PART I: A Noble Thought
Caius and Bade lied in wait in the muck, Caius’s worn leather boots lathered in thick mud and what he knew to be werebear fecal matter at some stage of decomposition. He had yet to see a single latrine in his entire “trip” to the Ursidae, not even in the chieftain Dagur’s hut from which he had recently – barely – escaped. Heh, BEARly, he thought to himself, as his companion nodded to the towering ironwood-built factory at the end of the tree boardwalks above them, billowing smoke out of countless smokestacks and radiating with heat. A handful of armed werebear patrols dotted the many levels of the building, and every now and then a chained line of a dozen or so slaves, soot-covered and barely clothed, would shuffle wearily across a breezeway. Probably changing shifts, Caius thought to himself as he glanced down at Bade’s nonchalant lack of footwear. He continued his train of thought with a bitter note: But at least they have two working arms.
“Look!” Bade’s eyes widened in pleasant surprise. “Your friend is up on that balcony!”
Caius’s eyes darted back skyward, and there, sure enough, was Scippio Fortunus, swashbuckler-for-hire, walking, fortitudinous, in the middle of a chain gang of nine other sad-looking saps. Just as soon as he appeared, it seemed, he vanished back into a dark alcove of the factory.
“…Never to be seen again,” Caius commented dryly. He tried to flex the fingers on his right hand. His thumb jerked numbly.
Bade gave him a sarcastic look for a moment before pushing past some underbrush of the thick forest surrounding the boardwalk. Ahead of them stood a haphazard battlefield of support beams, some more rotted than others, erected arbitrarily over the years as old posts decayed. Werebears didn’t strike Caius as master architects. Beyond that was an eerily dark lake from which the factory apparently drew a majority of its power. Five water wheels could hardly be seen churning up large swaths of water and Caius knew, just knew, that Bade had chosen one of them as their point of entry into the heavily guarded manufacturing plant. He shivered a little and began to follow his friend, having forgotten for a moment what they had come there to do. The enigma factory that stood before them – well, above them, now, as onward they pressed – had to be destroyed. Or else none of them stood a chance of leaving this island alive.
Or with the Carr, more importantly. No one was going to deprive him of his ship.
PART II: Depriving Caius of His Ship
Ace Sedai toiled tirelessly. It was hard keeping track of days now, working on the Carr, repairing its hull, replacing its steering column, upgrading its magickal propulsion turbines. Nero had been in and out, sometimes helping with the fabrication but for the most part letting Sedai be. He had to have been Blessed by the GODDESS herself, he decided, in an unusual bout of faith. This strange sect of werebears – a sect, he had decided more than a week ago, because they were clearly operating under the radar of the chieftains who controlled the iron which they had proven unable to acquire – had commissioned him to restore the warship his acquainted pilot Caius Germanicus had crashed here almost a month ago.
Marooning them in the middle of the territory of the evil werebear empire – the most technologically advanced society in all of the Aranian Isles.
Sedai shook his head with a sigh and repositioned the enigmatic goggles over top his strained eyes. He continued work on a particularly gnarled piece of cedar. He was halfway finished with his fourth wooden club. The pile of the others, like in size, and a solitary sword, lie stacked crookedly across the captain’s cabin in which he had set up his workstation; these, however, were already transformed into wrought iron through the ingenuity of his “magic paintbrush,” to which he had jokingly referred it, though the description wasn’t far from the truth: the liquid chrysallis cells powering the highly conductive Aranium wiring fed from the depressable power button on the handle to the tips of the very bristles of the brush allowed him to transform anything which he “painted” into the same wrought iron which now comprised the four finished clubs.
Just as abruptly as Ace Sedai completed carving his fifth club, Nero stepped into the middle of the room through a magical portal, the likes of which he had been conjuring quite often throughout the past fortnight. Through it Sedai could see an enormous pile of chrysallis cells and another of raw Aranium deposits stacked quite meticulously in what could approximately be described as the living room of Nero’s sanctum. From what Sedai understood of his magical companion – actual Magic, mind you, not the technological recreation of it as Sedai so easily reproduced in enigmas such as his paintbrush – the “Magus,” the title Nero claimed to have, could open wormholes in Space as if it were as easy as snapping his fingers. Without investment of his time or expensive resources or not inconsiderable technical expertise. To say the least, Nero’s abilities were mind-blowing… which was quite the admission for the widely praised Defensor Agentia expert mechanic.
“I’m still having trouble believing the werebears trusted us alone with an unlimited amount of their own Aranium and chrysallis,” Nero commented, as if their conversation had not suddenly ended some ten minutes ago when he last opened a portal in the opposite “direction.”
