Kryos: Chapter 40

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At the eastern docks, Straker and the hundred man detachment she had pulled from base, found themselves surrounded by a band of Bright Horizon constituents, at least double in number, and armed with whatever had been near to hand during their revolt. The waylayers’ affiliation was clear from their distinctive scarlet uniforms; from this, Straker surmised a recent, unplanned defection. A untrained detachment of ill-equipped attaches would normally have proven of little consequence to the vanguard of the KSRU, had their armaments not been depleted in the day’s preceding broil. The dire hosts twined amidst shipping containers as the smoke and flame surrounding; white and red; then yet redder still. The ground went thick with fish and ice and the blood of men and women and the air was choked with the screams of the injured and dying. If the matter proceeded without interruption, Vera was certain they would be overwhelmed. Neither Vancing nor the second detachment she had called up from headquarters, would arrive in time. Such thoughts coiled like venomous snakes as Straker retreated from the press of her red-clad foes and found her back to a massive, weather-worn cargo crate, which disclosed the possibility of rearward assault. The wroth contestations to either side of the woman prevented further egress. Thus positioned, her bodyguards fended off a disorderly wave of Bureau partisans.

After the first break in the onslaught, Vera looked some yards to the left, where Sirin, bereft of munitions, vainly struck out with her dead cutter at three wild eyed federants. Savagely, the men bore her down, one lashing out with a battered ice hook, the metallic beak finding little purchase against the woman’s stolid armor. The set-upon woman would have been slain the next instant, but her comrades rallied and overtook the assailants.

To the right of the crate, Raimer drove his sychitin blade into the gut of a howling federant and thereafter fell to his knees with grit teeth, clutching at a horrid gash to his thigh that painted his knee with his own colours.

A hideous cry and the sound of scraping metal broke over the field of carnage, sounding from within an off-white shipping container set far before Vera’s own. A body flew from the house-sized cargo-vessel and skidded to a stop mere paces from the Director’s plated boots.

Corporal Raffin. Dead. The face guard of his helm grotesquely fractured by some inhuman force.

Something large moved within the eggshell-colored shipping container.

“Heavy Frame. They have a Heavy Frame!” Vera shouted into her headset to any who could hear as the aforementioned assembly unit emerged from the shipping container with a sheering of steel. The machine stood nine feet tall and moved on two reticulated legs that shook the earth with every step and its four aluminiferous arms pealed like the pincers of a gigantic crab. The unconcealed device came bounding over the bloodstained field, seized a fleeing KSRU recruit and squeezed the man with force enough to collapse his breastplate. Within seconds, the soldier’s ribcage was utterly crushed and blood spooled from beneath his helm.

The revelation’s immediate effect was demoralization. KSRU troops scattered from the engine of death; all tactical formations abandoned. The federants rallied, sensing victory close at hand.

Sirin’s voice sounded in Straker’s headset. “Director, there’s a keel panel suspended above the Heavy Frame.”

Straker cast her eyes up and spied a multi-ton length of bilge keel side-plating hanging from one of the now-lifeless automated cranes arrayed about the dock yard. The crane tower from which the uninstalled component hung rose directly beside the shipping crate Vera had taken shelter behind.

“So I see. I’ll make for it. Raimer, have your division form a cordon and give me a hand.”

“Copy that.”

“Sirin, Whalen, Kopf, Grieg, Sarker, distract the target.”

“Understood,” the five entrusted corporals replied in unison and dashed into the fray.

Immediately, the Captain’s men formed a barricade around Vera’s shipping crate, shielding the Director from the bloody vicissitudes of the skirmish.

“I’m the better climber, I can go.” Raimer declared breathlessly as he limped up to the director and surveyed the looming construction crane.

She looked at the wound on her subordinate’s thigh and shook her head. “Not with that wound. Besides, I’m lighter. We need to get on top of the crate to climb the crane, bottom’s too sheer. The ladder auto-retracts to keep vandals off. Lift me up, if your leg is good enough.”

“Its good enough,” he responded briskly. With that, he hefted the slender woman to the top of the shipping crate, for among all the KSRU, none save Syzr exceeded Raimer in strength. Without delay, Vera dashed across the metal surface of the cargo container toward the retracted ladder of the crane. She judged that with a sprinting jump, she could just close the distance. Before she could leap from the edge of the container, a horrible pain gripped her and dropped her to a knee. She looked down and discovered a harpoon protruding from her leg. As she cast her gaze over her shoulder to spy the shooter, the bolt was retracted and carried her back across the full ambit of the container roof and from there to the ground. As she lay winded and wracked with pain, she could now discern the harpoon operator, a reedy federant with the look of an office gopher who had erected the makeshift weapon on the adjacent container from which the rampaging Heavy Frame had been released. The harpoonist gave a cry of adulation, but his satisfaction, as that of his fellows, quickly subsided as a glinting form cleaved through the air.

A cloud-racer. Flying machines that were the exclusive domain of the city’s sky-technicians.

A familiar voice joined the open channel in Vera’s helm. “Sirin, get everyone clear of the Heavy Frame.”

“Copy, Major.” Sirin replied with an unconcealed tinge of delight.

“Ryard!” Vera exclaimed with shock.

“Good to hear your voice, Director.”

Ryard steered the racer directly at the great chain which ran from the crane-tower arm and clipped it with one of vehicle’s wings, severing the suspension and dropping the keel siding down upon the Heavy Frame as Sirin and her confederates dove for cover. There resounded an uproarious clatter and where once the multi-armed machine had reeled there was nothing but one third of the hind of a container ship, a faint cloud of particulates and a single motionless mechanical limb that had been severed by the dreadful impact.

Before the easterly partisans could absorb the upset, a hail of cutter fire sent them into retreat. The survivors fled toward an abandoned processing plant north of the shipping yard. In the midst of the egress, Vera turned to the direction of the fire and beheld an encroaching band of Sonderon’s aecerites in matching gray and black.

Kryos: Chapter 39

Previous chapter

The crowd assembled before Sonderon’s tumble-down Southern Block meeting hall rained fists upon the shuttered doors and windows of the dun-colored estate and filled the air with adumbrations of greater violence. A gaggle of onlookers stood upon the street, gawking as might children at exotic animals in a zoo.

Ryard, Tatter and Meris stood at the periphery of the gathering on the edge of a SecCom cordoned pedestrian thoroughfare, which ran before the eastern face of the besieged edifice. The former member of the trio spoke into his affin module at a rapid clip.

“You’re sure?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll have it ready.”

“I owe you, Lind.”

“As usual.” Ryard rolled his eyes. “But its not as if anyone is going to be keeping track now.”

“Likely so. Though little would delight me more than to continue listening to your dulcet condescensions, I have to go.”

“Stay safe, Ry.”

“I’m afraid I can’t, so promise to take caution enough for the both of us.”

“I promise.”

He switched off the device and turned to his companions. Meris’ usual melancholia had waxed to apoplexy. Tatter, in contrast, seemed largely unperturbed, so unperturbed that she did not even look to the wrathful crowd, but instead crouched in the observance of a melon-sized isopod that had emerged from the roadside drainage duct. Despite this blase posture, Ryard observed a faint trace of annoyance which could scarcely have been produced by the lilac-hued sea-creature. Whatever the source of her vexation, it vanished the moment he, once more, opened his mouth.

“We have to get through the crowd. I’m going to try and talk to them.”

“That’s barmy. Look at the savages.” Meris exclaimed in a brusque hush as the crowd’s chant assumed greater fervor and the pounding upon the doors intensified. “They’ll tear us apart.”

“Isn’t there another way in?” Tatter queried with only the faintest flicker of interest as the adventurous crustacean climbed upon her outstretched left hand.

Ryard shook his head. “I used to play here when I was a kid. Its completely isolated, unlike the newer tenements. That’s probably why Sonderon chose it as his base.” He gestured to the rooftops. “See, there’s no way in from the top without a cloud racer. And even then, he’s probably got men on the roof. And-” He trailed off abruptly as he noticed a familiar face amidst the crowd.

“What is it?”

“I’ll be right back. If things go sideways, run.”

“Wait. Ryard.” Meris croaked vainly.

Vancing slipped through the mob until the press made transit impossible and called to the small man before him.

“Wasil.”

The swarthy little man turned around, at first surprised, then apprehensive.

“Mr. Vancing. What on earth are you doing here?”

“No time to explain. What is this all about?”

“Sonderon’s cronies have been at us. Says southers tried to kill him. Says we’re to be routed. If he thinks he can force us out, we’ll do as much to him.”

“You consider this the best use of time as the city is about to be invaded?”

“You mean that crazy message? The Consortium’ll stop it.”

“The Consortium might not be able to. They didn’t stop this.”

As the two men spoke, heads turned with critical eyes and increasing fixity toward the intruder and the standard-issue jacket that marked him a CAV-keep.

“Why’d you come here?”

“I need to speak to Sonderon.”

“What? Why?”

“I’ll explain everything latter. Its important I speak to him.”

“Who is that?” One of the souther agitators asked.

“He’s one of Sonderon’s!” Another member of the mob declared.

Ryard raised his voice suddenly. “I am nothing of the kind. I am Major Vancing, of the KSRU. I was hoping to speak with Sonderon, as well as yourselves. You’ve all been had.”

“Had? What do you mean, had?” An incensed, scar-faced youth demanded.

“I mean that the person who recently shot Sonderon was not a souther, but wanted his target to think he was.”

A long moment of uncomprehending silence descended. “Why?” Wasil wondered aloud.

“To prompt Sonderon to avenge himself upon you, and you upon him.”

“What a load of rubbish, and from a member of the KSRU, we know well enough what they do to us,” the scar-faced man exclaimed hotly.

“If he says it, I believe him.” Wasil broke in stolidly.

“Why? What’s he to you?”

“A friend, Basim. If not for him, my wife would not be with us today.”

“Its his colonel who kills us. Its their master who comes to claim us all.”

“I knew nothing of Kryos’ plan. As for happened with Colonel Syzr-“

“Murderer!” Someone shouted.

“He killed. But he is no murderer. Listen.” But the scar-faced man, with a snarl of rage, threw himself at Ryard. Before violence could erupt, Wasil broke the two men apart and restrained the youth.

“Let him speak, Basim!”

“But Wasil-“

“If Wasil will listen, I will listen,” an elderly souther declared, taking a step forward. Murmuration passed through the crowd and at length the sentiment was agreed upon.

Vancing adjusted his collar and continued. “Syzr was set upon by those who he is claimed to have murdered. The two he slew and their leader, Kleiner, had attacked a woman named Fawnell. That’s why he intervened. This, Syzr relayed to me personally. I spoke with Fawnell before her untimely death and she confirmed to me the truth of the Colonel’s words. The KSRU is not your enemy. But someone would certainly like you to think otherwise.”

Another wave of murmurs rippled through the crowd. This less furious in character than the last.

“Can anyone corroborate this?” The elderly souther queried.

“They can.” Ryard pointed to Meris and Tatter, who stood uncertainly amidst the onlookers in the street.

Before the crowd could question further, the second-story balcony doors were thrown wide and a man, well on in years, with short mottled hair, a weathered face, and a fierce expression, emerged. He wore a gray-black uniform and his arm was confined to a well-plied sling. Ryard instantly recognized the high-perched figure as Kreizer Sonderon, who clutched the railing with his good arm and scanned the crowd until his eyes alighted upon Ryard.

“If we’re to talk, it were better we do so inside.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 38

Previous chapter

As Eidos’ face faded from the airborne projectors, Illander Rehdon side-eyed his companions amidst the graveyard copse. The chill wind had swept to a roaring gale and fallen leaves danced about the trio as if agitated by their presence.

“My my. What a showman. You know, I had heard he was a most taciturn fellow. Yet it seems, when the fit seizes him, his perspicacity rivals my own.”

Ryard did not respond to the other man’s observation, for his mind was consumed with dark misgivings. His body bent. His brows furrowed.

“You see now how the matter lies, Mr. Vancing?”

“Dimly, I begin to.”

“The Board was in his way. And the seizure of his facility was the final straw. He could suffer no more obstacles. So.” Redon’s voice grew solemn. “He killed them all.”

“You’re wrong.”

The declaration tore both men from fixation upon the other to Tatter, whose curious visage was uncharacteristically wracked with emotion.

“Father would not do that.”

“Were you at his side when the blast resounded?”

“No one knows Kryos better than Tatter, save, perhaps, for Vera.” Ryard broke in defensively.

“She is letting her personal feelings blind her. Don’t let yours blind you.”

“What is it you think I should do?”

Rehdon took a few steps between his companions and turned his back to the woman, eclipsing her from the CAV-keep’s view.

“Kryos casts a shadow over the whole of Aecer. If his designs are not interrupted, he’ll mire the land in a red cloak of iron. After the death of their envoy, war with the Federation is inevitable. But war with the deep colonies is not. He trusts you, Ryard. You have sway with his lieutenants.” Rehdon reached forward with his bandaged hand and caught a leaf twisting in the wind. “You can get close. It lies within your power to bring him to heel.”

“Madness mushrooms in your brains,” Tatter protested fitfully as she pushed past Rehdon and strode to Vancing, her large dichromatic eyes boring into his being with plaintive despair. Rehdon looked on with a diffident air and leaned, once more, against one of the nearby trees of the ill-kept grove, twiddling the brown, brittle leaf between his fingers.

