matapam (pamuphoff) wrote,

_Art Theft_

Art Theft

Pam Uphoff

Scoone Colony

20 March 2456 ce

The world was dark and cold.

At least the air was breathable most of the time. It had never gotten so bad that they'd had to use the carbon spells they'd made. And when the wind was off the ocean, they'd been able to stop holding the shield over the town for days at a time. Sometimes weeks. Longer stretches all the time, without smoke and ash. Without the sulfurous gases that Lady Gisele said were coming from eruptions all along the mid-continent spreading ridge a thousand or more miles to the west.

"Three months since the comet impact." Mikey stared up at the pale disk of the Sun, failing to do anything more than dimly illuminate the countryside. He tripped, and dropped his gaze to the road. "By the end of May we'll have to plant, even if only in small plots that we can heat and light magically."

Jeremy shook his head. "We need greenhouses. Easier to keep warm, a steady temperature. Don't look at me like that. I've been reading. And we can make glass. It's the light that is going to be the problem." His glance flicked up at the high dark sky.

The fine particulates from the comet impact were up above the more normal clouds.

"Did you hear the God of War, last night? He said there was a lot of fine dust in orbit, that might not clear off for years." Mikey wondered if he'd had more experience, if they had a full-sized trained compass of mages, instead of his desperate improvisation with three other men . . . two of them untrained, and Jeremy wasn't even a real mage, just a wizard . . . No, in the end one more mage compass wouldn't have made any difference. The old gods hadn't been able to divert the comet, but here, their shield had held. They'd saved their town, their neighbors . . . everyone except a few children, run off to play at the wrong time . . . My little Whirlpool . . .

Jeremy looked up at the sky. "I wonder what else Lady Gisele and the Old Wulf are planning."

"My stomach is upset enough about what they've already said. I really don't want to be stuck in one of those 'time dilation bubbles' for a century."

"It'll be handy for the livestock, though."

Mikey hunched his shoulders. "I think there are two kinds of those bubbles. Those invisible ones are even scarier than the bronze ones."

Jeremy slanted a skeptical glance his direction.

"No, really. Back in my misspent youth . . . "

"When you were a thief."

"Yes. The God of Peace hired me to steal a statue of a horse from the God of Art. Igor got itchy fingers and also stole two statues of foals. We kept one for the Kipper, for a toy. And then we did something and the bubble burst. And there was a big dun colt."

"So . . . you put something in a big bronze bubble, and it plays statue?"

"Yeah, the museum was full of them. He had this incredible bull, and human statues . . . " Mikey stopped dead.

He and Jeremy stared at each other.

Jeremy swallowed, and whispered. "He was here. He was here the day Imp and Whirlpool disappeared."

Mikey was thinking fast. Remembering. "Yeah."

"We need to search the museum . . . "

"I heard Art was going to protect New Tokyo. The city was probably as shielded as we were." Mikey bit his lip. "Or at least part of it, and the people. If we assume they came through at least as well as we did . . . "

"Then there will be a whole city full of people." Jeremy scowled. "Half the world away."

Mikey smiled. "All we have to do is convince a god to transport us there."

"Right. So . . . what do we need?"

"My old burglary kit, in case we need to do it the hard way. Maybe we should take some trade goods? I've got plenty of wheat, and canned vegetables. I won't take enough to short us, but enough to earn our keep there, while we sus out the museum."

"Right. So we borrow Foggy and the wagon, load up and go . . . the next time it looks like good weather for a week or so?"

Mikey stared up at the dim sky. "Yeah. I don't want to come back to find everyone has died of noxious gases. Let's go talk to the Lady."

"With your burglary kit, just in case she says now is a good time." Jeremy's eyes gleamed in the faint light.

Ropes, pry bars, the longest ladder any of them had, a quarter ton of flour and three crates of preserves in glass jars. Mikey had his small tools in the inside pocket of his vest, and two angry women on his doorstep.

"We are coming. Stop. Arguing." Motivated was a witch; their pyramid had held one corner of the shield that had saved them from the blast and heat of the impact.

They'd traded off holding the thinner filtering shield that kept the town habitable, for the three months since. Lady Gisele, the Goddess of Health and Fertility, had held the third corner all alone, and occasionally helped with the filtering.

Motivated looked stubborn. Whirlpool's mother. Sicily looked stubborn, and on the point of tears. Imp's mother.

Of course they want to help.

