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5.

Lilah Bay was alone in the shadow of all things. She was falling in a direction that was not downward, snatched from her straight course, her shortest path, her geodesic line between one cosmos and another, but if she was a chess piece being taken from the board, the chess piece was fighting back, dragging itself back toward that square in the corner. And even as she did so, her consciousness exploded outward, her realization of the facts on the ground expanded exponentially, her knowledge of the rules, of the history of the game she was in.

The Old Man was for stability, he was for money and power, but he was helpless before the approaching tide of wizardry. Wave upon wave, they bore down, humbled and then made ornamental the old warrior class and the land and money people who succeeded it. Now the power was in secret, held by men and women who mostly knew each other but whom nobody else must know. They dealt in lore, they traded in hidden words and lost items and eldritch places and seasons. They lorded over everyone else and banded in secret societies against one another, they fought wars whose battlefields were just other people’s neighborhoods and dreamscapes, and as they built their power, using the scheme of things they found, they used their power within the scheme of things to change the rules to benefit themselves.

Inevitably they committed atrocities. Naro’s behavior was considered shameful and unseemly by all, but things were done in the dark which were far worse, far more vile, far more lethal to far more victims, and, since no one could hope to even see behind the door of a very special wizard’s house, almost everything they did was in the dark. Still, one perceived a need for some sort of control, at least on what everyone else might be up to.

The early days of the Constabulary came rushing back. There was that aristo chief. There were at least three wizards and a priestess, all of whom ended up nastily dead. There was a knock-down drag-out spell battle, an ambushed ambush, climaxing in a reversed death spell that left its caster, a gangster wizard by the name of Raphel, vomiting out his life and several internal organs. That spell had been directed at Lilah Bay, and it was her kno eur that reversed it, and she did not feel the least bit bad about the result.

She was the last person standing. It was not the last time she would be.

The Constabulary was now a presence. It was a threat, a known commodity, and a place to be. It was also hiring, and among its hires was a rumpled blond fellow named Garik and a lady with sad eyes and long dark hair, called Gregoria. Inez and Neal came soon after.

She did not like Gregoria and she did not think much of Garik or Neal, until they busted a ring smuggling something called poison glass, which was a crystal one consumed one way or another, which enhanced one’s magical energy at a cost. The cost came in several ways: spell resistance became spotty; failure to resist even a mid-level cease or hold could result in cardiac arrest; there was addiction, both in the form of tactical dependence and, surprisingly quickly, physical need. And then there was the sense of superiority that the user felt, the sense that any battle could be won and any foe destroyed, and this led to both recklessness and cruelty.

Such things would never stop tempting the ascendant wizard. But it was the smuggler that Lilah and her aristo boss—his name was Brym Stellan—concerned themselves with. The user would make a mistake and would die. The smuggler would never use, because it was unwise, the expected values were decidedly negative, but he would be there to sell poison to people too young and ambitious and full of their own indestructability to think that way.

Many who were fine and clever and thought themselves great fell into the trap. One was Elio Estrazy, born in Valantoniu but come to the Institute at Zente in Padva. There was so much good in him, such brain and heart and power, but such pride as well. Of course Lilah Bay had fallen for him. Of course she had not fallen for his addiction, and finally she had made him leave. Of course he had joined her enemies, even as he tried, time and again, to win her back.

The world was turning into the poison glass game writ large. There were those who were too stupid in their power and ambition to know they were destroying themselves and everyone in contact with them. There were those who profited from that destruction. There were those who had a stake in the old way and who watched each new horror from their swiftly eroding hilltops. There were those who took on the task of preventing or punishing the worst abuses. They were on the side of stability, of fairness, of the old rich and the new poor. And the newly empowered, addict and smuggler alike, saw them as an obstacle.

One of them was named Haron, Haron Antarion. He was a smuggler, and he was also governor, of the Shantar Province south of Zente. And they wondered, when Gregoria heard of it, why a seven-year-old girl of a good family of the province had died thirty years ago. It was hard to place exactly what it was about the case, or it was until Garik and Lilah went and looked into it. The girl had not died naturally, though she had died fast—at the hands of Haron Antarion himself, because she, in the original version of history, had challenged his leadership and embarrassed him.

They took Haron Antarion down. It was the first time Lilah had even heard of a temporal crime, a murder that only made sense with time travel. And though Haron Antarion was dead, and interdicted, and his previous chronology frozen, others did not like this new power the so-called constables had taken on. The next morning (as opposed to ten years ago or in another history), Brym Stellan was dead, disgustingly and painfully dead, in his office. Lilah and Garik looked up from his corpse and at one another.

For a while it was war. But the Padva Constabulary, grown to two dozen wizards and priests and alchemists and led by another aristo who happened to be a druid witch, had unity and purpose as well as courage and sheer penton power, and unlike their quarry, they soon had plenty of experience fighting on that strange terrain.

Haron Antarion was history. And soon a dozen other Harons joined him, along with hundreds of lesser wizards who thought as they did. Padva was, if not safe, safer; if not stable, more stable.

And then there were calls from other worlds. Frenog had tried and failed to create its own temporal order, its own magic constables, and Lilah and Garik and Neal and Gregoria and Inez and the black-skinned Cecil Week and the tiny redhead Susana were sent to help put that to right. Gagdas and Tympest sought their help and got it. And then, a dozen years before Annelise Azaine would be born, they were invited to Valantoniu.

But the forces they had taken on back home in Padva were more entrenched in Valantoniu, and the same forces bred and spread from old Groria across its sprawling universe: Adari, Urri, Angast, Eawa, Gunda. Now the ones who dealt in shadow were too great for the constables, and Cecil Week and Susana the Red were caught along with their dozen trainee wizards and horribly, publicly destroyed. Lilah and Garik and Neal and Inez and Gregoria pulled out.

But they did not pull out. Their fight went into shadow as well. Their return strike was deadly and decisive, except that, of course, it turned out to be merely deadly. The strikes went back and forth, but the belligerents were like archers shooting at each other in the night, like armies sending scouts to fight each other in the forest. Finally Lilah and Garik, Neal and Inez and Gregoria conceived of a mission against their greatest enemies’ stronghold, and though Gregoria was lost, sent down a hole in time to asphyxiate forever as she fell, the other four returned to Valantoniu knowing they had destroyed their greatest foes.

But the foes survived. And one of them, child of Valantoniu that he was, was Elio.

They caught Inez and destroyed her, by horrible hard death and interdiction. They came for Neal and he fled, and he returned only to die at Elio’s own hands. Elio came for Lilah one last time, or so she thought, and she nearly destroyed him. He fled as well, and did not return, but now Lilah and Garik were the only ones left, and they knew there would be no fleeing.

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