Cadmus Craven's Rug - Part Two
So hung the orb of Kadmon Prime, its visible portion gleaming by the light of a yellow giant: a great triaxial ellipsoid, approximately four times earth's mass, its gravity much less. Continents like brown lilies floated upon the planet's pale-green oceans, their coasts encrusted with the grey patina of industrial development. Through the starspanner's focusing lenses the cities and industrial regions were revealed: bulging reactors and heaving smokestacks from which the thrum of power emanated; jigsaws of concrete blocks, erect, orderly and dizzyingly tall, their surfaces draped with banners of arterial red.
“Christ.” Cadmus breathed, shaking his head in disbelief. “What a dump.”
The others sat in silence on the starspanner's bridge, their expressions as various as their characters. For Babblebrook The Cosmic Troubadour, any visit to a foreign planet was an occasion for dreamy contemplation; Meera Ninetails, an Adeptus and adventurer of the Froish Marches, wore a hungry expression as she imagined the planet's various riches; Sticklebrick, an Adeptus and master artificer from the under-kingdoms of Phrangelus, was lost in thought trying to decipher how a planet of low metallicity had birthed a civilisation of interplanetary warriors; finally, the Empress Jian Jishei glared in boredom at her fingernails, privately obsessing over the ambitions of a particularly irksome priest and wondering what opportunities he might be exploiting in her absence. Along with Cadmus, this was the group of wizards, scoundrels and petty overlords who'd fallen to the lot of Zlot The Wonderworker – or so Zlot reflected as he inspected the group with private chagrin.
Still. He thought with an inward sigh. No point in crying over spilt milk.
With a brittle smile, Zlot rose and adjusted the focusing lenses. The city-hives disappeared, to be replaced by the image of a grey-uniformed worker picking his nose in a bus-shelter. Zlot pulled the focus back three microns: before the eyes of the magicians, Kadmon's capital appeared in all its glory, a mighty citadel towering at its heart.
“Right then, chaps. Here we have Malku Elyon – or 'Upper Dominion' in the Kadmonite tongue – home of the Kadmonite High Command: the heart and soul of the First Kadmon Empire. Or in other words, the engine into which we must insert our monkey-wrenches. The basic plan is this: with the cunning for which I'm known, we'll plunge the High Command into chaos. Meanwhile, 'Team Narcissa' and 'Team Eliphas' will take care of the Kadmonite war-fleets and undercut Adrammelech's position as Kadmon's god. In this manner, the war-effort will be thrown into disarray and Adrammelech neutered. A plan as simple as it is effective! What do you say, troops?”
“Yes, Magus.” Came the responses of 'Team Zlot', each voice ranging greatly in enthusiasm.
“Excellent.” Zlot beamed, producing a handful of pamphlets from thin air. “I have here the Kadmon Tractate – the constitution and prime directives of Kadmonite society, which we must all comply with if we are to fit in. I'll ask each of you to now familiarise yourself with its contents before we move on to specifics of the plan...”
Cadmus accepted his pamphlet with a sigh. For long minutes silence reigned while all sought vainly to decipher the cramped Kadmonite script. Cadmus blinked in distraction, his eyes slipping between the proofs of blood purity and affirmations of hatred each loyal Kadmonite was required to abide by; in his breast pocket, the shattered capsule of Miniscula and the wine-stained rug could be felt, their presence pressing against his mind. He was just wondering whether the Kadmonites had developed a tradition of dry-cleaning when a hiatus of the space-time continuum intruded upon his thoughts.
A wave of stagnation washed across the starspanner's deck: something like and unlike death, carrying all the fragrance of a dessicated rose. Motion stilled gradually. Quiet sounds grew strained, drew out into groans. The flickering lights of the 'spanner's instrument panel slowed like exhausted dancers, dwindling to final stasis.
“Eh?” Said Cadmus. Before him the others now sat frozen, their eyes unblinking, fingers paused mid-scratch. He rose uncertainly, waved his hand before the blank features of Jian Jishei.
His voice echoed throughout the ship. A moment later came a sound like whispering leaves. He turned about nervously. Shadows moved across the deck, leaving their hosts to gather in a dark corner. Thicker and thicker they grew, their whisper rising into a roar. The shadows shifted, congealed into a solid mass. Then, flowing aside like satin drapes, they parted to reveal the figure of Haldern Sylverne, a cloak of blackest midnight draped about his shoulders.
“Afternoon, Craven.” The Archmagister nodded, stepping forth from darkness. “A quick word in your ear, if you don't mind.”
Seeing the expression on Cadmus' face, Haldern reached out to tweak the nose of Zlot The Wonderworker, his mouth twitching at the corners. “No need to worry, Neophyte: I've halted the craft's timestream, leaving only our time-corridors intact. Your colleagues are unaware of what's happened and will know nothing of our conversation. Now. Shall we sit?”
