PART I: It’s That Thing You Put Dead Guys In
Caius had been showering for quite some time. It was as if he had never showered before in his life, as the heated water cascaded down his aching shoulders and back. He enjoyed every second as his muscles relaxed and softened. Relief, he thought. Finally, relief. After absorbing all the steam he could muster, he closed his eyes and shut off the water.
Moments later, still drying off the inside of his ear, he emerged from the latrine with only a towel wrapped around his legs and a smaller towel in his hand. He shouted to whomever in Nero Faxon’s sanctum could hear him.
“You know, this place looks like a werebear stampeded through it.”
He rounded the corner to the main living space, toweled finger in his other ear and head cocked to the side. Nero stood in front of the foyer waiting for him, serious and concerned expression on his face, instantly throwing his coat at him as he entered the room.
Caius stopped for but a moment. He needed to think about what exactly was so urgent, but the steam of the shower had been so relaxing… He gave up and allowed his posture to slacken noticeably.
“What’s going on, exactly?” Caius demanded in a very casual way.
Nero sighed. He let his hand drop to his side and the magical doorway imploded silently behind him.
“I received communication from Lorimer he explained. “I am to bring you before a joint-council meeting of both Trinitates Sarcophagus and Fulcrum immediately.”
Caius worked his mind around the strange combination of words he just heard. “What the hell is a sarr-coff-a-gus?”
Nero had no choice but to push his sense of urgency out of mind. His old schoolmate was a mortal, after all, magical headband or no. And his mind was going to take some time to wrap around all this. There was a reason Caius was never identified for ascendancy as he was.
“I belong to an order of Magi called Trinitas Sarcophagus. We work very closely to our brethren of Trinitas Fulcrum in the West Viridian. And,” Nero added, "probably because of our exploits in the Ursidae, both councils want to speak with you.
He paused. “They might also want to kill you,” he muttered.
“Kill me?” Caius swallowed.
“For my ship?”
“Yes, for your ship,” Nero admitted.
Caius frowned and furrowed his brow. “All the way in the West Viridian?”
“In Titan, yes.” Nero shifted slightly, surprised how comfortable Caius seemed about all this. He could see the gears turning in Caius’s head.
“How will we get there? Portal?”
“No,” Nero conceded. “I’m not that powerful of a spellcaster. I’ve never been there myself, and even if I had, there are way too many non-Magi there to adequately cast a spell of that nature.”
“You’ve never been to Titan? Aw, I go there all the time.” Caius was all the sudden full of excitement. “There’s this great bar there with—Oh, the latrine is just wonderful! There are these candles that smell like lilac, and this really interesting work of graffiti on one of the walls… It’s really quaint.”
Nero stared back at him blankly. After a pregnant pause, Caius opened his mouth again to speak. Nero decided better than to allow him to continue to derail his sense of urgency.
“Still not going to be able to get us there. Not by portal.”
“What about by airship,” Caius inquired sincerely, “like the Carr? Only not the Carr, since the Carr is all broken, and—and…”
Nero began to look at the ground and nervously worked his mouth. Caius easily deduced his companion’s display.
“You guys fixed my ship, didn’t you?” Caius breathed.
“And that’s why Lorimer wants me brought before this Try-knee-tass whatever thing.”
“Trinitas?” Nero corrected, “I would assume so, yes.”
Caius paused and paced away from Nero for a few steps. He half turned back to Nero, hand stroking his jaw in contemplation.
“So let’s go get it.”
The blood rushed to Caius’s head all at once, as if he were on some kind of powerful psychotropic hallucinogen. Everything turned black, and then white, and then black again before he found himself stumbling on the upper deck, resisting the urge to vomit. He could feel his mind trying to resist – magic was clearly something unnatural to his psyche – and he knew the only thing keeping it at bay was the headband his physical body wore somewhere in the slums of Tattersaw Lower.
That was a long story.
Caius recalled as his head continued spinning that his friend and occasional business partner Scippio Fortunus had contacted him about a job. Really, he had more drunkenly forced his way into a guest cabin late one night while the Carr had been docked in the glittering city-state of the Traverse, but Caius supposed that was all semantics at this point. “One final job,” the swashbuckler had put it: hunting for his grandfather’s long lost treasure on the Mobius using only the late old man’s journal and their wits. It would prove to be a grand adventure; however, as fate would have it, they never made it to the Mobius. Not even close – instead they had been intercepted by a werebear raiding party on one of their baleful warships, they crashed the Carr, Caius’s arm had been severed by the towering werebear chieftain known as Dagur… it was all really hazy. They had woken up in a guerrilla warzone somewhere in the werebears’ tropical home, the Ursidae, some time later – only to actually wake up again mentally hooked into some technologically remarkable enigma projection… thing to which some vampire scientist named Archimetl had interfaced them… It was all a very complicated matter. Regardless, the vampire was now dead at their hands, Tattersaw Lower was in complete disarray due to sudden gang-related power void, and Caius and his friends – Fortunus, Bade, Sedai, and even Nero – were all back in this machine which projected their souls as an ectoplasmic form. Or something.
Caius wouldn’t even pretend to understand what was going on. He just knew that as long as his physical body was wearing that neural band, he somehow understood magic. He couldn’t use it, oh no, but he could comprehend it when he saw it. It was like glimpsing into another dimension. He tried not to think about it.
Except for moments like these, when he was forced to step through magical wormholes that Nero ripped open with his fucking mind.
As his vision cleared and his head stopped throbbing unbearably, Caius had a sudden realization: the upper deck on which he was kneeling was the Carr. My ship! His excitement took over and pushed the headache completely out of mind. He stood and walked about in wonder, marveling the airship’s build – Was that cedar? He didn’t remember cedar – when Nero opened a second portal and pushed through the fabric of space.
“We made some adjustments,” Nero said flatly, as he looked up and around. “You might as well go check out the helm – a lot of the improvements were focused there. Maybe next time you can try to steer us away from the werebear cannonballs.”
Caius, without trepidation, started up the stairs to the domed glass- and iron-enclosed helm. “Maybe next time the cannonballs won’t destroy the steering column before I have a chance to act,” he muttered sorely just loud enough for Nero to hear.
