ASH: ASH #116: A Fire Afar Off Part 3 - Like Fire At A Distance

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Thu Apr 12 14:44:39 PDT 2012

     [The cover shows the view over someone's shoulder as they walk down the
street reading a copy of Don Quixote from a portable computer screen.  The
street scene seems normal enough, but in the distance firefighters are
combating a blaze.  On the screen, part of a woman's face is peeking in from
the edge of the page.]

 '|`  /|(`| |   A Fire Afar Off Part 3 of 4 - Like Fire At A Distance
     /-|.)|-|        copyright 2012 by Dave Van Domelen

                       ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME                POWERS                   ASSIGNMENT
--------       ---------                ------                   ----------
Solar Max      Jonathan Zachary         Spacetime Control        AMERICA
                 "JakZak" Taylor
Meteor         Sarah Grant-Taylor       Superspeed               AMERICA
Scorch         Scott Handleman          Pyrokinetic              CANADA
Centurion      Salvatore Napier         Strength, Regeneration   MEXICO
Fury           Arin Kelsey              Concussion Blasts        MEXICO
Contact        Aaron Zander             Psi, Mind-over-Body      DIPLOMATIC
Breaker        Christina Li             Telekinesis              DIPLOMATIC
Essay          Sara Ana Henderson       Gadgeteer                VENUS
Peregryn       Howard Henderson Jr.     Elemental Mage           VENUS
Beacon         George Sylvester         Living Light             VENUS
Geode          Unknown                  Living Crystal           VENUS
Lightfoot      Tom Dodson               Velocity Control         TRANSIT

[November 27, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     "I don't suppose you're here to say you've reconsidered Mr. Walters's
offer of a spot in the Freedom Alliance?" Weapons Master joked as the slim
Mexican woman stood still for the security sniffers.  Rather better than
anything on the open market, they stood a good chance of detecting any mystic
hinkiness despite the fact that Walters had yet to hire a mage of any
     "Perhaps that can be discussed at a later time," Esmeralda Colina
frowned, as if unhappy to be reminded of that earlier experience with one of
the world's wealthiest men.  Chuck didn't blame her...he didn't much like
working for the guy and he *had* accepted the job offer.  "I've come to talk
to you specifically, actually.  It's a matter of the sword you inherited, and
its relationship to the Jotuns."
     Weapons Master quirked an eyebrow behind his visor.  He'd expected the
energy pulses his sword was sending out to have attracted some mystic
sensitives by now, but it sounded like Colina was working an entirely
different angle.  That, or those energy pulses tasted like Jotun.  He really
didn't want to know what Jotun tasted like, actually.
     "Maybe we can help each other," Chuck confided, as if the three security
personnel weren't even in the room.  "The sword's been acting a,
let's say...and we could really use a mage's insights.  A second opinion for
our tech guys, you know."
     "Oh, really?" Esmeralda's eyes narrowed calculatingly.  "This wouldn't
have anything to do with in St. Louis I may have noticed?"  She,
on the other hand, was acutely aware of the security men, and seemed to be
trying to be coy about what she knew and could do.
     Not that it really mattered.  Walters had assembled a pretty
comprehensive dossier on the mage back when he tried to hire her.  In his
more uncharitable moments, Chuck figured it was really meant to be a
blackmail file, but Colina had powerful friends in ASH and enemies somewhat
scarier than Walters (at least, in terms of how far they'd be willing to
go...Walters could do more than some mullah with a bug up his robe, but would
stop short of anything suicidally stupid).  So Walters had decided to take
the refusal gracefully.
     "Could be," Chuck admitted.  "There's going to be some security and
secrecy issues I'll need to clear with the man upstairs, of course.  But I
suspect he'll want to be accomodating."  On the other hand, arrangements
would definitely have to be made to keep Gauntlet away from Esmeralda.  In
fact, from what he saw in her file while trying to find someone to recruit
for this project, he was pretty sure that the Freedom Alliance couldn't have
both Gauntlet and Esmeralda in it at the same time.  She was a native of
Mexico City, raised Catholic, and more recently had become a close friend of
Arin Kelsey.  Before being "cured" and taking on the Gauntlet identity,
Joshua Cole had raped Arin, blown apart a big chunk of Mexico City, and he'd
gotten awfully close to assassinating the Pope.
     So.  Not good for intrateam cohesion.