Knowing now what he must do, Ryard could not bare the sight of the woman. Too much had gone between them. He shifted toward the docks where black smoke writhed above rooftops. Then the alarm of his affin module sounded. He looked to the screen. An incoming message: “We’re being overrun. Come to the docks at once.” Signed: Vera Straker.

“Ryard, look at me.”

The man adjusted his collar and shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He broke away and made for the overgrown footpath they had taken through the gorse-ringed forest. “I have to go.”

“Ryard!”

In a matter of seconds, he was swallowed upon in the swaying foliage. Without hesitation, Tatter followed.

Rehdon watched them decant and crushed the dead leaf in his palm.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 37

Previous chapter

Screams painted a crepuscular sky.

Sonderon’s acolytes and a raggad souther band, composed principally of young, frenzied men, broke from melee amidst the rubble-strewn streets of Central as whirring static issued from a thousand airborne vessels. An amplified voice thundered above and through the deteriorating metropolis. Filling the arteries of the metropolitan byways.

“… Denizens of Aecer. This is Eidos Kryos, Premier of the Association of Deep Colonies. I bid you listen…”

High above the city in Fabrdyn’s flying fortress, Astrid Sodabrucke harked to Kryos’ message and clutched at her elegant skirts as her attendants and the members of the mayoral convention huddled and muttered. She turned, eyes wide, to Amberleece.

“He’s broadcasting to the entire city.”

Devik strolled to the console and sifted through Fabrdyn operated frequencies. Eidos’ words seeped through them all. He issued a grunt of impressed vexation. “So it would seem.”

“Cut the feeds.”

Devik shook his head. “I can’t, Madam Chancellor.”

“Why in the calcite mines of Karkonne not?”

“If I do that the CAV-way will lose all guidance. It’d be giving license to mass murder.”

“So jam his signals.”

He sighed and rubbed his face with ill-constrained impatience. “That doesn’t allay the problem.”

She gulped and looked to Secretary Slate for guidance. Finding none, the Chancellor cast her senses to the window and the gathering ruin below.

“… A path expands, for those with the eyes to see it. Diverging from the present, sordid state. In which red tongues lap at buildings and brood. In which your ostensible leaders, absent responsibility and scurry to the clouds. Governance here has rested upon a bloated beauracracy. Whose sclerotic sinecures work tirelessly to ensure very little is accomplished. A decadence assiduously constructed. For a system’s character is derived from its architects and operators…”

Wasil barged into his dreary South Block apartment and plunged through the short low ceilinged hall to a sparsely furnished stucco room where his young daughter stirred a pot of aromatic broth. The sound of the wall-mounted affin system contested the clatter of utensils, the shuffling of feet and the hissing of steam. She turned and offered a hollow smile.

“Papa. I was getting worried.”

“Trouble at the waystation. That CAV-keep I had told you about wasn’t around. Had to skip the CAV-way altogether. People swarming all over it. Its madness out there.” He rubbed his perspiring brow. “How is your mother?”

“Much better today.” She stopped stirring and turned to the aural emanations washing over the makeshift kitchen. “Papa, who is that man?”

Wasil paused and turned from the child to the source of the oration. The longer he listened, the more the color drained from his face.

“… Purity was corroded by compromise. Creativity was forsworn for popular delegation. Verity was vitiated by consensus. Having taken leave of that triad, order has taken leave of you…”

Danzig Kleiner bent to his portable affin mod with confusion and annoyance as Kryos’ speech filled the auditorium of the old theatre in which he sat. He manipulated the device in an attempt to switch it off, but to no avail. A man sat upon the stage, garbed in black fatigues. He peeled a pomegranate and chuckled. Kleiner returned his companion’s mirth with ire and kicked the seat in front of him. The man on the stage looked up.

“Break that, and he’ll be collecting a pretty sum.”

Kleiner removed his hijacked transceiver and folded it in a length of cloth in his pocket to muffle the sound of the erudite orator. “Its me that’ll be collecting, next I see the liar.”

The man on the stage laughed once more. Kleiner muttered a curse and stormed from the garish red-gold chamber.

“…Yet, no situation, however dire, is without promise. Fire consumes itself, but clears the diminutive vegetation which strangles the towering flora, and leaves, in its wake, a useful char…”

The members of the East Federation Bureau listened to the message which poured from their table projector in uneasy silence.

“… With that brittle, black residue, this mazy sketch shall be mantled in more elegant lines…”

Within the foyer of Northwing Detention Facility, Acelin Syzr strode amidst a massing crowd of newly sprung prisoners. The woman he pursued had given him the slip. He paused and peered skyward, through the translucent glass wall, to the aerial facsimile of his master. A cry from near distance broke the strands of his attention.

“He’s with the KSRU,” a familiar female voice intoned with feigned discomposure.

Syzr cast his gaze right and spied, between the shifting swarm of inmates, a bob-cut wearing plain-faced woman of aecerite and federant extraction, her right hand extended in a theatrical accusatory gesture. He knew her as Sia Kandor. The prisoners crowded round the designated man and began to shout as Kandor crept toward the door.

“She’s right. Its Syzr.”

“KSRU dog!”

“He’s the one who put me away!”

“Get him!”

Blocking the exit, outbound prisoners waylaid the colonel with murderous intent. Four at once seized him, straining dire arm against arm, and four in turn were forced back by Syzr’s ferocity. Mad panic overtook the mob, and swiftly the internecine broil expanded until it wracked the entire penitentiary. No longer did the freed convicts fight solely against the automated guards, but turned upon each other with unmitigated, directionless savagery.

“… From this day forward, Aecer is no more. The ADC shall assume direct control of the city to be named…”

Holleran Meris sheltered in an abandoned automat. The mechanical attendants that had previously labored in the thankless ferrying of vittles lay smashed upon the floor. With an oath, the old man caught the side of one of the hewn machine servants and dropped to the scuffed tiling as dire disquisition spooled discordantly from the damaged wall transceiver. From his perch upon the floor, his eyes meet those of a small boy, who held his knees to his chest beneath one of the far tables; his mouth was bloody and his left eye was swollen and purple.

“… The Progenitor debarks, and will soon make landfall. When it does, my men will march upon our new demense. Whether greetings be cold or warm, they shall be returned in kind…”

At Vera Straker’s order, her armor-clad soldiers cleared a path through a horde of rioters besieging the docks in an attempt to flee the fraying conurbation. Cutters flared, and in red bloom, severed limbs peppered the ground. Sirin surveyed the carnage with raggad breath as the voice of the man who had made the oppidan scape his pulpit reverberated through her helmet and steeled her resolve.

“… My valiant emissaries prepare for our arrival. See that you do the same.”

Kryos’ thousand projected visages rippled, then diminished. Thereafter, the skies of Aecer stilled. Clouds, dark and pregnant with storms, drifted above mountainous aircrafts and contorted souls beyond number. The people watched for a moment. Waiting for some further word. Only the peal of thunder followed.

Beyond the crane-thick harbor, far from the violence laced labyrinth, a great shape moved beneath the waters. Too large to be a whale.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 36

Previous chapter

Tears fell in tandem with the casket. The vessel bore no body. None remained from the blast. In place of Julian Salis, one of the man’s cherished, antiquated hats, a tan and crumpled thing, had been lovingly placed by the departed’s wife, whose aged, yet regal face bent from the burial with a sorrow too great for words. A primly garbed psychologist stood by the edge of the pit and spoke of Salis’ deeds in a cursory manner, suggestive of genuine respect but little intimacy. All the while, Ryard Vancing stared blankly at the gathering tomb and the lobster-back case within, shimmering with the pale light of an aircraft-veiled sun. He felt perplexed by interior vacuity and waited for a percolation of emotion. Only a tight-coiling anger rose within him. He pondered whether it was the absence of a corpse – something tangible and dreadful to rouse and anchor memories – or his own dearth of soulfulness. As dirt closed about the dark, gleaming cask, he felt a soft, cold hand twine about his own. He looked left and beheld a slender woman with dark hair and heterochromatic eyes, garbed in a coat of KSRU fashion, akin, by his lights, to Vera’s own habiliment.

“Tatter,” he uttered with tender surprise.

It had been nearly a year since he had seen her, though it felt longer.

The woman gazed silently at the doleful burial for several seconds before speaking.

“Salis once told me, he hoped, after he was gone, they would not raise a statue in his likeness, for fear its proportions should be made absurd. He said, ‘I am a frail and ugly man, and I ought be presented as such. I could not abide the dishonesty of a handsome presentation.'”

Ryard watched a thin smile play up the side of the woman’s unnaturally pale face.

“He gave much thought to posterity.” Ryard frowned and turned full to face the woman. “What are you doing here? Its not safe.”

“Nor is it in the colonies.”

“Why?”

She put her hands in her pockets and spoke softly. “Another attempt was made on my fathers life.”

“What? When?”

“Don’t fret. The assassin found no purchase against Father’s designs. But there is something else.”

As the psychologist finished his eulogy and made way for Salis’ wife to speak, Ryard took the woman by the arm and moved to the back of the grief-striken congregation. He didn’t think Salis would hold it against him. He hoped his wife wouldn’t either.

“What’s happened?”

“I believe I saw the man who planted the bomb.”

“At the aerospace complex?”

“Yes.”

“Why were you there?”

“I was keeping apprised of the government’s actions for Father.”

“And this man, who is he?”

“Danzig Kleiner.”

Vancing waxed grim. A chill wind swept through the funerary wood, rattling the branches like dessicated bone. A charming voice followed.

“So very sorry for your loss.”

Tatter and Ryard turned to the crowd, at the back of which stood a man with a chartreuse coat and gleaming blond hair. He alone amongst the multitude faced from the casket and the flower-strewn furrow into which it had been placed. The chartreuse-coated man smiled enigmatically as the wind tousled a few errant auric strands about his soft, boyish features.

It was Illander Rehdon.

A woman began to weep loudly as the eulogy continued. All attendants save the trio were fixed upon the rite. Ryard focused on the man, his posture raptorial.

“I hoped to see you here, Illander.” His voice assumed a hard edge. “You’ve much to explain.”

Rehdon pursed his lips and cocked his head. “Why Ryard, whatever are you talking about?”

Vancing scoffed, made for his wrist-wound affin module but paused as he saw a missed message on the screen. “Need to speak to you, urgently.” Signed: Holleran Meris. He wondered what trouble the old goat had gotten himself into, then tapped and tilted the screen toward the entrant. A portion of the security recording taken before Casja Fawnell’s death ran without sound. Fawnell and a hooded man walked toward an automat. Ground slick. Sky gray. After the clip finished playing Rehdon tossed a casual query.

“I presume this is prelude to an accusation.”

“In addition to the fact that you had a personal connection to Fawnell and were the last known person to see her alive, the figure walking next to her on the recording is your height and build.”

“My proportions are not uncommon.”

“You’ll note that the man in the recording is wearing gloves.”

“And?”

“It was neither cold nor raining. So why wear gloves?” Before Rehdon could answer Ryard pointed. “Your hand is still bandaged.”

For a long moment both men exchanged unwavering stares. Discomfort wormed in Rehdon’s bosom; in Ryard’s there was only wrath.

“I know it was you.”

“And what was my motive?”

“She was getting close to Sodabrucke and Sodabrucke was getting close to the Chancellorship. Getting rid of Fawnell left an opening in a congealing cabinet.”

“Very thoughtful, CAV-keep.” Rehdon turned to Tatter, his charming smile quick reforming. “Would you excuse us?”

Tatter took a step back from the man and half-hide behind Ryard’s body.

“Unlike you, I don’t keep secrets from those whose confidence I’ve won.”

“How noble.”

“My patience is wearing thin. You can explain yourself here, or in a cell.”

Rehdon cast his keen gaze about at the congregation. “Not really the place for such a discussion, however much it is the time.” Ryard gestured impatiently to the nearby forest. Rehdon smiled broadly and motioned for Tatter to lead their egress. “Ladies first.”

At a brisk clip, the trio traversed the patchy, clay-thick soil to a tangled grove in the heart of the cemetery, assuredly out of earshot. Rehdon crossed his arms and leaned against a tree and inhaled deeply before speaking.

“I am a Federation agent.”

“What?” Ryard’s features contorted with amazement.

“Allow me to finish. It will not make sense unless I explain it all at once.”

Without a word, Ryard gestured for the man to continue his narrative.

“Five years ago I was approached by some men from the Security Commission’s Interior and Foreign Office. They told me that’d discovered an East Federation spy network. Wanted me to infiltrate. Find out what the foreigners were up to. What those fine aecerites didn’t know was that I had already been approached by men from the east, for much the same purpose, only, of course, the federants wanted me to help grow their Aecer-based operation, and keep it from being sussed out.”

“Why’d they come to you?”

“Through my philanthropic ventures, I had, at that time, accumulated a considerable network of acquaintances, including members of state, domestically, and in the east.”

“What’s this treason have to do with Fawnell?”

