Well, it’s not complete done yet, but I felt it better to post it than to tweak it forever; here is the first chapter of a slowly building novel! I really want to call this a first draft, and many changes may be made yet, as there is one character I want to rework (too tropey), two scene I want to re-conclude (awkward ending), and one scene I need to re-write (just all around too staccato and not flowing well enough). But overall, I hope it’s enjoyable :)
I’ll be updating formatting over time, and will keep the final version of each chapter here, with the most recent update date at the top.
Jerome Bigsby ran unevenly down the hallway, his left leg dragging with each step. The hunger gnawing at his insides and the stitch in his side had long since become indistinguishable, but both pulled him to the ground, whispering at him to lie down and give up.
Four years since my exile and I’m still running.
It had only been a matter of time before they caught him. It was his own fault for getting too involved, for trusting somebody. If he had known that night what he knew now, he could have – he probably would have run anyway. His father was always one to stay and fight, and look where it had gotten him. Jerome knew when to turn and run, not that it had done any better.
Bigsby luck…always bad.
He reached another corner and leaned up against the wall, gasping. Air scraped down his throat and stretched open his lungs, pulling at the pain in his side. The familiar, heavy weight of his gun was already pulling at his hand. He leaned around the corner and pulled the trigger. The kick swung the shot high and the world went silent except for the ringing in his ears. Shit. His arms trembled as he slowly raised the gun, peering down the barrel. He gathered his thoughts with a deep breath, holding it for a moment. His heart slowed and his thoughts stilled, then flowed out his mouth as he exhaled. As the last of the air passed between his lips, his mind blank, he fired again. The massive bullet went into the monster’s leg. A third shot, into its chest, brought it tumbling to the ground, carried on by its own momentum. Jerome turned and ran. He knew better than to think it would stay down. As he took off again, running, he rammed a new bullet into each discharged barrel, but hoped he wouldn’t need them.
He ducked around the corner to the left into a long hallway, looking for stairs down. And then the hallway was ending, and there was just a window. Distant footsteps behind him; his pursuer came on. Did the steps sound uneven? Slower? Maybe. That wouldn’t last for long. He hoisted his gun once again, and shot the window three times. He might need that fourth shot. He jumped through the window, pointed the gun up and to the right, and pulled the secondary trigger. A steel rod shot out of the middle barrel, unfurling into a grapnel, and sailed up and over the roof. As Jerome careened through the air, he waited for the familiar jerk as the grapnel caught… nothing. He was falling.
That damned Bigsby luck. At least he won’t get me alive. They’ll have to scrape me off the-. Suddenly, he was jerked upwards and to the right. Troll’s Blood! Some luck for once!
As the gun tried to pull the rope back in, he careened diagonally across the street towards the window and crashed through it, his head connecting with the frame with a resounding crack. Blackness overwhelmed him and his last thoughts were of the Doktor.
* * *
A withered old woman, bundled in old furs, trudged slowly through thigh-high snow. She walked with a limp, and her back hunched as she leaned against her walking stick, which sank deep into the snow and the sand beneath. Her nose wrinkled and her eyes annoyed, she called out with a hint of worry, “Kadzait! Come back here, Kadzait!”
A small girl sat on a thick branch of a massive leafless and lifeless tree, behind its trunk. She was bundled in layer after layer of white and blue, leaving only her round, red-brown face and hints of her long, jet-black hair reveaved.
“Kadzait! I swear, not even Silmo herself will be able to save you if you aren’t where I can see you in three seconds!”
Kadzait peered around the tree at the old woman. She had three fingers upraised and was looking in entirely the wrong direction.
Kadzait ducked behind the tree again, and stifled a giggle into her coat, sending puffs of white into the air.
Kadzait looked around again. Her grandmother held two fingers up for a long, delayed second, then put her hand down. “Kadzait? Are you there Kadzait?” The slightest traces of panic leaked into her voice. “Kadzait, come back and I’ll tell you another story!”
Kadzait weighed her options briefly, then called out from the tree.
Relief glimmered behind the annoyance in the woman’s eyes. “How did you get up there? Come down, you could hurt yourself!”
Kadzait shrugged, then leaped from the tree, disappearing into a dune of snow. A moment later, her head emerged from the snow ten feet away, and she pulled and turned her way into the shallow snow. She studied her grandmother’s face carefully. Her face was scarred with endless pockmarks, and lines ran across her face. Kadzait wrinkled her nose.
“Kadzait, when you are as old as I am, you learn a thing or two about faces, and you learn…”
Yes, of course, ‘wrinkles run in parallel, and tell the tale of my age and wisdom, scars run every which way in criss-cross, and tell of lessons learned and mistakes made’. Kadzait had heard this many times before; her grandmother was prone to repeating herself.
“Now, for that story I promised you. Once upon a time, there were sixteen gods, one for each magical alignment. Four of them, Lelethe, the four winds of the earth, Sisire, the sun, Golgolba, the spine of the earth, and Kolklo, the waters of life, ruled over all of the other gods as their parents. But like all little children,” the old woman smiled knowingly at Kadzait, “The children came to desire freedom from their parents.
* * *
A small boy with shaggy brown hair meandered along a dirt path between tall, bowing trees. He looked not ahead, but up, beyond the branches, where light filtered unevenly through the leaves, the mottled sunlight dancing in patches on his upturned face.
“Jerome, were you even listening?” A soft, ageless face looked questioningly at him.
“Of course! I’m always listening!” The boy mentally rolled his eyes. All the man ever had were stories of history. Jerome was quite sure he would never even hear stories of magic itself, let alone learn any.
Oh shit. Maybe he hadn’t been listening. “Why what?”
The man’s eyebrow arched. “I thought you were listening?”
“To the wind.”
The man frowned, folding his arms across his chest. “And not to your studies. As I was saying, some believe that there are sixteen gods, each a source of its own magic. Yet we only teach of the four magics, Air, Earth, Fire and Water. Why?
“Because four is easier than sixteen.”
The man peered over his glasses at Jerome, amusement in his eyes almost hiding the exasperation in his voice. “As usual, your gift for truth in empty words is remarkable. But the reason for this choice is also the reason your wit will always have a place in academic thought: seemingly empty words make for the simplest answers. The sixteen magics are themselves but combinations of the four. Why posit sixteeen entities when four will sufice? Some are simple, like the combination of Fire and Water most commonly manifesting as lava, but others are more subtle, like the combination of Fire and Earth, explosions, at the heart of gunpowder, or the combination of Fire and Water manifesting as acid. Now, tell me the elemental combinations that mark each of the ‘sixteen’ elements.”
The boy groaned and rolled head back, then began mechanically listing. “Wind and Water make…”
* * *
Most trolls had large heads, but their children were even more laughably misshapen. This child was no exception, and he looked as though he would fall over with each wobble of his head. His skin was a deep green, with only the beginnings of the tinges of grey that marked adulthead. His wide mouth opened, splitting his head open from side to side. His voice squawked, the awkward, bird-like chirps of his childhood. His words, however, came out slowly and carefully, with pauses in betwen each one, as though they were being selected one at a time, then inspected carefully before being allowed to pass his lips. “And so we…assume that water, earth, fire, and air, these…’basic’…elements are actually the common…instantiations of combinations of energy and matter…or of course the lack thereof.”
The adult troll who stood in front of the child folded his arms across his chest and nodded. His skin, smoky grey, stretched as he moved, and muscles rippled and flexed betwen the surface, as though packed in too tightly under his skin. His mouth opened to reveal several rows of jagged teeth, and a deep rumbling voice came out, “Good, Thrukstrom. As usual, you are a quick learner. Why do you think that the mythology of these ‘elements’ has persisted?”
The child cocked his head, looking up and to the right, as though hoping to find the answer printed in the underside of his brain. “Two immediate guesses spring to mind, although I would hesitate to commit to either of them at the moment. First, I think that…if I may argue by example? Fire is not the essence of energy without matter, but rather that it is the…closest and most readily available natural thing. And in fact, little in nature is purely mass or purely energy. Magic truly of energy without mass would, I assume, operate directly via…heat or light, not combustion. But fire is what comes to mind because of fire’s role in life. The same goes for air, water, and earth. These are all…natural parts of life, and so it is only natural that we originally conceived of magic through that lens.
“Second, it has become the established pattern, and so it is how magic is learned. Anybody who would think otherwise probably learns of the four elements long before learning to manipulate the world, and it shapes the way they address magic. I think with the right upbringing, you could be trained to conceive of — and thus use — magic in almost any metaphysic…”
* * *
A small child with sandy brown skin and short, neat, wavy black hair sat on a tall stool with his legs resting still on the supports. He was dressed in a perfectly maintained but imperfectly sized suit; the cuffs nearly reached the tip of his thumb, the legs of his pants ended halfway down his calf, and the shoulders were tight around his shoulders. The child watched intently as a small insect meandered around the ceiling, getting closer and closer to the set of lumps that looked distinctly like a face, looking back at him.
The sound was followed by a stinging pain in his knuckles, and he pulled them back immediately. A red stripe was already forming. The offending implent rested in a gnarled old hand, knotted and warped with age.
“Now that I Have your attention: if magic is as the old religions would have you believe, why do the prophets of Mekal perform feats unlimited by the rules of the old religions? Is it not right to believe that magic is a gift of Mekal himself, and that the old religions can only bump up against the true power of faith?”
The boy nodded, nursing his hand gingerly.