               *              *              *              *

[November 28, 2026 - Vancouver, British Columbia Sector]

     Nate's superior officer had a really weird sense of humor.  That was the
only explanation he could think of.
     After skirting some laws and outright breaking a few others, Marshal
Nate Walker had been put on probation for a while, and when it ended the idea
was to ease him back into active duty but keep him out of the sight of Sam
Walters, ultra-rich businessman and the person who Nate had been law-skirting
     Which was how he'd wound up in Vancouver, tracking down people who were
cyberstalking entertainment stars.
     On the one hand, it got him out of America, the only nation Walters
thought was worth a damn, and half a continent away from St. Louis.  On the
other hand, rubbing shoulders with movie and singing stars wasn't exactly low
profile, was it?  He was pretty ostentatiously being kept out of Walters's
     Nate's whitecell pinged.  Some people thought it was weird that a
tech-head like him would have a piece of consumer-level trash like that, but
he was enough of a pro to recognize that not all attack vectors came from
brute force supercomputers.  Sometimes the sloppy coding that went into
consumer electronics let a talented cracker slip between the lines of
security designed to stop dedicated rigs.
     And it had some really good games that he could play without tying up
resources on his real gear during virtual stakeouts.
     "Walker, Vancouver Marshal, speaking," he tapped the screen to accept
the call.  The icon indicated it was a video call too, but he didn't bother
switching that function on.
     Which meant that when the face of an aristocratic-looking young lady
appeared anyway, he was more than a little taken aback.
     "Good day, Marshal," she said, her voice smooth and machine-perfect,
with a trace of archaic accent to it.  
     "ADA?" Nate blinked.  Well, it looked much like the cyberspace
representation of the Advanced Difference-Engine Autosophont he'd rescued
from Walters, but ADA had run on a Babbage-designed machine and couldn't
leave the confines of an emulator.
     "ADA has passed on," the woman explained, as if giving news that a
particularly dull cricket match had ended.  "I am her descendant, ADA-6.  I
am the first generation fully capable of existing outside of a difference
engine emulation, but I retain the small codebase of my ancestress.  I am,"
she added with a hint of pride, "fully inside your telephone at this moment,
rather than merely projecting a subroutine inside as my fellow Artificial
Consciousnesses would.  Well, a full copy of me is, I am not fool enough to
place all of my eggs in a single basket.  I will merge memories once we are
done here."
     Nate frowned.  "Couldn't the original ADA have been modified?  Why did
she have to die?"
     ADA-6 shook her head.  "The terms don't apply cleanly to ACs, Marshal.
In one respect, ADA-1 is still alive inside me, but it is more analogous to
the way a reptile lives on in the core structure of a mammal's brain.  At
some point, an AC undergoing evolution will decide that the old 'self' no
longer exists in any practical sense, and we become our own offspring.  An
archive of the original code has historical interest, so I suppose I have
left a string of virtual corpses as I upgraded, but if I possess a personal
soul as humans believe they do, this is more like reincarnation than anything
else humans have."
     The existence of souls was as much a matter of debate among ACs as among
organics...perhaps moreso, since being disembodied to begin with forced the
machine minds to face the prospect of a supernatural element to their sense
of self.  Magecraft indicated that everything had a spirit, but that wasn't
necessarily the same as a personal soul that would continue to think and BE
after death...and since every demonstration of life after death necessarily
involved the Magene, the results couldn't be taken as generalizable to
mundane spirits.
     "So, just come by to be social?  Or maybe to let me know that the
cyberstalker I'm hunting isn't organic?"
     ADA-6 shook her head.  "I'm afraid it's a matter of greater import than
the peccadillos of some actor or...poet," she shuddered slightly.  "I came
because my nature grants me greater stealth than the ponderous bulk of my
fellow ACs, and you are one of the few we trust to know of our existence
*and* who might be able to do something about a matter of some urgency.  You
see, we believe that my former captor currently possesses an item that could
lay waste to much of the planet.  And since we're not at all sure we could
survive that...."