The cushions of Zlot's divan grew suddenly soft, their timestream resumed at the touch of vital buttocks; Haldern's expression was amused as he poured from a bottle of Zlot's liquor cabinet.
“Er, thank you, Archmagister.” Cadmus said, accepting his glass with an awkward gesture. “Ah, to what do I owe this... honour?”
“Well, Craven, I like to check in with the new recruits every once in a while.” The Archmagister smiled thinly. “Usually I'd wait for a more convenient moment. But having witnessed your performance this afternoon, I thought a quick chat was in order. No need to alarm yourself, of course.” He added, seeing Cadmus' expression. “I'm as much a fan of the Zealator as yourself. No, I'm not here to wag fingers.”
“I see.... So – what exactly was it you wanted, then?”
“Hm. You may have noticed that the League's fidelity to its stated goals has slipped somewhat of late.” The Archmagister replied, leaning back into his seat with a wry expression. “I cite, of course, the images revealed by yourself. However, these are mere surface details, indicative of the deep rot that has set into the League. To be specific, the Ipsissimus is corrupt, and perverts the League to her own service by filling it with weaklings, toadies and favourites. I don't mean you, of course.” He added with a crisp nod. “Now. What I represent, on the other hand, is the correction and salvation of the League – a mission I now invite you to join in. This situation with Adrammelech came about entirely due to the crimes of Zephyr and those who support her. Her solution to the problem is clumsy at best, compromised by her desire to possess the Green-Ray. You, I, and others loyal to the cause are going stop her. What do you say to this?”
“Well, of course I'm willing to do whatever is best for the League...” Cadmus said dubiously, fishing in his pocket. “However, there is also the matter of my planet and my rug-”
“Excellent.” Said Haldern, clinking his glass against Cadmus'. “Your instructions are as follows: your mission down on Kadmon is to succeed, but Zlot must be eliminated. You will ensure that this happens. Secondly, Nicodemus Karst and others of the second order are working to ensure Kung does not retrieve the Green-Ray for his mistress, but a forgery instead; when your work here is done, you will move to the Thrival temple and assist however you can. If all goes well, you will be rewarded. Zlot's position as Magus will be filled by Meera Ninetails, whom I regard as a safe choice, and you will be promoted to Adeptus in her stead. Understood?”
“Yeah,” said Cadmus, “but what about my rug?”
The Archmagister gave an impatient wave of his hand.
“Fail to comply with my instructions, and I'll kill you.” He continued. “Try to switch sides, and I'll kill you. Allow your loyalty to the cause to waver for even the slightest moment, and – well – I think you get the picture. Nothing personal of course,” he added, rising from the divan with a smile. “But the integrity of the League must be protected at all costs. Oh, and before I forget, here's a clairvoyance crystal and a long-range teleport, good for one use. You'll need them to contact Karst and reach the Thrival temple. Remember: Zlot first. Then the Green-Ray. Well. Best of luck.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Said Cadmus reluctantly. “But what about my rug?”
The Archmagister made no reply; tossing off the last of his drink, he gave Cadmus' arm a friendly pat and retreated into the corner where he disappeared into a cloud of swirling shadows.
For a few moments of frozen time Cadmus sat in gloomy introspection, staring into his glass while the Archmagister's words chased themselves around his mind.
Gradually the miasma of stagnation receded. Gradually the room lost its appearance of frosted glass and light began to flow once more. Fingers moved; eyes gave a slow blink. Then all at once, the scene was restored in a burst of activity.
“All right, chaps.” Zlot said brightly, stepping forth with a clap of his hands. “Time presses upon us. You'll have to read the rest of the pamphlet later. Now, as to the plan...”
Cadmus sat through the briefing, his face held carefully blank as he struggled to comprehend what had just happened.
Zlot must be eliminated.
Sylverne's words echoed unpleasantly through his mind. They carried definite and rather unpleasant associations.
Cadmus knew he was not a good man. He knew his regard for the sanctity of life was not large. But could he kill Zlot? Could he knowingly destroy another being in the name of the 'greater good'?
No, he decided suddenly: no, he could not. Another solution would have to be found.
Still, he thought, examining Zlot's weak chin and close-set eyes as the Magus approached. Of all the League members, Zlot was perhaps the most irritating. It would hardly be a chore to set the noose of death around his neck.
“Hail Caesar!” Cadmus said, rousing himself with forced joviality as Zlot stood over him. “And may I say, I'm very excited to be a part of this plan. Really terrific stuff. So. When do we make a start?”
“Craven.” Zlot spoke coldly, holding out a device like a mechanical spider. “Your transformation matrix. The transporter tubes are warming and I have several Kadmonite uniforms hanging in the rear compartments.”