As Caius ascended the port-side stairs to the helm’s door, Nero cautiously moved to the bulwarks on the same side. He stopped at one of the points at which the ship was moored to the very ground with chains with links bigger than his body. Careful not to move too suddenly, he peered over the edge – the bulwarks were now reinforced with Sedai’s chemically altering enigma “paintbrush” – to spy on what he had mere hours ago left behind of the construction labor yards. As far as he knew, the werebears that were funding his and Ace Sedai’s reconstruction efforts were a splinter cell of lycanthropes separate from the majority of the Ursidae society. It was possible he could use this to his advantage, especially if they were as disorganized as they had been over the course of the past twenty-odd days. But as he looked down upon the encampment, he could tell quite plainly that they were not; there were countless slaves he could see who had been brought it from mining the chrysallis forest and were being driven quite clearly to the point of exhaustion by their now numerous werebear overseers. What would otherwise be a beautiful and relaxing jungle was being interrupted by the periodic sound of cracking whips and jangling chains and moans of human slaves. He couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. The camp had been a slave’s paradise before he had escaped with Sedai to rescue the rest of his gang from the enigma factory. Apparently his disappearance – or perhaps the appearance of the ogresaur massive for even ogresaur standards, or both – had triggered some kind of aggressive response from the werebear sect. This was less than desirable.
Caius, now at his newly furnished helm, ran his fingers over the smoothly polished, hardened, oaken ship’s wheel in joyous awe. He couldn’t be happier, right now, back where he knew he belonged as the captain of his father’s old ship. He firmly grasped two spokes on the port side of the wheel and paused – and then grinned and spun the wheel as quickly as he could to starboard. The spokes flashed before his eyes and he let them just barely brush against the palms of his open, downward-facing hands. He stopped the wheel suddenly and widened his stance. That’s when he registered Nero calling his name from down on the deck below.
“Caius!” Nero whispered, crouched next to the port bulwarks. Caius regarded him questioningly.
He whispered something else, as loud as he could, but Caius couldn’t understand him from inside the cockpit of the helm. He gestured back with an exaggerated shrug and shook his head. Nero repeated himself, more slowly mouthing his words, but it just looked to Caius as if he were just working his mouth in weird ways. He gave up trying to listen and looked down at his control panel – Oh wow, look at the Aranium plating on that control panel, he commented in his thoughts – and depressed the large black-and-yellow button to supercharge the gigantic artifactual engines of the great ship.
And that’s when he looked up and saw Nero pointing at the camp below. There was a terrible amount of slave labor, and an even more terrible amount of werebear guards and warriors. And they were all looking up at him in the cockpit. Some were confused – mostly the slaves, anyway, for almost all of the bears looked angry. And then he saw Nero pointing at one werebear in particular, a werebear a great deal bigger than the ones hear whom he was standing; who had thick black fur riddled with bald, fleshy scars; who wore a backpack propulsion enigma and was decorated with blood-stained weapon belts that held very large blades of varying types; who was currently turning around at the behest of one of his werebear underlings to face Caius. It was Dagur.
Dagur had already been blind in one eye before he had severed Caius’s arm – well, Caius’s projection’s arm, because he had the arm back now, even though it didn’t like to work sometimes – and now, thanks to Caius and Bade, he was missing the other as well. And his right ear was damaged beyond the point of utilization. But still he looked straight at Caius, sniffed the wind for a brief moment, and snarled – and charged.
“Shit!” Dagur moved as an unstoppable force towards the Carr. Caius grabbed the wheel and the altitude lever on the control panel on his left and pulled. Come on, baby, he mentally urged his ship.
After raising about a foot it jerked horribly and down it crashed back into the ground. The following tremor was accompanied by the painful snapping of scores of wooden planks from the bottom of the hull. The structure didn’t seem to buckle under the force, but Caius winced. And Nero stumbled on the topside deck before righting himself while, annoyed, pointing at the chains still mooring the ship to the ground.
“Shit,” he continued, and pressed another pair of buttons on the control panel. He was going to have to force his way off the Ursidae. And maybe take a good chunk of the Ursidae with me.
He could feel the mooring straining, heavy as the chains were. Nero and Sedai had done a good job repairing the hull, that was for sure. It was time to see just how good. He pulled once more on the lever, giving it everything she had.
A handful of chains ripped from the ground on the port side and the ship banked hard to starboard. Nero tumbled sideways. Still, Dagur couldn’t possibly reach them now.
And then the chieftain activated his propulsion backpack with a pull of a cable. He rocketed through the air toward the upper decks of the Carr. Caius’s stomach plummeted. He was fairly positive now that he was going to die, and not even by Lorimer’s hand.
PART II: Speaking of Lorimer
Bade drove his carriage cautiously down a broken, cobbled street in Tattersaw Lower. It was late morning, and the Silver Sun was high in the cloudless sky, which was interesting – he hadn’t yet witnessed this particular area of the “Dying City” in daylight before. It was like a ghost town; all the vagrants and thieves and thugs he had seen upon his last visit to Tattersaw Lower were conspicuously absent.
He directed his carriage into the mouth of Porterhouse Circle, which at one point was likely a bustling marketplace. A defunct fountain of sorts lay in the center of the circle, stagnant rainwater inhabiting the pond encircling it. For some reason Bade felt less at ease now than he had in the middle of the night some five weeks ago, encountering lycanthropes and chasing a vampire lord. At least then he knew where the danger was located, he supposed. Now it was hiding, and that fact was making him tense. He took care to enshroud himself in an aura of light magical armor, but it did little to relax his mind.
Besides, he took comfort in the presence of the Moon. Always had.
Quite unexpectedly he noticed the lycan who had helped him track down Archimetl the vampire last time he was here. The brawny man was seated against the far side of the fountain, his slumbering form slouched up against the brick wall of one side of the alleyway in which Bade has spoken to him last. Bade knew this time he would not see him Change – being nearly midday that it was, were-creatures were quite unable to transform – and his form was that of a quite unthreatening tabby cat anyway. So he approached with confidence and halted his horses. Their clattering hooves were enough to stir the werecat from his sleep.
He dismounted the carriage as the alarmed vagrant stood and assumed a defensive posture. He flared his nostrils, appearing as if sniffing out Bade’s origin as well as his intent. The man relaxed as Bade held up his palm to show his placating demeanor.
Without a word Bade handed him the reins to his carriage. The man hesitated, looked around, and straightened his body. It was a moment or two before he spoke.
“Why?” He quite simply asked.
Bade took a second to gather his composure. “To be quite frank I feel I have little need for them any longer. Perhaps you could find a better use for them?”
