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Wayland's Smithy

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In retrospect, the man with the oversized longsword caught Aethelflaed Morris at a very bad time.

 

It was late and dark and there was no-one in this corner of CMU's east campus, mostly because the east campus was sparsely populated anyway and everyone who might normally work there had gone home. Except for one woman with a forge, some experimental archaeology to work on, and a lot of feelings to expunge. She'd tried the gym, twice, but there was something primal about hammering a lot of red-hot metal into submission that no sets and reps could replace.

 

Also, there was always the chance that she'd meet someone from the department at the student gym, and although Professor Redford had scornfully promised her he wouldn't be discussing her - personal failings, Morris was not at all sure she believed him. In any case, the sudden withdrawal of favour would already have made it very clear to everyone exactly how much Redford despised her.

 

Morris was spending a lot of time in the forge she had managed to get set up. Quite apart from anything else it was out the back of Architecture, and an extremely long way away from Archaeology.

 

But this was not a comforting thought when it was half-past nine at night, you'd just shut down the forge for the evening, and the peace of the university campus had been disturbed by an unnatural hissing and scuttling, and a scrawny shadow darting across the nearest puddle of light.

 

Morris recoiled into the safety of the forge, and silence reigned again.

 

"Who's there?" she called out, in a shaky little voice she was slightly ashamed of.

 

There was no answer but a distant hiss.

 

Morris used a large number of the words learned from her closest friends, who were equally split between soldiers and even more foul-mouthed archaeologists, and scrabbled among the sweaty layers she was wearing as protection from the forge's heat to get to her phone. Campus security were usually half asleep, and were based on the west campus anyway - but maybe she could get through to someone.

 

She couldn't.

 

She weighed up calling the police, and decided that there wasn't enough for her to go on. It could all have been a trick of the light, or tired eyes and ears. She considered calling round her military acquaintance, but a quick inventory of those few who could be called to say that she'd seen a ghost and it had scared her told her that none of them were close enough to help her. As a last resort, she tried calling her housemates; at least if she were murdered by a serial killer the police would be on the trail soon, if she was expected at home and never made it there.

 

She couldn't get through. Her hands shook so much she almost dropped the phone.

 

"Bloody buggering fuck," Aethelflaed Morris whispered, and went to put some armour on.

 

 

Morris's specialty was weaponry. Relatively speaking, she knew very little about armour other than how to poke holes in it, or (sometimes) how to wear it. However, the university boasted an unusually skilled team of historical re-enactors, who had taken Morris to their period-authentic bosom, and as a result there were chainmail coats, leather jerkins and basic helms stored in a closet in the small Portakabin office by the actual forge. The electricity seemed to be out, further unnerving Morris, but Morris had a torch on her key ring, and the streetlamps from the nearby road cast a little light over the fence onto university property, Morris helped herself to the best-fitting of the jerkins and coats, belted the combination with her own belt to stop it flapping around - Morris's shoulders were increasingly heavily muscular, a fact that made her self-conscious and also made sure there was a lot of extra jerkin and coat chosen to fit her broad shoulders flapping about her midriff - and  jammed a helm on her head, over the woollen beanie she had worn when she arrived. She also took a small buckler, mentally apologising to the Master's student who would be gutted if it got damaged, and the best of the swords she had made recently.

 

Like a responsible experimental archaeologist who is on good terms with the local police, she locked up the cabinet full of half-made weapons before venturing out into the darkness.

 

The hissing and scuttling was nowhere to be heard, and Morris couldn't see that half-human form anywhere. There were no lights left further into the campus; Morris noticed, with an uneasy thrill, that even the security cameras were no longer showing little blinking red lights.

 

Morris swung her buckler over her back and pulled out her phone instead, turning on the torch function. It would kill the battery, but so long as Morris herself survived, she didn't much care.

 

She completed a square search of the area immediately around the forge and the Architecture department, and found nothing. She retreated back to her original starting point and chewed her lip, wondering if there was anything to be done. Campus security couldn't seem to be alerted, and they were not always attentive - you'd think they would have noticed but it could not be guaranteed. All the lights were out. Probably everything that relied on electricity was dead. And that meant security doors, fridges - vital research was probably defrosting right this instant.

 

Morris tried to call campus security again, without success. Then she tucked her phone away and stared into the darkness, thinking.

 

The fastest way to campus security was through the silent east campus, particularly given that her car was at the park on the other side of east campus, the only place she'd been able to get a space. Once there it would take only five minutes to reach security. But she'd need to walk the twenty minutes there first, through a perfectly dark and silent campus in which something was hissing and scuttling.

 

She could walk round, but that would lose precious time. Even once she got over the fence, the pedestrian route around the edge was a winding one. Whatever had happened would just go on happening for that much longer. Whoever had sneaked in - and Morris was convinced she had seen that creeping figure, that it hadn't been an illusion - would be free to create total havoc for that much longer, and Morris would be the only person around to be blamed for it.