* * *
“Now, Kadzait, some people will have you believe that there is only one god, or four, but I know better than that. Why? Because I have met some of these gods. You too shall meet these gods someday, and four of them shall become your protectors. If there were but one god, why do some of us have a special relationship with rain, and others with the earth? Magic is but an expression of your relationships with gods, and the sixteen gods have hundreds of children.”
Life in the Three Kingdoms is always changing. War is the only constant, ever-balanced but for slight moments that tip the sides, destroy nations, and set the stage again. When agriculture and animal herding arrived, wars were fought over the plains and the grasslands and nations formed as people banded together for power. Next came the magic of metal. The first to discover bronze swept across the nations, and then the wars were fought over the mountains and the veins of metal. In recent history, exotic spices fueled war over the trade routes. These Border Wars, as they were called, devastated the Borderlands and left a new three nations ruling the world.
Iterul had always been powerful. Her vast fields could feed her people with ease. Her huge armies had first subjugated the world when it was young, and all countries trace their independence to wars with her. The till and the plow were a symbol of her power, and the farmer and the herder, her people. Only the Ercethi outlived her, in written history, and the records of those times were limited and porous.
The people of Agrion were a mechanical people. They had come out of the mountains a thousand years ago, and become the people of cities. No nation had cities larger, buildings taller, or Gods more numerous. Her people invented the gear and the arch and spread their tinkering and inventions far and wide.
Olaneva had no great power, but sold the world on her spices and drugs, spreading her power throughout the minds and bodies of the world. Few called Olaneva their master, but all were her slaves.
But the Three Kingdoms were not alone.
The Ael secluded themselves in Erorcana, unlocking the secrets of magic. Their waning power led them to meddle in outside affairs only when necessary, nudging events to avert disaster.
The Urma were surrounded by mountains in Erhennul and boasted of metalworkers and craftsmen to rival even those of Agrion.
Mekal was a nation powered by the God of the same name, one of the Ancient Gods, although to speak the others’ names was blasphemy. He was a subjugate to Agrion, and the failure of his past war to unify the world under one God only made him all the more sure: the sinners must pay. Every citizen was a soldier in a war against sin.
Myterium, the great floating city, studied magic along with the sciences and leeched off of the Ael, hoping to discover their secrets.
The Borderlands, huge wastelands between Agrion and Iterul, were starved for food and metal. Her people were the warriors and mercenaries of the Border Wars, abandoned after the war.
Now, times had changed once again, as they always have. In Agrion, Steam had been born, and great works arose. The Border Wars granted Agrion sole land access to Olaneva, but spread Steam to the world, and now a new war was brewing: The Steam War. It would end with a war between nations, but it would start with a conflict between men.
* * *
The dark tower Cthorlagh towered from the side of a mountain. While rain poured down the side of the tower, its apex remained safe and dry, above even the clouds. Elemental furies flew around the tower, and magical energy crackled everywhere; all around, water, or ice, or fire, or pure energy materialized for a instant. Once, these furies had been sentient beings. Now their task had become their existence. They guarded the tower, not against intrusion, but against escape. They had forgotten all else, even their own existence becoming a necessary accident of their duty.
Within, Eversi paced back and forth on the wall, willing himself to be righted again. He had spent hours trying to return to the floor, but there he was, jutting out like some ill-placed wall decoration. Worse, for the first time in recent memory, he found himself lost. Once, it had bothered him that the hallways didn’t always lead to the same place unless you concentrated hard enough, but walking his halls had long since become a subconscious task. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had found himself stuck on the walls, but strange things happened this close to the void. Long ago, the sleepless nights had driven him inward, to strengths he hadn’t known he had, until those strengths were all that kept him going. He was sure he should be exhausted, but he had forgotten quite what that felt like. He had forgotten a lot of things. Who he was. Where he was from. His family. He remembered only why he was here. To stand guard.
An explosion. The walls shook, knocking him back onto the floor. That was one way.
He pushed himself to his feet and looked up to see a huge beast loping quickly towards him on two legs, its long arms dangling below its knees. Its mottled skin shifted constantly, as though not attached firmly enough. Two horns jutted from its cheeks, but those too seemed a part of its skin. It closed the distance to Eversi and slashed at him with jagged claws. He brought his sword up at the last moment, parrying them to the side. He pushed forward with his shield, and thrust at the monster’s gut. It caught the blade between its claws, and the metal snagged in the grooves. He pulled roughly at the sword, trying to free it, but the beast wrenched it from his hand, sending a twinge up his arm. Eversi shook his wrist and slowly backed away, huddled behind his shield.
He envisioned the heat in the air, calling it out. Sire ilro! Annalye sire ilro! The air around him chilled, as its warmth flowed into his body. I need more. He turned his thoughts inward, to the blood pulsing through his veins. His body began to shiver as though wracked with illness, and his arm, numbed, struggled to hold the shield up against the onslaught. The beast’s arms bashed down on his shield, and Eversi felt his left arm shatter. As he grew colder, his right arm heated in response. The flesh pulled tight and dried out, reddening against the irritation. He tried in vain to lift the shield, and the next blow knocked him to the ground. Heat coursed through his arm, and he screamed in agony at the molten blood in his veins. The monster stepped on the shield, pinning it to the ground at his side.
Time slowed, and each moment stretched before his eyes.
He watched a white-blue spark float from his chin to his finger, and his flesh puckered. The beast raised its claws, and Eversi raised his arm feebly, sparks crackling around it. The beast’s claws came slowly down as Eversi’s arm raised. A bead of heat wound its way up from his finger to his shoulder, and hung there for an instant, a white-hot point amid a fragile moment. The moment ended, and it surged back down his arm. In its trail, a burst of heat followed, passing painfully over his flesh, inch by inch, igniting his sleeve for a fraction of a second and leaving blackened cloth in its wake. The point reached his finger, and the gathered heat exploded forth into the beast. Flame crackled all around Eversi’s arm, melting a cylinder through the beast’s chest. The monster fell back, shaking the ground as it did. Eversi looked down at his arm as the healing slowly set in, knitting flesh together functionally, if not aesthetically, leaving scars that ran up his arm in rivulets, new vessels that carried fire and lanced pain. Blackened flesh still coated his arm, but that would fall away in time. He forced himself to his feet, still shaking.
As if in response to his feat, a crackling came from down the corridor, and a wall of flame howled towards him. He stepped back and drew his sword, grasping the cold steel of the blade in his hand. Within the wall, he could see the flashing glimpse of a body somewhere, but not nearly well enough to do anything about it. He stilled his mind and pulled the air’s heat into the cool blade in his hand, and cold air blocked the flame in. A wall of ice grew up around the flames, kept safe from the heat of the flame by the pocket of air. He could smell the heated blade cooking the flesh of his hand, although the charred flesh felt nothing. Turning, he saw the effect of the explosion. Down the hallway, a hole had been blasted in the tower wall, now open to the outside.
He attempted to call for help, but his parched throat allowed only a hoarse croak to pass. He saw something move out of the corner of his eye before it slammed into his head, knocking him to the ground and sending him into blessed blackness.
Eversi slowly awoke, facedown in a puddle of his own blood. The smell of charred meat was heavy in the air. Pain radiated from the break in his left arm, and his right arm was a gruesome mix of slick wet burns and blackened flesh. The top of his sleeve had been burned into his shoulder, and skin had already begun healing over the fabric. He rolled over, careful not to rest on his left arm, and sat up slowly. He held his breath in anticipation, and slowly compressed the air around his arm. It hardened, malleable only to his will, and he eased the bone back in place. He exhaled in pain, grinding his teeth together. He pushed himself back with his feet until he hit the wall and forced himself to his feet. Slowly, he limped down the hallway towards the massive hole in the wall, and peered out. Anything that had gone out that way was surely dead, shredded by the elementals before they could have climbed to the ground. The only way down in time was to jump, and that would end much worse. He walked the other way down the hallway, to the cells. Each cell had been unsealed. And at the end of the hall, where the magical seal had sealed him away, trapping him, the wall had exploded out, tearing the seal. He was free. Kieran…
* * *
A man walked down a cobble-stone road, stepping carefully around the strewn garbage. His broad shoulders slumped as though they bore more than only the weight of a tattered brown cloak. His hand hung near the sword slung at his waist, and he walked with the relaxed poise of a man whose sword was as clear a part of him as his arm. He pulled his hat down farther, forcing shaggy brown hair out from the sides, and hiding his eyes under its brim. There was a time for making his presence known and a time for backroom deals, and this was a time not to be caught. He’d always preferred transparency, and had taken his share of risks in his younger days, but now was the time for precautions and care, for his plans were almost in place. His face was known to more than a few, and so if the scarf around his face helped conceal him only a bit, from both friend and enemy, every loose end fewer he had to tie up made his life that much easier.
It was rare that he came down to the Deeps, the underbelly of Torvennik, beneath the spires and towers that stretched into the sky. Directly below the surface, criss-crossing tunnels and caverns made up the slums of the city, where lived the poor and gangs alike. Further below that were the massive war machines that ran the city, churning away, producing endless wonders of steel. The Deeps were the perfect place to hide, he had found, because nobody expected anybody to venture there willingly. Safety had to step aside for once. He glanced around as he stopped in front of The Stone Crossroads, then stepped inside, sitting down at a table in the corner, where another man sat, cloak wrapped around him.