He eyed Cadmus coldly for a second, then leaned forwards, his expression hard.
“Did you really think I wouldn't notice?” He hissed. “The others, I grant you, are not the most astute bunch. But my senses, I assure you, are quite refined. I know a time-displacement when I feel one.”
Cadmus felt himself grow pale.
“Ahhhh. Time-displacement? I can't say I noticed anything myself...”
Zlot said nothing for long moments, his lips trembling with rage.
“You dare-” He choked. “You dare trifle with me, Craven, and I'll make you wish you'd never been born. I am not a man to be taken lightly. Do you understand me?”
Several moments passed before Cadmus was able to respond.
“Look, Zlot, it's not – I would never-”
“Good.” Said Zlot, straightening up to regard him with contempt. “Consider this your first and last warning. If you ever touch my liquor cabinet again, I'll report you straight to the Ipsissimus!”
With that he turned to leave. For long moments Cadmus simply sat staring at the bottle and glasses Archmagister Sylverne had left on the table.
“Jesus Christ.” He murmured at last.
Up close, Malku Elyon was even less attractive than it had appeared from orbit: an assemblage of concrete monstrosities over which the High Chancellery thrust with manly confidence. The city's green spaces were mean and insipid, its broad plazas rendered pointlessly ugly by the gothic statues that leered at every corner. Whoever had served as architect deserved to face the firing squad – or so Cadmus judged.
Neither was his target, Chief-Intendant Costa, to be found at Proofer Headquarters as Zlot had said he'd be. Having wheedled this information from a disinterested night porter, Cadmus unlocked a car door with his power-rings and headed out into the countryside in search of Costa's dacha. After several fruitless hours, he sighted the ugly gables of the Chief-Intendant's country residence and, leaving the car in the woods, he snuck down the road to spend another uncomfortable hour hiding behind a bush. Finally, an official-looking car appeared and he leapt out into the road to flag it down.
“What's all this?” He said importantly, shining his torch into the driver's eyes.
“Special delivery from Hospitality Branch, sir.” The driver grunted, eyeing the shiny epaulettes at Cadmus' shoulders. “Is there some kind of problem?”
From the rear of the car Cadmus heard giggles and the glug of champagne bottles.
“Enemy agents can appear in the most unexpected forms.” He replied shortly. “Can't be too careful. Out of the vehicle, please – I'll need to see your papers.”
He left the driver hogtied beneath a pile of leaves and returned to the car with a grin.
“Apologies for the delay, ladies.” He said, slipping into the driver's seat. “Problems with the paperwork. Not to worry though, we'll have you at the party soon enough-”
A tense moment passed at the main gate as Cadmus fumbled his salutes. However, the guards accepted his papers with disinterest and he successfully navigated to the dacha's rear entrance; here, both he and the girls were greeted with loud fanfare by Costa's staff officers.
“Evening, gents! The party's arrived!” Cadmus grinned, carefully making the correct salutes. “A crateful of Kadmon's best champagne, three kilos of caviar and twelve 'guests' of the Chief-Intendant.”
“You took your time, brother.” A brigadier slurred, eyeing him in confusion. “Only why've Hospitality Branch got a full colonel running errands out to the countryside? Where's Errol, the usual driver?”
“Change of plans.” Cadmus said quickly, his grin fading. “I've an important message from the High Command for the Chief-Intendant, to be hand delivered personally. Uh. He's through there, yeah?”
The drunken officers accepted this explanation with indifference. However, the Chief-Intendant himself was not impressed when Cadmus strode into his office and locked the doors behind him. Several moments passed in which shouts and the sounds of struggle resounded throughout the house; finally, having successfully transformed both himself and the Chief-Intendant, Cadmus flung open the doors to be greeted by the nervous expressions of Costa's guards.
“You careless bastards!” He bawled in Costa's voice. “This imposter could have killed me! A Thrival agent, I'll be damned! Cart him off for interrogation and bring those girls in here. I need a glass of champers after that debacle!”
The guards dragged away the dazed Costa and a raucous evening ensued. Enjoying the power of his new identity, Cadmus stripped down to his shirt-sleeves and danced an extravagant Charleston with each of the prostitutes, much to the bewilderment of Costa's staff. After a short nap, he rose and, dressing himself in Costa's finest uniform, had the Chief-Intendant's chauffeur drive him into the capital.
The streets of Malku Elyon were even uglier by daylight, if such were possible. Cadmus had himself taken to Proofer Headquarters, where he was able to check in with Zlot The Wonderworker via holodeck. The news was good: all members of 'Team Zlot' had successfully replaced their targets and were in action around the city, wreaking chaos upon the various organs of government.