Mikey pinched the bridge of his nose. "Oh, get in. Then Art can kill us all at once."

The horse snorted as if he thought it was amusing, and trotted off willingly. Lady Gisele lived on the far side of the town . . . but the crooked little figure wandering down the road was unmistakable.

Jeremy leaped out and boosted her aboard. He frowned at her. "You look tired."

"I am. We gods, when we overdo or are badly injured, recuperate by sleeping for a year or so. Once we're sure we won't have to shield again, I'll sleep." She rubbed her face. "Of course, Mary Darley having a bad delivery that kept us all up all night hasn't helped. I'm almost afraid to sleep. It could be too long until I wake.

"Oh." Mikey's heart sank. "So this is a bad time to ask you if you can take us to New Tokyo to see if the God of Art turned the girls into statues."

She blinked at him. "Oh dear god, that does sound like something he would do. New Tokyo." She mumbled a bit. "I wonder if it survived. If he's there. Perhaps he knows if . . . Romeau . . ." Her voice trailed off. The light dimmed suddenly. The wagon jolted, and Foggy stumbled, halted.

It was night.

Dim jagged outlines of buildings utterly destroyed.

Rubble in the street.

Mikey pulled in heat and transformed it into a ball of light in the palm of his hand.

"Oh, no. Couldn't they shield?" Lady Gisele half fell out of the wagon. Staggered to the side of the road, a burned frame of a sizable building . . . a charred skeleton . . .

The old goddess wiped at tears. "I thought the comet would hit well to the west, we thought we could get it up into the northwest Siberian glacier at the least." She slumped down to the pavement. "I have to sleep."

She disappeared.

"Mikey, how are we going to get home?" Motivated sounded a bit breathless.

"I don't know. But since we're here . . . any of you been to New Tokyo before? I have no idea where to even look for Art's . . . Museum." He had turned as he spoke and his light fell on the rubble pile on the other side of the road, and the blocky building emerging from it. "Oh. She brought us right to it."

"It looks like another building fell on it."

"Yeah. We'll have to wait till morning to see what we can do. If anyone is here." Mikey climbed down and started kicking bricks and concrete chunks and stone shards out from under Foggy. "No one's cleared the streets at all, in three months. We might as well set up camp right here."

Motivated glanced toward the other ruins. "Perhaps a bit further away from . . . the skeleton?"

Mikey shivered. There are probably a quarter million dead bodies around us. Mostly buried under all the rubble, thank the Old Gods. Tomorrow we may find survivors. Surely there are some. There were mages and witches . . . surely some of them were able to shield small areas.

None of them got any sleep. Mikey and Motivated leaned on each other. The two dimly seen bumps that were Jeremy and Sicily eased closer to each other, and were sitting side by side by the time the predawn lightened the sky.

The skeleton's building must have been quite tall. Mikey walked over, set his teeth, and moved the desiccated body further into the ruins. Went back for the pieces that had fallen off. Then buried it all in rubble.

Pointless, perhaps, but he felt better not turning his back on a skeleton when he climbed the pile of rubble to look at Art's museum home.

He knew it was a three level, upside down, step pyramid. Only the top level was above the rubble on this side. It looked like a second building had fallen from the north and barely missed the museum. Or perhaps it had been so well shielded that the falling building had broken around it. He edged around to the southeast corner. The debris pile sloped down and he could see the start of the undercut to the second level.

The others climbed up to join him.

"The door is going to be completely buried. I think there are some windows." He teetered across the shifting pile to touch the building. "I don't remember it being like this . . . " His fingers slid greasily over a mottled gray surface. "It was marble."

"Or maybe the god just put an illusion of marble over more ordinary stone." Motivated wobbled as a slab of concrete rocked beneath her.

"Heh. I can see them doing that. It doesn't actually feel like stone, though."

The side Mikey thought faced west was less buried than the others, with the two top tiers of the museum jutting out over the rubble beneath. Some of the rubble was whole trunks of trees, no doubt blasted in from the stripped ground beyond, a trio of standing charred tree trunks the sole remains of whatever parkland or ornamental garden had once graced the back of the God of Art's demesne.

"Are those windows? Well, rock shutters or something?" Motivated was staring up at the museum.