He gazed into the eyes of the ageless man sitting across from him. The man’s face was not an uncommon sight in the Three Kingdoms, but certainly rarer than many things. Whereas most bore their age as a burden, each year pulling more heavily on mind and body, no great weight pulled wrinkles from his face or slumped his back; neither the bloom of youth nor the wither of age was apparent in him. His eyes stared blankly back as though the world in the moment held little interest to him. His long black hair, pulled back in a ponytail, bounced eerily as his head moved minutely but rapidly.
“Hello, old friend. I hope you managed to tie up all the loose ends?” His own voice, weary and sad, startled him.
“Annalyë, some faith is to be had, Arthur!”
Arthur paused at hearing his name after so long in hiding. “I am sorry, but there is no room in me for faith. I have been working at this for too long to have it fail. Soon it will all be done, and perhaps then I can get a decent night’s rest.”
“Aye, old friend, that’ll be the day. As you have asked, it has been done. With you, some will stand willingly. To most of my people, what happens in your world holds little interest. You live and die too quickly and act without consideration. Your leaders come and go, kingdoms rise and fall, but we will live on. The Ael…too few of us realize how intertwined we all are. In many ways, yours are the wiser people. You may not care how your actions affect others, but at least you are quick to protect your own interests. I urge you, for me, for your old friend, two more years you can surely give. By then a good deal more can I have to aid you. But as impulsive a people as you, we are not, and change will take longer, all the more inevitable though it may be.”
Arthur sighed, then shook his head sadly. “The time for waiting is past. If only a few are with us, then we will have to make do with only a few. A few must change the world or die trying. I am too old and too tired to spend another two years gathering and planning, and I can only hold so many different links together for so long. Before long, the common interest will crumble and our movement will die. You say we are impulsive…If we do not act, we die having done nothing. We do not have time for deliberation and planning until the end of times. We move soon. I can only hope the world is ready by then, but this will have to be done then, with or without you.” A slight bitterness tinged his last words, though he regretted it immediately.
Calë’s quickly looked down at the table and stared in silence for a moment. When he looked up his face was forcibly composed.
“Do you remember when we first met, Arthur? Now, even to each other we can’t just talk as friends. Because that’s not what we are anymore. Now we skulk around in underground taverns because we’re afraid people are trying to kill us, and they find us anyway. In between us and the door, third table. They’ve been here since I came in and they moved to that table after you came in. They’re coming over here now, at least have the decency to act surprised.”
Arthur hated how Calë would just change topics like that, but he heard the footsteps come up slowly from behind him, and fought the urge to draw his sword, to run, to stand up, to do anything but wait. Calë, on the other hand sat still, little expression reflecting on his face. That probably didn’t mean much, but he trusted him. Besides, he wasn’t going to be the one to lose his cool. Calë always did at least that much for him, re-engaged the competitive edge he’d lost with age. Four men walked up next to the table, cloaks held back to reveal swords and one pistol. One stood out in front of the other three, hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“What brings such gentlemen like you down here, eh? These are dangerous parts, and there are a lot of people who might take advantage of a nice guy like you. And that’s just if they didn’t know who you are. But you see, we do, Arthur Bigsby.”
At his name, a few heads swung around to watch. Even outside the nobility, some stood to gain from the status quo, and they had a lot of influence.
“So you know who I am. Just one more reason to step back and leave me be.”
“If we’re caught in your towers, a quick death is the best we can hope for. My brother was once sent up to Tower Maganti to make a delivery. They killed him upon entry and took the package up themselves. And now here you are, in our world. Now, do you know what that makes me think?” Murmurs from around the room rumbled in agreement, and heads nodded.
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea about-”
“And I think I’ve had enough of your ideas! You nobles always make the same mistakes. You think that since we’re the ‘lower classes’, you need to save us from ourselves. But really, it’s just your own damn arrogance to think you know better, ARE better. And worst of all, you think you can talk your way out of every problem. If there’s something you put more faith in than your money, it’s your mouths, and I won’t have anymore out of yours. Now, like I said, you are in our territory, and so what we say goes. And right now, I think what we all want is a little justice.” His voice rose to a crescendo as he finished, and more than a few shouts arose around the room.
“If you don’t mind, I think I will take your advice. This is your ‘territory’ and I shall leave you to it,” Arthur stood up, attempting to slide past, but the lead man barred his path, and pushed Arthur back down. He didn’t resist. Always good to make your enemies think you weaker than you are…
“Oh, I do mind. You had your chance to leave. Now, what we say goes. Isn’t that right, boys?” He turned to his building crowd.
Arthur knew when the time for words had passed. While the other man’s head was turned, he drew his sword and gun in one fluid motion, smashing the gun into the head of the ringleader and resting his swordpoint at the neck of the nearest man. “Anybody else want to try their luck?” There had been a time when a display had enough to cow a whole room. But while his body had waned with age, his voice seemed to take the strength his arm had lost, and he had come to value a well voiced threat. The crowd shrank back, eyes wide. That wasn’t quite right. He hadn’t even killed anybody; this couldn’t have been the worst thing to happen this far into the Deeps.
Then he realized they stared not at him, but past him. Calë held one arm up in a defensive position, and a faintly glowing disk of light hung in front of it. The other arm, wreathed in flames that burned around his arm without touching it, swept the room as if pointing out each individual, one at a time. Calë stepped out, clearing a path through the crowd, and Arthur followed at his back, holding his sword aloft more for his own sake than anything. He doubted anyone was paying attention to anything but the flaming Ael. Magic wasn’t unheard of in the Three Kingdoms, but it also wasn’t exactly legal. Finally, they stepped safely outside, and only then did they lower their arms. Arthur nodded at Calë. Cynically, Arthur wondered how long it would be until Calë’s display summoned the authorities, but he knew he had probably saved his life.
“You should lay low for now, after that stunt. I’ll put the rest of the pieces in motion. Thank you, my friend. Perhaps we will see each other again someday.”
Both of them knew how that would happen. With their plans set in motion, they would be reunited only with success or at the gallows. They shook hands and embraced, and then walked off in different directions, two friends seeing each other for the last time.
* * *
The man known as Chance woke up to a splash of cold water on his face, sprawled on the ground. His head pounded. He probed his head and his fingers came away sticky from a large and growing lump. “Get me a drink. Now.” He pushed himself to his feet and swayed for a moment, then collapsed into a chair. He raised his hand involuntarily to the lump, and felt it again for a moment, wincing. “Two men! Is it really too much to ask of you to take in two men?”
Whispers and murmurs circled the room. He thought he heard apparently one is too many for you, but attributed it to his imagination. “Nobody has anything to say? By the gods you are the sorriest lot. For years now, we have sought anything. Anything! Revenge. Sure, that would be nice. Ransom. Demands. Instead the damned nobility just walks all over us. How long have I been fighting the good fight? Five years and what do I have to show for it? What do we have to show for it? We’re too content with our little victories and too setback by our defeats.”
Minutes later, he sat back in a chair, nursing a mug while several more lay drained on the table. A door creaked open in another room. A moment later, somebody called to him from across the room.
“Someone here to see you, Chance.”
“Can it wait?” The man ducked back into the other room. There was some whispering he couldn’t make out.
“He says he has something for you, and it’s a one-time offer. Says it’s worth your while.”
“Who is he?”
Some more whispering. Chance hated whispering. If you had something to bloody say, you should say it. Intrigue was all good and well, but save the secrets for your enemies… “He won’t say, but he says Syrio sent him.”
Chance knocked back the last of the mug, and set it to the side. He rubbed his temples firmly with his fingers. Anybody who knew Syrio couldn’t be too bad, but was inevitably dangerous. After a long pause, he shrugged and waved two fingers dismissively. “Send him in, I suppose, it’s not like I have anything else to do with my time.”
A tall man in a full, dark red cloak and a dark veil walked delicately through the door, and looked cautiously around the room. He slowly paced along the wall, brushing it lightly with his fingertips. He stopped, and knocked gently on the wall, then placed both hands firmly on the wall. He made a scope of his hands and looked up at the ceiling through them, then waved his hands in the air. He looked at Chance briefly, then turned back to the wall without a word.
“You have something for me?”
The man knocked again, further along the wall, pressing against the wall and looking at the ceiling. He came to the corner, and put one hand on each wall, pushing strongly. He muttered under his breath, then continued onward, silent.
“If you have something to say, I really haven’t all day.”
The man held up one finger, then continued around the wall, knocking, pressing, and scoping. He stopped in the next corner.
“Apologies for my precautions. No place can be entirely safe from the grumkins, you see, and I much prefer my privacy. But here is good. You can dismiss the rest of your men, this should be between us alone. And don’t expect me to believe that those drunks at the bar aren’t your men, I can see one of them watching me, and another has his hand on a knife. Now be a good darling and come sit over here by me. Come on now, you delightful chums, you’re dismissed.” He waved a gloved hand delicately but firmly dismissively in the general direction of the door, before sitting on the floor in the corner.
Chance waved a hand and snapped at the door, and the tavern emptied out. Then he stood slowly, and walked over to the corner table. The man’s veil covered his face, but Chance thought he could feel eyes on him anyway.
“And now we can talk as gentlemen. Or perhaps as children. I do feel that children have the most delightful conversations, whereas gentlemen are prone to dissemble and fabricate and do all sorts of naughty things. Naughty things. Perhaps that does sum up what I am here to do. Yes, I do enjoy being naughty. Let us talk as gentlemen then. Or at least I shall. You may talk as a child if you wish, but I fear it would put you at a horrible disadvantage, and I do love a fair fight.”
“Who are you?”
“I am an interested party.”
“And your name?”