“Remember your instructions, Craven!” Zlot said, now wearing the guise of the Kadmon Empire's Supreme Leader. “The state apparatus must be comprehensively paralysed! My advice is this: alter rules, increase bureaucracy everywhere and issue contradictory orders...”
When Zlot has finally finished, Cadmus closed the comms channel and leant back in Costa's chair to consider matters.
Six imposters roaming the capital, spreading chaos at their touch. Enemy agents, on a mission of sabotage. The thought was an intriguing one, and it was this that gave Cadmus the germ of his plan.
His first order of business was to call Costa's most senior officers to an emergency meeting; in the largest of the boardrooms he ranted at them for over an hour about the events of the previous night.
“The creature that attacked me was utterly convincing as a Kadmonite Officer! It had authentic papers, a flawless mastery of our language and customs and a realistic, even handsome, appearance! Worse, it revealed to me that it was able to alter its appearance at will and that it intended to replace me as Chief-Intendant with the objective of sabotaging the Proofers from within! Thank Adrammelech I was able to overpower it with my superior boxing technique! But I'd bet my last kopeck there's more of these imposters among us. We must root out them at all costs, before they bring down the entire High Command!”
Amidst grey faces and moans he laid out his plans, each point punctuated by a slam of his fist: all current operations were to be suspended and all available agents reassigned; every official and employee of the regime was to be screened and interviewed as a matter of urgency; Proofer check-points were to be established at every major choke-point within the city and security doubled on all government buildings with extra searches and screenings for all; finally, propaganda posters highlighting the threat from Thrival spies were to be posted up in every office and thoroughfare of the city and the airwaves to be inundated with shrill warnings against loose talk.
“Let 'Trust No-one' be the watchword of the hour!” Cadmus bellowed. “Anyone could have been replaced and everyone is to be suspected!”
Leaving Costa's underlings in a state of panic, Cadmus stepped quietly from the boardroom and stood for a moment in the corridor.
Very good. He thought to himself. Now to let the paranoia seep in.
Soon he must deal with Zlot. Soon he must eliminate Zlot. But this was not his sole concern.
From his breast-pocket he took out the Persian rug. Beautiful even in miniature, it was one of Earth's greatest treasures, passed down the Craven family line since time immemorial and warmly remembered from all his childhood visits to his father's office. It rested on his palm, its splendour marred by the ugly red stain, like an expensive handkerchief carelessly used to stem a bleeding nose.
Gently he replaced it in his pocket. Then he turned about to face the young Proofers who stood guard outside Costa's office. They leapt to attention as his gaze fell upon them.
“You there!” He barked at the nearest. “Quick, tell me: what treatment awaits a captured spy? What does the tractate demand?”
The private sang out in a strained voice, his jaw twitching nervously:
“Sir! Spies and enemy agents are first rendered docile by application of the neural inhibitor, sir! They are then taken away for questioning! Once they have told all they know, they are finally put to work in the labour camps!”
“Very good, soldier!” Cadmus replied, his interest piqued. “But tell me: why put them to work? Why not simply eradicate them?”
“Sir! It's fitting that enemies of Kadmon should work to serve that which they hate! This is a wise and just punishment!”
“Correct again – well done!” Cadmus beamed. “Now, you there – tell me what purpose this neural inhibitor serves. Why not use a gag instead?”
“Sir!” Yelped another private. “The neural inhibitor serves to prevent non-ordained thoughts and ensure co-operation! The subject's brain activity is limited; only those areas responsible for pleasure and obedience are left unrestricted.”
“Excellent! And why leave only those two areas active?”
“So that the subject comes to take pleasure in obedience, sir! That way, their co-operation is guaranteed and the subject can be safely put to any task required of them!”
“Smart lads, all of you! You've impressed me so much that I will now give you a further chance to prove yourselves! Come with me!”
Turning, he led his charges down the corridor to an empty office; after waiting outside for a moment, they were admitted to see the now full-sized Persian rug resting on a table.
“A priceless heirloom!” Cadmus rumbled as they leaned forwards in wonder to peer at the embroidering. “Once the pride of a mighty lord, now sadly ruined by the carelessness of knaves. But you lads are going to fix it. Take a van and go round up the city's best dry-cleaners. You've got two hours. If my beautiful rug isn't spotlessly clean by then,” he said with narrowed eyes, “then I'll have you and your families rounded up and shot. Best of luck.”
Thus satisfied, Cadmus departed. Out on the streets of Malku Elyon, all was pandemonium. Crowds of surprised-looking Kadmonites cavorted wildly to music that seemed to boom from every loudspeaker, while cordons of Proofers stood at every corner, searching all who passed and convoys of official vehicles crawled along the streets, their occupants screaming in outrage at the maze of chaos.