 

She pulled her phone from her pocket again, settled the buckler more comfortably, and started the solitary walk to the car park. It was perfectly quiet; she trod lightly and her boots were well worn-in, but her every footstep seemed to ring as she walked past apparently abandoned buildings, that one avant-garde fountain that had just stopped, student fliers flipping in the lazy breeze.

 

She was very grateful for the torch, even as it picked out shadows that danced, that might be... things and were only movement. She was even more grateful for the strips of textured leather wound around the hilt of her sword. They stopped it slipping in her damp palm.

 

When she saw the curious pale chiaroscuro around a squat building she knew to contain the east campus's main power supplies and fuses, they stopped it dropping straight through her fingers before she could grab onto it in panic.

 

The hand with the torch in fell loose at her side. With light as clear and bright as that she didn't really need it. She approached slowly, turned a corner, and found herself facing a massive collection of spinning glass shards that seemed to have taken up residence in the middle of the campus' back-up generator. Walls appeared to be no object. It threw its silver light into the back of the building with all the fuses and related paraphernalia.

 

Danger of Death, a sign informed Morris. It was currently being bisected by spinning mirrors.

 

Morris tried not to become hysterical. She also tried to call campus security, and was no more successful than before.

 

"Good evening," said a deep, polite male voice with a considerable air of authority.

 

Morris screamed, swore, and spun on her heel, coming sharply up against a very tall total stranger who was carrying a sword at least as long as Morris's leg. She had her sword pointed at his stomach, but that didn't seem to bother him much.

 

He was dressed in dark leathers, and he had kind, old grey eyes and long black hair pulled back into a practical, historical-looking queue. Morris would have put his age at about thirty or so, and she thought he looked like a fighter; he made the back of her neck prickle, the way some of Becker's friends who always had a weapon did. Also, she had never seen him in her life before.

 

"Who are you?" she forced out. "What is this?"

 

"You can call me Strider," the man said.

 

Morris stared at him. "In that case," she said, chewing on her tongue to avoid sarcasm and failing, "please call me Wayland." She waved her hand clutching her phone at the light show. "What is this?"

 

"If I knew, Mistress Wayland, I'd tell you." For a moment the man looked very tired. "I tracked a creature through it, and found myself in this... dark city."

 

"Dark city," Morris repeated. "Right. It's a university, in daylight hours."

 

"Are you a guard?" Strider enquired. "An apprentice?"

 

"No," Morris said. "I study... things people fought with. Centuries ago."

 

"Ah," Strider said politely. "Surely you could consult the relevant texts?"

 

"They leave bits out," Morris said, and cleared her throat. "The creature you're tracking. What does it look like?"

 

"Small and scuttling," Strider said. "Largely grey, with strands of dark hair, and sharp teeth. Lean and ill." He shook his head. "Old and cunning and cruel. A coward in an open fight, but vicious, in a corner. He climbs to escape, and is... quick-witted."

 

Morris hoped that he, whoever he was, hadn't discovered a door with an electric lock that had now failed. "Does he... hiss?"

 

Strider nodded.

 

Morris swallowed, and gestured with her sword. "I saw him," she said. "About ten minutes' walk that way, about half an hour ago. I looked but I haven't seen him again. Why do you need to find him?"

 

"He has lately escaped from the halls of a tyrant," Strider said. "Or perhaps he was set free, to create mischief. He was in custody for his own safety. Evidently this is no longer so."

 

"Evidently," Morris muttered, once more considering hysteria as a relevant option.

 

"I am trying to find him and return him to safety," Strider said. "For his own sake and everyone else's. There is reason to fear that he has... implicated innocent parties."

 

"And this is a creature," Morris said suspiciously, wondering exactly how benevolent Strider was. "Not a person."

 

She couldn't fight him. She would lose and die if she tried. And her phone wasn't working.

 

Strider suddenly looked not merely tired, but very old indeed. "He has reached a point where it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference. But he is certainly not a Man."

 

"Right," Morris said, after several seconds of staring at him. "Okay."

 

There was a long pause.

 

"I have to go and find the... the guards," Morris said at last. "There are things in these buildings - they need to be, uh, protected. You - you mustn't be caught here." She gestured at the sword he was carrying. "That definitely breaks a lot of laws about going armed in this country. How long do you think it will take you to find this... creature?"

 

"I suspect he will return here shortly," said Strider. "I was waiting for him to do so when I found you. If he does not, I will return myself, and wait on the other side. He is... adaptable, and intelligent, but also... vengeful. He cannot enact his vengeance here. He only entered this portal because I pursued him."