“Patience, patience, my dear man, I’m coming to that. And it wasn’t treason. Not really. You see, the federants had come to trust me, so when they asked me to spy for them, how could I refuse? I’d no interest in being a tangle snipped from their skein. You will I trust, understand the tremendous pressures laid against me in the decision. So I pretended I was for their cause. Quite convincingly, if I do say so myself. But I tell you sir, I am aecerite through and through. And so began compiling evidence to use against them. Now we come to your query, to Fawnell. It is as you said, I was there, but I took no move against her. I was there to protect her. Like me, she was going to testify. Had gotten close to Sodabrucke, as you probably know, who even then was likely to be the next Chancellor. If Fawnell had lived, it would have caused all kinds of problems for the Federation, for in short order, she would soon be able to move against them with the backing of the city government. I suspect they poisoned her by way of the automated food dispensary. All I know was that she got up suddenly and ran into the street. And then… But you are right to be angry with me. I failed in my duty. I-” The man shook his head and looked wistfully off into the distance. “I could not protect her.”

For a moment the trio sunk to silence as Ryard mulled Rehdon’s words.

“What of the bombing?”

“You think I had something to do with that as well.”

“The complex itself was seized at your behest.”

“At my suggestion. I am not in so lofty a position I can give such orders. Besides, the whole point of the venture was to promote an economic merger of East and Aecer aerospace industries. The majority of the Board was behind it. Why would I go after all the Board members save for the one who presented the only stolid opposition to the plan?”

Ryard didn’t answer. He bent his head, hands in his jacket pockets, eyes studying the ground. Mind whirling through a diagram of recent events.

“Like so many intelligent men before you, you seek phantoms when wind and shadow suffice.”

“And what shaded gale have I overlooked?”

“See for yourself.”

Ryard followed his companions hand up to the sky where drifted a colossal com-link aerostat and on the machine’s exterior a projection of Eidos Kryos from chest to head.

The great visage spoke and the world fell silent.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 35

Previous chapter

An unctuous sychitin-garbed retainer of middling age led Zarya Cece from the massive vessel’s docking bay, up an expansive industrial lift where the floor was scuffed by constant transit of mining slag, through a series of short and twisting halls, to a wide, palatial gallery lined with albescent statuary of exquisite men and women in majestic repose. The ceiling was high and fluted as the folds of a rooted collybia and from them beams of illumination fell with singular focus upon each icon. Tributary baubles lay upon the pedestals of the effigies. Necklaces and bracelets, ornate vases and funerary urns and polished slipper shells and notes on sheafs of codium fragile. On the base of a cenotaph in the form of a solemn man in streamlined armor was a delicate blue flower. The woman strode to the monument, took in the masterworked contours of the proud, solemn face, and lifted the flower. A petal fell from the stem and floated to the plinth. Zarya frowned.

“Why must beautiful things be so fragile.”

The guide surveyed the woman’s elegant raiment. “You must be very fragile if that is so.”

Cece rolled her eyes. “How often do such lines work for you?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“I wonder. Tell me.” She looked to the name painted below left collarbone on the man’s ashen plate. “Audo. What do you do here?”

“I work on the docking module. Watch the ballast, pressure, which ships come and go. That sort of thing.”

“Don’t your systems do that automatically?”

“Course. But there’s always a chance of system failure. Its Kryos’ policy for all workers to create a secondary record, by hand, of all pertinent activity, in every module, on every deck.”

“Lot of extra work. Explains why there are so many people here.”

Groups of men and women, clothed as the guide, moved down the pass, talking with staid incision and inclined their heads to the newcomer. Cece watched her usher return the gesture and did likewise.

“You came at a busy time of day. A busy month, really. So many new kelp farms to install. But tell me, if you don’t consider it indelicate, what does Sodabrucke plan to do? Has a new government been formed?”

“I can’t answer that, handsome.”

“You mean you won’t. I shouldn’t have asked.”

The woman looked up to the ceiling where shifted small black clusters.

“What are those?”

“We call them SERIA sensors.”

“Sensors? Like cameras?”

“Not exactly.”

Audo dipped a hand into a pack at his belt and removed a thin length of material whose composition eluded Cece’s ken. “The wearer senses what the array senses.” She reached forward for the artifact, but Audo withdrew it from her grasp. “That wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“Why?”

“To use it, one needs to undergo a tuning process. Those that don’t are at risk of seizure.”

“Goodness, why even bother with something that dangerous?”

“Direct telesensory inception has unique benefits. But frankly, I was of much the same opinion when Kryos and Straker came up with the idea. I was part of the original development team. When it became clear it was feasible, I told him it wasn’t worth the risk. He disagreed. He said: ‘Only the malformed are without fear. Only the cowardly shrink from it.’ Then he put the device on.” The man lowered his voice and leaned toward the woman. “Nearly killed him.”

“Really?”

The man nodded gravely. “Scared me half to death. Scared all of us. His whole body convulsed, and he made this… horrible noise. But then, right as his vitals we’re going south, he became quiet and slowly pulled himself up on the edge of the work bench. I asked him what he was thinking, told him it was crazy.”

“What did he say?”

“‘One cannot wring crops from halcyon earth.'”

The woman furrowed her brows and shook her head.

“Ah, but I’m taking up too much of your time with my stories.” The man pocketed the device and gestured down the corridor. “Shall we continue?” Cece assented and followed behind her guide beyond the crowded memorial chamber. When they were near the end of the corridor a boy at the threshold of maturity came plunging about the corner, bearing a object some three feet in length in his arms.

“Graf! You nearly ran into the good lady.”

The boy halted just short of the duo, his eyes low.

“Sorry.”

“No trouble. What have you got there?” Cece inquired, bending to the bundle.

Graf shifted the lump, prompting Cece to gasp and draw back in horror, for in the boy’s arms was a large, pale chitinous creature, with triangular charcoal eyes and four bony antennae that rose up nervously. Its many-legged underside was paler than its shell and at its rear was a thick mass of fins, wider than its head.

“What is that?”

“An isopod.”

“Why are you carrying it?”

“Mr. Kryos gave it to me.”

The woman looked to her guide with utter bewilderment.

“They’re popular pets in the colonies.”

“I see.”

“We put them in the reservoirs to keep them clean. They’ll eat just about anything that falls to the bottom.”

The woman took a step back as the isopod raised its upper limbs in her direction. The boy laughed.

“Well, not anything. Don’t worry, lady, it won’t hurt you.”

The man gave the boy a reproachful look. “If he gave you that, I take it you’ve dispensed with the fighting?”

The boy worked his lower lip back and forth. Jubilance subsiding. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Well, be on your way, boy.”

Graf adjusted the bottom feeder in his wiry arms and absquatulated.

The duo walked on.

Past the artful ossuary was a long, dark hall. The steward pointed to the recess at the far end of the protracted corridor. “His study is straight ahead. Be mindful of the water.”

Zarya Cece raised a brow, smiled and curtsied. The man nodded, turned and left off; footfalls and form swift-receding to shadow.

She watched him and paced into the black. A high aperture embowered by caliginous strands opened to an ersatz grotto. Long, high and pale as bleached bone, awash in dismal azure light. The blanched walls were composed of unreflective translucent material that revealed the complex clockwork of the great machine. High above, argent forms floated in torpid circles. At the center of the hollow, a pool, and dark shapes within it. Opposite the entrance, across the water lay a pale expanse of what appeared as variegated sand that rose up by subtle degrees to a brassy mass of jagged, scintillating scale-like structures, between which a man sat an ashen chair fused to the surrounding material. He wore dark, laminous clothes trimmed with gold that shone like his eyes. His posture bespoke detachment, yet his voice carried across the chasm with restrained intensity.

“Expectant of a wolf, I recieve a fox.”

“Commissioner Kryos.” The woman curtsied.

“I am a commissioner no longer.”

“Chancellor Sodabrucke is reconstituting The Board. She thought that might interest you, given that your ship is still on the mainland.”

“It is where it belongs. For now.”

“That may be so, but by law its still under SecCom control. You want it back. Work with us.”

“As it was not Richter’s to take, it is not yours to give.”

“That’s not very diplomatic. We’re offering you aid.”

“Spermaceti is a pearly waxen substance derived from the head cavities of cachalots.”

Cece’s face creased with confusion. “And?”

“Do you know how many lumens a seventy six gram candle of this material affords?”

“No one uses candles anymore.”

“One. Each algae light-vessel in this chamber affords two hundred and thirty lumens. There are ten thousand five hundred of them. How many candles would I need to light this chamber?”

“I don’t know.”

“One needs knowledge of dimensions. Two million four hundred fifteen thousand.”

Luminance filled the cavity in tandem with his voice. Phosphorescent went ceiling and walls. The woman raised her hand, squinting against the sudden bluish glare until her eyes adjusted.

“That’s all very fascinating, but I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”

Kryos stood. “A single adult cachalot produces around one thousand nine hundred litres of spermaceti. One million nine hundred thousand grams.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “That’s roughly twenty five thousand candles per whale-head. Or, twenty five thousand lumens per whale. Seventy six grams of my algae produces seventeen thousand four hundred and eighty lumens, over half that of an entire adult cachalot, so tell me, Ms. Cece, what need have I of whales?”

“That’s an awfully long-winded way of calling us dim.”

“I did not say dim.”

“What then?”

“Inefficient.”

Argent machines descended from the ceiling and arrayed themselves across the reservoir that separated host and visitor. Kryos moved from the ashen throne toward the pool and gestured for his guest to ford the watery expanse. The woman tested the metallic carapace of the first of the temporary platforms, which gave but slightly beneath her boot, then made her way across the wide pool. Striding with easy confidence toward the opposite shore.

“If we are candles,” Cece began with a tinge of ire as she forded the makeshift bridge. “To continue your analogy,” she stepped off the last SIKARD and tilted up her head at the black garbed man before her as the insectal machines crested the edge of the tranquil liquid and spiraled in the air about the speakers. “Its only a matter of quantity and time before we’re brighter than the sun.” The woman reached for her affin module, the top half detaching to a hand-held device which she raised and clicked. The SIKARDs trilled and spasmed and fell from the air. Kryos grit his teeth and fell to one knee, muscles twitching unnaturally.

The woman raised the device to the beleaguered man’s head. “The woman who attacked you in Gild’s office had an orbital implant. I saw it all. Your telesoma. The good chancellor, foolish girl that she is, let me into the Board archive. I read your file.” She gestured to the downed SIKARDs. “Knew about your little friends. So I had a field disruptor installed in my cutter and the cutter fitted to my affin module, in case you had your men search me.”

Kryos, inhaled sharpely, rose and surveyed the woman’s device briefly, before his helodoric gaze returned to her face.

“I ordered them not to.”

“Huh?”

“A snow-buried blade is useless if the fox cannot lick it.”

“I don’t see a blade.”

“You are preoccupied by looking.”

“Forgettable, far as final words go.”

Without compunction, Cece raised the modified cutter and fired a pulse through Kryos’ chest. He looked down at the void where his heart should be and spun to the pale throne, which bubbled with the residue of the blast. With a muffled cry, he wavered unsteadily on his feet and slumped against the unadorned chair, his head lolling lifelessly.

The lights dimmed. Murk re-enveloped the chamber.

The woman looked to the corpse with triumph.

“Should have pulled your magic trick.”

The corpse’s eyes swiveled to the woman, its mouth forming a thin smile.

“What prompted you to think I hadn’t?”

In tandem with the woman’s breathless gasp, the pale-throned figure contorted and dissolved to an amorphous mass and seeped to the floor as a voice echoed from above.

“Revenge is a greater motor to man than amity, for the latter is a burden, and the former, a pleasure.”

The woman cast her eyes up to the ceiling and took a step backward. There, Eidos Kryos stood. She looked to the left wall and beheld, some fifteen feet up, another Kryos, then to the right wall, where, at similar height, yet another facsimile of the man gazed down upon her, the heliodor of his irises glinting in the gloam. The Kryos upon the left wall continued where the ceiling-borne one had left off.

“I induce this wolf you’ve bound yourself to does not desire vengeance against my person, but the whole of society.”

The Kryos upon the right wall spoke next. “This person was the same who slew The Board.”

The Kryos on the ceiling continued the oratory cycle. “This predator weaves a grand tapestry. Perhaps, from it, your master sought to pluck an errant strand. And so sent you here.”

“He would never-” Too late she realized the error.

“So it is a man.” The three visages spake in unison. Those left and right began to walk down from the walls toward the woman as the spectral orator on the ceiling dripped piece by piece to her feet. Recomposing.

The woman backed away from the apparitions toward the pool. Mind reeling. Hands quaking on the useless cutter.

“Stay away,” she howled, as the figures closed the distance.

From the depths of the reservoir a black-plated hand emerged, gripped Cece by the ankle and tore the balance from beneath her. She shrieked and fell to the floor, weapon flying from grasp, brow colliding with a small mineral tumulus in the sandy expanse and dripping red. She clawed blindly at the silt-strewn floor, vision blurring as the sound of a surfacing form and dripping water preceded a rippling shadow.

Kryos stood at the edge of the artificial pond, a breathing apparatus affixed to his face. He reached up and removed the mask with methodical familiarity, revealing a slender silver device that wrapped about the left temple. He surveyed the female placidly. Eyes and half-diadem gleaming. As footsteps closed upon her, Cece scrambled for her weapon. A dark heel descended upon it. With bloodied brow and locks in disarray, Cece looked up to behold the dour face of Ermin Gild gazing upon her with reproach. The man retrieved the device from the ground and switched it off. The SIKARDs hummed to life and rose into the air as Kryos knelt and took the woman’s face in his hands.