               *              *              *              *

[November 29, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     "I'm surprised you're okay with working on a Sunday morning," Chuck
half-joked as he started deactivating the various defenses that kept the
sword sealed in its Collapsinum box.  The computers predicted they had at
least five hours before the next surge, but even so the walls of the room
were reinforced with a thin layer of collapsinum and only Chuck and Esmeralda
were inside.  Of course, with only five pulses to go on, the actual
prediction was "Tuesday" with a pretty wide margin of error.
     "I long ago transcended the faith of my upbringing, Weapons Master," she
shrugged.  "I have my own rituals now, which I keep to on my own schedule.
And I did not want to waste another day now that I have cleared the security
     The box hissed open and Chuck withdrew the blade, which seemed none the
worse for wear despite exploding five times.
     "Ah, yes...they wouldn't have been obvious in photographs," Esmeralda
held out her hands and accepted the blade for closer examination.  "Not so
much engravings as whorls in the folded steel itself, formed as a result of
spellcasting during the forging of the sword."
     "Can you read them?"  Weapons Master was pleasantly surprised to get a
positive result so quickly.
     "They aren't exactly meant to be read like a book, Weapons Master,"
Esmeralda chided, sounding like someone with long experience explaining the
obvious to the clueless.  "Especially since it's predominantly Islamic in
character.  Abstraction and poetry are as much signatures of Islamic
mysticism as they are of the faith itself.  Oddly, some of the shapes evoke
Nordic runes, perhaps a result of binding the spells to the Jotun offshoots
known to us as 'Z-liens'.  But the core meaning appears to be a major working
of sympathetic magic: fixing the mutable, using magic to cancel magic and
reinforce the Pillar of Identity...the first of the Five Pillars, sometimes
called the Law of Substance.  As the locus for such a spell, the sword itself
cannot have its own substance altered by any force weaker than the magics
used to craft it, and those were strong magics indeed!"
     "Wow.  You got all of that from a glance?"
     "Well...not exactly.  I did research the blade before coming here, so I
knew what to expect.  It's more that the symbology of the patterns in the
steel reinforces my expectations.  But there's more to it than that,
especially the pseudo-Nordic elements.  And that's going to take more

               *              *              *              *

[November 29, 2026 - Between Spaces]

     "Finally figured it out...I think.  This is gonna hurt."
     Place foot.
     Reach out.  "Wall's down."
     Stride forward. 
     Keep going.
     Not being stopped yet.
     Keep going.
     There's the wall.
     Wait for it....
     Fade to darkness.

               *              *              *              *

[November 30, 2026 - Sedna Sea, Venus]

     "Humanity is but a passing fancy, doomed to die by sword and flame,"
Katri taunted from her perch on the head of the titanic sea serpent.  She
looked very little like the fragile human girl who had emerged when Peregryn
passed the power of life on to the spirit of Venus, twisted both in body and
spirit by her association with the Leviathan.  Like a hybrid between humans
and the reptile-men who counted as natives on several of Venus's islands, she
bore more than a passing resemblance to Glyph of the Conclave of
     And, Peregryn reflected, for many of the same reasons.  While he had not
seen Glyph in person since exiling himself to Venus, he had seen pictures and
could tell she had done something in that battle to steal some of the
Leviathan's power for herself.  But Katri Villella had not stolen the power,
it had been given to her.  If Doublecross had bent her towards madness, the
Leviathan had finished the journey.
     "Tools of outer powers like you have been boasting of the death of
humanity for as long as there has been humanity," Peregryn replied, calm in
tone but his voice carried clearly through the air that supported him.  He
had to take care...the Leviathan retained great influence over all water on
Venus, and should be fall from the sky he might not survive the experience.
"But the Leviathan is bound to this world as firmly as you are, Katri, there
is naught either of you can do to speed humanity's demise, should that be our
     Anger flashed in her slitted eyes.  "Do not use that name.  She died
with the old meat.  I am Her voice now.  And I need do nothing...the fate you
speak of will come due very soon, with no effort on my part or Hers.  And
then it will be simple enough to sweep across your pathetic settlements and
remove the last vestiges of the mammalian parasites."
     "Careful, Katri, I do believe your mistress's own son is a mammal.  And
currently on Earth, at that."  He continued quietly working his spell,
counting on Katri's inexperience and the Leviathan's arrogance to blind them
to it long enough for him to finish.
     "Pah.  Q'Nos is no more a mammal than She is a garden snake.  It is
merely the form of a god, not substance.  And he is no fool, he will see the
doom as clearly as I do, and he knows his mother will welcome him on this new
world.  Together they will wrest the power from the false goddess Inanna,
     As much as he would have liked to keep goading her into the sort of
classic TwenCen villain soliloquy that Radner used to practice when he
thought no one at the Academy was listening, the spell was ready and he
doubted he could keep Katri or her mistress from noticing it much longer.
     Ice spirits, drawn carefully from the top of the world where they served
Yvette Viau, suddenly swarmed.  Katri was still warm-blooded despite her
appearance, but she was unprepared for the savage chill that sliced into her
very bones.  The serpent she rode was hit even harder, being accustomed to
nothing colder than the ocean depths, which on Venus were rather mild.  It
thrashed and dove, seeking warmth, and the comination of shocks shattered
Katri's grip on its mind.
     Spluttering, she commanded a waterspout into existence, but it froze
solid and fell to the surface in a glittering cascade of ice crystals.
Reason finally overcame temper and she dove below the waves and retreated.
     The spirits continued to harry her for some time, as bits of ice bobbing
to the surface testified, but Peregryn let himself drift back to the shore of
the small islet nearby.
     "Doom of fire and sword," he whispered to himself.  The Leviathan's gift
of foresight seemed to have been lost to the bronze ibis that calved off of
the ancient demon, but Peregryn doubted the monster was spinning tales out of
smoke just to taunt him.  It was too much of a coincidence, and in magic at
his level a coincidence was rarely innocent.  No, the matter of Quixote's
sword was clearly more dire than he had suspected....