The man waved his hand dismissively. “Names are not identities. You know my motives and thus, who I am. The name I bear is no more important than the shape of my cock, and I don’t see you asking about that, do I? Although, since I am talking as a gentleman, that would be most appropriately naughty. Unless you have chosen to talk as a child, against my counsel. That would be most inappropriate.”
Chase was beginning to get the distinct feeling that he was talking to a madman. He was going to have to have a serious talk with Syrio… “What do you have for me?”
“Ah, to the point finally. Have you ever had gangrene? Don’t answer that, the answer is unimportant, the rhetoric is all. How do you combat gangrene? You cut it out, before it can rot the rest of you. Well, I have a bad case of gangrene, and I would like you to excise it. This particular case of gangrene is a living breathing entity, and apparently gentlemen and children alike frown on murder. I can provide you with the opportunity and means, but I cannot do it myself, because, you see, I have a reputation to uphold, which is why I can also not tell you about myself. My name, that is, not my cock; only propriety prevents the latter.”
“I don’t know what you have heard of me, but I am neither an assassin nor a mercenary, and I will not do your ‘noble’ busy work.”
“But you see, you want this particular man dead, hence the arrangement I wish to enter into with you. You see, what I give you is more a gift than a request.”
“One Arthur Bigsby. I believe you may know who he is.”
* * *
The Borderlands are no place for the weak. Life is impossible, only survival, and that only at the whims of the raiders and the slave traders or what few military camps take in refugees. The desert stretches on for ages. The people are strange and the customs, stranger. But trade with the Urma had to go through the Borderlands, and there was always money for Urma craftsmanship and metal.
Byron knew he was on the last of his luck as the raiders moved in from the north, black smoke signaling their bikes. He looked over them through his binoculars, glad not to see any women. If she were here, he’d have no chance. As it was, they had numbers on him. But the area ahead was a gauntlet of sudden drops, rocks, and even the occasional mine from the Border Wars.
Good thing the engine froze up 10 minutes ago and not now. He looked down at his hands, coated in grease, then to his kerchief. It was hard to say which would clean the other, his hands or the cloth. He rubbed his hands vigorously on his pants and shirt, staining them. Although, used as they are, it’s hard to consider that to be ‘staining’. He swung one leg over the bike, and started the engine. Black smoke billowed behind him as he headed west, marking him out, but it was better than being caught on foot by those bastards.
They pulled towards him, looking to cut him off with the efficiency of a trained pack. He reached up and pulled down his goggles, taking the one advantage he could have. Surprise. Instead of veering away from them, he cut up towards them, drew his pistol, and shot the closest driver, knocking him from his bike.
Byron turned back west and coaxed his bike to keep going. Up ahead was a deathtrap from the Border Wars. Normally, it wouldn’t have been worth the risk. Before, they would have just robbed him and left him here. But now he’d shot one of their men and they were after blood. Besides, with his loaners calling in debts, he couldn’t afford any losses. He wondered why the raiders hadn’t fired on him yet. Then again, there was no reason to until they were sure to hit.
And then he was in the field, and it was his instincts or theirs. He dodged in and out of the rock formations, waiting to hear one of them crash. He glanced over his right shoulder to see one readying his gun. He cut wildly to the left and heard a shot ring out. All four of them were on him now, and he swerved left and right, hoping to make himself a harder target, the steel of his bike screaming with tension. He was rewarded a moment later with the sound of another gun discharging. His bike groaned as he cut around a pitfall, and he heard another of the bikes flip end over end, smashing into an outstanding rock. One more shot rang out, striking his bike. The engine faltered, sputtering, then kicked back into gear. Pipes rattled, threatening to shake loose. He hoped the one who hadn’t shot yet had crashed, but doubted his luck was that good. Three left, and one shot…Not good odds, but the type he was used to. He leaned to the right and fired at the rightmost of the three, then swung his bike to the right. The bike in front avoided the wreck, but the second driver crashed straight into the now dead driver.
The last driver stayed right on his tail, weaving to match his movements.
He must have shot already, or I’d be dead by now.
A shot rang out, and his bike shook with the impact. He turned back to see black liquid bleeding from the mounted engine. Gods damnit! Just my luck!
He jerked the wheel to the right and pushed a button on the side of his seat, and the springs under his seat released. He careened through the air before slamming into the ground and skidding on his back, looking at the last bike as it bore down upon him. Immobilized by emergency restraints, he watched as the raider leveled his gun to take another shot. Then the world around him erupted in flames.
Byron staggered to his feet, head ringing. The last bike must have triggered one of the anti-personnel mines scattered around the Borderlands. And of course, the explosion had taken both bikes. As if he needed worse problems. With this shipment gone, he dropped further into debt, and it was only a matter of time before he found his name on somebody’s hitlist. He looked around at the bikes, but none of them were in working condition. Shit. He was at least another 3 miles from Torvennik. He took a swig from his water pouch, then set off.
After a few steps, the ground a few feet in front of him exploded with a bang. He looked around in panic, saw nothing but rocks and dirt. Then another explosion rang out. He wheeled around, saw something glint by a rock and took off running in that direction, pulling his gun out. You want me, you send somebody who hits with the first shot.
He saw the glint again as a rifle peered out from behind the rock, and shot the arm that followed. The rifle clattered into the sand. He approached the rock, gun out. “Make no sudden moves and I won’t shoot!” That was a lie, of course. He rounded the corner ready to shoot, but a sword met his gun as he fired, knocking it from his hand, while a second sword thrust at his chest. He threw himself backwards, rolling to his feet and drawing his sword, pulling it up to block a savage swing at his head, and nearly losing his sword to the shock. Then he noticed the brand on the man’s right shoulder. There was a time when the Regulators had stood for something, but now many were just mercenaries. At least this meant they wanted him alive, or the rifle would have found its target… Byron was jolted back to reality as the man swung both swords at him, alternating from side to side. Byron backed away, deflecting each blow minimally. Eventually the Regulator would tire, and he had to outlast him.
And then he overextended, jarring one of his enemy’s swords as well as his own to the ground. The man planted his shoulder into Byron’s chest, knocking him to the ground. In a second he had stamped Byron’s arm into the sand and rested his sword against Byron’s neck.
“Byron Ambrose, do you know why I am here?-”
Byron knew the drill. He’d hear about his crimes, learn the penalties for his actions, then pay them.
“-and have failed to make regular payment-”
Byron tilted his feet back trying to get the angle right, knowing this was his last shot.
“-your debtors have called for one of your ears, and your left hand-”
Now was his last chance. The man moved his sword over to his ear, and drew back his sword. A loud bang rang out and twin red spots bloomed on his chest. He looked down at his chest in shock, then collapsed, dropping his sword. Byron pulled his toes up, and the barrels retracted back into his shoes. A few feet away, where he had expected it, was his assailant’s bike. Finally, some good luck…
* * *
Arthur jolted awake, his hairs standing stiff. It was too quiet. By now, the house should be filled with the morning hustle. Even if he didn’t know what was wrong, he’d gotten this far by trusting his instincts, and he saw no reason to stop now. He slid out of bed and scrambled to his feet, grabbing the sword that rested at his bedside. He lit a few candles before running to his dresser. He stared briefly at the man that stood in front of him in the mirror. His once honed physique had softened, his gut hung ever so slightly, and his hand trembled as he buttoned up his shirt. A shout from below interrupted his thoughts, spurring him into motion. He left the top few buttons undone in his haste, and pulled his pants on, buckling on his sword belt and a gun.
He walked over to his fireplace, and pulled out one of the bricks there, thrusting a note into the recess and replacing the brick. He drew his sword and advanced towards the door. He crept to the door, then paused, assuming Tiger Lies in Wait. Someone was coming. Footsteps made their way down the hallway, stopping outside his door. A whisper came through the door.
“Arthur, it’s Rupert. Arthur, we’ve got to get Jerome and go, they’ve come for you!”
Arthur realized that he had been holding his breath. He slowly let it gout and slid the door open. “Jerome isn’t here, thank the gods! We’ve got to get out of here, but I can only assume the obvious routes are covered. I think the passage in the storage room should be a secret only you and I and a few others know. And if anybody gets in our way, they are an enemy. We can’t take any chances.” Just a few more bodies in my trail won’t damn my soul, and if we fail, it was all for nothing
He hurried down the hallway, Rupert watching his back just as he always had. As he always would be. Arthur rounded the corner to the storage door, cutting down the guard there with a quick slash to the throat. He didn’t know if the guard was an ally or an enemy. He couldn’t even remember this one’s name, but his face was now burned into his mind, with all the others. The price he paid. He signaled Rupert up to the door. Firelight flickered within the room, revealing at least four people inside. He flashed brief hand signals to Rupert: Four, maybe more. You open the door, I’ll go left, you go right. No noise.
Rupert took his position at the door and Arthur drew his gun, counting down with his fingers 3…2…1…Rupert swung the door open and Arthur leaped through, hoping at the last moment none of them had any pistols. Instead, he was met with a worse sight, and stared in surprise at the face that watched him from the corner of the room. He slammed the door behind him and barred it, cutting Rupert off. He and Rupert had fought back to back hundreds of times before, but no more would he drag others into his battles. His burden was lifted, and everything would go on without him. No sense in Rupert dying here too. “It’s a trap! Go! Find another way out of here! You have to keep the fight going!”
He swung his pistol left and right, keeping the advancing guards back. One attacked and Arthur slapped aside his sword. But there were far too many for him to defend against forever. He launched himself at one, knocking his sword aside and barreling him over. He laughed as he danced amidst a storm of blades, untouched in the eye.