“Ash is more beautiful than a painting scourged. For it is pure as the fires that birthed it. But to purify iron, mere flame is not enough. A furnace is required. Whose glow illuminates the slag of the soul. It is a pity that you shall never see it.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 34

Previous chapter

A yawning corridor the hue and texture of anthracite arced over Ermin Gild, who progressed at a harried pace across gray-scaled tiles. The man’s footfalls echoed off the disorienting ceiling, from which hung long autochthonous tangles of curved, compressed carbon, the ends of which were fitted with a series of small translucent orbs that glimmered when the walker passed within fifteen feet of them, thereafter dimming and falling to darkness once more. At the far end of the sable pass was a great tripartite door, the lower portion of which retracted into the floor as the upper segments withdrew to the top of the portal; beyond it, another hallway, shorter than the one preceding, that let out to a massive, multi-tiered cavity, composed of a circular walkway of corded material that wound the length of the chamber.

In the center of the room was an abyss from which rose a circular mechanized platform containing a complex armature holding a massive sphere affixed with multistage ion collectors that extended from the contraption with perfect symmetry. From wall and lift, interlocking mechanisms and assembly arms wound with musical regularity around the nexus, giving the room the appearance of a vast, alien clocktower. Before the platform-borne device, manipulating a series of electronic touchscreen panels, stood Eidos Kryos, garbed in his habitual dark-scaled coat; overhead, his ever-present metallic guardians drifted in placid circles, some crawling upside down on the ceiling, the tapping of their insectual legs lost to the shuttered factory’s rhythmic clatter.

“You said you were leaving.”

“Sonderon was just attacked. He’s in critical condition. Souther leaders suspected. SecCom is completely absent. Whole market district has gone sideways.”

Several of the drones flew down and spun about Ermin’s body. Sensors tracing thermal patterns.

“I know.”

Ermin sized up the strange sentries and prodded one on its underside. Kryos twitched with discomfort.

“Would you mind not doing that?”

Gild’s brows creased as he took a step forward. “You can feel that?”

“You were speaking of the city.”

“Sodabrucke hasn’t formed a new government. The surviving members of the convention are with Amberleece, hiding in the clouds. There’s open warfare in the streets. Power grids are shutting down.” Gild gripped the railing of the walkway. Knuckles going white. “Why haven’t you done something?”

Kryos answered flatly. “I have.”

“The KSRU? You think they can handle this? With Syzr in custody? Its too far gone for that. You have enough men here to take Consortium Hall, or whatever is left of it. If it takes a war to reestablish order, so be it. Something must be done.”

The large, yet delicate robotic appendages of the dais grasped one of the cylindrical amassers extending from the spherical device and, rotating with inhuman speed, screwed the cylinder into place. Kryos gazed over his shoulder at his distant guest.

“My war is not with men.”

“You tinker with that ridiculous contraption as the city burns.”

“This ‘ridiculous contraption’ is the bridge to a future long disclosed.”

“What is it?”

Kryos turned to face his questioner. “An engine. To my ship which lies interred in Aecer. Come. Observe.”

All of the argent drones descended from the ceiling and formed a walkway from the inner engine platform to the outer walkway.

“You want me to cross on those things? Isn’t there a gangplank?”

“This chamber was designed so that none but I could navigate it. Only the SIKARDs allow access.” Kryos raised his obsidian-plated hand to his pallid temple. “And they answer only to me.”

“SIKARDs?”

“Vera has a fondness for acronyms. Are you going to cross?”

Gild looked toward the hovering mass with trepidation. “What if I fall?”

“Desirous of war. Yet quivers to cross a span.”

Gild’s face twitched with annoyance, swallowed by apprehension as he peered down into the gulf, the bottom, opaque to shadow. Momentary glimmers of light radiated from the void, all moving in thin vertical lines. His fingers flexed. He inhaled and stepped out into the frigid chasm. Foot firmly planted on the flexile carapace of the autonomous aerial drone before him. Then the next and the next until he stood on the last and gasped, arms wind-milling and, with a panicked cry, tumbled backward. He steeled himself for the long plunge and closed his eyes. A firm hand clasped about his forearm, foreclosing his fall. He opened one eye and saw two heliodoric irises staring back at him. Amusement there shining. Gild grabbed the machinist’s black-clad arm and Kryos hauled him up. For a moment the beauracrat bent, hands on his knees, panting as his heart thrashed and his legs trembled. Kryos paced toward the machine as the panels of the array below it displayed a silent feed of recent news coverage.

“I do not intervene directly because the people of the city have yet to offer sufficient supplication.”

One heading read “KSRU needed, now, more than ever.” Another, “Eidos Kryos’ ADC must be part of Sodabrucke’s new government.” Yet another, “Chaos ingulfs the city; the Association of Deep Colonies must intervene.”

Kryos scanned the feeds placidly. “But their insouciance swift subsides. Slowly they realize their raft is the flood.”

Ermin surged forward and caught Eidos about the collar, slamming him against the blue-glowing control array before the voluminous, furcated motor. Kryos’ brow furrowed with discomfort, his previously immaculate hair falling about his face.

“Bastard.”

Kryos, tiled his head. Saying nothing as a disconcerting humming reverberated from near distance. The Oversecretary ignored the sound and tightened his grip on the obsidian coat collar, his face inches from the magnate’s own.

“You don’t give a damn about anyone, do you?”

“Were that true, I’d not have caught your arm.”

Ermin’s wrath faltered. Slowly, Kryos raised his aphotic laminated hands to the Oversecretary’s shoulders.

“If I had not caught you, my SIKARDs would have.” It was only then Gild realized the argent drones levitating several feet away. The source of the ominous sibilation. Spiny limbs primed for violence. “They can be somewhat overzealous in their drive to protect.” Kryos gave the isopodic wardens a curt half-wave with his left hand, as if brushing dust from the Oversecretary’s shoulder, whereafter the automata scattered and spun out into the cyclic, alloyed expanse. Gild relaxed and released his grip. Then, a buzzing. Kryos tapped one of the adjacent panels.

“Yes?”

“Vessel approaching, Sir. Pilot says she’s an emissary from the new government.”

“Her name?”

“Zarya Cece.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 33

Previous chapter

Holleran Meris moved alone through Southern Block market, groceries to hand, as Kreizer Sonderon’s steely voice knelled in the distance through a portable sound system hastily established in the bustling plaza, guarded by a band of subtly armed soldiers in gray and black, partisans of the politician’s cause. A red ensign of stylized flame emblazoned upon their armored shoulders. Surrounding the man was a thick crowd, ebbing and flowing, yet maintaining a transfixed core of men and women, of various ages, whose faces and gesticulations displayed rising passion. As the minutes mounted, so did their numbers.

“We know the truth.” Sonderon declared, jabbing the air toward the Fabrdyn airship, which loomed to the north. “No matter what candied words the Federation’s propagandists and their accomplices in our own traitorous government might spew, they hold nothing but malice in their hearts for the Aecerite people. They view us as inferior stock. Cattle. Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Cattle. Read their papers. No. Not the ones they publish on the affin, but those they publish in their internal memoranda. Listen to their lectures. No. Not the ones that recieve a public showing, but those in their own symposiums, in the halls of their universities and council chambers, wherein they digress upon, with a chuckle in their timbre and a twinkle in their eye, their fanatical hatred for our kind. Even if they themselves should be Aecerite. Look to portrayals of our people in the popular fictions. We are always depicted as villains, or as archaic and outmoded. Relics of a bygone era. Things to be cast aside. Replaced. Is that what we are? Look, friends, and you will see the verity of my words. Isn’t it curious that just before the election, the self-styled leaders of our so-called government are blow to pieces at an event attended by the Eastern Bureau’s envoys? Isn’t it further curious that my principal opponent, Astrid Sodabrucke, who is scarcely more than child, has been appointed as the new Chancellor under the emergency powers of the mayoral convention and the security commission? Coincidence? I think not. You may be asking yourself: Do they think we are such fools? Allow me to answer, brothers and sisters, for I know well enough the sordid shape of their minds to do so. Yes. That is precisely what they think of you, of us. Of every man, woman and child of Aecerite blood. And will we accept it? This perpetual denigration of our people? This foisting upon us of souther savages? This coring of our industry? This outsourcing of our security? I ask you again: Will we accept this coup of our birthright?”

“No,” the mass hollered in unison.

“Gods below. If he keeps on like that, there’ll be a riot,” Meris exclaimed to no one in particular.

A young man, arms crossed, expression hard, who had participated in the chant, turned to the solivagant. Red sigil visible on his right shoulder.

“Maybe. But maybe there should be.”

Meris cautiously withdrew as the younger man turned his back and rejoined the swelling chant of his brethren.

“Sonderon! Sonderon!”

A shot rang-out. Meris bucked with fright, dropping his supplies to the pavement of the pedestrian walkway. Sonderon slumped from his banner-laden podium. Blood splattering the rostrum. Face contorted with shock and pain. A thin rod of metal through his shoulder, close to the neck. The crowd scattered with cries of terror, as the politician’s security team rushed to their master’s aid.

Meris looked up in the direction from whence the peal had come and scanned the rooftops of the surrounding and broken tenements. Atop an adjacent residential complex overcast by one of the manifold drifting aerostats that peppered the sky, he spied what looked to be a large man, all in grey and black, crouching and holding in his hands something long and dark, which he dismantled and shoved into a bag. The shooter rose, slung the pack over his shoulder, turned and vanished from view as bellows of impotent wrath rang below.

Next chapter

Cineraria (a shortstory)

Every man in the cathode colored nightclub looked to the woman. Save one, who sat alone at the counter, beyond the sibilating dancefloor, shoulders bent, plying charcoal to a weathered sketchbook. Before him, a mug of brass, furnished with an orange rind. Hips swaying, stygian hair half covering a gussied oval face, she daintily sat one of the numerous wooden stools arrayed about the busy umber bar and leaned toward the somber patron. Upon the page of the solitary drinker’s folio, a centipede, phantasmal and peculiar of proportion. The man paused. Waiting.

“Nice drawing.”

He began to ply his tool once more. Piceous trails ate an eggshell void.

“Buy me a drink?”

The man did not look to the winsome questioner as he spoke.

“Every thing has its price.”

She smirked. The expression faltered in the gray zone of uncertainty. Was he jesting? He did not seem to be. His pale face was partially veiled by a battered baseball cap and his mouth held an even line, liken to the granite maw of a gothic altarpiece. He wore thin pitch sheepskin gloves, a sleek jacket with a stylized chrysanthemum emblazoned upon the back, camo cargo pants that gave the appearance of variegated shale and steel-toed work boots of rough and faded leather. From the taunt slant of his cheeks and vasculature visible at his scantily exposed wrists, she induced a lithe, toned physique.

“How could I pay for it?”

“This establishment has a reputation. If you know it, you know the answer.”

The woman titled her head and spewed a sotted laugh. The man turned to her. Eyes opaque to umbral pall.

“I’m Serena, by the way.” She leaned forward, cheek to left palm, crossing smooth, toned legs, revealing the upper regions of a milky thigh.

He looked to the fourth finger of her left hand, the tissue paler than that surrounding, as from a band removed, and slid the mug to her. She took the vessel and sipped the cool beverage within.

“Where is your husband?”

The woman squinted and lowered the cup.

“What makes you think I have one?”

The man raised his left hand and moved his fourth finger back and forth. The woman looked to her corresponding limb.

“Observant. Does it matter?”

The man did not answer. Distant chatter rose. She brightened. Tongue flicking about thick, glossy lips.

“Mm. What is this?”

“If you answer my question, I will answer yours.”

She put on a pout. Annoyed. Playing up the vexation.

“He’s at home. Same as the ring. Preparing for a business presentation, probably. As usual.”

“I see.”

“You see. Can you tell?”

“Its called a Moscow Mule.”

“Like a donkey?”

“A mule is not a donkey. A mule is the offspring of a donkey and a horse.”

“Oh. I never knew. What’s in it? Tastes sweet, like-”

“Ginger beer, vodka, lime juice and garnish.”

“Tasty.”

She nodded and swayed on the seat.

“So.”

“So?” This time it was the man who leaned toward her. His shadow eclipsing her soma.

“How can I pay you back?” She brushed her index finger lightly against his knee.

“By coming to my room.”

Her brows leapt at his staid forthrightness. She pretended to mull the idea. Made a show of it as jagged music flooded from wall mounted speakers. Gray. No petals. No introduction. Gray matter. For introspection. Water making. And breaking. Seeming fine.

“Your room?”

The man tilted his head to the entrance.

“At the hotel, across the way. The Cineraria. Know it?”

“Mm hm. However.”

“However?”

She smiled like a sphinx.

“Everything has its price.”

“We can discuss that later. Can’t we?”

“Oh, I think so.”

The man took out his wallet as the inked bartender paused before them. The man with the chrysanth jacket removed a clip of hundred dollar bills, from which he unfurled two fives and set them on the counter. The bartender nodded and took the money as the two patrons made for the exit and stepped into the night.

Outside the wind howled between great towers. Smog choked the moon. Scarce residents slipped into the black. On the cracked and heel-worn sidewalk before the egressed lounge was the corpse of a bird with empty eyes and ants where innards once lay. The man with the chrysanth coat watched the avian carcass shift and heave with the carnivorous multitude. Overstepping the fleshy dross, he led the woman left, up the otherwise empty road, to a massive tenement dwarfed by even larger edifices, half formed and skeletal against the murk. Bathed in sky-wrought tears. Before the lobby three men spoke together with wild animation, seemingly in the midst of a humorous story, and paused as the duo approached.