The man surveyed the carriage and then the reins Bade began to place in the man’s hands. He looked up at the magus, quite confused.
Bade had “borrowed” the horses he was so carefully steering, as well as the carriage they towed, from the Academiae at which he had worked some three-and-a-half years ago in Plink. He had used his influence of Sarcophagus Trinity membership – along with a little magical push of the carriage Clark’s mind – to procure himself the ride. But that was some two-hundred miles away, so he felt little worry about any possible repercussions regarding the equines or their cart.
“Take good care of them,” Bade added before deftly whisking away to the other side of Porterhouse Circle.
Bade strode directly for Olech’s Texts Emporium, a rundown bookstore that had closed down years before – much like the rest of Tattersaw Lower. This was the building where he and his friends’ physical bodies were located. That was a complicated scenario, but one he easily recalled: the vampire lord-scientist Archimetl had developed a joint-mind contraption with which he could sync the minds of several individuals at once using a control panel and a chrysallis-powered astral projector. So the form with which Bade walked to the two-story bookstore was technically not his real body, as much as it felt like it was, but rather an ectoplasmic replica that mimicked the five senses and was controlled by his mind.
His sense of caution multiplied tenfold as his left boot tip fell upon the threshold of the musty, decrepit door into the Emporium. He reached out with his calloused right hand and pushed the already cracked door ajar just a little bit more. It creaked as it swung on its long-since-oiled hinges. Dust fell down around him and he crept through the doorway. His normal stony-faced expression remained unfaltering, giving away nothing of his curious if not nervous anticipation of what Lorimer could possibly have in store for him here at this bookstore.
Earlier that morning, without a moment’s rest after returning from the Ursidae and an encounter with the largest, most fearsome ogresaur he had ever seen, he had received a letter from Lorimer, the archmagus of Sarcophagus Trinity, that was simply worded thus:
“Come to the location in which your bodies lay dormant. Report with all due haste.”
The letter had not been signed, but Bade had known from the magical tis aura surrounding the parchment that it had been sent to him via spell from Lorimer. The nigh-invisible yellowish flames that were Lorimer’a signature tis were unmistakable. The archmagus had been the one to coerce Bade back into the astral projector, in order to warn his companions of the ill-fortuned fate that now awaited their actual bodies should any of their projections perish. It used to be that the projector’s subjects would just wake up upon “death,” as Caius, Nero, himself, and (if only very briefly) Ace had done five weeks previous. But the scuffle that had erupted in the tiny test chamber between some rogue vampire and the rest of Archimetl’s research team had rendered a great portion of the machines’ functionality… well, quite nonfunctional, as it were.
He walked with trepidation through the spacious center aisle and took care not to disturb any of the thick dust in the shop if he could prevent doing so. He took curious note that there were no footprints leading to the storeroom door that lay before him, despite the fact that Lorimer heavily implied that he, too, would be here. If Lorimer were not here, this trip would end fairly quickly; the test chamber his physical form was in required a magical key to enter, as most shadow doors did, and Bade did not have one on his person. Able to think of nothing else, he approached the back door and exhaled.
As if on cue, the door handle turned itself and creaked open sluggishly. Revealed before him was the perfectly white, fluorescent-lit corridor that led to the semicircular room in which Bade’s true body lay. The whole situation felt more and more surreal by the second.
Bade took several more tense steps into the hall. The fluorescent lighting flickered. Strange, he thought, since it was lit through magical means.
The door slammed shut behind him. He steeled his nerves and turned his field of vision to the door. Standing in front of it was Lorimer. He had a look of mixed terror and determination about him. The most pregnant of pauses ensued between them, before Bade finally opened his mouth to speak.
“Don’t go in there,” Lorimer balefully interrupted. Bade was taken aback, and furrowed his brow. “Don’t go in there,” he repeated, and then repeated once more.
“Well, why not?” Bade inquired with a hint of frustration at his magus mentor.
“Don’t,” the older man retorted, “Go in there.” He pointed at the window behind Bade. When Bade turned to regard it, he saw that the glass looking into the semicircular chamber was coated in viscous, half-congealed blood. In the blood was written, probably with a digit of some sort, thus:
DON’T COME IN HERE.
Of course. Of course there was a warning written in blood. He sought answers from the ebbs of the spirits – Whose blood was this? Caius’s? His own? All of theirs? – but his magic seemed to be blocked by whatever sort of dark sorcery was taking place on the other side of the viewport. So he approached it intrepidly to look through the writing on the window, and saw nothing but a
After casting a sidelong glance back at Lorimer, who shook his head disapprovingly, Bade briskly made his way around the room to its only door in the back conjoining corridor. He came to a cautious halt before the solitary door, sighed and grasped its handle firmly. Bade wasn’t accustomed to not having the whispers of Fate to guide him. He sincerely hoped he was not making an entirely terrible decision by ignoring Lorimer – and the damned message written in blood – by entering this room. He compressed the latch to the handle with his thumb and, once he heard it click, pushed the door open ever so slightly.
…And found himself blinking sore, long-unused eyes in his actual body. On the medical bed. Hooked up to the machinery that made up Archimetl’s mechanical creation. His mind raced for several long seconds as the chrysallis-fueled energy that had transported his astral form back into his own body dissipated.
Lorimer sat quite comfortably, hands folded, elbow resting on the ledge under the notably perfectly pristine viewport, one leg crossed over the other, on a swivel stool next to the massive control station for the enigma. Bade had clearly been the victim to several of Lorimer’s powerful illusions.
And Archimetl, the notably dead vampire machinist kingpin of Tattersaw Lower, appeared from the other side of Bade’s bed and leaned over his body. He checked some of the components of the enigmatic headband resting a little uncomfortably on Bade’s cranium. And that’s when Bade found himself quite unable to move his hand. He was strapped down, sure, but this was a different ordeal entirely – none of his muscles responded to his mind’s commands to move and flex. None of his muscles, that is, in his entire body. He was paralyzed, and just when he learned that a very evil and probably very vengeful vampire lord that he thought he had killed was still amongst the living. So to speak.
“You can cease your attempts to move,” Archimetl stated quite flatly as he tinkered. He finished and exhaled – a purely social reflex, Bade assumed, as he was fairly certain vampires had no need to breathe – and sat in a swivel chair of his own. He upturned his hands and interlocked his fingers neatly in his lap. “Zey are entirely unnecessary. I perfected zis paralytic compound years ago. It proved quite useful ven detaining unruly lycanzrope fundamentalists.”