Rupert pounded on the door. A gun discharged, then another. He heard a body slumped to the floor. Rupert turned and ran, his blood pounding. Arthur had been right, there was no sense in them both dying. But he was a man of honor, and he couldn’t help but feel that his was gone now. He found himself wishing to be attacked, for revenge, and honor, but soon emerged from the Bigsby Tower, untouched.
* * *
Herr Doktor Thrukstrom von Smaugsentraalser hunched over his workbench, carefully pouring one beaker into another. He set the combined contents down and put the empty beaker into his washbin, then turned to his latest obsession, the chi-clock. Every being had a life force, which flowed around the body. And like any flow, force was wasted. By manifesting this energy, he could run a portable generator off of his own energy. It wouldn’t have the power to run any of his major experiments, but it could serve as his lab away from the lab. If only he could get it to work.
He poked at one of the gears that was slowing, dabbing a bit of oil here and there. The generator made little enough energy as it was, and friction had to be minimized. Without a wearer, it drew chi from the surrounding area, hardly enough to do more than run a small heater. It kept him warm in the frigid winters of Torvennik. When worn, it powered the set of mechanical arms that protruded from his sides directly under his own.
The concept was simple. It was like a watermill. The gears dip into water, which turns them as it flows by, creating power. Instead of water, these gears were charged with chi energy and his passing chi streams were enough to move the gears without touching them, much like electrical current running by a magnet. There were two main sources of chi. The skin itself was where much of the chi energy left the body and dissipated into the air. This energy was too unfocused, however. The chi-lines ran through specific points in the body, rivers of untapped energy, and these were his goal. The chi-clock was calibrated to his chi lines, and would work minimally on others, but he hadn’t yet moved into plans for mass productions. This was his pet project, his thesis. To be fair, it was his 5th thesis and when completed, as per custom, it would add another syllable to his honorific. When complete the chi-clock would use natural waste energy, as well as the energy of life itself (energy that was already there, unused!) to make cheap energy possible. But for now, it simply wouldn’t use enough of the wasted chi energy. He sighed and wiped his hands on his pants.
He scarcely ever noticed the layer of soot and grime and oil that coated the room, a casualty to his research. Of course, ever since steam power had taken over in Torvennik, the city had been run on all sorts of it. Steam power could be made with coal, magical fires, or any good source of heat. The great magic universities studied it as a form of magic and steam magicians had been popping up everywhere. The Doktor tried to avoid those sources of power, but until this chi-clock was complete, he had little other way to get power. He looked absently at his clock. Almost time for the speaker at the Palace…
* * *
Torvennik was one of the twin capitols of Agrion, and the industrial capitol of the world. Its central river had fueled its quick rise as the leading power and its access to the metals of Greydell gave it unrivaled development of steel, fueling its unsatiable desire for gears and steam. Torvennik was a city of metal, from its lofty towers to the catacombs running beneath the city. The undercity may have been a den of villainy perched atop an industrial center, but the city itself was the first true city of steam, to which all others were compared.
At the center of high society was the Palace, stretching into the sky above Torvennik. Never would the walls of the palace look the same, as each moment brought a new wall. Its walls were a series of mosaics, mounted on ever turning gears. As they turned, the tiles shifted and overlapped, running over and under each other, a neverending display of original art and technology. Massive towers surrounded the Palace. These were the towers of the noble families, some were fixed in place by long tradition, others had secured their hold through business, the military, or luck in recent generations. Despite the wealth, the noble courts were as dangerous a place to live as any city slum, and a gaffe of fashion, business, or etiquette here was fatal. Ruling them all was the great king of Agrion. The nobles fought to curry his favor, for they all knew that one day, he would die and another would take his place. Offending him meant exile or death. So they made friends or enemies, all to get in position to take his place. He, in turn, played games, favoring nobles seemingly at random, intent on giving none of them enough power to overthrow him.
The public would always care who was in favor and who was out. It didn’t matter that they were trapped by their class, the headlines let them feel what the nobility felt. However, they would always be trapped in the slums or The Deeps. Steam may have brought great power to the rich and powerful, but to the rest, life went on unchanged. The Deeps, great foundries in the lower levels of the city produced the steel, steam, and clockwork wonders of the world, and housed the poor and gangs. Just above the Deeps were the criss-crossing tunnels that were the slums of the city. To some, they were called the catacombs, to the poor, they were called home. The everyday workings of the empire started here, while the nobility alone prospered from their work.
Within the palace were the royal courts, the hunting grounds for those of power. Here, spies and diplomats alike gathered to watch and meet with the royalty, who continually conspired for power. Outside, in the pouring rain, a long line gathered; a mix of business men and low-rank nobility, sprinkled with county governors and the occasional cult member or activist, all hoping to gain admission to the courts.
* * *
High above the gathered crowd, a faint black-grey blot stood out from near the top of the Laroche Tower. The Laroche Tower was old-fashioned, built entirely of the reddish brown stone that had enriched the Laroche Family for centuries. They were Old Blood if any family was. Perhaps if anyone were present in the crowd who had bothered to look up, they would have seen this blot. But of course, nobody would have bothered to look up at the towers this long after sundown. Perhaps 7 hours ago, when the sun had been shining, somebody would have thought to look up at the sky and mutter something inane like ‘looks like rain coming in’ or ‘sky sure is cloudy today’. Perhaps this observer could have noticed the blot standing out from the tower, silhouetted by the sky. But then again, the tops of the towers were scarcely visible from the city ground let alone distinct, even in daylight. Perhaps if this someone had happened to have brought a spyglass, then they would have noticed this blot (although with little more detail than to prompt a ‘hey, look at that blot on the tower’), clinging to the wall of the tower like a tiny daring barnacle. But of course, the pounding rain would have obscured any uplooker’s vision.
So this blot went unnoticed suspended high above the city. Although, even were such an observer present such a blot wouldn’t have been such a surprise. After all, statues and mosaics and bridges of all sort extended from the towers, connecting or decorating or obscuring them, but at this height, nothing was much more than a blot. Of course at this precise moment, if anyone could have seen that blot, they might have noticed one more thing, one more clue that something was different about this blot. It was moving. Falling, to be more precise.
The stranger in black hung suspended over the city, his heart racing. Whatever you do, don’t look down again. He hauled himself up the gargoyle wing, his arms burning with the last few hours’ exertion and his scrabble for survival. Finally, he stood triumphant atop the gargoyle, and bowed to his imaginary audience. Thank you, thank you! You’re too kind! He grabbed the rope that dangled in front of him, and climbed up once again.
At the top, he wrapped his legs tightly around the rope, reached beneath his cloak and pulled out a flat disc with a small hand crank, and stuck it to the window. He turned the crank three times, then clung to the rope. He could hear the gears clicking, if only in his imagination, and he grinned in anticipation. And then a harsh vibration drove itself through him, pounding into his bones and shaking his teeth against each other, and for a moment he almost lost his grasp on the rope again. The glass shattered, and the top-heavy device rotated and fell into the room. The man stood on the window frame, lifted the grapnel from the crevasse it had hooked into, and lifted it up and free.
Once in the room, the man slipped to his knees and pulled off his mask, gasping for air. Now that wasn’t that bad, was it? His eyes had already adjusted to the darkness inside, and he scanned the room. The room was empty except some wardrobes and weapons racks against the wall, just as he had expected. He sniffed with disdain at the latter. Weapons had their place, but he had always been of the opinion that if it came to fighting, he’d already lost. Weapons made everything riskier. Of course, he carried a few knives on his person for safekeeping, and knew how to use a sword of course- one could never be too safe- but it was something he tried to avoid at all costs.
The legendary thief, or so he liked to think of himself as, dragged himself out of his head and to his feet, forcing fatigue from his mind, and pulling on the mask again. He shook his head, shaking off the last of his intrusive thoughts and centering himself. He crouched near the door and peered under it, looking for shadows. He slid a small mirror under the door, looking this way and that. Nobody in the hall, as planned.
He slipped the door open and stepped into the hall, looking left and right. Recalling the map, he set off, making his way up the stairs. Four floors up and down the hallway, he found himself in front of a locked door. He jiggled the handle. Locked… He patted his vest, then pulled out a thin needle and metal rod from one of the pockets. Now if I insert this here, and hold there, pulling back and up, then twist… A click from the lock told him all he needed, and he turned the handle and stepped into the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
He was inside the roof of the building, the spires of the towers. The room was filled with the treasures of the Laroche family, great ones indeed. They started as miners and stonecutters, but now they were known mostly for their jewels. And the Thieves’ Guild wanted something in particular, the famous Laroche ruby, no doubt to ransom back to them at an exorbitant cost, the price to keep their intrusion secret. It wouldn’t do for the lower classes to get any idea that the nobility was fallible…
But something was wrong. There had been no guards at the door, as he had expected. And he had expected some alarm, some bells attached to the door, some magic, anything. He tensed, mind spinning. Suddenly he sensed a flash of movement and threw himself to the ground, jamming his wrist as he slammed down. A loud explosion rang out, echoing in the high-walled chamber. He came up rolling and ducked behind a stone pillar. Had the guards been waiting? No way they knew about this! Unless they had somebody in the Guild? Te thief peered around the corner, trying to get the guards numbers or positions, and a brown blur — a Regulator? –-burst past him, sprinting for the door. The newcomer slammed into the door, flinging it open on its hinges, then took off down the hallway.