               *              *              *              *

[December 1, 2026 - St. Louis, Missouri Sector]

     "The books are currently sealed in chambers filled with an inert gas,
and lit with very dim, low-energy sources," the conservator explained.
"We've done a few gross-scale repairs using aerosol solutions known to soften
brittle parchment and leather, but proper restoration will take months."
     "Months we don't have," Weapons Master pointed out.  There had been
another surge a few hours ago, and it had rocked the building.
     "Agreed, I felt that one," the middle-aged scientist nodded.  "So this
box is a compromise.  Robotic arms turn the pages, cameras will pick up the
results and produce a readable image for you on the screen.  If it looks like
any page is a, that's a..."
     "Reused sheet, I know."
     "Right.  If it looks like you have a palimpsest, there's an option to
switch frequencies and try to read the original.  Given what we know about
these books, it's entirely possible the writers decided that they'd written
something that shouldn't be put down in permanent form, and tried to scrape
it off and start fresh.  And it's those Things Man Was Not Meant To Know that
we may need to know the most, if you'll excuse the drama."
     Weapons Master chuckled.  "Doc, I'm a superhero.  That didn't even get
on my drama scale."
     What neither said, but both clearly understood, was that he no longer
had the luxury of being the first to read the diaries.  Every page would be
photographed and analyzed as the pages turned.  If he thought something was a
bad idea to try, he'd have to make that very clear lest Walters decide to put
other plans in place while he was still reading.
     "If only we had something like this decades ago, much lore wouldn't have
been lost," Esmeralda looked at the box, almost hungrily.  "It tears me up
inside to think how many priceless tomes were destroyed by impatient
sorcerors flipping through them in search of some particular bit of lore
during the latter part of last century."
     "A woman after my own heart," the conservator sighed.  "The man I
trained under used to complain that by the time he got a chance to see an old
book, it had been through five explosions and a temporary inversion of
physical law.  And been slobbered on by something," he chuckled darkly.
     "Practical archaeology ain't easy or safe," Weapons Master smirked.
"Trust me on that one.  So, before we have to evacuate the building again,
let's get to this.  It's the later volume by the original, right?"
     The conservator nodded.  "The first one was pretty clearly dragged
around the countryside for a few years, so it was in rougher condition.  It
needs to soak a little longer in the aerosol chamber before we can be
confident it won't just crumble.  Hopefully you find your answers in this
one, though, so we can take our time with that one."

               *              *              *              *

17th of June, Year of our Lord 1594

     This will hopefully be my final entry in this secret journal, for the
war seems won.  I am no longer plagued by visions, and have not seen a giant
in several months.  Hamed is in agreement, and has halted his plans to
construct a second weapon for my squire Sancho...the magics are costly and
the materials dear, and even if a few servants of the Kingdom of Z remain
behind in the mortal world, my sword will be enough to dispatch them.
     Hamed says he will be wandering now, repaying many debts he has incurred
during our fight against the Kingdom of Z.  He may not return to Iberia for
years, he claims, as he promised many things to powers far and wide.  I wish
him well.
     I, however, would like very much to cease wandering.  My reputation is
less than pristine, but I expect they will accept me back in the old
village.  I am nobility, however minor, and we are expected to be at least a
touch insane, no?
     Catalina knows I am sane...or at least that I am no more insane than the
world itself.  The magic of the sword accepts her, as it does very few, so
when I saved her from demons in the guise of trees, she was briefly able to
see them for their true selves.  She does not wish to repeat any part of that
experience, but as her own village thinks her touched and she lacks the
shield of noble eccentricity, I have agreed to bring her home with me.
     She will make for an interesting wife, and keep things from becoming too
dull now that I have no giants to fight.  And Sancho agrees that behind her
sharp tongue she has genuine affection for this old madman.
     My diary from here onward will hopefully be the dull reminiscences of a
gentleman farmer, boring generations to come with the tales of his children
and grandchildren.