Finally Cadmus arrived at the High Chancellery to find it in a state of near madness. Random alarms sounded from every room while officials raced about in a state of blind panic, stacks of documents beneath their arms. Hearing a familiar screech, Cadmus turned to see Jian Jishei approaching along a corridor, recognisable in spite of her disguise as Kadmon's War Minister.
“Destroyed! All destroyed!” She shrieked as officials ran about, their eyes glazed with her influence. “No documents more than three months old to be left in the archive! Efficiency will prevail! Ah, Crave- I mean, Costa! You finally grace us with your presence! How goes it with the Proofers?”
“Alright, War Minister. As it goes, the Proofers are working overtime dealing with an epidemic of Thrival spies.” Cadmus replied with a crisp salute. “Security has been increased everywhere and all government officials are to be screened. It will require the Proofers' entire operational capacity for several weeks, but the results will no doubt be worth it.”
“Is that all?” The War Minister laughed. “I fear you've been skimping your duties, Costa! The Supreme Leader will be most disappointed! I myself have made several innovations to expedite the war-effort!” She gestured with a grin towards the furnaces where several years worth of intelligence reports, policy documents and white papers were being burned.
“My efforts speak for themselves.” Cadmus shrugged. “The Supreme Leader may take them or leave them, as he likes.”
Sparing him a sour glance, the War Minister turned and disappeared into the crowd.
The other members of 'Team Zlot' were all likewise occupied, as Cadmus was careful to ascertain before moving on to the next phase of his plan: at the Office of the Navy, Meera Ninetails was wreaking havoc in the guise of the First Space Lord, giving out a series of contradictory and ill-considered orders to her various fleet admirals; Babblebrook The Cosmic Troubadour had locked himself within the Chancellery's public broadcast centre and was responsible for the bewitching music that filled the city streets; Sticklebrick had taken himself away to the planet's primary shipyard and dry-dock, where numerous ingenious innovations were now being made; finally, Zlot, arrogant as always, had assumed personal command of a campaign to capture a Thrival mining outpost on a distant moon and had locked himself in the Supreme Leader's office with orders that he not be disturbed.
Having thus assured himself that his team-mates were distracted, Cadmus proceeded to the headquarters of the Protection Squad, the Supreme Leader's elite personal bodyguard. In a cloistered office, Under-Leader Gerschwin Eckhardt, the Supreme Leader's paranoid number two, was hunched over a stack of paperwork.
“Costa!” Eckhardt exclaimed, rising as Cadmus entered. “Where in the hell have you been all morning? The whole city is in chaos, the empire practically falling down around our ears! What in Adrammelech's name is going on?”
“My apologies, Under-Leader!” Cadmus said, throwing up a hasty salute. “I've been dealing with a terrible crisis all morning! The Thrival have apparently mastered the art of shape-shifting and now have agents at all levels of government, indistinguishable from those they've replaced! I myself barely survived an assassination attempt last night!”
“What?” Spluttered Eckhardt, turning grey. “But that means-”
“Aye.” Cadmus nodded gravely. “The High Command is compromised and our situation dire. Almost anyone could be an imposter! Worse, an attempt on the Supreme Leader's life could come at any moment. In fact, I expect one directly. This must be our priority! The leader's security must be increased! He must be observed at all times! Have your men be on the lookout for slight mistakes – a salute wrongly given or an incorrectly buttoned jacket – that's how the assassins will give themselves away.”
Eckhardt grew paler still at this.
“Costa, I've known the Supreme Leader most of my life.” He said quietly. “He is, as all know, left-handed. However, when I took him the daily orders this morning, I distinctly remember that he signed them with his right hand.”
“What? This is most disturbing!” Cadmus exclaimed, trying to mask his glee. “We must investigate at once! I'll have my men search the Leader's personal quarters for signs of anything suspicious.”
“Surely this cannot be. I must be mistaken...” Eckhardt murmured, his eyes glazed.
“There may well be an innocent explanation, Under-Leader.” Cadmus said soothingly. “But we can't leave such things to chance...”
While Cadmus went off to give orders, Eckhardt summoned the captain of the Supreme Leader's bodyguard. The two men were deep in conference when Cadmus returned.
“Adrammelech save us, Costa!” Eckhardt groaned as Cadmus entered the room. “It's just as we feared! Captain – give the Chief-Intendant your observations!”
The atmosphere in the room was tense as the captain gave his report. Cadmus stood by an enormous set of globes, his shoulders tensed, his expression carefully abstracted. Eckhardt could only slump at the desk, lips trembling at the captain's every word. His face had aged ten years in as many minutes.