Sedai merely nodded as he deftly scooped up his brush and activated it. Methodically he “painted” it’s surface, systematically bracing it more against the workbench. It was getting heavier with every stroke, which meant the brush was doing its job. Which was good – he still had quite a bit of work ahead of him, as there were still three clubs to go and each weapon had to be, like the paintbrush, outfitted with Aranium wiring and chrysallis cell housings. These would be different, however, in that they would not turn things into metal, as cruel as that would be to his captors. No, these machines of destruction would be equipped with something far… cooler: miniature sonic boom generators. That should knock those werebears off their feet.
Or paws. Whatever. Either way he was prepared to use their own resources against them. As was Nero; the stockpiles of chrysallis he had gathered in his sanctum would fuel enigmas for years to come. All they needed to do was escape the island. With the Carr. Even though that meant stealing it from Caius.
As if he were reading Sedai’s mind, Nero spoke again. Maybe he was. GODDESS only knows what magical abilities he had – reading minds of the “common” folk. He and Bade both. If he hadn’t gone to the Academiae with Nero…
“It’s not even like it’s his ship anymore, you know. We built most of it ourselves, if you think about it.”
Sedai had to agree with Nero’s reasoning – his judgment was logical – even as he turned back to his work. They had made the ship their own. the steering column had been entirely shielded and retrofitted with additional performance capacity. She was one Hell of an airship.
And according to Nero, the man named Lorimer, who used to be their instructor in Academiae, meant to have that ship in the hands of someone other than Caius Germanicus. So they had no choice but to steal it anyway.
But Ace Sedai was a man of law… not a thief.
PART III: The Thief
Slavery was obviously commonplace on the Ursidae. Werebears were never seen doing much in the terms of physical labor, despite their obvious brawn. No, instead human laborers, held captive very much against their will, worked endlessly as werebear engineer-types designed their trinkets and warrior-types guarded the engineers.
“Two very separate castes,” Scippio Fortunus muttered to himself as his chain gang shuffled over to their third post of the day. Unlike his counterpart slaves Scippio stood tall and walked with purpose. He refused to drag his feet anywhere. Even back when he was stranded on the frozen wastes of the Cryonimbus he didn’t drag his feet. His spirits were hardly dampened by his current or any other predicament in which he found himself. For that is what this was: a predicament. A simple conundrum out of which he would easily slip his way.
His bare foot came down towards the splintery, sooty wood floor and slapped against a human hand – a severed human hand, at second glance. The floor around it was stained with blackened blood and the flesh of the thing was pale white.
Scippio remembered instantly whose hand that was, and remembered just as vividly the chain of events that had caused that hand to separate from its owner’s arm. A slave who had decided to slip his way out of his chains in broad view of their overseer. The overseer who proceeded to mow down seven of his company of fellow slaves in response. The overseer who was currently staring him down, daring Scippio to follow suit.
He resisted the urge to vomit.
Scippio’s band reached a production line of sorts. Their over-muscled, shaggy-furred overseer took his post in front of Scippio, casually repositioning the enigmatic rifle strapped to his back. Continuing to goad him, or threaten him, or both. He crossed his arms menacingly.
Scippio swallowed and took the large log tumbling out of his companion’s arms to his left. As he passed it to the next slave on his right his gaze paused in the middle, underneath the production line…
A gun, a rifle, propped up on its butt stock underneath the production line. Scippio’s mouth hung agape. A werebear enigmatic rifle. Just sitting there for the taking. He glanced up and around only to immediately look straight into beady, glaring eyes of his overseer.
Oh, right. The werebear, he thought fervently. Gotta distract him.
The human slave to his right nudged him. In his excitement he had forgotten to pass on the next log. Each slave in the line was staring at Scippio, and the one at the endmost point in the line – the unfortunate fellow charged with loading the logs into this station’s inferno of a furnace – dared to gesture to him indicating his frustration. Scippio swallowed and passed on the log.
Staring at his feet, Scippio Fortunus, master treasure hunter came up with a brilliant plan. His most brilliant yet! He would simply drop the next log that came his way, and upon bending down to pretend to pick it up…
“Ooph!” The poor slave to his right exhaled in sudden shock and pain. Scippio’s log, instead of tumbling to the floor as intended, had traveled horizontally right into the aging man’s stomach. The werebear overseer uncrossed his arms and took a step forward. Scippio had never thought someone could step angrily, but if it was at all possible, this werebear had certainly just done it.
Scippio Fortunus smiled apologetically to no one, gaze downcast, and continued his work. He was confident his luck would win out in the end. He just had to be patient. After all, the brute couldn’t notice everything…
PART IV: “What was that?”