Since when are the Regulators in on Guild work?
The thief hauled himself up, and scrambled after the man in brown, intent on taking back HIS heist. He ran the opposite way down the hallway, hoping to cut the man off, and scrambled down the stairs, slipping on every step. 4 floors to my exit, 15 to the nearest bridge, bridge to…which Family? He burst out into the hallway of the next floor, skidding on the floor, and felt the obstacle before he saw it, slamming into what felt like a brick wall.
He picked himself off of the ground and realized a monster of a man stood before him, head and shoulders above him and blocking his path without trying. A massive scar curved from his brow to his jaw, giving the impression that if you just pulled hard enough you would see the real face behind his mask. Behind him, the brown-clad man, the bodies of two guards at his feet, sheathed his sword and waved, before taking off down the stairs again. Byron? Explains both the color and the skill, as he wouldn’t have expected anybody to beat him here. And the giant still stood in front of him, as if confronted with a pestering insect, and unsure whether or not to bother squashing it.
The thief shrugged. Sometimes violence was necessary. He twitched his wrists, and knives, held in spring-contraptions, appeared in his hands. He knew how to deal with people this size. Size always lost out to speed, and he could stay 3 steps ahead of them. He took a step forward.
Suddenly everything was sideways, and his head swam. He blinked, clearing his eyes, and found himself staring up at the ceiling. Somehow, he had been knocked to the ground, and he wasn’t even sure what happened. He looked accusingly at the giant, who stared back at him with the same disdain.
The thief pushed himself back to his feet and approached again, dropping into a defensive stance. This time he was ready as a ham-sized fist punched out at him like the pounding piston of some engineer’s experiment. Step aside, grab the arm just so, pull it up behind his back, and lock him to the ground by his own momentum.
Or at least, that’s how it ought to have worked. Instead, the arm hung out mid-punch, unaffected by his grab, as steel-corded muscles resisted his arm bar. The giant swung his arm to the side, hurling the thief along with it and slamming him into the window, which splintered under the pressure.
He flicked the knives up into his hands and feinted at his head, thrusting a knife with his offhand into the monster’s gut. Blood bubbled up around the knife, but instead of collapsing, the giant grabbed the thief’s arm, pulling him close, and then hurled him into the window.
He went through the window – this wasn’t quite according to plan – and onto the tiled roof beyond. He scrabbled for a handhold, but the rain had taken away all friction. He slid all the way to the edge of the sloped roof before finding purchase on the guttered edge. Whatever you do, don’t look down. Despite his internal protest, the thief glanced down, and there he saw the broken window from earlier. Looking up, he saw the giant approaching him. He hooked the grapnel to the gutter, then pulled at the tiles near the giant’s feet, sending them sliding. He grabbed the end of the rope and, releasing the gutter, swung down and in through his original entrance.
Abandoning the rope, he ran for the door, desperately hoping to catch his competitor. Behind him, he heard a desperate moan, as the man slid down the tiles.
He took off down the stairs, counting the flights. 1…10 more to the bridge…2…9 more to the bridge…3…8 more…7 more…6…5…4… Right then, the brown-clad man backed through into the hallway from his own stairwell, clashing swords with the trail of guards after him. Taking one look at the thief – and surely he fears me – the man ran straight at him – perhaps not – gun in hand. The thief knew when to stand aside, and ducked back into the stairwell. He heard the gun rang out twice and the window shatter. The thief vaulted over the handrail, dropping down a floor of stairs, and burst out the door. He stared at the window. The bridge should be there, as long as I’m remembering correctly. He took off running, and shot the window ahead of him. Then, holstering his gun, he leaped through the weakened glass. His heart pounded in his chest before he saw the bridge fly up at him. He smashed into the bridge, but forced himself to his feet after the new individual, “Byron, Stop!”
The man, now near the end of the bridge turned at the shout, and waved once more before jumping the rail and diving in through a window left open. He HAD to have planned that. The thief slowed to a jog. No sense chasing him, and besides, he had somewhere to be. He strode across into the safety of the next tower.
Three steps in, he paused, realizing his night wasn’t over yet. This was the Maganti Tower…Somebody stood behind him, and he spun aside as their dagger thrust narrowly missed his side, slicing through the cloth clinging to it, and instinctively, he spun, kicking his assailant in the head and knocking him silently to the ground. The thief prepared for his attacker to get back up, but he lay unmoving. He sighed in relief. Finally, some luck… He turned and headed for the secret route he knew through the Maganti Tower.
* * *
Jerome Bigsby strode past the gathering crowd to the palace entrance and handed over his invitation. They don’t need to know that I wrote it. Not that they could know. The royal publisher would swear he wrote the note himself, and the king, that he signed it. Real invitations are likelier to get turned away than my handiwork. They may rule the nation, but I’m a damn slight bit smarter than all of them.
Not that he needed to forge an invitation. He was a Bigsby, after all, one of the last. A good noble didn’t do any hard work, but he was anything but a good noble. He wasn’t made for this posturing, and he knew it. The life of excitement and danger he lived in secret was his dream, one crushed by his upbringing. On the other hand, he had grown to fit this costume as well, if only as a good cover. His clothes were painstakingly arrayed according to the latest trends. He should know, as he practically set them. Tonight, in usual eccentricity, he peered over too-small spectacles. His white silken coat, embroidered in deep red, was flung open in contempt for the resurgence of tight-buttoned conservatism and stood in deep contrast to his jet-black pants, which receded into leather boots. Garish purple gloves lined his delicate hands, and two large rings hung from his fingers, one displaying his family seal, the other, a small watch. Straightened red hair bled out from his brimmed hat and hung just to his brow, framing his face.
While his father had been known as a reformer and had made strong enemies and friends in the noble court, Jerome was seen as the court dandy, always ahead of the trends and too caught up in his appearance to be a threat to any. His presence at these events was more a formality than anything. He had no interest in intrigues, but he had no interest in drawing suspicion either.
So he made sure his presence was noticed and played his role. He would scan the room, focusing on an object of attention, whether it be a new painting or a rival’s pitiful attempt at influencing fashion. He would smirk disapprovingly or nod approvingly; look away disdainfully or compliment them on their tastes.
He made his way through the crowd, passing into the long antechamber to the royal court. Along the walls of this chamber, mystics and alchemists and even a few technicians shouted out their services, hoping to pass off a bauble or two to those a bit too loose with coin. As he scanned the room, his eyes stuck on one particular sight. Whereas the antechamber was otherwise packed, one man was surrounded by empty space. A thick leather coat, deep brown and almost glossy in the dim light, fell to below his knees, brushing against the top of his boots as he moved. The rest of his clothing was unremarkable, and while it may once have been the same deep brown as the cloak, it had faded to a drab, dusky brown. Strapped in an X across his back were two long blades; too long to be daggers, but too short to really be thought of as swords. The outline of two handguns stood out clearly from the sides of the cloak.
A Regulator wasn’t as rare a sight as it used to be, but there had been a time when they were entirely neutral, intervening only to maintain balance. Now some were for hire as bodyguards, assassins, or mercenaries. The crowd kept at a distance, and a ten-foot buffer had cleared around him. Jerome was glad he was farther away than that.
Suddenly, something skittered past Jerome, ducking behind an old woman’s dress. The dark-green fabric hung to the floor, and he followed it up to its eventual end, a hood pulled forward over the distinctive face of an Ael. Intrigued, Jerome turned and approached the table, eager to practice his flagging knowledge of the Old Tongue.
“Llisïdë, llaketerto, sïd Jerome, at sëd?” The unfamiliar words scraped roughly against his tongue.
She frowned, momentarily, then chuckled, “Llisayït llisïdë, thank you for your effort…” The words flowed gently from her mouth and hung weightlessly for a moment, finally popping in the harsh turbulence of the noisy room. Then, her tone darkened and she whispered, “but we of the Ael no longer speak The Old Tongue and haven’t in a long time, even by our standards. Those words are too powerful to be used like that. I do so only to return your kind — if clumsy — gesture.” A small metallic insect head peered out from behind her leg and looked up at Jerome. It cocked its head to one side, as if considering something, then crawled out into the open. Despite himself, Jerome gaped at the strange creature. It stood on six spider-like legs, which balanced an upright torso with two insect-claws. The old woman chuckled again, a melodious bouncing sound. “I see you and Yrjö have met.”
It ducked under the woman’s dress, and emerged a moment later from her sleeve, where it hugged to her arm. She smiled softly at Jerome. “Don’t take it personally. He’s shy, especially around your people.” It stared at the loaf of bread in Jerome’s hand.
He broke off a tiny morsel from the loaf he held, and dropped it on the table, then pulled his hand back. The strange…thing scuttled towards it, tentatively, then darted forward and snatched it up in its tiny claws. It…Yrjö… lifted the crumb to its mouth, opening it to reveal two mandibles, which snatched the crumb from the claws and shoved it down its his throat.
Jerome gasped, then paused for a minute, gathering his racing thoughts. “It has a name? What is it? This is amazing! Where are the gears? I can’t even see any gaps in the body! I know people who would pay a small fortune for something like this!”
She stiffened, and the thing leaned into her arm. “And that is always the way with your people. You cannot buy and sell Yrjö any more than you can buy and sell a human being. He is alive, just like you and me.”
“My apologies, respected elder; I meant no disrespect to it. To him – to Yrjö. Forgive me?”
“It is he you should ask for forgiveness, not I.”