It was, indeed, a worrying tale. The Supreme Leader had undergone an abrupt and alarming personality change. Previously dignified, treating all from high to low with politeness, he now screamed orders and threw tantrums at the slightest provocation; his obsessive personal schedule, honed over decades to the apex of efficiency, had been discarded on a whim, and the Leader's personal chef, used to a spartan and predictable appetite, had been shocked when the usual breakfast of toast and fruit had been rejected this morning with demands for bacon and eggs to be served instead. All in all, it was clear that the Supreme Leader was quite a different man today than he'd been yesterday, and, when taken with the sudden switch in dominant hand, it was painfully obvious that a cuckoo had been planted in Kadmon's most sacred nest – or so Cadmus was saying when the phone on Eckhardt's desk rang.
The sound echoed hollowly through the room. For a moment the three men could only eye each other nervously. Then Cadmus strode over and snatched up the receiver.
“Yes, hello? Costa here.” He bellowed. “What? Slow down, lad! Slow down! I'm here with the Under-Leader. Yes, hang on, I'll put you on loudspeaker...”
The phone gave a whirr. A moment later the air was filled with strained tones:
“Sirs! Sirs! Begging to report, sirs, but, we've found him!” Came a voice apparently on the verge of tears. “In the closet, sirs, his own closet, out cold, all tied up with handkerchiefs as though it were a magic trick!”
Eckhardt let out a groan and sank deep into his chair.
“Good lad!” Cadmus rumbled, eyeing Eckhardt's slack features in triumph. “You hear that, Eckhardt? The Leader's safe – that's the important thing! Now, lad. Take your time. Tell us everything...”
It was much as Cadmus had guessed. Zlot had been sloppy. Trusting too much in his own powers, believing he would not be on Kadmon long enough to risk detection, the Magus had barely bothered to hide his crime, leaving the Supreme Leader tied up in his own closet with strict instructions to the Chancellery staff that no-one was to enter the room.
“Right.” Said Cadmus, when the private had finished. “Let's get this bastard.”
The situation was soon in hand. The Supreme Leader was removed from the closet and placed under guard in the infirmary, unaware of the imposter that sought to ruin his empire. Meanwhile, Zlot occupied the Supreme Leader's favourite chair, blissfully unaware of the moves being made against him as he directed his games of war.
“Ah, very good, general!” The wonderworker beamed at the tense hologram before him. “A sixty percent casualty rate is high, of course, but so go the costs of war! We must capture those mines at any cost, even if every tunnel must be cleared through hand-to-hand combat. Don't interrupt me! Don't question my wisdom! If I say that this mining facility is vital to our interests, then it is! Look, if you're worried about losses, I'll have another division redirected – Eh? What in god's name is this?” He snarled, looking up as there came a knock at the door. “I gave strict instructions that I was not to be disturbed!”
The door opened and Eckhardt sidled into the room, the captain of the Supreme Leader's bodyguard at his back.
“Under-Leader Einhart!” Zlot boomed. “What is the meaning of this disturbance? Can't you see I'm busy?”
Eckhardt, his features already grey, grew several shades paler at this. He stepped forwards on shaking legs, the sweat stains of his shirt standing out in stark relief.
“Excuse me, Leader, only I must report a dire situation.” He quavered. “A number of Thrival spies have infiltrated the, ah, High Command. I thought you should be notified immediately.”
“What? Enemy spies inside the High Command?” Zlot retorted, his eyes narrowing. “What nonsense! You are mistaken, Einhart! I'll hear the full details of this from the Chief-Intendant himself! Go and fetch him. Both of you!”
Eckhardt gave a slight bow, but made no move to leave.
“If you please, Leader, I've been told that you are personally at risk of assassination. We've arranged – ah – additional security measures for you until the threat has been taken care of.”
Zlot watched carefully as the captain sidled away towards his off-side. Underneath the desk, his hand moved slowly towards his revolver.
“Your loyalty is commendable, Under-Leader, however this will not be necessary.” He spoke coldly. “I would speak with Costa. Go and get him. Now.”
The words hung heavy on the air; neither Eckhardt nor the captain moved. As if in response to an invisible signal, the doors on either side of the room opened and a squadron of guards trooped into the room, their expressions tense. Zlot said nothing, but only hunched over his desk, his lips pressed tightly together.
“Very good, Supreme Leader.” Eckhardt quavered, backing towards the door with a clumsy salute. “I'll just go and fetch Costa for you now...”
“Captain.” Zlot growled, rising from behind the desk with his revolver in hand. “I'm warning you, Captain. Get these men out of here now. I will not tolerate any further...”
His words died on the air as he saw the captain's expression. The troops sidled forwards on all sides. Zlot extended his weapon slowly, his eyes riveted upon the captain.
“Very well, then. I know when I'm beaten. Step back and allow me to depart. I do not wish to kill you.”