Bade paused before replying, weighing the possibilities. What was it he just saw? The lake had no natural waves – he was sure of that now, having both himself and Caius just unwittingly plunged in after descending some mildewy ropes down the cliffside under the factory. The only surf was flowing into a “man”-made waterfall adjacent to the cliff and the only ripples as far as the eye could see were those of the water wheels and those that his companion and he had just made. So what was the crest in the water in the distance?
“It did seem fairly large,” Bade supplied, unsure of what exactly to say to reassure his mortal friend. These times must’ve been difficult for him; he was suddenly thrust into this world of massive lycanthropes – technologically advanced ones at that – and all at the same time had to wrap his mind around the existence of magic. Not just enigma-based chrysallis discharge or holy artifacts of olde, but real, naturally imbued human magic.
Bade recalled how he reacted when he first learned that not only Man but he himself was capable of magic. “Strange” would have been an understatement.
Caius was working his right arm, flexing his fingers and rolling his shoulder. Bade had just used a casual spell to help him with his psychologically disability. He had lost his arm to the werebear chieftain Dagur before they crashed here on the Ursidae, before Caius had become Dagur’s manservant, before Bade had intervened and together they had gouged out the massive bear’s remaining eye and he fell out of his treetop cabin. That was a long story in and of itself, let alone how Caius got the arm back.
Now they were in a tiny rowboat with no oars to speak of, gradually drifting towards the second-to-leftmost water wheel, staring at the disturbance in the water where some massive creature had just moved laterally just under the surface. Even for a Magus he was definitely visibly shaken. He was unsure if Caius had noticed
Bade couldn’t let himself be distracted by such a threat, especially if the unseen monster had noticed them and their little boat. As they approached the water wheel fully, he stood gingerly at the front of the boat and readied his stance to jump on one of the wheel’s many rising spoke “platforms.” With the sighting of that creature was unwilling to plunge into the black water again.
Bade could feel Caius’s bated breath as onward his own pregnant pause drew. So he leapt.
And grabbed onto the slippery board plank that constituted one particular spoke of the water wheel. Up he pulled himself, and quite deftly so, so that his elbows rested atop the spoke and his forearms lie horizontal on its surface.
As Bade allowed the water wheel to pull his body upward through the air, he watched his counterpart prepare himself to do the same. His arm seemed to be working now, thankfully, due to the ample magic Bade invested in Caius’s mind some several minutes earlier. Caius had forgotten entirely that the limb had even been disabled and freely swung it back and forth so as to better propel his impending leap.
Caius took a deep breath, and as Bade looked on, the airship pilot jumped. His back arched as his body sailed through the air. His splayed fingers reached out for the platform, his neck craned upward, and his feet trailed behind the rest of his body to the point where it almost seemed as if they were touching his head. His expression hardened…
…And he plummeted into the water below. Right before he splashed his way below the surface in a very comical fashion, Caius’s eyes had widened in great surprise. Bade found it humorous, in a way, and couldn’t help but crack a small smile.
Then he remembered the creature that had been in the water in the distance, moments before he lifted himself fully onto the platform and tucked his legs and body fully inward so as not to get knocked off by the water wheel’s approaching upper housing. He glanced down over the lip of the spoke towards Caius one last time to see the man surface and flail about in the water. The ominous crest in the water had appeared again directly adjacent to him.
Just as suddenly as he entered the housing, everything went dark. Seconds that seemed like hours passed. After the eternity of darkness, the wheel sluggishly lifted Bade into what seemed to be a musty old broom closet. A door across the room from him – on the southern end, he believed – seemed to be the origin of the low, faint whirring and pounding of a hundred-some machine workings and the light emanating from equally as many fiery furnaces. There was a faint blue glow in the room, and upon further inspection, as Bade rose to his feet and carefully stepped off the wheel’s spoke, he noticed the light source originated from over a dozen dusty enigmas, emitting a soft light showing the werebears’ signature design style. Before he could inspect them further, Bade heard a thump from the wheel, shortly followed by a pause and then another thump.
And then a sickening crunch. Bade’s stomach sank, right as the wheel paused in its churning. It hung there as if it were unsure of what to do, quivering. Then it rapidly reversed direction and spun upward, launching a confused, soaking, and stumbling Caius Germanicus into the front of the room. The wheel swung back and forth at this approximate position and Bade noticed a large bite-like chunk removed from the topside. Caius was in a panic.
“IT TRIED TO EAT ME!” He screamed as he spastically moved about the room, as if trying to remove a thousand leeches from his body all at once. And the creature truly had a massive enough maw to eat him, all in one bite, with room to spare. Which got Bade thinking… if there existed such a creature to eat almost an entire large-scale water wheel, that very same creature could surely devour a few dozen werebears or so. Bade could feel the magics of Causality tingling at his fingertips. He tapped into them, as he had done so many times before. With his mind he gathered them, wove them into a tapestry of time and a little luck, and unleashed just an eddy of nigh undetectable ectoplasmic chrysallis into the world around him. He gave the magic but one directive: find a way for the monster to get into the factory.