Bade blinked at Archimetl. There was no sense in straining his mind in trying to appear angry. He couldn’t move his facial muscles, either.
“And don’t worry,” he continued as he stood and paced to the other side of the fairly spacious chamber. “Your superior here has made it very clear zaht none of you are to die by my hand. I vill gladly uphold my side of the bargain. Zough you vill remain… stationary… zhroughout my verk.”
Archimetl placed a manicured hand on Caius’s mostly inert chest.
“None of you except for Mister Germanicus. Lorimer feels that his ownership of zeh Carr has gone on long enough.” Archimetl turned his head to Bade and smiled. Bade held his gaze.
Until Lorimer spoke up from Bade’s side. He pursed his lips and stood.
“I told you not to come in here.”
PART III: More Cryptic Messages
Ace Sedai was out of practice. He was an investigator by trade, a fully commissioned member of the Defensor Agentia, and yet he was quite unsure of what to do when he got the emergency recall letter from what he could only assume to be a contact of the Agentia.
DEAR MISTER HAWK:
THE BIRDS HAVE FLOWN BACK TO THE NEST. YOUR ATTENTION IS REQUIRED.
And this “aviary” is just where he was headed. The entire letter he had received was of course code for approximately “get your ass back to headquarters now,” and that’s just where his colleagues were headed as well, if they were not already there. Ace could only assume that his prolonged absence in the Ursidae – or Tattersaw Lower, technically speaking – did not expedite the delivery of this message to his hands. He could hope he wasn’t late to his urgent rendezvous, but he strongly suspected otherwise. His duties to the agency had certainly been neglected, and Ace considered being marooned on the Ursidae, conscripted into slavery and manual labor, subjected to intense scientific experiments, rebuilt a legendary airship, and destroying a werebear manufactory with a trove of handmade enigmas to be a poor series of excuses for letting his oaths to the Defensor Agentia sit by the wayside.
The thoughts coursing through his mind distracted him for a substantial part of his not inconsiderable hike across rickety bridges and down crumbling sidewalks and through bustling districts to the other side of Plink. He encroached well into well protected Agentia territory before allowing his mind to relax with one final thought.
At least I was on the right continent. Ace stood and exhaled with a mixed weariness from both his trek through the city and his stress over the situation at hand. Not only was he late, but he was late for an emergency all-hands-on-deck recall.
He raised his fist and immediately began the methodical rapping on the wooden door to the purposefully average-looking storefront that secretly represented the Defensor Agentia’s Vigil Praetorium. But as his hand landed on the aged wooden frame he noticed that the door was actually ever so slightly ajar. Intense suspicion filled his mind as a reflex. Ace knew the front door to the D.A.’s headquarters was not left open through carelessness. The only reason – besides the other, deadlier reason he refused to let enter his brain – that the door would be left open is if all the sentries inside had abandoned their post.
Damn it, he cursed. This was an emergency. A big one.
Ace barely even paused to observe the lack of personnel in the building on his way through. He knew just where to look, as urgent of a situation this seemed to be, if his fellow agents had moved en masse to respond to a crisis. He pursued his objective down the spiral staircase in a concealed broom closet down to the secret basement, and from there into the catacombs that represented the quick-transport system of the Viridians – established by the Agentia ages ago, during the Viridian Wars. Sure enough, the seldom-used “man-tube” air tunnels lay dust-covered and untouched in years. Save for one – the station with a wall on which was etched a marker that read, “TO WAYSTATION TITAN.”
Something was going on at Titan? Quite possibly the largest city in the Isles, Titan was the massive capital of West Viridian, South Viridian’s sister island. The two Viridian governments had had quite the shared history, between wars and bitter peacetimes and shaky partnerships and research agreements. But going to Titan was something agents of Plink and the rest of South Viridian tried to avoid; despite the strong alliance the two nations held nowadays. Titan still had an autocracy, even if it was a liberal one, and the security there didn’t look kindly upon law enforcement from across the gap. To even think there was an emergency big enough to recall Southern agents to their brethren’s homeland to the north spelled out true danger indeed.
Ace Sedai could think of nothing else on his trip across the gap to Titan.
PART IV: Also Heading to Titan…
Caius could see Nero glance fearfully back to the hulking werebear chieftain, snarling and slavering probably over the prospect of devouring his long sought-after prey. Caius flustered over his new, shiny control panel. Where was that button for the cannon operation? There had been one before the crash! He sincerely hoped Nero and Ace Sedai had not gotten rid of it…
There! “Port Cannon Control”! Taking the briefest of moments to gauge Dagur’s distance to the middle port cannon, Caius held his breath for the most pregnant of pauses. And pressed the button. The cannon activated, and then it fired, and the cannonball went whizzing ineffectually past the werebear’s flank. He had missed.
Dagur, however, was not exactly nonplussed by his close encounter with the five hundred pounds of wrought iron that nearly took off one of his limbs. The sound of the cannon firing alone was enough to make even this hardened warrior flinch – and even so, “flinch” was a bit of an understatement. Dagur twisted his entire body out of the way of where he presumed the cannonball might’ve landed, and clawed at the side of the Carr as his jetpack decided it didn’t want to keep his flailing form aloft any longer.
The cannonball went soaring above the clearing and crashing through the canopy in the distance. Caius could hear even through his cockpit the terrified screams of panicking slaves in the underbrush.
Luckily the shot gave the anchored ship enough inertia to strain the aft-starboard chains. Caius took advantage of the creaking metallic sound he heard and yanked the wheel and punched the lift accelerators hard. That chain, too, broke free, and the Carr bucked like a birthing bronto beast. Dagur fell past his line of sight to portside, but Caius’s attention was diverted from his enemy as he witnessed Nero fall through a portal of the magus’s own design onto the Carr’s upper deck. He gave Caius a hard look. Caius could guess that he had probably fallen over the starboard bulwarks. Oops.
Much to Nero’s chagrin, Caius assumed, the Carr lurched even harder forward and soared far above the canopy. This was all quite sudden, and the pilot could only assume that the two remaining chains had taken some of the earth with them as they trailed behind the airship. Nero once again went soaring through the air and furrowed his brow in sheer annoyance at Caius before slipping through another one of his conjured wormholes. He vanished out of sight.