“Ay, yo. Look at this,” the bulkiest of the men cooed, raising his brows, one shaved through the middle, rubbing his hands together as if in anticipation of a succulent dish.

“Shit. You know they banging tonight.”

The third member of the troupe leaned back and laughed like a jackal.

Serena’s guide waved politely toward the lurkers and opened the door to the hotel lobby.

“Ey, listen.” The barrel-chested urbanite held the door shut and leaned to Serena. Too close for comfort. “He not giving it right, we here for you.” The two carousers behind the door holder chortled.

Serena withdrew with disgust. The man with the chrysanth parka fixed the youth in his shadowed gaze.

“The fuck you looking at?” Scoffed the urbanite, tattooed face shimmering in the lamplight.

“A man eager to see his insides.”

Much to Serena’s surprise, something in the man’s brim-shaded eyes and unwavering tenor compelled capitulation from the rogue. The youth released the door and backed away. Joining his fellows. Like rats, they slunk to shadow.

The duo proceeded inside, Serena soughing.

“God, I thought they were gonna jump us.”

“That would have been unwise. There are cameras along the exterior.”

“This place is so old, didn’t think they had any. I’ve stayed her before. Didn’t notice any cameras. Not that I was looking. I remember they didn’t have fire alarms.”

The pair strode across the rust colored carpet of the archaic lobby and entered the lift. Languid, ethereal waltz music resounded from the brass speakers and the lights flickered. The woman put her arm around the man’s own. He gave her a look of appraisal, as a sculptor measuring the proportions of a cast.

He opened the peeling eggshell door and ushered her within. The room was bare, save for a bed on which was a folded towel, in the right corner, a flat-screen television on the floral-patterned wall behind it, a smoke detector above it, and a small wooden table to the left of the door, on which stood an immaculate gramophone, the horn, dark and dull-gleaming like the carapace of a giant beetle, turned to the center of the chamber, a record upon the spindle. Behind the music device, a bathroom. She paused by the doorway as he bolted the lock.

“You said we’d talk about it later. Its later.”

“Your rate?”

“Two hundred. For the night.”

The man moved to the bed, removed his sketchbook and charcoal pencil from an inner jacket pocket, set it on the bed, then sat down and removed his wallet, from it he drew a pair of hundred dollar bills and laid them on the sheets.

She smiled a little at the sight of green. Wending wary.

“Whatever you want, just nothing rough, ok?”

“That’s fine.”

A muted, shuffling sibilation intruded. The man dipped into his left outer jacket pocket and removed an argent cell phone. He looked to the number and held it to his ear.

“Yes.”

He waited for the reply from the other end of the line. Too low for her to hear.

“I’m sure.”

“Bathroom?”

The man gestured with his head to the door adjacent the bed. She went through to the bathroom and undressed, leaving only her scant, black lingerie. Posturing lasciviously in the mirror, she fluffed her silky hair and heard the stranger speak to the caller from the room beyond, muffled through the wall.

“It’s as you thought. No. That won’t be a problem.”

She walked out from the privy and leaned against the doorway. Assuming a sultry posture. She frowned when he took no notice. He was starring out the window at the starless void beyond.

“Understood.” The man snapped the phone shut and pocketed it. He turned to the woman. Her frown vanished. She ran a hand lightly across her taunt, pallid abdomen. The scent of perfume thick in the air. “Like what you see?”

“Stand there.” He pointed to the ground by the shuttered door and moved to the gramophone, turning the crank until a low, ghostly serenade filled the room. An ambient susurration. Solemn opera. Fronted by a elderly male singer. Libretto unfolding. Language beyond Serena’s ken.

Da’ fortunati campi, ove immortali

godonsi all’ombra de’ frondosi mirti

i graditi dal ciel felici spirti,

mostromi in questa notte a voi mortali.

Quel mi son io, che su la dotta lira

cantai le fiamme celesti de’ celesti amanti

e i trasformati lor vari sembianti

soave sì, ch’il mondo ancor m’ammira.

“Are you familiar with Rinuccini?”

Serena shook her head.

He motioned to the antiquated device. “My favorite of his works.”

Unsure what to say, she gave an awkward nod.

“Take off your bra.”

She tried to force smile. Mirth waning. With mounting hesitancy she slid the covering from her chest and dropped it to the floor.

“Now the rest.”

She did as he commanded and slid her panties to the floor and kicked them toward the bed. Holding her hands over her chest, swaying.

“On your knees.”

“So you’re one of those guys.”

She knelt and batted her lashes, hands on her knees, pushing her small breasts together.

“No talking.”

“What have you got to shut me up?”

She pawed at his pants, fumbling with button and zipper, grinning. He batted her hands away and walked to the bed and sat down. Disgusted.

“Crawl.”

“What?”

He raised a finger to his lips. She fell silent.

“Crawl.”

She began to stalk slowly forward on her hands and knees. When she was within ten feet of him he held up his hand.

“Stop. Now, slither.”

“Slither?”

“On your stomach. Like a snake.”

“That’s a new one.”

He didn’t reply.

“You don’t seem interested.”

“Why should I be?”

“What?”

“You’re paid to give pleasure, not be interesting.”

Serena’s brow creased with injury, perplexity and a mounting dread she couldn’t place.

“You don’t seem pleased, either.”

“Because you aren’t slithering.”

“Look. Uh.” She raised her hands. “This is getting weird.”

The man withdrew another hundred dollar bill and laid it upon the others.

For several seconds she looked to the rising pile of currency and lowered her arms, then herself onto her belly. She turned her head to the side to avoid striking her chin and undulated across the ground. Writhing like a fungal mop. “Hiss.” He commanded as she came within three feet of the bed. She ejected a series of reedy exhalations.

“Good. Now, lick my boots.”

She looked up, alluring face marred by resentment. He returned her gaze, visage impenetrable.

He set another hundred dollar bill on the stack without looking at her. Sketchbook on his thigh. Stylus scratching. Absorbed in his creation.

She opened her mouth, inches from his right boot and licked the surface, from tip to ankle.

“Continue.”

She drew back and plied another lap. Drooling across the roughened leather.

“This get you off?”

“That’s enough. Clean it up.”

He threw the white towel lying at the foot of the bed to her.

“If you’re not into it, why are you having me do it?”

“Scrub.”

A shake of tenebrous locks. “Whatever.” She buffered his boots until every speck of saliva had been removed, folded the towel and handed it to him. He returned the cloth to the foot of the bed, set his notebook down, on it, the centipede illustration she had previously observed; beneath it, herself. The man rose. Opera music swelling.

“We’re done here.”

“What?”

“Collect your money and go.”

“What do you mean, go?”

“I meant what I said.”

“You paid for the night.”

He said nothing. Staring down at her naked body impassively.

“Stop looking at me like that.”

He maintained his gaze.

“Fuck you.” She unfurled herself from the ground, collected her clothes and returned to the bathroom to change. When she emerged the man was staring once more out the window, cell in hand. She snatched the money off the bed and stood a moment uncertainly.

“Thanks for the money, asshole.”

“Currency is paltry compared with what you’ve afforded.”

“And what’s that?”

He pressed a button on the phone. The wall-mounted television lit up. On the screen was a screenshot of Serena crawling nude across the apartment floor, overlayed with a missive.

Upload complete.

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Eight

Previous chapter

THE MIDDEN

After the company finished a light breakfast of salted meats and hard bread brought from Urvolsk and readied their dobbins, they bid farewells to Erdn and rode out from the bare, weather-beaten shrine and the circumambient sarsens and rejoined the road. They passed west beyond the familiar pine-topped scarp and debarked a narrow channel of striated rock that wound a half-circle to the top of the departed, coniferous bluff. From the ledge, the spiny trees extended and multiplied to a high forest that cut the sky like a green-blue phalanx. Twenty minutes of plodding brought the sight of hewn and high-stacked softwood about which moved a bevvy of ax-armed loggers who offered curt waves upon spying the travelers before returning to their task. The northern side of the wood shrunk and declined to tangles of ferns and vines and high grasses and let out to a low-lying field, spotted with short sedge and the remains of ancient stone structures half-buried in bare swatches of sodden marl. Strewn among the peeking walls and foundations was a vast array of woven baskets and pottery, cracked and fading and slow-falling to the hungry earth. Gleaming with the last vestiges of the preceding night’s precipitation, the limestone soil and calciferous remnants lent to the whole of the region the appearance of one great and glistening skeletal mass, the illusion of a monstrous being, beached, flayed and fused to the mantle. Beyond the midden, scarcely visible over patchy knolls and a gathering fog, rose the palisades of Thekjaburg, the city’s colorful boar-head banner swaying gently with the wind. Between the clearing and the center of the osseous sprawl was a somber caravan in whose midst sat an awning-covered cart bearing three cages which bore three manacled captives. The procession consisted of a man and a woman who stood before a rugged carriage hitched to two fierce black steeds, behind which four riders were arrayed, two to each side of the carted cages, armed and armored and cruel of countenance. The dire-clad troupe held their ground and conversed as their mounts clomped impatiently. All members of Valyncort’s company recognized the dusky vestments of the caravan as belonging to the slavers of Allhadr, whose like in Austr were seldom seen. The five travelers turned to each other with aspects of concern. It seemed the somber outlanders had yet to noticed them.

“Allhadrene.” Siles scratched his chin. “What do you fancy brings westerfolk to Austr?”

“Could be they were sent for by the maire of Thekjaburg.” Hulmarra considered aloud.

“Could be. Or perhaps Taalo or Tor is selling ’em Ashers.”

Kosif shook his hooded head. “Unlikely. Those caged aren’t Ashers. And Taalo and Tor have nearly no contact with the hamlets hereabout.”

“There is only one way to find out for sure.” Valyncort declared.

“What’s that, my lord?”

“Ask them.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“For once I agree with Tessel.” Hulmarra said, as Silifrey crossed her arms and pursed her lips.

“Allhadrene are not renowned for their hospitality, but they keep to the letter of the law. They’d not be able to maintain their accords with our provinces otherwise.”

Without further discourse, the five travelers trotted carefully down the wide graminaceous incline from the forest to the field and moved out across the flat and ruined ambit. The Allhadrene looked in the newcomer’s direction and did not hail them. As the company drew up to the penal convoy, a chill wind swept in from the north and the fog followed with it. Then came a dim, osteal jangling. As bells of porous wood or obdurate chalk or some like material. Valyncort looked about, but could see no accordant instruments from the Allhadrene or their steeds or carriage.

“Hail.”

“Av yew bisnis weth us?” A rearward rider inquired with a look of mild curiosity toward Valyncort and his companions.

“Nay. Our business lies in Thekjaburg.” Valyncort replied courteously. As he pulled up beside the riders the forms of the prisoners became clear through the shifting pall. The first was a woman, scrawny and wrathful of eye, with braided brown hair and long-sleeved garments that hid intricate blue tattooes; the second, a hulking man with a scarred face and a dejected demeanor whose cracked hands and sun-faded clothing marked him a laborer; the third, a man of middling height, sallow-skinned with matted hair the hue of rusted iron, who wore a many-colored coat rolled at the sleeves and covered in small bells that jangled merrily with every gust of wind and at his waist was tied an elegant sword-belt without scabbard or blade. The source of the previous sibilance. The woman and the giant kept their eyes low. The many-colored man, however, turned to the new arrivals with an unwavering tranquil smile on his long angular face, his eyes opening indolently, the left iris, a pale blue, the right, a burnt umber.

“What were their crimes?” Tessel asked in the tongue of Allhadr.

The expression of the Allhadrene who had previously spoken shifted from guarded disinterest to surprise. The woman who stood before the carriage moved out toward the inriders. She was clad in the same dusky banded plate as her fellows and wore shoulder-length hair in a taunt and intricate braid and a short beige half-cape affixed by a brass brooch over her right shoulder.

“You speak our tongue well, girl.” Unlike the previous member of the entourage, the woman’s accent was slight, her Austrene annunciation fluid. “Were did you learn it?”

“From one of my tutors. He spent some years in Allhadr. Kortis was his name.”

“A name I have not heard. Well. You travel to town, so you should know the midden is dangerous on horseback. Doubly so in this invidious shroud.” The woman pointed sternly toward the far ramparts of Thekjaburg, now wholly concealed in the murk. “A false step means a broken bone. Here the ground is solid. So we wait for the pall to clear. I recommend you do the same.”

“Could we not take the wood around this sod?” Siles asked, jerking his thumb toward the conifers, slowly disappearing in the haze. “We saw some lumberers earlier, surely they’ll know a better way.”

“You could. Though its thick with beasts. Boar especially. The loggers have a camp. Won’t travel with the weather as it is. And if you go around the midden, would take at least two days more to reach town. There are no other ways.”

“We thank you for the advice.” Valyncort broke in, dismounting. “Since our camps are here stymied and the weather wends bitter, I’d say a fire is in order. If you’ve no objections?”

The dusk-colored riders looked expectantly to the woman. She said something in her mother-tongue and gestured to a flat portion of land but a dozen feet from the carts.

“What’d she say?” Siles inquired to Tessel with worry.