 

"Right," Morris said. "Well. I'll tell the, er, the guards that there's some kind of fault here. Something that would make it dangerous, so they will want to get... help. Specialist help. And I'll tell them I thought I saw someone or something creeping around, so they’ll catch the... creature... if you don't." She chewed her lip. "Just don't get caught. I’ll try and make sure there's a lot of noise. As warning."

 

"Thank you, Mistress Wayland," Strider said gravely. There was a small hint of a smile tucked into one corner of his mouth.

 

"You're welcome," Morris said.

 

She tried not to glance over her shoulder too often as she trotted away from the generator building. The last time she looked back, Strider had melted into the shadows.

 

 

She went back with the fire brigade, Bill and Jake from Security and a horde of electricians about thirty minutes later, to discover that there was nothing left but a severely disrupted and tentatively sparking generator, and a ruined fuse box. The entire campus would be unusable until it was fixed, Morris knew. Millions of pounds of damage must have been caused.

 

Standing off to one side, between bouts of praise for having raised the alarm and questioning as to what she'd actually seen, Morris spotted something in a rather dry raised flowerbed by one of the Physics department's outposts, next to the generator building. An extremely large footprint, and a symbol inscribed in it.

 

Morris had no idea what alphabet it corresponded to, but she suspected that it was Strider's way of writing the letter W.

 

W for Wayland.

 

Morris felt rather faint, and took this opportunity to sit down hard on the flowerbed. When she got up again, not only had everyone present agreed that she had been working too hard and had had a nasty surprise (particularly with the scuttling man she'd mentioned, who she had had no difficulties describing in an alarming fashion) but one of the more handsome firemen had volunteered to drive her home. Also, while Morris's jeans were now covered in mud as well as sweat, the footprint and symbol had been effectively eliminated.

 

 

Morris didn't know that many people at the talk she attended the following evening, less out of interest and more because it would do no good to let people believe she was avoiding the department. It was a two-hander on a fossil trackway found somewhere in Eastern Europe. Morris had missed a number of salient details due to nosy questions about the previous night's excitements, and delicate hints that she might have been unwell, which would explain why everyone had seen so little of her lately...?

 

Dutifully focussing on Stephen Hart, who was from Palaeontology and had worked on the animal tracks, and Safiya Khan, who was from a very prehistoric corner of Archaeology and had worked on the Neanderthal tracks found alongside them, had gone some way to helping Morris avoid incriminating herself. But it was wearing enough that she escaped to a quiet corner at the drinks afterwards, and almost spasmed and spilled her lukewarm boxed white wine when she realised that the corner was already occupied - by none other than Professor Nick Cutter, the weirdo, the legend, and the only known palaeontologist in the entirety of the world who was (somehow) on government contracted services. His new post had mysteriously coincided, in about 2006, with some CMU departments receiving a lot of lucrative grants and an undergraduate called Connor Temple running away to sea at the end of his degree - or rather, wandering off to join Professor Cutter and Dr Hart, the latter gentleman having suddenly become impossible to find at roughly the same time. Connor Temple had somehow still earned his degree, though. And was publishing with Dr Hart and Professor Cutter.

 

It all made roughly as much sense as Strider and his creature who might or might not have been a person.

 

"Uh," Morris stammered. "Sorry. Excuse me."

 

"Not at all," Professor Cutter said genially. "Aren't you the young lady who makes weapons, and raised the alarm about the power outage last night?"

 

"Yes, that's me," Morris said, actively considering back-pedalling through the wall, or possibly fainting decoratively, or maybe starting a fight with an eccentric member of another department about the feminist implications of reducing a PhD candidate to the words 'young lady'.

 

"Hell of an accident," Professor Cutter said, as if it were a leading question. "I wonder what could have caused it."

 

Honestly, so did Morris, because spinning balls of light did not feature largely in her experience of the world.

 

"I've got no idea," she said, completely truthfully. "I did glimpse someone sneaking around, but. Well. Who could do damage like that?"

 

"That is a good question, Miss Morris," Professor Cutter said, causing Morris to wonder where the hell he'd learned her name. "A very good question."

 

Morris looked at her feet.

 

Luckily, at that point, Professor Cutter's phone went off, as did Dr Hart's and that of a scruffy young man in a trilby who almost knocked over Dr Ellis in his effort to reach Professor Cutter.

 

Professor Cutter grabbed his phone. "James, your timing's sh - Oh. I'm sorry, Miss Wickes." His eyes flicked to Morris. "Yes, I see. No, the talk's over. Stephen did a good job. We'll be right there."

 

All three of them left the room as fast as if they'd evaporated.

 

Morris met Safiya Khan's eyes, and matched her raised eyebrows.

 

"I wonder what that was about?" Morris said, grateful not to be the biggest source of gossip in the immediate vicinity, and the room (temporarily silenced) erupted in chatter.