Nero certainly lacked the core strength to land on his feet as he emerged through his portal belowdecks. Caius’s escape-piloting, he’d decided, was far too haphazard for him to stay topside. No need to risk unnecessary death. He, like most things with brains, had a predisposition to not fall from really high heights. Even with his aptitude for altering the realities of space.
And then came a cacophony of splintering wood and snapping planks. His stomach sank. The Carr, from which he could probably remove himself at any time, was likely under attack from another werebear gunship. This was a terrible realization, but clearly something had just ripped through the bulkhead a deck lower than he. Their previous encounter with a werebear warship – just one! – had left four of them unconscious and, in one case, partially dismembered. He could only imagine what an assembled werebear fleet could do, and prayed to whatever Goddess was out there that Caius had decided to fly away from the Ursidae capital.
“Oh no,” Nero couldnt help but mutter, as he perceived sinister, echoing footsteps from the third deck below. This was even worse than he feared. A faint breeze from the same deck tousled his unkempt hair, raising the hairs on his neck and arms in full. He crept to the stairwell that led downward, and saw a looming shadow growing ever larger around what seemed to be the largest of corners. He froze at the uppermost stair. Finally, after what seemed to be eons of bated breath, a werebear none other than Dagur emerged in his full terrifying splendor at the stairwell’s foot. The bear snarled. It seemed as if he had nothing more of his sentience about him. He was feral; he was fully predatory. Nero had become his prey.
PART V: ‘Prey,’ ‘Pray,’ It’s All the Same
Ace said a quick prayer – just in case, though he put little stock in it – and closed his eyes as the flare he loosed from his fallen comrade’s signal launcher spiraled lazily across the room, through the ectoplasmic forms of angry spirits coming to get him, and into the pile of haphazardly stacked explosives. Comyn ceased her endless whispering into the reflective shard and turned to see the flare just before it ignited the horde she stockpiled. She looked at Ace only briefly in disgust, barely noted his crippled body, and turned back to the shard. Desperately she pleaded into it:
Followed, only screams. Every soul in a full block radius erupted into agony. Ace’s consciousness dissolved into nothingness.
Bade gasped. This was what was to come if he, in all his paralysis, could not act. And the desperate truth of it all was that he in fact could not. He was connected to all the minds currently dwelling in this apparatus and thus, too, their spirits. The paralytic agent coursing through his veins left him physically barren – could he not make out his nose, he could swear he was just a pair of eyes floating in the middle of a sickening twist on a hospital room. Archimetl toiled at the console merely a few paces away. Lorimer, his posture slumped and aging, looked weary atop the stool on which he sat adjacent to the both of them.
It wasn’t as if Bade wasn’t a competent magus – he was, in all the respects of what the term “magus” meant – but what was he to do? Lorimer was his own master, and he had apprenticed under him for the past three years. For all Bade’s magical ability, Lorimer was sure to have it fivefold. He was one of the most accomplished Magi in Sarcophagus Trinity, and probably by overarching Trinitas Maximus standards as well. And the other man was Archimetl, who looked human enough, but the minds of vampires were notoriously difficult to sway and their souls all but defunct. Outside the studies of Pallidus, subtle magical school encompassing manipulations of destiny, psyche, and soul, Bade was entirely unpracticed. Besides, it was so hard to think with the fuzziness of that tasty brew buzzing around in his cranium…
Wait. Alcohol? That didn’t seem right. Bade rarely imbibed such liquids, and even when he did it wasn’t when he was being a vegetable in the midst of a nefarious plot of a diabolical villain. Was this a side effect of the compound delivered to his bloodstream? He somehow doubted it. Archimetl was a very – what was the word? – exacting being, and he had purposefully developed a drug that allowed his victim’s eyes to move freely. And his mind had been un-addled until just now. It was highly improbable all that was the case. Bade strained to peer over Scippio’s unmoving form to see what Archimetl was doing over at his complicated control panel.
Scippio! Bade thought, alarmed. He probed into his mind a bit further. Compared to the focus he felt in Ace, Mr. Fortunus’s brain was certainly jumbled and hazy. The man was clearly drinking. Bade saw a pub. A bar. A real dive. And a frothy beer in a mottled metal stein. The freelancer had decided to give up the pursuits of his companions and grab a drink somewhere. Sounded reasonable for a privateer. Bade was sure if he could move his face he’d be scowling.
Surprisingly enough, Bade watched through Scippio’s eyes as he hesitated and slowly poured out the stein’s contents onto the bar. The bartender leapt back in angry astonishment. Scippio looked to the balding, red-faced man as his face donned an even more crimson hue. Words were exchanged. He could feel Scippio get angry. Did he not realize he had just disposed (and quite improperly so) of his own drink?
Bewildered, Bade’s mind sharpened as he withdrew from the scene to leave Scippio to his fate. His mind definitely stopped feeling the drunken haze of that of Scippio Fortunus. This led to the strange realization that his companions could actually influence him while joined with him mentally in this apparatus. Which led to the supposition that maybe Bade, too, had done that unwittingly in turn to the others.
Which led to Bade excitedly delving once more into Scippio’s intoxicated mind once more. It was Bade that had poured out the brew, not Scippio! Scippio’s mind and his own had both occupied the selfsame astral projection! Now all Bade had to do was duplicate the effects, in a stronger fashion, and this was his ticket to stopping the fate for Ace Sedai that he had foreseen.
But going back in was a bit different, now. There was something else in Scippio’s projection aura that was off. Lurking. Bade easily assumed control after a few seconds, though it was much more sluggish than his own previous form had been. This wasn’t just alcohol. At first he chalked it up to the competition of another spirit in the same ectoplasmic form, but the hairs on the back of his neck – Erm, Scippio’s neck – stood on end. He looked to the barkeep, who seemed wholly satisfied by the pouch overflowing with Aranium coinage he had apparently just handed over. He nodded at Bade-Scippio.
Bade supposed instead that it was nothing. But his magical aptitude suggested otherwise. He looked to his left, and right. Nothing.
Wait, again. There was something. Some one. She was tall and alluring, and the first thing he noticed besides her red-violet, revealing, very alluring dress was the length of slender leg crossed over its companion. Scippio’s mind became suddenly very easy to control. The privateer apparently had no problem with checking this woman out.