Mikey stared up at the four slightly depressed rectangles lined up across most of one side of the top tier. "Possibly. Now, how to get to them, to figure out if we can get in?" I was a pretty damn good burglar, but I don't like the looks of . . . whatever this is, over the whole building. The only good thing is that I don't have to worry about the police. "Right. Let's get around to the other side and see if we can get up on the roof. And if there's anything we can tie a rope to, up there."

He led them off to finish the circuit of the building. No other sign of egress, but he did spot the highest part of the rubble pile. They climbed it, and Mikey clambered about on it, shifting a few chunks for a solid space for the ladder to stand on. Motivated and Sicily tromped on, and returned toting the ladder.

Mikey grinned. "Determined to help, eh? Well, let me take a quick look and then we'll know if we need ropes."

The top of the museum was slick and smooth, the edge a perfect, and rather sharp, right angle.

"Damn. We're going to need all of the rope, and padding for the edges."

They fetched rope, and carried it up the ladder. Mikey, sliding around on the ridiculously slick roof, dropped the end of one rope down to Jeremy, who tied it off to the largest chunk of rubble in the right spot. A pad of leather over the edge, then he strung it across the roof, tied it to the middle of the second rope and let both ends dangle past the windows. Jeremy skittered across the flat roof.

"I've got the girls standing on the end of the rope, so we can both go down." His feet slid out from under himself and he fell flat on his face. "This stuff is worse than marble."

"I'm afraid it might be some sort of magical shield. The gods can do a lot of stuff even my dad couldn't do."

"Great. I finally get you someplace where you might talk about your mysterious dad, and we're too busy for me to pin you down."

Mikey snickered. "Steady the rope while I take a look over the side." He tied a loop about the right length and dropped it over the side. Jeremy shed his jacket and laid it between the rope and the stone—or whatever—edge. Mikey grabbed tightly and slid carefully off the edge. Descended cautiously, hand over hand.

"Dad was a very strong mage. Got into politics. Got into trouble. Fled the East Coast and went into a very quiet retirement in Scandia. Really no big deal, other than as a cautionary tale. Never get into politics." Mikey's foot found the end of the loop and he turned his attention to the window. Or whatever it was. It looked like the walls, but felt different to both his hands and his inner senses.

Shields. Dad and I played with shields, but nothing like this. Analyze. He taught me to analyze spells. Mikey locked his hands around the rope and leaned his head against the window. Yes, those are elements of a standard mage shield.

But something else as well. Slippery and hard to see, all melted into the shield.

But even the familiar parts of the whole resisted his attempts to open, to soften, to modify . . .

Defeated, he climbed back to the roof.

"Like it or not, we're going to have to try to get to the front door."

There was a bloody lot of rock, bricks, half burned wood . . . partially decayed and burned bodies. Well, only two, but that was two more than any sensible person liked to encounter.

They started out making a good sized hole, right up under the overhang. The hole got smaller as it got deeper. Mikey finally squeezed through to a hollow space. Brightened the tiny light he'd been generating . . . The front door. Two glass doors . . . except they looked just like the "stone" of the exterior. Mikey scowled and leaned on them . . . Even less of the mage spell about this one. Or perhaps it was more of that slippery . . . nothing. And nothing he could do about it.

He slumped, and then dragged himself back out through the tunnel.

"That shield is even worse than the one over the windows." He climbed back through the rubble to the road. Slumped down on a rock and glared at the museum. "I don't know how to get in."

Motivated leaned and hugged him, then bustled off to the wagon. Probably to fix something to eat.

"We ought to have brought more food." Jeremy sat down cross legged on the ground. "Tell me about this shield."

"There are aspects of it like a mage shield. But there's something slippery, invisible. I can't even affect the parts of the shield I recognize." He leaned his head back against the wagon. "There's something there that's a little bit like a witch shield, as well."

"Why is there a difference? Between witch and mage shields?" Sicily handed them sandwiches, and sat down.

Motivated came and sat as well. "It's how the power is fastened to it, to power the shield even after the magician has left the area. These . . . the whole building is covered with a shield that's lasted months. It's unheard of."

Sicily frowned. "If I understand you, you're saying the shield is powered by both Witch and Mage power . . . and something else?"

Mikey nodded. "They say the gods have both genes, so not surprising...but what do I do about it?"

Sicily squirmed. "Can you work together?"

Mikey opened his eyes and looked up. "Motivated, I hope you have a head for heights."

Jeremy looked worried. "I could . . . "

"No, we need a witch and a mage. And the shield over the window feels . . . thinner than the shield over the doors. Maybe together we can get through it."