Jerome broke off another small crumb of bread, and held it out. This time, instead of dropping it, he held it out on his finger. After a long pause, the creature took a few steps forward, looking furtively around, as though expecting a trap. It slowly approached Jerome’s finger, finally stopping in front of it. It-he snatched the bread and ate it in one fluid motion, then looked up at Jerome, nuzzling its head against his outstretched finger. Jerome broke off yet another crumb, and rested it on his finger. Once again, the thing-Yrjö snatched it up, this time nicking Jerome’s finger with its claws, and shoved it into its mouth. Jerome pulled his finger back, holding back a yelp.
The woman chuckled. “He accepts your apology.”
Jerome sucked his finger, trying to ignore the stinging pain, and hardly noticed as a young man sidled up beside him. Angelo put the phrase ‘one man circus act’ to the test. Coming from a long line of generals and warriors, he was an utter embarrassment to his family. Whereas his family stood at attention in drab colors, and did their best to attract little attention, he managed to make up for them all with pure absurdity. His pale skin violently opposed his jet black hair, which hung to his shoulders in ringlets, finally coming to rest on his dark red coat, which draped down to his ankles, clinging to his figure. His left arm ended in a skeletal hand of metal, and black smoke puffed periodically from his wrist. His face split open in a crimson smile to reveal a mouth overly full of teeth, some bone and others metal, his dark smile hinting at darker secrets. The mirth of his smile danced his cut-crystal eyes, accentuated by over-dark mascara. Angelo had been accused of many things, but a lack of humor would never be one of them. A disturbingly dark sense of humor, on the other hand…
“Why if it isn’t my dear friend Jerome Bigsby. I do say, without you, the court wouldn’t be the same: perhaps we’d actually have to go outside to be blinded, hmmm? It appears as though you got dressed in the dark, not to mention in a dreadful hurry. That would assuredly explain the colors after all. I can see how clothes such as those would be the easiest to find without the aid of a lamp. Are you intent on discovering fashion by trial and error?” Angelo Maganti’s words rolled off of his tongue, as though they had already dissolved there, and were reluctant to leave. Every word was stretched to its limits before blending seamlessly into the next, giving the impression that he would never breathe, and just as surely lulling the listener into complacence. His voice commanded attention despite its low volume, or perhaps on account of it. Without full attention, his words might just pass you by.
“Angelo, so good to see you. I must say, you are my inspiration. You see, I only dress so that the entire light of the room may not be sucked away by your presence. Still trying to leave behind your remaining humanity?” Jerome gestured at Angelo’s new hand. “I hear the Mekalians have been trying to perfect warmachines for their god forever. You may have competition. And look at little Yrjö here. Why, he looks more alive than your hand…”
“Yrjö, you say? What a fine name for such a delicate creature. You compliment me by your comparison. I should aspire to be so elegant. As you well know, the human body has its limits, which I hope to surpass. Perhaps if your father had been more…equipped, he would not have met such a messy demise, hmmm? Now if you’ll excuse me, I seek a whole host of pleasures I doubt you can offer me. Although, at least close your jacket? You expose a good deal more than you intend.”
He departed with the same fluidity he spoke with, as though each action were not a discrete thing, but part of one sinuous movement. As Angelo walked away, Jerome let out the breath he realized he had been holding. Angelo seemed like a coiled snake, and Jerome never knew when he was going to strike. He looked down at his shirt, and then he saw it. A small ragged slit in the side of his shirt, where a dagger had just missed him. How much did Angelo know? He buttoned up his shirt, hiding the slash.
Angelo’s father stood a good distance away, glaring at him with disdain, his eyes intent on boring through him, his jaw locked. Isaac Maganti was dressed in plain formal black, decorated only with a few medals of honor. While his son had a slim, boyish figure, Isaac stayed in military shape long after his prime, and did so in part with his propensity for duels. His posture had fixed at attention long ago, and combined with his massive shoulders, conspired to make him resemble a barrel on legs more than a man. He had long stopped hoping for his eldest son to follow in his footsteps, and instead pushed his son William into the military. He moved little, glaring around the room as though looking to pick a fight. That probably wasn’t far from the truth. As expected, Isaac now approached Jerome, caught up in his permanent attempt at damage control for his son.
“I see you’ve been talkin’ to my boy, son. Pay no mind to him. The Maganti blood is still strong, even if it did produce him somehow. You would be wise to learn from your father’s mistakes. Nobody sticks so much as a finger in the Kingdoms’ order. You try to change too much, you end up in trouble. I should follow my son, make sure he doesn’t make a fool of himself. Or me.” Isaac turned, hand at his sword, and walked away without waiting for a response. That was the way of the Maganti House, speak your mind and not care what anybody else to say.
On the other hand, Jerome heard his words all too well. He had never understood the elder Bigsby’s enthusiasm for reform. The system worked. He had never had any issues with it, after all, despite his beginnings. Not that he thought Isaac had told him that out of concern. He knew a threat when he saw one. The court might have the empty charade of civility, but it was no safe place. He had allies in the court, but few would stand in the way of the Maganti family, excepting perhaps the Rutherfords. As if summoned by his thoughts, Rupert emerged from a doorway, and set off towards Jerome.
Rupert Rutherford was a dour, violent man, and had been a strong supporter of the Bigsby family, and it was unlikely the recent death of Arthur would change that. He looked like a man with a deathwish, as he nursed his drink and fingered his sword hilt. It was well known that he disapproved of nearly everything, and much to his chagrin, that had gained him the approval of many. His graying hair showed his age dramatically, but nobody thought him to be any less a threat. He had fought in the pits and gladiator games until recently, and rumor had it only boredom had stopped him. He and the previous Bigsby head had agreed firmly on matters of honor, and his friend’s death had only strengthened his opposition to everything current.
He embraced Jerome, patting him on the back.
“Ah, there you are, young man! I was afraid you might not be around, after what happened to your father. What a pity! That man was bound for greatness. You have it in you too, although I have yet to see the famous Bigsby moral courage out of you… Follow in your father’s footsteps. He was a good man. There are too few left. The blood has grown thin, in all the families. Don’t let it die out. Join in his battles. Father more of your kind. Do something with yourself. Your father loved you. At least repay that.” His words, as usual, were economical and terse, but the general effect was no less for the brevity. He lowered his voice conspiratorily. “Stop by your father’s old room and take a look and see if you can find any of the fire that dwelled in his breast for your own. And if you ever need it, consider Rutherford mansion your second home.” He walked away without waiting for a reply.
Jerome stared quizzically at his back for a moment. That was the way of the court sometimes. Until you were 40 or 50, nobody paid attention to what you had to say, they just talked at you and left when they felt like it. He was an adult, just like them, but convincing them of that fact was a wholly different thing. Just another reason he had never seen fit to get involved. But that had been an odd engagement, even for Rutherford…
He shrugged and looked around the room, scoping people out. A scrawny man in a crisp black suit stood watching the crowds as well. Looked like he had some heavy secrets, and knew how to keep them. Perhaps even get to yours. And then there were the crosses, marking him out as a Mekalian. He must be the new delega– Jerome cursed inwardly as he was jostled, nearly spilling his wine over his laboriously crafted appearance. His disapproving gaze followed the arm upwards, and he choked back a gasp when he saw what it was connected to.
“So sorry, sir! I am just a bit excited. They have a scientist from Myterium who promises to be very interesting. I’m sorry, where are my manners? I am Herr Doktor Fauskanger von Thrukstrom du Smaugsentraahler” He thrust forward a massive hand, and Jerome hesitated before shaking it, hoping he would get his own hand back. The booming voice came from a grotesquely massive and misshapen body. His jaw unhinged as he talked, revealing row upon row of jagged teeth. If anything, the head was large for the body, even for a troll. But far stranger was the second set of arms protruding from his side, metallic and gleaming and ending in three-fingered claws. Jerome was suddenly glad he was shaking the hand that had been offered.
“H-hello sir, what a pleasure to meet another intellectual. I am Doctor Jerome von Bigsenstein.”
The Doktor retracted his hand slowly, his brow creased in an confused frown. “It is nice to meet you. Although, I must admit, I am not familiar with your work, Doctor…Bigsenstein? What sort of work do you do?”
“Cryptography, actually.” That was a lie, of course. What wasn’t? “I’ve always been interested in codes,” The best lies are rooted in truth, “and that only grew during the Border Wars.”
“How did you get to be a doctor at such a young age?”
“Luck, mostly, plus connections. The old man always did know the right people.”
“And is…the old man…here today?”
“He’s dead, actually,” Jerome was surprised at how empty those words felt.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I hate to leave on such a low point, but I’m meeting somebody here. Perhaps we will meet at a later point?” He turned and lumbered away.
Suddenly a large thump came from the next room over, and a body followed it through the wall. Immediately, the king’s men moved towards the man to take him away. Jerome couldn’t see his face at this distance, but he looked to still be breathing.
“Sirs! Sirs! I am a doctor!” The Doktor stormed towards the man, intent upon helping, but several of the guards stood between him and the limp body, while the rest of the guards lifted him onto a stretcher. “Let me through and I can help him!” Four guards stood barring his way, looking comically small in contrast to the overly large troll, but showing no intent of moving.