Bade had almost moved his line of sight beyond the curvature of her bosom, framed by subtle waves of platinum blonde hair cascading down from what was sure to be a quite lovely face, when she telescoped her hand out toward him. His eyes darted down to her wrist. He had never been so attracted to a wrist before. It was delicate. Somehow it promised passion and comfort and sensation all at once. Following the line of her hand and little finger he noticed the tiny bright white card stock in her hand. Two lines of two words each were printed on it.
Before he got a chance to read them, Bade was ejected from the astral projection, alienated back into his own incapacitated body. But not by Scippio.
It was odd; he had seen her smile. Only briefly, and not even the rest of her face, but he had definitely seen her smile. It was lovely, just as he suspected. He couldn’t recall looking away from the tiny card in her hand. Steeling himself, readying all the magical might he had at his disposal, Bade dove headfirst back into Scippio’s mind. He was prepared to deal with whatever – whomever? – had ousted him. That attractive specimen at the bar was the chief suspect.
PART VI: A Different Specimen, But No Less Attractive
All Ace could wrap his mind around was the wind. Fierce, biting wind, so much so that he could barely keep one eye open. Air forced its way into every orifice of his body, some upon which he never thought would be intruded. This man-tube propelled him faster than any horse-drawn carriage could travel, presuming a carriage as such could span the gap between South and West Viridian or alternatively navigate through the ever-revolving platforms of the Traverse. There was no quick way between Plink of the South and Titan of the West save for these automated emergency transportation man-tubes (Ace ever so despised that name, and even his fellow agents used the name to much chagrin or amusement). Constructed by the Defensor Agentia as a joint operation, and probably in fact the entire reason the Traverse was created in the first place, man-tubes were seldom used, Ace assumed, for this very reason: holy shit this was fucking unpleasant.
After endless nauseating twists and turns he finally made his way out of the sapphire glow of the Traverse’s underbelly and out into open air. But only for a second, however, for the man-tube guided him very quickly straight into the rocky side of West Viridian. He held his breath, briefly fearing pulverization as the finality of his unfinished life. But the tube continued, and air practically forced its way into his lungs.
And yet his mind continued to dwell on what unseen reason could have been the catalyst for his choosing to enter this godforsaken man-tube in the first place.
Ace was jolted to a stop mere feet before the end of the tube. He hadn’t realized he’d traveled so far in so little time. He’d almost had time to be alarmed at the suddenly approaching solid wall before him, but by the time the automated airflow failsafes had kicked in and halted his forward propulsion, Ace was already clambering out into the larger collection area of the waystation. His mind was way ahead of him.
But Ace gave pause. He became momentarily nonplussed by the layout of this waystation. The room in which he stood was completely circular, constructed out of mossed-over stone and the periodic rusty iron brace. Both materials looked ages old. Apparently the agency in West Viridian either hadn’t the know-how, the manpower, or the concern to reinforce their mission-critical terminuses. Ace had been able to chemically harden an airship with an enigma constructed out of a bunch of scraps in the middle of the werebear wilderness. These westerners had little excuse for such neglect.
Opposite the man-tube entrance in the small chamber’s collection area stood a vertical metal grate, made from the same rusted iron as the reinforcement on the walls. Beyond it lied what had to be a tributary for Titan’s sewage drainage system. Ace judged this mostly by the acrid stench penetrating his nostrils that he found quite impossible to ignore. Westerners sure had a strange sense of what an intelligence and defense agency’s personnel standards should be. He couldn’t believe it, but it was quite apparent that he, like his fellow agents whose footsteps he was trailing, was expected to make it through the grate and trudge through the human waste and blindly navigate his way to whatever emergency had occurred.
Westerners, he thought begrudgingly. There was a reason he had chosen to stay in Plink of his homeland, South Viridian. The pay was worse, and he certainly had his job cut out for him with the spiking organized crime rates, but at least he didn’t have to deal with this kind of shit.
No pun intended. Ace took a step forward as he tried to use the bitterness he felt as motivation to get this ordeal over with.
As he did so, a lone drop of water found its way to splash on Ace’s forehead. He frowned and looked upward methodically, as if to visually confront his droplet assailant. His disposition brightened considerably when, in fact, the water’s origin appeared to come from a thickly grated manhole cover not two meters above his head – just within arm’s reach when standing atop the rusted wrought iron upper surface of the man-tube entrance apparatus.
This trail of breadcrumbs, so it seemed, was proving much easier to follow than Ace originally anticipated.
Some lengthy minutes later, Ace Sedai, master detective, special agent of the D.A., and only agent left alive, stood in the threshold of a musty wine cellar at the foot of a rotting quadruplet of stairs in the back of an old banker’s house, which lay on the outskirts of the Treasury Square and was in the midst of a slow-going restoration project. The brutally maimed and twisted corpses of Ace Sedai’s fellow agents lied strewn about the stone floor around him. Blood was everywhere, from the splatters on the walls to the mess of boot impressions in the main hall to the ominous handprint on the front fucking door. Even the streets surrounding the building stank of bloodshed. It was strange to Ace that the well-to-do city folk bustling through the streets didn’t take note of it, for it was a blatant invitation for any sort of legal authority to, please, come barging in this building and detain all who were holed up within. That is precisely how Ace Sedai responded to the offensive, immoral gesture.
He suspected now, of course, after it was probably too late, that this was exactly what she had expected him to do.
And of course Ace recognized her. The woman in the far corner, accompanied by what amounted to probably scores of pounds above the legal weight of explosive ordnance allowed to be stored in any given building (“probably” because, admittedly, Ace was not entirely familiar with West Viridian’s adaptation of the law), was none other than Comyn, an old classmate of his from the Academiae and competitor in the class’s final project which involved a slew of disembodied goblin ears.
But that was beside the point now. Aside from the complete lack of blood anywhere on her immaculately clean person and spectacularly all-but-revealing, nearly gleaming white nightgown, she clearly bore the guilt in this scenario. She smiled warmly, as if embracing his presence among his deceased colleagues, which meant only one thing: the crazy bitch was going to fucking murder him.
Unless, of course, Ace delivered retribution for his colleagues first. He tightened his fists until his knuckles turned white. His hamstrings tightened as he prepared to leap forward.
Comyn’s features soured. Ace was unable to mask his intent to harm her, and despite her distraction with this shard she was holding she was unable to ignore the threat Ace posed to both her well-being and her yet-unknown diabolical scheme. She furrowed her brow, softly flared her small nostrils, and frowned. And a moment later, Comyn thrust her hands into the space above her, dragging with them some dark, mystic energy summoned from what appeared to be nowhere. And immediately dozens of malicious spirits spawned from their matching corpses littered around the cold stone floor, impeding the path between her and her old classmate.