Motivated did not have a head for heights. Mikey wrapped her up in a harness she described as obscene, and Mikey and Jeremy lowered her over the side.

Mikey shinned down the other rope and got his foot in the loop at the end.

A sudden pain, fingers digging into his shoulder. Panicked breaths. "I don't generally mind heights, but then I don't generally dangle over abysses while burgling gods' residences!" Motivated's other hand had a death grip on the rope.

Mikey reached and hugged her. "Take a deep breath, then help me analyze this shield. I think I can deal with the mage part. It's strong and persistent, but I can suppress it long enough." Then he shut up and listened as Motivated forced herself to let go with one hand and touched the window. She sank into the witchy part, and they could peel them both back at the same time and look at the bluish, almost transparent thing that remained.

Mikey reached out and his fingers sank through it as if it didn't exist. As if there was no glass, no window, no building. He pulled his hand out of nothing.

Motivated poked it, her finger sinking in. She jerked it back. "Together?"

Mikey switched hands on the rope, and interlaced the fingers of his left hand with her right. And now they could feel the spongy slick surface. And crook their fingers and pull open a hole, rip an opening . . . Mikey squeezed the rope between his shoulder and neck and fished out a simple probe. He wiggled it into the edge of the window and tripped the latch. Slid the window pane.

The interior was dimly lit. Statues everywhere . . . the God of Art staring at him, frozen terror on his face one arm at an odd position, as if covering himself.

Turned himself into one of his own works of art.

"Can you hold the . . . soap bubble thing open, alone?" But at the first movement of her fingers the bubble slipped loose and snapped closed.

They reached and opened it again. Mikey moved cautiously. One leg over the sill, finding the floor . . . keeping their fingers together. Kick free from the rope and pull the other leg in . . . Right. No problem. Other than needing to search when he dare not let go. Even in the dim light inside there was an obvious lack of statues of children.

He stuck his head out the window. "Jeremy, you need to come down. Carefully." He closed his eyes and tried to remember . . . he'd only seen the first floor. The horse statues, the bull, a door, not so much concealed as plain.

Faint cursing from the window. Mikey grabbed a dangling leg and set it on the window sill. The rest of Jeremy followed, a bit pale.

"Jeremy, it takes both of us to hold the shield open. So you have to search. If they aren't in plain sight, I remember that there was a plain door on the bottom level, no idea what's behind it. Servants' quarters? Broom closet? Otherwise, can't help you at all."

"Right." Jeremy slid around the statues. "What do I do if I run into the God of Art?

"You won't. That's him, right there."

Jeremy stiffened his shoulders and trotted downstairs. He was back much too soon. "Nothing. Can't open the door down there. Shall I get some wrecking tools?"

Mikey chewed his bottom lip. "Put your hand over mine. Meditate. Look at the shields we're holding open."

"Shields. I only know the ones you've shown me . . . oh, these are about the same, aren't they . . . but what's that, that oil slick stuff?"

"That's the part it's taking both of us to hold open. If you can take over from me, I'll take a look at the door." Mikey watched carefully, as Jeremy added his hand to the effort . . . Mikey slid his hand out. It held.

"Be quick?" Motivated was still dangling outside . . .

Mikey trotted downstairs, another room full of statues, and a buffet of food that still looked fresh. Some sort of preservative spell? Down another graceful sweep of stairs to a familiar room. The plain door was locked, with a bit of a trap spell, nothing he couldn't handle.

The room beyond looked like a cross between a kitchen and a madman's laboratory. Another door led downstairs to the room full of statues. Women and children frozen, mostly with surprised expressions, a few angry . . . there. Two little girls holding hands and gazing upward in wonder. Imp and Whirlpool in bronze.

He shifted a few other statues, grabbed the two girls awkwardly, and staggered back up the stairs. And more stairs, and the last grand bloody staircase.

Jeremy looked around.

"Hold the window. I've got them." And I really hope Sicily is still standing on the rubble chunk this is all tied to. He pulled in the loop of rope he'd used, and tied it to the girls. Heaved them out the window and let them dangle. Interlaced fingers with the other two and took over. "Jeremy, I hope you can climb ropes."

"Me too."

"Stand in the window, get your grip solid and high, and you're halfway home." Oh crap, I ought to have gotten a rope around him, too! Mikey changed his hand position carefully, and stepped quickly into the window as Jeremy headed upward. He stood, grabbed a waving foot and stuck it on his shoulder, grabbed the other foot and shoved. "Walk your hands up. Reach over the edge for the rope, it's the only traction up there."