Caius suddenly calmed. His mouth hung ajar ever so slightly, and once he exhaled heavily. Looking upward, he traced the Subscribere Trinitatis across his brow and both left and right shoulders with his right forefinger, and got down on his hands and knees. He breathed in and out one last time, and Bade realized with widening eyes how his spell had decided to act – by using Caius as bait.
Before Bade could say anything – he wasn’t even sure if he was going to protest in the first place – Caius stuck his head down through the gap between the broken, swinging wheel and its forward housing. Bade found himself backed up against the western wall of the room.
Immediately a wet, fleshy, green maw the size of a large boat erupted through the floor, exploding the molding wood planks of the floor and sending splinters everywhere. Caius disappeared in the chaos, and what was clear to be the absolute largest ogresaur Bade had ever seen clamped its flapping jaws down around the airship pilot. And then it plunged back into the water.
Bade threw himself across the room to the southern door. The ogresaur had vanished but the Pallidus Magus was sure it would return when the scent of more prey registered with its presumably tiny brain. He easily cleared the now gaping hole in the floor and reached to balance himself on the door’s aged copper handle. As he grasped for it, it escaped him, astonishingly enough. He looked up as the door swung open, not on its own, but by the volition of a comparatively smallish werebear in a lab coat and blackened-lens goggles. The bear bore what Bade determined to be a spot-welder of sorts and an expression of frustration that slowly turned to confusion as he regarded Bade. Bade clung to the door frame instead, lest he let himself fall into the dark pit in which the ogresaur lie temporarily dormant.
Dormant, so he thought. For as Bade looked upon the werebear and the werebear back at Bade, the look upon the face of the furrier of the two then turned from confusion to fear.
Bade dared himself to turn back over his shoulder. He finally did so, much to the chagrin of a large part of his not inconsiderable mental faculties, and saw the ogresaur once more, rising up like the predator it was. Its rubbery skin was certainly the sickliest green Bade had ever seen, as he had heard was common among ogresaurs. Its watery, blue-and-yellow serpentine eyes were bulging from its gargantuan head but were surprisingly small given the monster’s size. Its two-fingered “hands,” sickle-clawed and knob-boned, thudded their way up into the room along with the stubby, sinewy arms to which they were attached. And as up came the ogresaur’s powerful hind legs – What do you know, ogresaurs are almost all head, Bade commented in his own thoughts – Bade saw the blue, circuit like patterns under the thing’s flesh, coursing with power and growing ever brighter.
And as this king of ogresaurs bellowed – at full height he stood a good six meters taller than other ogresaurs purportedly did – Bade’s face drew grim. Thick saliva and splinters and even a spare enigma part or two rocketed outward from its mouth. The werebear’s fur slicked back with the astronomical force of the wind the monster expelled. Bade shut his eyes.
It stopped bellowing quite suddenly, and Bade dared to open his eyelids and look behind him. The ogresaur glared right at him. He swore it grinned. And it, too, leapt.
What a horrid way to go.
PART V: A Way To Go
Nero had spent the last several weeks helping Ace Sedai make an unorthodox amount of repairs to the Carr — though, in all reality, the machinist could have probably handled the job without him. They had over a dozen fellow human slaves to help them, little to no werebear observation, and a slew of helpful enigmas that Sedai himself had left aboard the ship when they had crashed into the forest floor of the Ursidae.
Well, what used to be forest floor. The area immediately surrounding the massive airship had been scarred by the crash landing, a large swath of destruction left in the path the ship had taken across the canopy down to the foliage-covered ground. In addition to the war-torn landscape that dotted the jungle in the immediate vicinity of the Ursidae boardwalk civilization, the bears’ makeshift camp had blossomed into a full construction site: they had erected a fully stocked lumber yard complete with sheds full of unrefined Aranium deposits and solidified chrysallis shells; a series of mostly weatherproof pup tents in which the humans slept when not toiling away and some small cabins and watchtowers for werebear sentries; and a full scaffold and equipment stowage area opposite the camp. Most of the camp was no longer bustling with activity anymore, though, as Sedai had been nearing completion of their reconstruction project for the past few days – well ahead of the schedule the one werebear had given them. Ulagg had been his name, he thought, but he couldn’t quite remember. Nero hadn’t seen the tan-furred werebear overseer in nearly a week. He had taken that opportunity to scry on his fellow shipwreck companions whom he hadn’t otherwise seen in weeks, but even that could occupy only so much of his time.