Ace did not find himself often overtaken by emotions of any sort. He prided himself on such composure, and his sheer strength of will allowed him the position he currently held in his organization. The Defensor Agentia hadn’t a lack for motivated agents, but Ace had been recognized by his superiors on more than one occasion for his steeliness and unwavering dedication to his career and to the Agentia itself. And this particular event would be no exception, but not because he remained unfaltered.
No, because neither Ace nor Comyn would survive, and nary a witness would be around to account for his disposition, afeared or otherwise.
But, for the record, Ace was terrified out of his goddess-be-damned mind.
PART VII: Seriously, GBD
I slipspace rupture was not something often witnessed in the Isles of Arania. Or anywhere else in the multiverse, even. Not since the creation event of Patchwork Bricolage was one recorded in any sort of official manner – and that particular event, of course, was subject to the discretionary beliefs of any religion or lack thereof. In fact, so rare were mere rumors of these (mostly) minor cataclysms that even the most studied Trinitas Magi refused to recognize their existence in any legitimate fashion.
And yet here, directly above the preternaturally planar-intersecting Magi dominicus of Trinitas Maximus – also the headquarters of the West Viridian government, the Foederati Aedificium – ripped a massive wormhole of primal magic and static energy. What began with a pink mist crackled swiftly into a tear as wild and quick as lightning, and after waiting a mere moment (as if to wait for a few more onlookers) it exploded into a blinding cacophony of searing light, a thundering clang, and a shockwave of likewise pinkish particulates. All three effects spread a diameter of nearly a mile within the span of the average heartbeat of the common folk below. Hats flew off heads. Shops’ burlap coverings flapped violently. Even a handful of windows shattered – ones that were in close proximity and at the proper angle. The People stared on in awe.
But even more awestruck, Nero presumed, were the Archmagi in attendance of the bi-monthly Concilium who were sure to have detected the anomaly through conventions other than mere human senses. He was quite sure scores of Magi much more powerful than he were probing into the midday sky above the city of Titan into which he, Caius, and the majesty of the Carr had just emerged.
Dagur had been successfully ejected, it seemed, back on the Ursidae where he belonged.
With a million thoughts racing through his mind at once, Nero was unsure of which to take hold. His body stood motionless, eyes wide and unfocused, pointer fingers twitching with residual magical might. He worked his jaw subconsciously and pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek. It was safe to say that every single hair on his body was standing on end. Wind suddenly began to whip at his face and its shearing effect roused him from his inaction.
There still happened to be a gaping hole in the belly of the ship, through which he could see the Foederati Aedificium, and only three – well, two-and-a-half – steps to the lower decks still lay in their places. The rest of the wooden-and-iron structure had been obliterated by his umbral tear in reality. A mere portal – a sort of summons he practiced quite often – had somehow gone terribly awry. And it wasn’t the first of his spells to not act as intended. Nero had heard of such failsafes that would keep one’s spellcasting from delivering haphazard results as focus rings or staffs. He had never quite put any faith into them and hadn’t seen any immediate or pressing need to acquire one. But that was before he had left the safety of his home city of Plink. Sarcophagus Trinity called the flourishing city home, and the few times he was outside the relative magical crutch of his sanctum he hadn’t found himself casting anything more powerful than simple cantrips. Now that Nero was altering time and (mostly) space in a major and much more unreal fashion, it seemed to him that maybe it was time to subscribe to the same train of thought. There was no need, really, to try and blaze his own trail, unless he wanted to end up dead due to irresponsibility on his part. Not before his multitude of ambitions were wholly achieved.
And, besides, every archmagi he had ever had the privilege of meeting had some sort of focus. There clearly was something practical to it.
Nero nodded to himself once, gathered his composure, and promptly turned on his heel to go above-decks. Caius would probably need some guidance on the matter at hand. After all, even Nero himself barely understood what he had caused moments ago.
Caius steeled himself. There was such a multitude of variables and unanswered questions and a great deal of confusion in his current scenario that he decided – or rather proved incapable – of dealing with them all. Or any, actually. Not a single worry ran through his mind – not the crackling sky, not the deafening clash nearly bursting his eardrums, and certain not the inexplicable reality that he was suddenly flying above Titan. No, none of that mattered, and his brain couldn’t hope to process any of it, even with the assistance of the mind-mesh-meld thing he was part of along with those guys who he guessed were magic. All he knew from all his years of tutelage under his father and grandfather was to do was fly his ship. Variables emerged like this, (well, not quite like this) his father would say when he was a toddler, in the midst of your morning feculence. You have to be able to grab the seat of your pants and take the wheel before the situation does.
Of course he had little time to dwell on that childhood conversation at this particular moment, so he took hold of the wheel and steered hard to port.
And directly into his field of vision erupted the full majesty of the Cathedral of the Shimmering Spider. Haw marvelous it truly was, its quadruple spires reaching high into the heavens. The soaring architecture, with flying buttresses cascading down each massive level. He would need to get a better look up-close – that was certain. And so he would.
Nero, damn near coughing up a lung, emerged from the smoking wreck of the Carr.
“Stellar piloting there, captain,” he said disdainfully, speaking towards Caius, who seemed to be conspicuously absent of the wreckage. Plumes of smoke billowed up and encircled the central clock tower of the cathedral upon which they had crashed. It would certainly be difficult to discern the breach Dagur had torn in the belly of the great Carr now that there was a much bigger one surrounding where it once was. Nero waved the smoke away from his face as he resisted another fit of coughing. The smoke itself burned at his nostrils uncomfortably. It tingled through his nervous system, sending random spats of miniature spasm throughout his entire body. The most annoying of which was his eyelid twitching. It seemed to be getting the worst of the magic spewing forth from the flames. Primal ashes, presumably from a mere nick in the artifactual engines of their ship, were scattered about the plumes around him. It was an inconvenient sensation, one which he suspected would be taken much worse by one not as familiar in the magic of the prime as he in fact happened to be.
Caius plummeted quite suddenly (and quite like the Carr had a few moments ago, Nero acknowledged) from the thickness of smoke around the height of where the fore of the main deck had to be. He shouted before he hit the ground and clutched at his back, and once again as he realized he was falling. A third, weaker shout was barely audible after he hit as well.