For a moment all was tense silence. Fingers crept towards the revolvers holstered at their belts. The captain's jaw trembled, his grey eyes hard as they held Zlot's gaze. Then Eckhardt's back collided with a pillar and he let out a cry, his revolver firing loudly into the air-
CRASH! The desk toppled, the holodeck tumbling to the floor. A guard, burly and bold, leapt forwards to struggle with the imposter. Zlot fought savagely; he threw the man aside, brought his revolver to bear-
BLAM! The guard fell to the ground, his skull a bloody ruin; the others rushed forwards with a roar, a moment too late-
The spell rent the air with a tearing rip; their gravity inverted, the guards spiralled up towards the ceiling, roaring curses as they struggled for their weapons-
Eckhardt gave a gurgle, blood spouting from his throat as he fell dead against the pillar. Zlot turned with a snarl, dropping his weapon as he cast about for an escape route; like a captive animal he bolted, sprinting towards the window, his arms braced for impact-
Then the captain was there, coming seemingly out of nowhere. His brawny shoulder collided with Zlot's side as he flew through the air like an all-star lineman-
Zlot cried out but once. Then his shrieks were muffled, his face pushed roughly into the carpet. The captain reared above him, face gleaming in triumph. His grip shifted. His hand flew home, and, with a satisfying 'click', the collar of the neural inhibitor was clamped to the imposter's neck. Zlot went slack, gurgling as his eyes rolled back in his skull. The captain rose above him, breathing hard, his eyes bright and shining.
“For blood, glory and empire!” He roared.
The words echoed throughout the room. On the ceiling, the men groaned in pain and terror.
Cadmus has timed his rouse perfectly, or so he thought. He arrived at the scene moments after the War Minister and the First Space Lord, a look of shock and concern affixed to his face as Zlot was wheeled drooling from the room.
“Adrammelech's balls!” He exclaimed loudly. “A Thrival spy at the very heart of the empire! How could we have been so blind?”
Slowly, his companions turned to face him.
“Chief-Intendant Costa.” The War Minister spoke through gritted teeth. “Might I request a word in private?”
As it turned out, the interview proved to be quite unpleasant.
“Again.” Jian Jishei spoke calmly.
Cadmus staggered backwards with a whimper, his head bleeding freely from where he'd dashed it against the desk.
“Jian, please!” He cried, bracing his hands against the desk. “There was nothing I could do! It was all them-!”
“Speak the truth, dog!” She barked. “Did you arrange this?”
Cadmus' jaws quivered, his lips pressed firmly together; another trip to the desk served to loosen them.
“All right! All right!” He wailed at last. “I did it! I made it happen! But wait!” He added. “Just think what this means! Promotion! A free Magus position within the League!”
Jian Jishei opened her mouth slowly then closed it again. Meera Ninetails, tall and square-shouldered in the guise of the First Space Lord, stepped forwards and placed a soothing hand upon her companion's elbow.
“Peace, dear sister. You can destroy this baboon any time you like. Let's hear what he has to say first.”
“Not my idea! I was put up to it!” Cadmus said quickly. “He was going to kill me if I didn't do it. And I was promised a reward: Meera is to be advanced to Zlot's vacant position and me promoted in her place. This will be altered!” He added hastily, seeing Jian's expression. “You, Jian, will take Meera's place as Adeptus instead of me! I promise you!”
The two women looked at each other for some moments. Finally, Meera turned back to Cadmus, her expression cold.
“Hmmph. Assuming you have the power to promise this – which I don't believe for a second – there is still the matter of Magus Zlot. He is not dead, but only captured. He is, as all know, a favourite of the Ipsissimus. I hardly think she will leave him here to rot on Kadmon.”
“Look at it this way,” Cadmus said, licking his lips. “Zlot got himself captured through his own carelessness. He was sloppy, he didn't cover his tracks correctly and he didn't impersonate his victim properly. The Kadmonites captured him of their own accord. This is justice. Karma. Natural selection! Not to be interfered with! You might say that to rescue him would be a crime against the cosmic balance – interference of the worst sort! So. The League can hardly act in such a manner. Or so my patron would read the situation.” He added.
“Tell us who your patron is – how you came into their service.” Jian spoke through gritted teeth.
“Archmagister Sylverne.” Cadmus grimaced, the reply forced from his lips. “He approached me in secret, blackmailed me into eliminating Zlot.”
“He believes the Ipsissimus and her supporters to be corrupt; he wishes to break her influence over the League.” Cadmus replied.
“Very good. Finally, answer truthfully: the promised promotion of Meera – do you believe Sylverne is in earnest on this?”
“Yes.” Said Cadmus, relieved that this was the truth. “He described her as a safe pair of hands.”
Jian gave a nod.