Currently Nero had been working on a project of his own: an owl. It was odd to think of this aviary creature as a “project,” but it truly was as such, for the Owl had been watching him work for more than a fortnight. Nero couldn’t recall when exactly he had noticed the bird’s presence in the treetops just above the upper decks of the Carr, only that he had felt it – him? – there for quite some time. It had made him squirm at first, and naturally so – what person, mage or no, wants a bird of prey looming over him, let alone for weeks? But progressively he had grown not only accustomed to it but also comforted by it. So now he was doing the only thing he could do, as twilight set upon the labor yards: stare right back at it.
The Owl, of course, didn’t react, save for tilting its head periodically and softly hooting.
He had been doing so for his third night straight, looking unblinkingly into its large, predatory eyes, when he heard a shout of protest from down in the human camps. He jolted around, his worn linen clothing flowing behind him as he spun, and rushed over to the port-most bulwarks of the upper deck.
Below, as he craned over the edge, he saw the ostentatious struggle of a middle-aged, bearded, malnourished man, completely unclothed save for the immodest loincloth he wore about his nethers. Two werebears were subduing him despite his flailing limbs and jerking head. He shouted nonsense, something about seeing his son off to Academiae later that morning, before finally issuing a blood-curdling scream directed at the sky. And then he calmed and looked right into Nero’s spying eyes.
Instantly Nero felt a pang of guilt, but there was little he could do; the slaves here were unneeded and he knew he had little to bargain with. Still, he knew he had to act anyway, and vaulted himself over the bulwarks and onto the upper-most ramp of the neighboring scaffold. He bolted down it as fast as he could muster and finally, when he reached the ground, he ran up to the two werebears as one struck the struggling man in the gut with his massive paw. The man’s breath was instantly expelled from his lungs and he nearly collapsed from the shock. He probably would have, were the werebears not containing him.
“Why are you taking him?” Nero demanded, slowing his approach so as not to appear to threaten the sentries. He would be little help to the slave if he, too, were attacked by the werebears – especially if they found out he was a Magus. They inevitably would should he have to defend himself.
The werebears furrowed their massive, furry brows at Nero – of course they were unable to understand the common tongue. The older man looked up at him and whimpered pathetically. Nero sighed, but just barely, as he was interrupted by a deep and gravelly voice behind him.
“You appear to no longer have need of these slaves,” the voice said levelly. Nero turned to see the shadowy figure of Ulagg calmly bearing down on him, enigma packet-rifle held loosely in his hands. Nero briefly considered snatching it from him, but given the gun strap around Ulagg’s neck and shoulder and the bear’s sheer strength factor, he decided against it almost as quickly as the thought entered his mind.
“Something to say, puny man?” Ulagg taunted him, sneering through his fur. His blood-mottled fur, Nero noticed. There was clearly dried blood around his mouth. Probably that of a resisting slave, he thought. He steeled himself.
“Where are you taking them?” Nero probed.
Ulagg looked momentarily confused. “To kukolka forest,” he said. “Kukolka” was their word for chrysallis, Nero presumed. He had heard Ulagg say it before. “They do not perform jobs here anymore.”
The captive man started to scream again. It was certainly difficult to understand Ulagg through his accent, and this man did not help Nero’s cause. He could tell Ulagg was not amused by the man’s screeching. The two bears holding onto his arms looked to Ulagg and then began dragging their captive away. Nero exhaled with just a note of defeat.
“Boss do not want revolt due to lack of purpose,” Ulagg continued smugly. “And puny man ask for too much kukolka. Need more workers. Old ones die. Kukolka… poisonous to workers.” He allowed a feral grin to creep across his furry face and paced forward. Pushing past Nero, Ulagg followed the two bears and their now sobbing slave. Nero looked on, simmering, feeling his and Ace Sedai’s plan slipping from them before his eyes.
The Owl silently swooped down and landed on Nero’s right shoulder. He turned his head to it and bore deep into the Owl’s eyes. The Owl blinked at him a singular, purposeful time. Its spirit poured forth and bonded with Nero’s own in his anger and magical might.
Nero bursted his way into the captain’s cabin in which Sedai was still toiling away. Sedai regarded him levelly, only briefly pausing his work on retrofitting a club with enigmatic sonic emitters. Behind those smoky-glassed goggles, Nero supposed the machinist blinked once or twice before turning back to his work on the Aranium wiring.
“They’re taking the slaves to the chrysallis fields,” he stated with a hint of remorse. He knew that the slaves in his tutelage probably lasted longer than they would have in another situation – such as out in the chrysallis fields, which is where they were headed now – but the entire project on which they were working was for their betterment. These enigmas they were making, the weapons, were meant to be wielded by the slaves. Nero and Ace Sedai were fueling a rebellion.