Nero sighed. “Perhaps we should inform the owner that our ship shall be docked here awhile?”
Caius groaned and writhed to turn towards his magus friend. “My ship,” he spat. “And forgive me if I’m not exactly used to navigating through the biggest city in the Viridians after unexpectedly teleporting her halfway across the damned Isles.”
Nero supposed that was fair enough and didn’t press the issue any further.
A few exploratory and largely I eventful moments later, he and Caius stood what had to be around a dozen landings lower on the threshold between the root of one of the lofty spires near which they had landed on the roof and the grand hall of the cathedral. And grand it certainly was, even Nero could readily admit. Though he knew little about architecture, the massive vaulted ceilings, lined with gold and Aranium trimming, and what had to be some hundred yards above him, swooped down with grace. The artfully crafted stained glass windows that adorned the walls both to the front of the cathedral to his left and the rear to his right depicted in brilliant colors the creation stories of the Isles and their progenitor, Regina Arania, herself. One central window just above the glorious dais showed the “Goddess” (as the common folk tended to classify her) herself, with the torso and face of a stunningly beautiful woman and the bloated thorax and sinewy legs of a sinister spider, blessing the land with rays of divine light. Nero noticed his companion looking on with unparalleled awe. He shrugged with a hint of disdain and started for the pews.
Not two steps into his journey his eyes affixed on one of the catwalks inadvertently created by the buttresses above him. He froze. These marble-carved archways were not meant to be walked, and yet there was Comyn, his (oh, Nero hated putting labels on things)… “friend,” directly in the center of the one nearest his position.
“Comyn?” Nero was sufficiently surprised. He half-whispered his befuddled reaction to her inexplicable presence here. In a church, of all places. He would’ve been less surprised to see Dagur perched atop the arches. His stomach sank briefly as he realized that the werebear general, who had proven to be surprisingly elusive for his bulk, had a tendency to show up in his life at any given moment.
But Comyn beckoned him to her with a singular, sultry wag of her finger. The woman—magus—certainly had a way with him when she wanted. Ever since the academy. Of course his goal here was only to let her think she was working him. He wasn’t some mere plaything to be trifled with. By the Rose, Nero was part of Sarcophagus Trinity. Sure, her grasp of Causality was not insignificant, but his was widely recognized as much more potent.
The one thing she always had on him, however, was allure… Yes, he’d give her that much. And this occasion was no exception to that admission.
Casting aside all regard to prudence and magical secrecy, Nero absentmindedly clasped his hands together, arms fully extended in front of him, and motioned as if tearing open the air in front of him. A tear it he did, as his showy display opened a crackling, sizzling portal, arcs of electricity and random tufts of flame, shortlived as they were, licking the air at its edges. Nero stepped through, transfixed on the woman that lay in wait for him on the other side.
Comyn smiled warmly as Nero allowed his portal to collapse behind him with the most minute amount of time possible to spare after the last of his rearmost foot passed through. Though his portal mas gone, the sparks were still in the air betwixt them. Her negligee rustled ever so slightly, as did her dark, flaring hair that draped down to frame shoulders. As Nero drew ever closer, she tenderly wrapped her arms around his neck and allowed her warm abdomen to press against his and slipped her right leg just barely between his.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Nero admitted he’d never had Comyn—anyone—in a place of worship before.
Comyn touched her lips to Nero’s ear. “Why do you help him,” she gently pressed, “when he is but a mortal?”
Nero withdrew himself a bit. The last thing he expected was for Comyn to ask about… oh, what was his name again? He tried to blink himself out of his stupor and began to turn his head down toward the altar where he had last left his friend. His friend? Nero was pretty sure she purposefully ignored this man all through their years at the academy together. So why this change of—?
Comyn’s finger rushed to meet his jaw, and she slowly turned Nero’s head back to face her. Her eyes—he had never seen them this large and wistful before—bore into his own with a longing. “You must let him do this on his own.”
“Sure,” Nero shrugged. “I don’t even know that guy.”
The following is as documented in the Archives, and, per accordance with the Axioms of Reality, shall not be repeated or viewed without specific Cause.
- The mortal known as Caius Germanicus approached the Irreverent Olivant Munckgummery, High Pedipalp of the Aranian Order, Father of the Cathedral of the Shimmering Spider in Titan, West Viridian, who ushered Caius into a rear hidden antechamber. From thence he disappeared into tunnels we of the Trinities can only describe as having gone quite some time without a proper dusting. We have since been unable to locate these tunnels, through means both magical and mundane, and the Father himself insists he remembers nothing of the encounter. We attribute this to whatever Artifact the fallen magus Comyn must have been using to project a nonmagical version of herself onto one the main worship hall’s parapets. The fallen magus Nero has since not been located, either.
- The detective Ace Sedai was last seen entering a rundown building we have since discovered to be a Defense Agency covert hideout some time after the rest of the members of his D.A. cell entered and were subsequently used as sacrifice by Comyn. (Perhaps their spilled blood powered the Artifact, whatever It was? Or their lifeless husks, or their captured, departing souls… No matter, for it is now inconsequential.) Shortly following his entrance, there were sounds of a scuffle, but the Oligarchs are unwilling to permit any diviners to scry any further into the matter. The unidentifiable supernatural tempest that consumed them thereafter has put two of us in comas and the third came down with a mild nosebleed which has lasted several weeks.
- As soon as the tempest erupted, Comyn’s projection in the cathedral disintegrated and Nero decided to berserkly unleash his various forms of studied sorcery arbitrarily and violently across the Viridians. (He is, after all, a skilled transpersonalist and so his reach may very well have extended into the other Isles as well, but we feel investigating such short-lived and meaningless apparitions is a moot point at this time.)
- Simultaneous with Ace’s encounter with Comyn, Caius somehow found his way into own hallowed halls of the Spire. Exactly the moment the tempest erupted in Treasury Square, Caius’s chest burst through with blood and he dissolved into particulates that were not too dissimilar from that of Comyn’s own projection. It is unclear how these two events were related other than the inevitability that Comyn and Caius had to have been working in tandem. Oddly enough, however, Caius’s form appeared again moments later in our foyer, and several of the many witnesses report that he did so layer-by-layer and with quite a bit of ectoplasm. Others were transfixed by all of the gunk they saw in his colon. Regardless, he escaped via a rogue and perfectly timed portal from Nero. Both of their whereabouts are now unknown.