The Doktor stretched up to his full height, flexing his mechanical arms. He wedged them between the guards and shoved them aside. He took two monstrous steps towards the stretcher, and stood over it, looking down. A dry buzzing sound rang out, and the Doktor twitched and spasmed, before crashing to the ground. One of the guards stood over him, holding a stun prod warily. Immediately, the guards called out that everybody was to remain where they were, and that the night would continue as planned. Jerome thought of slipping away, but he stood out far too much. He wished he knew who the man was, but was determined not to get involved. Only trouble lies that way… Jerome forced himself to continue about the evening, as had been requested, but couldn’t help the nervous energy that boiled beneath the surface. As the night ended, the king’s men pulled some people aside as they left, sent them to private palace residence. Jerome was pulled aside and sent to a private room, and his thoughts raced. Could they have thought him to have been involved with his father’s plots? Everybody knew he was too incompetent to be a part of any intrigues, but perhaps the king’s paranoia had finally gotten the best of him.
Jerome paced back in forth in his small room, and studied the barred window resentfully. There’s no way they know! The government is incompetent, and independent investigators are easily dealt with. I got caught once, and it’s not happening again. What if the Olanevan Council sent somebody? He paused to consider the situation. He was locked in until morning, but only because that man was killed. I had nothing to do with the killing, so I have nothing to worry about. I’ll just wait it out, and prepare to move, just in case.
Eventually, his thoughts stilled and he surrendered to sleep.
* * *
Captain Simon Price stood stiff at attention as the king entered. He relaxed as the king waved him off. Glancing to his right, he saw Hawk still at attention. Then again, he wasn’t sure Hawk could ever not be at attention.
“Report, Captain Price?”
“We have succeeded in setting up a supply camp near the mountains, your majesty”
“Good. You shall soon mount an expedition over the mountains. You will attempt to set up relationships with those living there, and if you find none, you will report back for preparation for colonization. If you meet with resistance, however, you will enforce the will of the king. Regardless, I want you back here in 6 months time. The recent death of the general from Iterul only heightens tensions, and just when suitable peace terms were being reached. We may need your talents, and your ship again.”
So that had been the general who had died at the palace. Interesting. “Thank you, your majesty!”
“And Price? You have served Agrion well over the years. I know your retirement nears, but I would hope you will stay on many years. If only because you seem to be the only one who keeps Hawk in line.”
Price sighed and lay back in his bed, rubbing his temples with his hands. He had been at this too long, but…his kingdom needed him. Besides, he wasn’t suited to civilian life. Too boring, and he’d miss Hawk. As much as anybody can miss a sociopath. Soft footsteps padded in the next room over.
“Hawk, is that you?” He sat up, drew his gun
“Captain?” The trembling voice from the next room was definitely a private who had gotten the short straw of coming here to deliver a message. Hawk was known to occasionally kill the messenger. Not for bad news, mind you, but on an impulse. She was like a stick of Firethreads. You couldn’t really aim her at anything, you just wore the right protective gear, set her off, and hoped it was enough.
“Captain, we’re taking off. Just thought you should know.”
“Thank you, private, now report back to deck.”
Price furrowed his brow, and his grey-lined hairs leaned forward. He stood and paced, unsure of his orders. He was a military man, and it reflected in his build, but so did his age. His once flawlessly toned body sagged slightly in places and his crisp uniform bulged. His eyes, once piercing, now appeared both savage and weary. His hand shook as he drew his sword, and he practiced forms within the small confines of his room, sparring against his invisible foe. He must always be ready against the enemies of Agrion. At least, for a few more months. Despite the king’s request, he was so tired, of Hawk most of all.
* * *
A young child sat straight-backed in his chair, his shoulders pulled back, his head tilted slightly, his chin parallel to the ground which his toes just barely touched. Perfect posture makes for perfect poise. Perfect poise makes for perfect composure. Perfect composure readies a man for any challenge. He stared directly into the eyes of the Elder at the front of the room, ignoring the other children sitting nearby. They were only distractions, and he was a soldier of Mekal, the One True God. There one boy slouched already, not 2 hours into the lesson, there another picked at his nails. The girl to his right scribbled on a piece of parchment. These mere children of Mekal were not meant for geratness, as he was. One day he would be a great Channeler, a conduit for the holy word. Or perhaps instead he could be a Hunter, and the Great God would channel holy righteousness through him, destroying the heretics and nonbelievers where they stood. Maybe he could even be an Inquisitor, and the lies and secrets of wrongdoers would be his, and they would face justice by their own word. Even in ignoring those around him, he gave strength to distraction. Avoiding distractions did not mean focusing on them and blocking them out. They had to not exist. He set aside his punishment for later, and pushed aside the world around him, sinking into the elder’s speech.
“The story of Ammon shows us that blessed is he who accepts his lot, for Mekal loves him for his sacrifice, and he shall be rewarded. It is the way of the world to bestow good upon those of good deeds and faithful hearts, to return like for like.” A giggle came from his right, and a delicate arm snaked over, leaving a note on his desk. The Elder turned slowly, raising a finger.
“Whoever finds the story of Ammon funny should come forth now.”
The good child speaks only when spoken to. He remained silent.
The Elder looked slowly around the room, looking into the eyes of each child. When he had reached the end of the room, his eyes snapped to the note, then up to the young boy.
“Young man, do you find my lecture distasteful?”
“Then what reason do you have to disrupt it?”
The obedient child answers only the questions he is asked. “I have no reason, Elder.”
“Was there not a disruption?”
It is not the place of the child to consider the questions of his elders. Instead, it is the role of men to consider their questions carefully. “There was, Elder.”
“And were you not at the center of it?”
He who is honest speaks only the truth, no more, no less. He looked at the girl to his right, then the one to his left. Did that count? “Yes, Elder.”
“Now, if you were paying attention to the lecture, you would know that silence in the presence of elders is a sacrifice you make, and you are rewarded when yourself an elder.”
The good child speaks only when spoken to. But he had been paying attention…mostly. Mekal worked in mysterious ways indeed. But he should have been paying attention, and he had been distracted by those around him. It is only fitting that he should be punished for his lack of focus. He remained silent.
The Elder walked to his desk, and rapped his knuckles with a thin rod. The pain radiated up his hand, a blessed reminder of his sin. Only when it was acknowledged and confronted could sin be eradicated, and suffering was a necessary part of the process.
“See me at the end of the day.”
The boy straightened his back again, and crossed his hands in his lap, fighting the ugre to massage his knuckles. The lecture continued.
Finally, the day came to a close.
The class filed out, and the boy remained behind.
Silence weighed on the air. The boy remained silent, waiting for a response.
“You didn’t write the note.”
Relief and guilt alike flashed along the boy’s face. “No, Elder.”
“Nor did you read it.”
“Nor did you make any noise.”
“And you knew who was responsible, but you said nothing. Why?”
“I followed the Precepts: I answered your questions, and no more. After all, it is not the place of the child to-”
“Ah, but is not a boy but a man in the making? Should not the boy strive to be like a man? One day you will be a man, and your duties will be that of a man. That begins now. Remember this, and one day you shall make a great servant to Mekal.”
“Yes, Elder. Thank you.”
“Now run along, little one.”
* * *
Angelo Maganti sat across from his father, who seemed intent on glaring through him. Somewhat a perpetual state of his dear father, he thought. He appreciated that glare, it meant he was doing well.
They had been taken in, like many of the others, after the death of the general from Iterul, and set up in consulate rooms. Isaac had motive, of course. After all, he had led some of the strikes against Iterul, some of them failures. And because his father did, Angelo certainly did as well. After all, Angelo stood to profit from his father’s death.
Isaac shrugged, and growled through his mustache. “If your mind hasn’t entirely decayed to your lifestyle, perhaps you know why we are all here?”
Angelo puffed on his pipe, his fingers drumming on the bed. “A general from Iterul has been killed. We were only just now working out the terms of their surrender, so there’s no reason but revenge for it to be one of our men. It’s not Iterul either: Agrion would know they hadn’t done it, and Iterul will get no better terms. The overall effect…The peace treaty for the Border Wars will be strained. Who doesn’t stand to benefit from that? The Mekalians would be served by weakness in Agrion, they’ve wanted their independence since The War of Conversion. The Urma haven’t interfered in international affairs outside of trade in at least a hundred years. War means more demand for their metal, but they only give us so much a year, and their prices always stay the same, so they wouldn’t care. The Ael just want to be left well alone. That leaves Olaneva. Perhaps they aren’t so happy about Agrion controlling the land route to their nation? It opens them up to invasion, and means they have to come through here to trade by land. Not that they need to with their ships. My bet is an independent. Somebody who wants to see the Mekalians and Olaneva benefit. Perhaps one of the old line of the Regulators, pushing their neutrality on us all. If anybody could pull something that big off, they certainly could.”
Isaac raised an eyebrow “Good to see all of the family training hasn’t gone ENTIRELY to waste. But you missed something. Those were the king’s men that rushed the general off. You see the way they kept the Doktor away? They were in on it for sure. Either the king has more to worry about than we think, or he wanted this. And do you think the king lets anybody in whose loyalty is at all questionable? Whatever this is, it runs deeper than you think. Somebody is going to get the fallout for this. And they are going to do just what the king wants them to do, whether they know it or not…”
Angelo laughed internally. His father thought he had him all figured out: useless, barely worthy of the family name. For all his widespread contacts, his father knew nothing of what had happened, and Angelo did. But now was no more the time to let on just what he knew, or how much influence he had. Let his father think him a failure. It would make his crowning all the more sweet. Men on the throne had ruined it. He would usher in a new era, of men aided by technology, ruling the nation with an iron fist.
Prologue by Mattias Gustaf Lehman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Memories by Mattias Gustaf Lehman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.