A doomed rebellion, it now seemed, as the slaves they were arming were being dragged to the hazardous multitude of the fields. Sedai was coming around to the same disposition as Nero, the Magus could see, as he stopped working entirely and placed his goggles on his forehead instead. A clear soot outline plastered his face where the goggles had been.
Sedai paused before commenting. “Well that’s a bit sooner than expected,” he finally said quietly. Nero could see him analyzing him after a short period of silence. “Is there something else?”
Nero had just been standing there, not speaking, so it was natural that Sedai had questioned him. He had been debating for what seemed like an eternity whether or not to discuss his magic with Sedai, but at this point he saw no other option. He knew it was against the cardinal orders of Trinitas Maximus, but they were in some extenuating circumstances – and anything Lorimer’s bosses, scarily powerful as they may be, had in store for him for breaking a few of them could be dealt with when the time came. He had no plans to die here on the Ursidae, or to let his companions die either. Which brought him to his next point…
“…I’ve been scrying on the rest of our party,” Nero blurted, a small part of him fearful of being smitten on the spot by some intently listening Archmagus from all the way back in Titan. “I sent the Owl to go monitor them.”
Sedai had a very quizzical look on his face. He turned his body to Nero entirely.
Nero realized he probably had to explain himself. “Sorry,” he continued," ‘Scrying’ is a form of magical vision that some Magi can do to—"
“I’m aware of what scrying is,” Sedai interrupted. He furrowed his brow. “You have an Owl?”
“Ah,” Nero replied. “Yes. He’s a… familiar. Of sorts.”
“I see.” Sedai waited expectantly for further explanation of Nero’s story.
“Anyway,” said Nero after a beat, “I’ve been scrying on Bade and Scippio for a few days now. That’s why I’ve been so conspicuously absent the last four or five days or so.”
Sedai nodded along, a little confused. He clearly hadn’t been aware of Nero’s disappearance. Nero relaxed a little.
“Scippio’s been doing a stint in a werebear enigma factory of some kind pretty much since we arrived here at the Carr. And Bade,” he revealed, “is on his way to the factory.”
Sedai’s eyes widened. Nero could see his train of thought was nearing the same decision to which he had also come several hours ago, while he had been soul-bonding with the Owl. He continued, very methodically, with the last bit of revelation he had:
“And he’s got Caius with him.”
PART VI: I’m Afraid He’s No Longer With Us
That’s probably what the bird would have said, that is, were it able to speak the common tongue. Or speak at all, actually – besides having the outward appearance of an Owl, an animal quite unable to articulate human vocabulary, it was actually a creature of twilight, a spirit of ethereal nature, something able to communicate with its soulbound master and its master alone.
His master had sent him here, into the heart of a wooden machine. Inside it was quite spacious but infernally hot. Slaves with the approximate anatomy of his master, some with obviously more feminine qualities, worked until their bodies sweat profusely, until their lips were cracked and dry and their hands were quite worn. Those who oversaw them were of a more furry nature, the likes of which the spirit – an Owl, shall we say, for simplicity’s sake, for that is what it appeared to be by any conventional senses – had seen plenty of the past few solar cycles. They were large and ursine in nature, but with more dexterous of digits and clearly more advanced as a society than their bear cousins could ever muster. They had managed to capture magic in the form of chrysallis-charged objects, and were able to focus it with exacting precision. This was worrisome even to the spirit, whose primary concerns were not of this realm, for it posed a threat to the well-being of his master. The slaves toiling away at production lines fueled their furnaces, which in turn fueled the work on the floors above of the werebears in white technician coats, who used the flames in the furnaces to smelt their golden-orange Aranium and to light their cutting torches and to treat their workpieces.
The Owl looked onward almost solemnly to the scene, even as the chaos erupted among every living thing there, for the threat of the werebears and their technology was nothing compared to the threat of the massive ogresaur which had just exploded through a door entirely too tiny for even its foot. As the ogresaur had done so, its veins coursing with what had to have been chrysallis (unsurprisingly given the locale), the Owl had watched it clamp its flapping jaws around a hapless werebear technician who had unfortunately decided to investigate the noise coming from the closet in which the ogresaur had apparently been lurking.
Interestingly enough, the Owl had seen Bade Ignatius Guy, careening himself around the werebear, bolt out of the chamber just before the ogresaur had. And it had spotted Caius Germanicus, the man of whom Nero had just been speaking moments ago, inside the ogresaur’s mouth and well on his way to the first of the behemoth’s several gullets.
