state that some of your colleagues have dreamed of: it has been tried various times and has always failed. But I do promise respect and cooperation. For that matter, I also hope to refute and humiliate the Wizards in the area.”


“And if I can discover the cause of the world’s end?” Bernard asked. He really was beginning to like this man’s strange mix of audacity, candor, and intellect.


“If you can bring back any such information, your colleagues will honor you more effectively than I could. But I suppose that I could appoint you permanent liaison to the Colleges or Royal Lorist if you wished. Considering how little is known about the End even yet, I suppose any new light would practically immortalize you professionally. Why, the last I heard, your colleagues had not even managed to correlate our dates with the old ones.”


“Based on astronomical data, we believe that we are close. Project Dionysius is another college’s work, but I have kept abreast of it.”


The king smiled enigmatically. Was it amusement, and if so, at what? Bernard could not be sure, but at least he detected no malice or insult in it.


“I believe that we have covered everything sufficiently for the moment,” the king said. “If you have any further questions, you may ask now or refer them to my men later. Bartholomew, the man who brought you here, is outside; he will see to your needs. You are to leave tomorrow morning before dawn.”


He paused, and Bernard turned to leave. But then he suddenly added, “Here, you should take this.”


Bernard turned back to find him holding out a book. It was old, of course, as all bound books were. Bernard took the object carefully, but it seemed unusually well preserved. Then he saw the cover.


“A Bible, sire? Surely you know my college’s position—”


“As I said before, I am more interested in your positions than in those of your college. My information is that you were raised by believing parents. You never renounced their faith, but you have avoided mentioning them. I doubt that your mentor, Professor Gustavo, knows about them.”


Bernard’s eyes grew wide with fear. “You haven’t told them, have you? It is generally held that religion—”


“I make a point of finding things out, not broadcasting them,” the king replied. “I shall never tell anyone else, for no one else needs to know. But I did need to know what manner of man I was sending on a dangerous assignment. Read that book; your mission will call for all the help its God will grant you. I assume that you do read True English?”


This time Bernard did feel insulted. “I read all of the major pre-End languages: the so-called ‘True’ forms of English and Spanish, and at least a little Chinese and Arabic.” He opened the book to demonstrate, and then he noticed something. “Sire? Are you one of those ‘NIV-Only’ people?”


The king laughed. “No; it’s just the most common version available. Someday, I hope to sponsor a modern translation: it is wrong to require people to know an ancient dialect in order to read the Word of God. You didn’t list Greek and Hebrew among your accomplishments.”


“No, like most Lorists, I specialize in immediately pre-End matters. Of course, some of my teachers insisted that such an attitude was unworthy of a Lorist. They think that much valuable information preceded the End by many years, and that knowing the historical setting of pre-End society might help solve the puzzle.”


“Read that book. It may not tell you how the world ended, but it will answer some even more important questions.”

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