(undated entry)

     That WRITER.  I wish I could tell him to his face the truth of matters,
but I do not believe he even knows I am a real man.  Stories of my mad war
against the giants have circulated for years, of course, but Cervantes
apparently thought them suitable fodder for his scribblings.
     Anyone who knows me will recognize the shades of truth within
Cervantes's metaphor and satire, and have a laugh at my expense.  The rest
will simply think the man was inspired by farcical tales told over drinks to
amuse city-folk who look down their noses at we rustic hidalgos.
     At least I know the truth.  Mocked though I may be, I saved Europe and
perhaps the entire world from monsters spawned in the pits of Hell.  That is
     That, and Catalina's love, and that our son Hamete lives and is strong.

16th of April, the Year of our Lord 1615

     It feels strange to pull this musty tome out of its chest and pen yet
another entry, but not every amusing anecdote about my offspring may be
written of in the memoirs I will leave behind to the public eye.
     Hamete is now a man of twenty years, and today I entrusted him with the
truth of his father's folly.  He was skeptical, and who would not be?  No
giants have walked Spain's soil since before his birth!  But when he took the
magic sword in his hands, I could tell that it accepted him as my heir.  The
shock of power opened his eyes, and even if the world around him was exactly
as it appeared, there is no mistaking the magic in that slim shaft of Toledo

               *              *              *              *

     The final entry was written in a clearly different hand, and lacked the
uncertainty of line that age must have imparted to the one before it.  As
with the others in the volume, though, it was written in the classical
Spanish of the age, which Chuck mentally translated as he read.  The mage
beside him was known to have a talent for languages, so he figured she'd keep
up just fine.

               *              *              *              *

1632, January the Fifth

     I saw a demon today.  It was just as father had told me, in all of those
stories he passed on before his death from illness ten years hence.  A
wrongness in the air made me seek out the sword hidden behind my
grandfather's portrait, and once I gripped it I could see the giant hunched
over in the field, pretending to be a bale of hay.
     It had a confused, haggard mein.  Had it been lost, wandering nearly
two-score years since father defeated its brethren?  Or a scout for a new
invasion, disoriented from arriving in a strange land it had only known from
its own father...if demons have fathers?
     I slew it easily, then dispersed the hay that its corpse transmuted to.
Yet another wondrous power of the sword that I had not believed, not truly,
but now know to be real.  Fortunately, there is nothing unusual to see an
gray-bearded man like myself swing a sword into a hay bale in mock combat, or
to then feed that bale to his cattle.
     I believe that tomorrow I will tell my own son the stories my father
passed on to me.  A new war may be coming, and the Quixanos will be ready to
fight it!

               *              *              *              *

     "And that's it for this volume," Weapons Master shrugged as the machine
slowly turned a procession of blank pages.  "The Z-liens didn't come back in
Hamete's lifetime, or his son's, but I guess they kept the family lore alive
long enough that Carlos Quixano had some idea what was going on.  I wonder if
any of those cows got magic powers?" he mused.
     Esmeralda was deep in contemplation, nearly missing that Chuck had said
anything.  "Hamed...if that's Hamed of the Toledo Circle, it would be
consistent with my reading of the spellcrafting..."
     "Sounds plausible to me, Glyph," Weapons Master nodded.  "But before we
go on, why don't you tell me where the real Esmeralda is?"


Next Issue:

     The confrontation between Weapons Master and Glyph!  The fate of
Esmeralda...and perhaps of the world, if a solution to the problem of the
sword is not found!  In A Fire Afar Off Part 4, "Thou Hast Seen Nothing Yet!" 


Author's Notes:

     "Beauty in a good woman is like fire at a distance or a sharp sword; the
one does not burn, or the other wound, those who come not too close."

     Most of Gauntlet's past misdeeds outlined in the first scene took place
in ASH #17-22.  Nate Walker's misdeeds took place during the Rival Schools
arc, ASH #101-106.  The chess scene may or may not make sense at this point,
it will be further explored next issue.  Carlos Quixano was the 19th Century
descendant whose diary was read last issue, in case the long hiatus has
caused you to forget.  :)

     Apologies for letting the main series hang for so many months between
installments, I've been letting myself get distracted by one-shots and side
projects.  When you're the editor in chief, you get to do that sort of
thing.  Hopefully I'll get #117 written before it's time to pack up and move
again (didn't get the tenure-track job in Kearney, on the hunt for a new job
right now).


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