“Clear the dross and make a fire.” Without hesitation, two of the Allhadrene sentries did just that. The other guards remained at their posts beside the well-shackled prisoners. The two disembarked Allhadrene produced shovel and pick and swiftly cleared a patch of refuse and began to dig a shallow pit and border it with stones. As the men worked, Valyncort’s company dismounted and collected kindling consisting of dried grasses and discarded element-addled baskets, broken casks and unriven broughham siding and heaped all of it into the pit. The Allhadrene taskmaster produced a length of flint from a satchel at her belt and sparked a flame. Moments later, the disparate travelers of Austr and Allhadr sat about a roaring bonfire on flat stones or recovered debris unfit for burning.

The Allhadr woman introduced herself as Vespa Mallo, the two men to each side of her as Jaunce and Rhame, the other two sentries as Ullul and Yarl, and the man before the carriage, who wore a cloak identical to her own, as Vander Mallo, her brother. Valyncort’s company introduced themselves in turn as Vander produced a pipe and watched the mist roil with a wary eye.

“Are your friends not joining us?” Tessel asked, looking toward the three distant members of the caravan, who busied themselves tying their horses to the wagon.

“Always we keep two eyes to each passenger.”

“What for? Way them folk are chained, they’re not going anywhere.” Siles remarked with a touch of incredulity as he fuddled with the straps of his traveling pack.

“So you would think. But we once had a man, bound same as those you see, who, in a moment of solitude, slipped his bindings and vanished into the night. We do not know how. We take more care since then.”

“Did you ever find this man?”

The woman’s expression soured. She gazed into the crackling flames and shook her head.

Siles dipped into his bag, produced a bottle of wine, took a swig and passed it around the fire. All but Kosif accepted the offering.

“You don’t drink?” Vespa asked as the dark-cloaked man passed the bottle to Valyncort.

“Spirits dull the senses. Originary limits are hurdle enough.”

“Are you a Martaen? I have heard their vows forbid such indulgence.”

“I am not. But it is right what you hear.”

“We met one. A Martean that is. A gracious man.” Tessel said with fondness. “Not far back on the road. At the shrine beyond the woods. Surely you must have passed it.”

“I know the place of which you speak. But we had no cause to dally and saw no one in our passing.”

“He gave us tea. Let us spend the night.”

Rhame nodded. “Ver gracious. Wev fond ta locals, ow to say, guarded, but hospital.”

“Likely guarded because of-” Hulmarra gestured to the cages. “Afraid of being snatched.”

“A vain fear.” Vespa declared. “Our quarry are criminals. And them exclusively. Whether from our land or another. In this way we are not dissimilar to your Watchers.”

“Didn’t know that.”

“What do you know, Ms. Ambercrown?”

“Not much other than your reputation for-” again the woman gestured to the cages.

“A reputation Austr deserves as much, if not more, than us.”

“How so?” Tessel cut in.

“Austr gaols. That is what I mean.”

“We keep prisoners, not slaves.”

“Call them this, call them that. Prisoner. Inmate. They are chattel. The difference is merely that, unlike us, you do not put your chattel to use. Instead you keep them shuttered in the dark. You think this makes you better than us, girl?”

“It makes us more tolerant.” Tessel responded with rising indignation.

“Tolerance is a virtue to those without conviction.” Kosif uttered, his eyes to the stars.

“Whose side are you on?” Tessel pouted.

He glanced briefly from the astral domain. Carnelian-violet orbs flashing full with fire. When he did not reply, Vespa continued.

“Tell me. What is your method more tolerant of? You do not tolerate your prisoners to stretch their limbs, to labor as or with their fellows, to feel the sun on their skin. This is less tolerant. That is, it permits of less. But this is not so bad. Perhaps you have decided they deserve this fate. Perhaps they do. We do not tolerate slander or theft or rape or murder. But you respond with singular punishment. If a man robs, you put him in a box. If he rapes, you put him in a box. If he kills, you put him in a box. Allhadr respond in kind. Like for like. If a man robs, he is put to work producing the wealth he stole. If he rapes, he is treated as a catamite. If he kills, he is worked to expiration in a mine or galley. This the Allhadr considers just.”

“If you consider such actions wicked, and engage in them, how are you not wicked yourself?”

“Initiative and intent. Who strikes first and why? You do not seem to think of these things. But enough of this. My patience frays.” Vespa replied with a wave of her hand, as if shooing an errant insect.

Before Tessel, who had been roused to a fretful state, could respond, Jaunce leaned toward Valyncort and queried. “What thinks The Watcher?”

Valyncort pulled his wolf-hide cloak close about his body and turned Siles’ bottle upside down, no liquid there dispersing.

“I think we need more wine.”

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Seven

Previous chapter

THE GODLY VAGRANT

Laden with new equipment, the five travelers refilled their waterskins and left their routed waylayers bound and pleading to blazed boles at the bridge, forded the waterway and bivouacked on the edge of the dale. In the morning they trudged back along the road and by afternoon found themselves passing a dessicated field, occupied by a forsaken farmhouse. Valyncort shook his head, slowing his well-shorn steed from canter to trot. He looked east to where a dissolute door creaked on rusting hinges above which perched a murder of crows, their cruel, charcoal-beaked heads tilted in idle curiosity.

“When last I passed this house it was thick with children. Helping their mother churn milk. I still remember the taste. The yard was abuzz with the yammering of cockerels. Now it lies silent as a sepulchre.”

“A bad season, a bad harvest, perhaps. One is all it takes.” Siles remarked glumly as he observed the decrepit abode. “A common enough story.”

“I wonder what became of them.”

“Perhaps they moved to a bigger farm.” Tessel put in with a hopeful smile.

“Aye, and perhaps I’m blood to the queen of Tor.” Hulmarra scoffed, slowing her horse behind Valyncort.

Tessel pursed her lips. “Why must you say such things?”

“It takes education to be so addle-pated as to ignore the evidence of your eyes. Look at the field. Naught growing but weeds, and them only slight.”

“That doesn’t mean that’s why they left.”

“Your wits are flat as your chest.”

Siles laughed and slapped his thigh. Kosif leaned head to hand, massaged his temple and glared.

“You three squawk louder than the crows.”

“Got something against crows?”

“Rats with wings. Though I understand why you would like them, being, as they are, the familiars of pilfering knaves.”

“Who pissed in your vitri?”

Valyncort ignored the fracus and rode ahead, veering from the road to the backyard of the abandoned lot where a number of neatly arranged stones stood out from the low yellowed grass. Graves. Unnamed and four in number. Before each monument lay a flat pile of blackened vegetation, bound with a thin length of twine. Floral offerings. As the rider turned the corner of the deteriorating grange, the chattering avians scattered to the east in a whorl of oily plumes, cresting distant menhirs that encircled a diminutive stupa, scarcely more voluminous than a cottage and little taller than a tool-shed.

As the watcher surveyed the far structures, the quarreling of his confederates grew louder. Shrill words blended to a squamous mass of sound. Indecipherable in amarulence.

“Enough. All of you.”

The chatter subsided. All eyes turned to the watcher. His visage severe. He gestured toward the west where dark clouds roiled like monstrous snails.

“Storm’s coming. Shelter’s up ahead.”

Returning to a canter, the group watched the land swiftly ascend to a low, pine-crowned escarpment, where, due the impassibility of the topology, the road turned sharply to the left, and vanished westward amidst a cluster of rocky outcroppings. To the right of the trail, less than a hundred paces distant, lay the small stone-ringed shrine Valyncort had spotted from the farmhouse-yard. The building stood in disrepair, portions of the hemispherical roof and the trail-facing wall had long ago crumbled, leaving uneven and widening holes. The gaps were girded by several tarps affixed by means of ropes and weights and fluttered lightly with the breeze. Verdant grass and ground ivy grew densely about the structure, yet not a stray blade nor vine surmounted it.

The quint led their sumpters off the road, hitched them to adjacent smooth-barked trees and advanced toward the shrine. Valyncort, who had donned his aketon and brigandine to ward off the growing chill, took the lead, striding confidently, a hand on his pommel. As he made to pass the first standing stones he gave a grunt and fell face-first to the ground, his foot caught on a tripwire laid between the two massive orthostats that flanked him. A loud creak resounded. A grinding of metal on metal.

“A trap!” Siles gasped, throwing himself away from the stelae. Hulmarra crouched. Silifrey trembled. Kosif raised a brow.

Nothing.

Then the creaking came again. And again. And again. Tracking with the pressure or lack there of from Valyncort’s foot.

The wayfarers followed the sound to the top of the leftward lith, where rested a rusted weathervane in the shape of a haughty cockerel. The thin length of wire that had incurred the watcher’s imbalance wound about the battered grooves of the two nearby columns and had been secured to the base of the rooster-shaped ornament. Valyncort lifted his foot from the wire. The competing tensions having been alleviated, the weathervane ceased its sibilation.

Hulmarra looked from the lith-borne device to the wire and followed its curvature beyond the two closest standing stones. To the two second-closest stones, then third second-closest, then fourth and so on until the pillars and the barely visible wire wound between them disappeared about the circumscribed edifice. “Its an alarm system.”

“Could be this is a depot for those rogues at the bridge. Might be they weren’t the only members of their band.” Siles rattled off aloud.

Kosif put his arm out and helped the captain off the ground and withdrew the sickle he had seized from the highwayman at the dale. “If so, they’re certainly aware of us.”

Valyncort nodded as he stood and drew his brand quietly from its hip-bound sheath.

“Be on guard.”

Hulmarra shifted her posture with the confiscated feather-staff, from walking-stick to polearm, spacing her legs further apart, knees bent, hide-bound hands curling about the two evenly spaced grip-straps. Siles drew Beron’s brand and clutched it in a reverse grip, hunching, eyes darting over the darkening emerald landscape. Tessel unsheathed her ornate hip-bound seax and held it waveringly with two hands as might a nightmare-plagued child a candle. After a few steps, the linguist looked to Siles and awkwardly attempted to copy his stance, sliding her dagger to her right hand, thumb to pommel, hilt to wrist, extending it level with her chest.

Thus prepared, the coterie advanced in single file. Muscle taunt. Senses primed.

As they neared the facade a gale rustled the canvas screening the aperture in the wall adjacent the entrance. Tessel leapt back, face contorted with fright, blade tucked to chest as a pendant, a scream stifled in her gulping slender throat. Hulmarra shook her head and brushed past the woman and Valyncort and made to enter. He placed a firm hand on her shoulder.

“You can’t cover both corners at once. We go together.”

The pathfinder visaed the suggestion with a curt half-jounce of her head and back to back the pair charged through the tarp-palled portal.

Hearts as footfalls beat a rising thrum. All still, save for the rasping of the wind and the clattering of heels on aged stone.

Thunder rolled.

Within the perforated cenotaph was a low-ceiled, circular chamber of unadorned stone, and against the elegantly tapestried wall opposite the doorway stood a statue of extraordinary craftsmanship, being of a scant-garbed and beautiful woman of realistic scale with a hole in her chest where the heart should be, her delicate hands extended in solicitous sorrow. Before the effigy lay a coarse linen rug, faded and frayed, dented from supplication. Beside the carpet rose a grey candelabra which bore residue of recent use. All else was bare.

“Empty.” Valyncort declared after surveying the interior to his satisfaction.

The other three members of the party entered. Kosif bent to the candelabra, examining the wicks. “Someone was here recently.”

“Not here now,” Siles said as he took a seat upon the thick linen floor covering. “Well, someone should bring the horses round.”

The others agreed and, after a short respite spent gulping from their nearly depleted waterskins and scrying the sanctum’s interior, headed out to retrieve the horses, leaving Hulmarra behind to prepare the structure for the coming storm. She sat with her back to the statue on the rug and began to light the recently spent candelabra, singing quietly all the while.

“Wits, like ya gold, to the wind they’ll blow, as leaves in the autumn, as flakes in the snow, when The Sharper comes, his smile in tow, to run his wicked game.”

A smooth, unfamiliar whistle sounded over the tune, following the metre of the woman’s verse. Given the peculiar acoustics of the chamber, she presumed it was Siles, whistling from beyond the structure, his voice carrying in from the aural gaps in the wall.

“Oh, ladies n’ lads, now what ‘ave ya done? Feeling so clever, n’ think’n ya’ve won, but cards on the table and ya debt is spun, when ya play The Sharper’s game.”

Rearward footsteps, light and near preceded a man-shaped shadow which tore the pathfinder from her revelry. She whipped about, nearly upsetting the tallow-holder, and beheld a lithe stranger with wild black hair bearing a tattered cloak which fell to his shins and a dark cloth bandage over his right eye. His skin was smooth as sheared-shale and pale as sun-burnished bone and his unconcealed eye gleamed gold-green above a dark ring suggestive of insomnolence. He smiled gently.

“Delightful.” The man’s visage and tone, though strange, was so open and amiable, and his dress so humble, the icy fear fled Hulmarra as swiftly as it had gripped her.

“We didn’t know anyone else was here. I-“

At that moment Valyncort stepped through the threshold and froze, hand going to the handle of his blade, the others returning and pausing behind him, their faces full of perplexity. The stranger held out his hands in congenial appeal. “You’ll have no need of that here, Watcher.”

“How did you know I was a watcher?”

“Your garb makes it plain, sir.”

“Yours does not. You are?”

“Erdn d’Arke. Custodian to this forlorn gardr of our lady of woe. And, I hope, for a time, your host.”