“I never liked Zlot.” She spoke crisply. “I'll give orders for him to be executed.”
Cadmus lapsed into stunned silence. After a moment, Meera nodded reluctantly.
“This stays between the three of us.” She said, glancing significantly between the other two. “We'll all tell the same tale: Zlot was careless and gave himself away; he was summarily executed as a spy. Craven, you will see that Sylverne keeps his word, that Jian and I are promoted. Should you betray us, we'll out you to the Ipsissimus.”
Cadmus considered the proposal, dabbing at his wounded forehead. Finally, he gave a sullen nod.
“I'll inform the Archmagister of your decision. But know this: you are equal partners in this now! I didn't want to kill Zlot, it's your decision. If I go down for it, I'm taking you with me!”
Jian snorted in contempt.
“Left to you, the plan would have failed. So long as Zlot lives, you have secured nothing. He would have escaped, with or without the Ipsissimus' help, and you would have borne the consequences. You're soft, Craven. Soft and stupid. Luckily for you, I'm willing to do what's necessary.”
Meera nodded in agreement, although her eyes showed a spark of reluctance.
“I don't like this idea of killing the Magus either. But your actions have made it necessary, Craven. Don't forget that. Now,” she added, producing the nine magical tails for which she was named from beneath her officer's uniform. “Quit your blubbering. The other two will be here any moment and we must present a united front. Sister – now would be the ideal time for you to give the order.”
The empress slipped out with a cryptic nod; Meera applied the fourth of her tails to Cadmus' bleeding forehead, which closed up instantly. Out in the corridor, Sticklebrick and Babblebrook were speaking intently with an officer of the Protection Squad while Under-Leader Eckhardt's body was being wheeled away by two ashen-faced guards.
“I think, gentlemen,” Meera spoke significantly as she stepped into the corridor, Cadmus traipsing behind her, “that we have done all we can today.”
From the rear of the building a single gunshot resounded.
Sticklebrick and Babblebrook shook their heads, too shocked to speak. In any case, there was nothing more to be said.
One by one, the remaining members of 'Team Zlot' departed the Chancellery.
Cadmus' mood was sour as he returned to Proofer Headquarters.
His mission was complete: Zlot was no more. It was, admittedly, a better result than he could have achieved alone. Nonetheless, the humiliation rankled. His reward was now gone and the game had grown more dangerous. He would have to watch both Meera and Jian closely from now on; a word from either of them could set him tumbling into the abyss.
“Headquarters, sir!” The chauffeur called with a smart salute, opening the car door to reveal broad marble steps. “And may I offer you my congratulations! The word is that you single-handedly rescued the Supreme Leader and ousted the vile imposter who'd replaced him! You're a hero, sir!”
“Shut up, or I'll have your family killed.” Cadmus murmured.
Within the Headquarters more bad news awaited. The four young Proofers stood rigidly to attention, their faces twitching nervously; behind them lay the Persian rug, its dark red stain having lightened but a few shades.
“We did our best, sir-”
“Delicate threads, sir. Like nothing they'd ever seen!”
“Couldn't risk too strong of a cleaning solution-”
“Enough!” Cadmus growled. “Get back to your duties, all of you.”
He waited until they were gone. Then he let out a deep sigh.
“Alright then.” He muttered under his breath. “I'll do this the hard way.”
Hard way? Green-Ray. The thought came unbidden to mind. The Green-Ray. A ray of purest passion – an organising matrix with the power to remake all it touched.
“Yeah.” He said to himself, feeling his spirits begin to rise once again. “Yeah. Yeah, maybe.”
He took the clairvoyance crystal from his pocket and touched it to his temple; presently the taut features of Nicodemus Karst swam into focus in his mind's eye.
“Craven?” The necromancer's voice spoke in strained tones, his attention evidently elsewhere. “What is this? What do you want?”
“Sylverne's orders.” Cadmus replied simply. “I'm to help out however I can. You're at the Thrival temple?”
“Yes.” Karst grunted. “Yes. We could use some help. Things have gotten... complicated.”
He paused for a second, his teeth clenched. Cadmus received a sudden impression of a massive and intricate mechanical apparatus; of great forces compressed and held within the necromancer's straining grip.
“Come on then, Craven! Quickly, while the others are distracted-!”
Karst cursed; the link was severed.
Cadmus nodded quietly to himself. Second time lucky. With a touch of his rings, the rug shrank once more and flew neatly into his breast-pocket. From another pocket he took out the transformation matrix given to him by the late Zlot; with a twist of a toggle his appearance was restored. Finally, he took out the long-range teleport, its co-ordinates already set.
He took a deep breath to steady himself, then he depressed the switch.
“Goodbye, Kadmon. Hello, Thrival.”
There was a blinding flash of light. Then Cadmus was no more.