The foot left his shoulder and his arm quivered . . . the weight disappeared and he saw the legs roll out of sight.

"Right." He grinned at Motivated. "I'll climb up and then we'll both pull you up and then the girls."

She nodded.

He shinned up the rope. Jeremy hauled him over the edge, then they each placed a foot on the rope for traction, grabbed Motivated's rope and hauled. She clambered over the edge and rolled over, shaking hands going to the knots that held the loop under her, err . . . Mikey and Jeremy grabbed the other rope and pulled up the bronze girls.

Then Mikey helped Motivated with the knots.

"I'm going to be black and blue from that rope. No fun times for you, Mister Flicker." But the tears didn't flow until she reached cautiously out to touch her daughter's face.

"Well, step one is accomplished. Let's get off the roof, and see if we can get them out of that thing like we opened the window."

They slid the statues over to the far side, nearest the road, and looked down.

Sicily was not standing on the rubble chunk. Foggy was on it, one big hoof planted firmly on the rope.

Mikey blinked. "Good idea." However the heck you got him through the rubble. "I hope he can get back to the road."

He and Jeremy lowered the girl statues, managing to not skid off themselves, and then headed for the ladder. By the time they had gotten around the corner with the ladder, the horse was back in the street. They hauled the statues to the street, then just folded up and sat while Sicily hustled around and brought them food, water, and coiled the ropes.

"My head aches, and if we have trouble getting out of here . . . the girls may be safer as statues." Mikey winced at the glares. "Right. Never mind." He took Motivated's hand and they reached together for the statue. "Foggy had a rough spot, I couldn't see it, but you could feel it and it just . . . popped." Meditating, he could see the quick triple flicker of something like a layered soap bubble peeling away.

Double shrieks of surprise. "Daddy! You're not supposed to sneak up on me!"

Motivated snatched her.

"Mommy you're squishing me!" Whirlpool's brows dived and she looked around.

Mikey sat back and rubbed his eyes. Must have got some dust in them . . .Oh eff it all! He hugged them. Then hugged Jeremy-and-Imp. Squeezed Sicily's shoulder. Hugged the horse. Why the hell not?

He walked out onto the rubble strewn street. "God of Travelers, we're stranded far from home, can you help us?"

A deep flood of magic, like a blanket of heat and humidity rolling over the ruins. A tall thin figure, dark of skin, a glint of light off a bronze spear tip. "So I see." The god surveyed the ruins, and slumped. "New Tokyo. Dear Lord, there's not much left, is there? Where are you from, what are you doing here?"

Motivated walked up beside him. "Rescuing our children. Art had them in his museum. We . . . need to get back to Scoone."

"I don't recognize towns very well." The god's brows furrowed.

"How about Lady Gisele's garden?" He's the God of Travelers! "How about the North Road, where it meets the docks?"

"Oh yes. That's a good strong recognition . . . " the ruins faded into night, water lapped at the pilings. ". . . point."

The god walked out on the road. "Gisele? Wolf? Romeau?" He stood a long time. "Am I the last one? The only one?"

"No, Lady Gisele . . . " but the god was gone.

"You're not alone."

And neither am I.

Mikey looked around at his family. "Well. Let's get home. "


  • _Hostile Takeover_ Part 20

    Fifteen minutes to six he sent an impression of sleep to the pair of people down here, and moved boxes into the lavatory until he had a nice stable…

  • _Hostile Takeover_ Part 19

    He glanced at the time. The days are getting longer, but it's still dark until . . . I'll need to park to the west of Number Four Portal…

  • _Hostile Takeover_ Part 18

    Easiest escape ever. Desk Man programmed the outside cams to record and loop. The Ladies followed directions. So they walked out through the museum,…

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  • _Hostile Takeover_ Part 20

    Fifteen minutes to six he sent an impression of sleep to the pair of people down here, and moved boxes into the lavatory until he had a nice stable…

  • _Hostile Takeover_ Part 19

    He glanced at the time. The days are getting longer, but it's still dark until . . . I'll need to park to the west of Number Four Portal…

  • _Hostile Takeover_ Part 18

    Easiest escape ever. Desk Man programmed the outside cams to record and loop. The Ladies followed directions. So they walked out through the museum,…