“You’re a prestr?”

“Aye.”

Siles scratched his barbate chin and looked left and right. “Where in the pits of Tarkhoum did you come from?”

Erdn motioned to a wide tapestry behind the statue of the goddess. He pulled it aside and revealed a hidden stair that descended to a cellar.

“Cleva.”

“Unfortunately, a necessary precaution in these turbulent times.”

Valyncort relaxed and released the handle of his blade and stepped inside. “Forgive my rudeness. We were waylaid on the road but a day forgone and feared those same rogues had confederates here installed.”

“How dreadful. Yet, thankfully, you err.”

“You live here?”

“Aye. Marta provides. As she welcomes. What do they call you, Watcher?”

“Valyncort of Urvolsk.”

“Well, Valyncort of Urvolsk, I have one further question.”

“Ask it.”

“Would you care for tea?”

“Yes, please.”

The man parted his cloak and unslung a metal carafe from about his neck and removed two delicate, well-polished ceramic vitris from mantle-screened pockets. He handed one to Hulmarra, the other to Valyncort and poured the vessels full of a chilled aromatic brew. The others introduced themselves and the prestr greeted each with a curt half bow and a bowl from one of his manifold pockets, his expression waxing to concern as he beheld Siles by candlelight.

“You are injured, sir.”

Siles flicked the tattered shoulder of his jacket, beneath which a bloodstained shawl was visible. “Ah, this? Token of them rogues a’ whom our friend jus’ spoke. Lanced me with that monstrous contraption.” Siles gestured to the feather-staff at Hulmarra’s feet. The prestr knelt beside the woman, observing the staff.

“I see I’m not the only one whose met with an errant blow.” Siles made a motion about his eye, mirroring the stranger’s patch.

“Were you a soldier, sir?” Tessel asked excitedly.

“Nay. I was conscripted. In Tor. Press-ganged to the Asherian Reach. I told them, as a Martaen, I could be of more use mending spirit or flesh than rending it, but their forces were depleted. They needed fresh bodies. So they pressed a blade to my hand and shortly thereafter an Asher pressed his blade to my eye.” All listened intently to the prestr’s tale, sympathy stark on their faces, save for Kosif whose attention diverted to the colorful tapestry which hung adjacent the statue.

“I’m sorry.” Tessel said quietly.

Erdn gave a dismissive wave. “You’ve no cause to be.” He then returned to Hulmarra’s staff. “May I see it?”

“Of course.”

Hulmarra handed the prestr the weighty pole and he turned it with quizzical dexterity and extended and retracted its hidden metal quills. “Cunning design. It is said the devotees of Lanowick the Barrower favor such devices.”

“Who is this Lanowick?” Siles inquired, taking a seat on the cold stone floor and stretching out his weary legs, groaning slightly as his mangled shoulder bumped against the curving calcimined wall.

“An outlaw with a legion of like-minded outcasts under his command. It is said he makes his home in the old barrows to the west, hence his title. But such are only rumors. Are you on pilgrimage?”

“What makes you think that, prestr?” Kosif asked with confusion.

“I have heard that the Watchers were initially founded as a religious order and she bares the sign of our lady of woe.” Erdn gestured to the heart-shaped necklace that hung at Hulmarra’s bosom. The man sat on the prayer mat beside the woman and smiled. His expression kindly and curious.

“My brother gave it to me.” She reached to her chest and clasped the amulet. Her fingertips traced the gleaming contours of the battered ornament.

“A fine induction, prestr,” Valyncort remarked. “But an erroneous one. I disdain secrecy, but due my oath, I am afraid we cannot divulge our purpose. Suffice it to say we are headed north.”

“Ah. So its a matter of state then.”

“I did not say as much.”

“You didn’t have to. Well, well, I shan’t further pry. You’re welcome to spend the night. You all look as if you could use a good rest.”

“That we could. You have our thanks. And if you will accept it, my coin.” Valyncort fished into the purse strapped to his belt and extended a handful of gelt.

“By my vows, I couldn’t.”

Valyncort pressed the mintage to the man’s palm. “Then consider it a donation to this humble house of god.”

“That is most kind of you, sir. Thank you. And may Marta bless thee.”

After they had finished their drinks, the prestr dredged a number of blankets from the cellar and all settled into a peaceful slumber save for the host and Kosif, who poured over the codex by the flickering light of the candelabra.

“Your novel must be quite engrossing,” Erdn offered quietly.

“Its not fiction.”

“What is it?”

“An old history.”

“Might I take a half-gander?”

Kosif lowered the tome.

“I mean no offense, prestr, but you’d not be able to read it.”

“Its not written in Austrene?”

“Nay, but a more originary tongue.”

“Drat. Languages were never my forte. Are there pictures?”

“Aye. Take care not to crumple the pages.” Kosif extended the book to the prestr, who took it carefully and scanned the pages for several minutes before returning it to its owner. Some minutes later, the prestr laid down upon one of his thick blankets and closed his eyes as did Kosif thereafter, who dreamt of a strange form moving in a sea of clouds.

In the morning, Valyncort woke early and found his companions dossed on makeshift beds, save for the shrine-keeper and Tessel, who were nowhere to be seen. He stretched his sleep-stiff limbs and ambled out into the moist morning air. The jade-verdigris ground was dually soaked with the residue of the previous night’s deluge and the ardent rays of the ascendent sun. Crows stood upon the warm and unmantled sarsens around which colorful insects wove wild patterns in pursuit of pollen and prey.

“She’s around back.”

Valyncort whirled to the source of the voice. Erdn crouched upon the roof of the sanctuary, checking the heavy stones which held the tarpaulins taunt against the decaying shrine. The roof-bourne fixer pointed to the left where Tessel stood, half-obscured by one of the drying obelisks. Valyncort advanced with a broad smile which dissipated as he beheld the woman’s sorrowful expression.

“What’s the matter?”

Tessel shook her head, auriferous locks bouncing. “Nothing.”

The woman turned upon a heel and made to stroll away whereupon Valyncort caught her gently about her arm and stayed her.

“Come now. Talk to me.”

“The bridge,” the woman paused, irked and ashamed. After a beat she looked away. “I can’t do anything right.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When those brutes attacked, I thought to restrain the horses. But after I put my hands on the reigns, after they hurt Siles, I froze. I was useless.”

“Nonsense.”

“Its true.”

“If not for your warning, Hulmarra would have taken a bolt to the back, which she’d not have weathered so well as our stony, hooded friend.”

“Perhaps. But perhaps if I’d been more active, he might have never got the chance to shoot Kosif.”

“That’s an absurd standard to hold yourself to.”

“Is it? Erdn maintains this entire sanctum by himself. I couldn’t even move a horse.”

“That is hardly the same thing.”

“Quite. Moving a horse is much simpler. I was so terrified. Just as I was at Vatn’sla, on Kosif’s bridge. Hulmarra said I lacked constitution. I had thought she was just being horrid. That it was merely her nature to scorn and mock. Now I see.”

“See what?”

“She was just being honest.”

As Valyncort opened his mouth in rebuff, Erdn’s jovial, self-assured voice drifted over the star-warmed and crow-thick air.

“One without fear is also without caution. One without caution is also without courage. For courage is but caution’s willful disregard.” The prestr leaned against the nearest menhir, wiping the residue of sky-shaved rock from work-worn hands with an old length of soft linen. “A crow does not disregard caution. A man does. Which here is master?” The birds cawed from their stony thrones.

Next chapter

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Six

Previous chapter

BEYOND THE PALISADES

Saddled five in number, Valyncort’s company moved leisurely northward along the road from Urvolsk in the auspices of an ungelid dawn. Dew gleamed with the nascent light of the risen star as swallows spun toward cloudless azure skies from the boughs of diminutive trees which lined the surrounding fields. Save for a merchant caravan less than a league ahead, Valyncort’s company was the cobbled-lane’s only occupants, beyond which lay naught but a few scattered bowers, small plots of farmland, verdant hills and multicolored forests for miles in every direction. After some twenty minutes of silence, Siles began metrically rapping his left knuckles upon his saddle and struck up a tune, breaking the monotonous clipping of the pack-horses.

“There once was a road, twas big n’ wide, upon it, five queer folk did ride; before them all seemed glittering gold, none knowing what their fate did hold – on the way to Taalo. Twas said: that kingdom was a’ split in two, a gathering dark to there eschew; and into that scene a’ harrow n’ loss the riders rode, sayin’ damn the cost – on the way to Taalo.”

Valyncort, who rode beside the singer in the middle of the pack, let out a heavy sigh.

“I’m beginning to think you enjoy vexing me, Siles.”

“Not at all my lord. Ya don’t fancy a tune every now and then?”

“You’re always so severe, Valy,” Tessel chided from the back of the procession. She tilted to Siles with a sincere toothy smile. “Pay him no mind. I thought it was lovely.”

“Thank ye, miss.” Siles jerked his thumb behind him to the vanishing umber palisades of Urvolsk. “Been sitting in that gaol near the year entire. Weren’t much else to do but sing. Took a liking to it.”

“More so than the warden, I’d imagine.”

“Is it the heat, my lord?”

“Mh?”

“That’s put you in so churlish a mood?”

Hulmarra glanced over her shoulder, her usual grim tone replaced by one of curiosity. “Tell me, locksmith, do you know ‘The Sharper’s Game?'”

“A, yes, that I do. A new one. Heard it at the pub some, what was it, two years back. Hows it go again?” He scratched his chin, silently mouthing words and patted his thigh like a drum. One two-three. One two-three. “Wits, like ya gold, to the wind they’ll blow, as leaves in the autumn, as flakes in the snow, when The Sharper comes, his smile in tow, to run his wicked game.”

The bowwoman nodded and murmured along, “Aye, that’s it.”

“Oh, gods below, Hulmarra. Not you too.”

“What? Its a good song. Don’t you lot have marching chanteys in the army?”

“Unfortunately. Don’t tell me you’re going to start singing too, Kosif?”

Kosif, who along with Tessel formed the rear of the cavalcade, and who alone had said nothing since their departure, looked up from a small leather-bound book clasped in one hand. “I am better at making instruments than playing them. I leave the commission of frivolity to its experts.”

After their discussion the troupe advanced further north with scant discourse to a crossroad accompanied by a battered signpost whittled to two arrows, which leftward read, “To Thekjaburg,” and rightward, “To Braffold.” There Silifrey slowed her mount and addressed her companions with sheepish curiosity. “I know you said before we departed the plan was to take the road to Thekjaburg, but, isn’t Braffold road the straighter route to Taalo?”

Kosif addressed the woman without taking his eyes from his book. “The straightest path is not always the optimal one.”

“You’re both right. If we were to take the western way,” Hulmarra gestured with a hide-bound hand to the alluded thoroughfare, which cut over a buckled meadow, distance-crowned by low, foreboding crags. “The terrain is more rugged, with no towns inbetween. Least none I know of. We’d have no place to resupply. We have stock enough, perhaps, to make it to Braffold before running dry, but that’s only if we ration our vittles, which I doubt any of you are keen to. We could hunt, of course, but game would be scare.”

“Ah. I see.”

“I’ve heard talk of giant snakes that dwell in the craglands,” Siles put in as he dabbed his brow with a bit of cloth he kept in his coat. “My mate Dal said he once heard of one over thirty paces from snout to tail.”

Valyncort loosed a “Pah!”

“Its true.”

“Giant. I don’t know. But plenty of standard size. Some venomous. Most not.”

Tessel shivered at the pathfinder’s words, prompting a canny smile from the locksmith as he folded his rag and stuffed it in his coat pocket. Valyncort, with mounting impatience, rode to the fore, shifted in his saddle to face the rest of the company and raised his powerful voice in command.

“We take Thekjaburg road as planned. Come. We’re wasting time.”

As the riders pressed on, Siles made to pass Kosif, who as yet occupied the hind position, whereupon the latter averred.

“I don’t believe a word of it.”

“What?”

“Your snake story.”

“Hm?”

“I saw you smile, Mr. Rathdam. Like a child filching candy. No one told you a tale about giant snakes. You only said that to frighten the woman. And well you did. You probably don’t even have a friend named Dal.”

“Do I seem the type to do such a thing?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I might say the same of you. The trick you did back at the forge. With the seax. Impressive. But still just a trick. At first I thought it might have been wire work, but it moved to you with too fluid a motion for that. Still, I’ll figure it. Only a matter of time.”

“There was no trick.”

“Come off it. Perhaps the others are superstitious enough to believe your theatrics evidence of sorcery, but I’m not so credulous. There’s no such thing as magic.”

“I did not say there was. I said only that I deployed no ruse.”

Siles waited. The artificer didn’t elaborate. Instead he produced a wrapped piece of charcoal and plied the stick to the page. Frustrated, the lockpick concluded the conversation with a mild shake of his head before sallying back to the middle of the queue. With formation resumed and attentions reprimed, the company hastened their pace. After several leagues down the road the intense heat prompted a succession of disrobment. Tessel removed her guady Skyn vestments, pulled her shawl over her delicate brow to shade her eyes and produced a small paper fan to assiduously ply against the mounting humidity. Valyncort unfastened his wolf-hide cloak, revealing his slashed-sleeve doublet, and folded it into one of his saddle bags on top of his aketon and brigandine. Siles removed his coat and muttered a curse to the god of weather and dabbed his slick skin with his kerchief. Hulmurra produced a woven straw hat to gird against the relentless rays and removed her overcoat and tied it about her slender waist. Only Kosif, well accustomed to the heat of the river forge, remained unperturbed by the swelter, and rode with his dark hood up and his head down, reading and writing all the while, glancing away only to bridle his straying beast back behind the others.