Suddenly, the Owl’s large, blinking eyes flicked their way down over to one of the lines of slaves. One of the slaves was wielding one of the pieces of werebear technology and had already caused quite the commotion by using the focused chrysallis to sever the connections of his chains and attack his nearest, oblivious werebear adversary. The slave turned and ducked below the production line, for his opponent was not felled by his attack.
Scippio Fortunus, he noticed, was the identity of the slave. His master would be pleased that fate had brought all his friends together in one place. One very dangerous place.
His master clearly saw all this, as that was the entire purpose of the Owl’s presence here in the factory. A mere moment later, as if on cue, Nero ripped open a wormhole and both he and Ace Sedai stepped through it, into the nightmarish fray, and dumped a pile of enigmas at the feet of a gaggle of slaves. As they did so, Fortunus, apparently quite apt at utilizing the enigma he held, targeted a different werebear with a compact flying apparatus – one with twin turbines using evaporated chrysallis as a propulsion fuel – strapped to his back launched himself aty the ogresaur, three flights above. As he neared the balcony, his chrysallis device was shot clean off his back, and he flailed through the air straight through the ogresaur’s gaping maw and into its gullet. The Owl spied Caius inside the mouth, hugging desperately to the beast’s uvula. The propulsion mechanism fell to the center of the production floor and Fortunus vaulted himself nimbly after it.
Amidst the confusion the Owl focused on Bade. The Magus seemed to be the only calm being in the entire machine of a facility, staring intently at the ogresaur which was now teetering above him. The Owl could feel the invisible tendrils of magic emanating from him, entering the puny, adrenaline-coated mind of the ogresaur. This was almost definitely why the ogresaur was now stumbling and gagging, holding back the now irresistible urge to vomit all over the production floor below. It stumbled back and forth across the balcony, gagging once, twice more. Finally it vomited, spewing up a hodgepodge of artificial objects of wood and metal and a gooey blue substance. Betwixt it all was an airborne Caius Germanicus.
It was this point of which the Owl made particular note. Caius, falling in a wholly uncomfortable fashion, showed upon his face a substantial range of expressions. The first was of absolute fear, probably a bit left over from his stay within the ogresaur and a bit more from whatever foreign process through which he had perceived to have just gone. It wasn’t every day one was regurgitated, after all. The second emotion was clear and utter surprise. He was not dead, and in fact was no longer trapped inside the beast, ready to be digested at any moment. His life was his once more. This realization, it seemed to the Owl, brought upon the third sensation, which proved to be of pure joy. He beamed with pride, having both survived his impossible encounter and correctly placed faith that his deity would see him through the situation. And then there was no expression at all – perhaps the briefest of seconds of pain – as his body crumpled on the production floor three stories below, right at the feet of a very shocked Scippio Fortunus.
It was at this point that his master sprung into full action. Operating with almost blinding speed he leapt over the balcony railing and landed with a thud on the floor next to Caius. He then lay a shielding spell of sorts on Caius’s unconscious form and tore open a portal underneath the man, landing him gently in what the Owl could barely make out as the bathtub of his master’s sanctum. He tore it open a bit wider, wide enough for Fortunus to bound through with the salvaged propulsion device and chrysallis particle emitter in tow.
But unfortunately, and Nero surely had evaluated the risk and proceeded anyway, there were countless mortals around him and their mere presence was bound to have an adverse effect on the magic he was casting. After all it wasn’t every day a mortal witnessed a tear in the fabric of reality, multidimesional or otherwise, so as Fortunus jumped through the portal shifted – under the feet of another unwitting werebear. As the werebear vanished through the closing portal the Owl could only imagine what sort of antics were about to ensue.
Then came Sedai, who took but a moment to break the chains of one more slave before taking his sword and one of his many clubs and wincing as he pushed through the wormhole Nero held open in front of him. The air of trepidation was palpable as the machinist left behind so many of his painstakingly crafted clubs.
Down below, Bade ceased concentration on the ogresaur as the beast stumbled and regained its composure and unbelievable vigor. Now that its trio of stomachs were empty, it seemed to crave something to digest with an impossibly increased fervor. Bade casted a sidelong glance at his fellow Sarcophagus Trinity Magus. The Owl sensed a careful bond between Nero and his friend as Nero struggled to tear open another gateway. The bird could see the sweat upon his master’s brow. It was a not inconsiderable amount. By the time it had looked back to the other Magus, he was gone and Nero’s portal was collapsed. Nero let loose a muffled groan. This overt use of magic was obviously causing him pain.