By midday the travelers descended to a small valley embowered with dying trees, whose crinkled beige leaves thickly canvassed the ground where grass grew sparse and xanthous, obscuring errant efts and water voles, which skittered to the damp darkness of their burrows as vultures cut wide arcs above the tatty, incongruous canopy. Through the center of the dell wound a brook too large for a grown man to leap and too small for a boat to ford, which bisected the road over which a mossy stone bridge extended. At the near end of the viaduct a grizzled man sat a campfire just off the thoroughfare and rose as Valyncort’s company drew near. As the riders dismounted, Valyncort studied the camper’s dress, which consisted of a dark blue aketon, emblazoned with a stag crowned with stars, one for each of the provinces of Austr, all unified under the Urvolsk Concord some two hundred years past. The man appeared to be an officer of the Consulate.

“G’day, sir. What do you roast?”

“Pork,” the gambesoned man responded gruffly. “You lot of a mind to cross?”

Valyncort nodded. “We’re on our way to Thekjaburg.”

“Aight.” The officer scratched his stubbly chin. “But you’ll be paying the toll first.”

Valyncort’s brows rose and he folded his arms across his breast. “What toll would that be?”

“Didden ye hear?”

“I’d not ask if I had.”

“Came down from the consulate of late. Ten gelt per head.”

“Ten? A hefty sum for such a paltry crossing.”

“Bridges need to be maintained some-ways.”

As the men conversed Kosif scanned the scenery, fixating on the half foliage-obscured campfire and the spit which had been raised above it, beyond which grew tangled brush through which a wide trail had been carved.

“Let me just retrieve my purse.”

“Aight.”

Valyncort walked back to his companions, brows knit in thought.

“Did I hear him right? Ten gelt per crosser?” Hulmarra demanded with considerable ire.

“That’s right. Said it was a recent Consulate decree.”

“Pft. We should blockade the road and demand as much to let ’em piss on home, see how they like it.”

He smirked at the thought, then lowered his voice. “It is curious I’ve heard nothing of this tax.”

“That is odd,” Tessel assented with a bob of her shimmering golden head.

“Perhaps you’re presuming too much my lord.”

“How so Siles?”

“Well. Is tax law something you and our dear Proconsul spend much time discussing?”

“No, but its still peculiar I’d heard no mention of it during my stay at The Hall nor from any of the criers. Something queer is going on. Something crooked.”

“Like what?” Siles pressed in disbelief.

“That, I can answer,” Kosif replied dispassionately. He stood shorn of his peculiar gauntlets, his hood down, a leather-gloved hand taunt upon the reigns of his pack horse, his carnelian-violet gaze roving over the shaded foliage as he spoke. “There’s four legs of pork roasting. Too much for one man to consume in one sitting. Particularly in this inclement weather. The guard is not what he appears.”

“What do you mean?” Tessel asked, scrunching her face in confusion.

“I mean this supposed bagman has friends nearby. Observe. The foliage is bent where they made a path.”

“Cut away some too.” Hulmarra added. “Wasn’t deer.”

“Indeed.”

“Four portions of pork suggests four men.” Valyncort concluded direly.

“Quite. We can scarcely suppose they all left to relieve themselves simultaneously. Which means they’re either foraging or hiding. But why forage as a meal is being prepared? This suggests the latter. A Consulate-approved collector would have no reason to hide his companions. Same as you, I’ve heard nothing of such a policy from my friends at the Consulate. Nor from any of the criers or pamphleteers. Why would they not announce it? The answer. There is no such policy. The implication. This man is not a Consulate collector.”

“There a problem?” The guard called, discerning the peculiar looks being flung about from the murmuring assembly.

“In a way. Some here thinking we should take another way on account of the levy,” Siles called back with put-on-crossness. After a scoff of “G’luck with that” from the guard, Siles turned back to his familiars and dropped the guise. “What’re we to do then? We can’t take the horses through the stream. Not hereabouts anyways.”

“I shall ask the man to prove his station.”

“Oh, Valy, I don’t like this,” Tessel mewled softly. “If he’s a charlatan he might get violent.”

“Perhaps,” he replied as he rustled in his saddle bag and withdrew his coin purse and a stout quadrangular piece of boiled leather ornamented with an intricate engraving of a stern owl with folded wings, clutching a dagger and a bundle of wheat in its talons.

“Its the surest path to clarification,” Kosif declared evenly. Siles and Hulmarra quickly agreed and after a wordless exchange, Valyncort returned to the ponte levyer, with Siles and Kosif in tow. The soldier produced a jangling bag of coins and held it up to the gambesoned obstructor, whose eyes shimmered with anticipation. As the sentry reached out to seize the bag, Valyncort drew it back.

“Before we conclude our affairs, I had a question I wished to ask of you.”

“Well?”

“What garrison are you from?”

“Garrison?”

Valyncort raised his owl-emblazoned ailette and brandished it before the man, whose eyes went momentarily wide.

“You’re a watcher.”

“Captain Esser Meyrin Valyncort, at your service.” The man did not respond to the name, prompting a flicker of annoyance to dance across the watcher’s face before he continued. “You see, sir, the Urvolsk garrison is where I was trained; its hospital has been my home for many years. From that familiarity I can say with confidence you were not dispatched therefrom. So from which garrison do you hail?”

“The,” the man paused unsteadily, trailing off, subtly working his jaw, blinking rapidly. “The garrison at Thekjaburg.”

Valyncort’s eyes narrowed slightly. “There is no garrison at Thekjaburg.”

The levyer went rigid. His eyes flicked right to Kosif, then left to Siles. Both visages intent and critical.

“That’s a look I’ve seen before,” Siles chimed. “Had it myself when they put the shackles on.”

“I know you’re thinking of doing something untoward,” Valyncort put in sternly. “I would advise against it. Instead, tell me the nature of this game you’re playing.”

“I may be playing, Watcher, but not alone.” Soon as the words left the imposter’s mouth, he whistled. Loud, clear and piercingly. Whereafter, two men jumped from the thrushes to either side of the company, flanking them. One held a sickle. The other, a feather staff. The false tollman grinned barbarously. “Shoulda just given me the coin.”

“Its all yours,” Valyncort replied, hurling his coin-purse at the man’s head. The pouch struck the imposter in the temple with a jangling thud and tore a groan of agony from the brigand who reeled backwards, pawing at his belt for his weathered baselard. Valyncort rushed forth and kicked the stunned man onto the bridge, as he did, the two armed footpads leapt into the fray as the horses bucked and whinnied and Hulmarra and Tessel hurried to restrain them.

The sickle-wielder advanced cautiously from the right toward Kosif, as the bulky balding staff-wielder ran from the left at Siles, who gave a yelp and ducked a heavy horizontal blow. As the swipe whistled past his skull, Siles cocked his head and loosed a taunt. “If one is what one eats, you must be keen on molasses.” The larger man scowled and, in the same moment, pushed up swiftly on a flat protrusion in the upper handle of his staff whereafter there came a suppressed shearing as three raw metal spikes sprouted from the end of the heavy pole. With a grunt of exertion the large man, without advancing, reversed the direction of his swipe and brought the studded truncheon into the safecracker’s shoulder. The leftward barb burrowed into flesh. Siles spasmed with pain as his shirt went red, stumbling backward, as he did, his assailant pulled the pronged pole free and spun, connecting the opposite, unadorned end of the staff with the lockpick’s gut.

As Siles was brought low, and Valyncort nimbly drew his brand to bout with the man on the bridge, Kosif faced the third ambusher some seven feet away, whose fearsome black billhook was raised level with the metallurgist’s throat. As the brigand advanced, Kosif removed his hands from his robes, his arms bearing thick-plated obsidian-colored gauntlets. He then assumed a curious posture, his right foot forward, his right hand held before him, palms toward his foe, his fingers spread, slightly curled, as if in preparation of a grapple, his left arm tucked behind his back.

“I would garner neither pleasure nor grief in spilling your overheated blood.”

“That’s outta my hands.”

“Like your sickle.” As he spoke, Kosif extended his right hand. The curved blade shook in the brigand’s grasp and spun free of his clutches, arcing to Kosif’s right palm. The marauder’s chapped mouth parted with astonishment; his limber leering posture dissipating to petrified rigidity.

“H-how?”

Kosif tilted the blade in his hand, catching a stray beam of light from the forest canopy, then transferred it to his left hand, placing his right hand behind his back in the same motion, where it spun up from his palm, levitating as if in the midst of a invisible and sky-defiant stream.

“No weapon forged is as potent as the properties which subtend it.”

“S-sorcerer.”

“On your knees. Or your skull shall be my sheath.”

The man assented to the command and raised his hands in entreaty. “Mercy.” Was all he managed to whimper.

Catching the unusual display from the corner of his eye, the staff-wielding caitiff turned from where he stood over a beaten and bloody Siles. “What in Marta’s name-” The next instant he crumpled to the ground, a cruel black sickle buried in his left leg. “Oh gods! Beron, help me!”

“Beron, is it?” Valyncort quipped as he effortlessly fended a wild strike from the highwayman. Having fixed the whole of his attention upon the watcher, the brigand had failed to apprehend the curious events occuring behind him. Not even his companion’s anguished cry tore him from the increasingly one-sided duel.

“Bastard.”

The imposter leapt forward like a feral beast, eyes wild with panic, and brought his unusually heavy baselard in a wide arc toward his foe’s clavicle. Much to the brigand’s surprise, Valyncort stepped blithely into the blow, dropped the point of his hand-and-a-half and caught the hilt of his opponent’s blade with his crossbar at an angle incongruous to grip. Fluidly, Valyncort twisted forte, foible and body to the right, drove the pretender’s brand from its owner’s grasp and sent it clattering to the heel-worn cobblestones of the bridge. The pretender loosed a rattling gasp of horror. Without hesitation, Valyncort half-reversed his motion and slammed his weapon, pommel-first, into his unarmed foes’ gut, pulled back, and brought the flat of his blade against the man’s brow in the same area striken by the coin-purse. Groaning, the pretender fell to one knee, clutching his gut with one hand, his bruised and bloody brow with the other.

“I yield. I yield.” The man threw his hands out in fearful supplication. Valyncort lowered his brand and retrieved his enemy’s heavy shortsword from off the ground. He froze as he counted. “One. Two. Beron makes three. There’s one more!” Valyncort called to his companions, without taking his gaze from the disarmed man on the bridge.

Rustling of greenery preceded a high thin sound. Something flew from the trees. The next instant, Kosif’s body jerked.

“Behind you!” Tessel screamed to Hulmarra, who had retrieved her bow and quiver. The pathfinder whirled, arrow notched, string drawn, spying a incongruous shade and let her arrow fly. A howl let out of the foliage whereafter a portly man donned in furs tumbled to the ground at the treeline, clutching his shoulder, a crossbow clattering from his hand.

Birds spun up from the treetops and a cool breeze blew in from the south.

All eyes turned to Kosif.

He looked down to behold a metal quarrel jutting from his black robed chest.

“Blow for blow, you bastard.” The staff wielder growled from where he crouched upon the ground, holding his wounded leg.

Kosif seized the armament buried in his chest with his right hand, pulled it free and tossed it coldly at the staff wielder’s feet. The tip was bloodless.

“By paltry force you buckle. For by paltry force were you made. How can a minnow harm a pike?”

“Some augural conjuration. Eldritch he is.” The former owner of the billhook exclaimed despairingly.

The staff wielder shook his head, his gaze shifting from the quarrel at his feet to the man who had extracted it. “Its not possible.”

Kosif began striding toward the downed man and removed a rope hanging from his saddle bag as he passed. The highwayman scuttled backwards like a malformed crab. Kicking dust and soiling his fraying jacket.

“Stay back!”

“Foolish is the man who’d trade blood for mint. As its the surest way to loose both.”

“Clemency! I beg you!”

“Be still.”

The man sobbed, closed his eyes and prepared for the end. Kosif shook his head and tossed the coil of rope to Silifrey.

“Tie him, girl.”

The woman stood shock-still, staring at the man with her mouth agape.

“Sometime today.”

Broken from her spell, the woman rushed behind the man as Hulmarra trained her bow upon him.

“Don’t even think of running. You’d not make it to the treeline.”

In short order Valyncort’s company subdued the injured imitators and bound them to the young trees beside their camp and tended to Siles’ injuries. As Tessel wrapped the safecracker’s shoulder with her shawl, the watcher turned to Kosif with an expression of amused curiosity.

“Gave quite a show.”

“As did you.”

“How did you deflect that bolt?”

Kosif smiled lightly, ensured his back was to the imposters, and pulled his collar down, revealing coriaceous chitin armor. “Nearly hard as Torian steel, yet considerably more flexile.”

“Fortunate he didn’t aim any higher. And speaking of aim.” Siles turned to Hulmarra who sat a stump at the smouldering spit, hewing the brigand’s roasted pork. “That was a damn fine shot. Disarming him like ya did.”

Hulmarra shook her head.

“Its wasn’t.”

“Oh?”

“I was aiming for his head.”

Next chapter