Then came the crack. Almost every eye in the room snapped to the sound’s source: the roughly constructed wooden staircase which the ogresaur was ascending buckled, splintering the blackened and mildewy wood and showering it down on everyone below. The werebears looked on in horror, as did their human slaves. Even the ogresaur took a moment’s pause in its rampage, tiny eyes widening in sheer confusion. Nero slowly rose his head to regard the hulking thing above him – he knew it was ready to come down, and of course it was about to be right on top of him. The Owl shared his condescending resignation, silently cursing the Isles and Fate and Regina Arania herself for allowing this to transpire. Sure, Nero hadn’t a problem at all using his magic to open yet another portal, spent as he was, but even his avian spirit guide doubted his ability to do so quickly enough. As such it swooped down ever so gently and landed on Nero’s shoulder. For a long moment the Owl was the only thing that moved in the entire structure.
And the ogresaur fell. The wooden planks beneath it exploded into a million pieces, raining down all across the factory and some even shooting into the ogresaur’s soft belly. It reared back in anger, even airborne as it was, and suddenly its bloodlust was renewed.
At this Nero spun and took a knee all in one motion, sending the Owl to flap its wings a few times to hover above him. He placed his hand on the ground beneath him, shutting his eyes tightly, and tensed his fingers – an entirely trivial effect on his magic, but the Owl supposed working his muscles in certain ways helped his brain wrap around the altogether foreign concept of magic.
The ogresaur noticed Nero move, oh yes, and the Owl watched above itself and its master as the beast made a very conscious decision to open its toothless mouth as wide as one could possibly imagine a mouth to open. It careened directly for the Owl and its Magus, ready to devour them. Clearly it did not take into consideration the enormous amount of pain it would be in once its face collided with the floor not a second after this event would occur, which was seeming more and more likely a scenario, as Nero’s portal was still not yet fully formed. The Owl stared down at it – the time span of a few seconds appeared to be passing at a snail’s pace – and a faint screeching noise emanated from the air around it. The horizontally formed portal was singing the very air around it. And as the Owl glanced back up at the ogresaur, which was by then only a handful of meters away, it felt Nero’s hand firmly grasp its downy body and yank it quite forcefully through the portal…
…And smack dab onto Nero’s bed. They had arrived quite safely in the Magus’s sanctum. The Owl, quite cozily (almost too cozily) looked up at the wormhole above him as it shut. There was nothing to see on the other side besides the inside of the ogresaur’s maw. And perhaps a werebear technician or two.
“Oomph,” the Owl heard from next to it on the bed. Nero rolled over to the middle of the bed, for he had apparently landed on Fortunus.
“Thought I’d have myself a little nap,” Fortunus explained as both the Owl and the Magus looked at him with a great deal of skepticism. “Had a long month. Met a few werebears. You might’ve heard.”
Nero bolted upright. “The werebear,” he muttered, suddenly remembering the werebear that had accidentally come through one of his portals. He hopped out of bed and rushed to the door frame leading out to the main living area of his sanctum and stopped there.
“Do exactly as I say,” the Owl heard from the other room. It lifted itself aloft and flew over to perch on Nero’s shoulder. From its new vantage point it saw quite the scene: Bade had a pistol drawn on the werebear lab tech, who was plodding along as Bade backed up to the front door of his sanctum. “Oh, hey guys,” Bade continued as he looked over to the bedroom.
“Heyyy buddy,” Fortunus said from behind Nero. The Owl hadn’t noticed him come up behind them. “Whatcha doin’ with that werebear there?”
“Are you letting him out the front door?” Nero asked quite cynically.
Bade nodded trying not to take his eyes off the werebear. Confused and somewhat scared, the werebear looked over to Nero as Bade did. The Owl noticed a pair of seeping, circular wounds in the werebear’s upper abdomen. They weren’t bleeding terribly, so they probably weren’t life-threatening, but the bear was plainly scared into obliging with Bade’s every command.
The Owl looked to his master. Nero straightened and cocked his head before pursuing the next logical question. “You do realize that opens right into uptown Plink, correct? Where there are thousands of regular mortals?”
The Owl turned back to Bade. He once again nodded.
Nero shrugged, losing interest in the matter entirely. “Okay,” he conceded. “Carry on.” It had been a long month.
Bade and the werebear looked back at each other and Bade’s expression turned serious again. He grabbed for the door handle behind him as he approached it – backwards – and swung it open after finding the handle at last. The werebear lumbered out and the door shut on its own after it. The tension in the room almost immediately lifted. After a pregnant pause Fortunus spoke up from behind Nero.
“Well! That was quite the adventure, wasn’t it?” Everyone – save for Caius, who was probably still lying crumpled in the bathtub – turned to him silently. “Well, wasn’t it?”
One by one each of the men filtered out from the room, until just the Owl and Fortunus remained in the room. The Owl landed on a nearby writing table and stared at him. Fortunus sighed, looking at the Owl but speaking to no one:
“Well I’m going to bed.”