Arania

Fable I, Part I
Death of a Hangman, Part I
Dramatis Personae

Greenwort, the Green
Goldwater Junip, the Target
The Hangman
Lindemindt Bullstrop, the Vassal
Pericot Woodworth, the Scrubber

All the Kingman’s Forces

Greenwort, the excommunicated mage of the Lower, was not overjoyed about journeying into the Redlamp to meet his stalker. At the man’s own apartment, no less. But he was doing so on his own accord, the wizard had to remind himself, for there seemed to be something of great interest in this Mr. Junip’s possession: the Magmorb, an Artifact of Olde, and on the off-chance that Mr. Junip did actually have the thing, Greenwort was not about to let Fate decide who came by it next. Goldwater was a mortal, as it were, not a Learned man like Greenwort. To have a mortal carrying around an Artifact like it was some trinket from his grandmother was unthinkable. It was basically Greenwort’s civic duty to take it off his hands.

And so the wizard found himself in the very humble abode of Goldwater Junip, who was gleefully staring back at his guest, completely beside himself that Greenwort had shown up at all.

“Mr. Green! What perfect timing,” Goldwater exclaimed as he resumed bumbling about, gathering clothes and books and rather pointless knickknacks from around what Greenwort could see was a very untidy living room. Greenwort’s impression of the short, overweight man could best be described as pouchy. He wasn’t sure why.

“I was just about to head out!”

“Oh?” Greenwort almost immediately regretted uttering any sort of response. Artifact or no, he had decided as soon as Junip opened his mouth that it was not worth suffering through another conversation with the man.

Goldwater paused and turned to the mage. He flashed a grin, and continued, “I’m going on an adventure!”

It was too late now; Greenwort was actually becoming mildly interested in where Goldwater was going. From an academic standpoint, of course, he rationalized to himself. He removed his thick, smoky glasses and went through the futile motions of cleaning the lenses on his tunic. “Where to?”

Goldwater was smiling wryly now, and said, “Why, the Halajord of course.” He paced over to one of several bookshelves in the fairly spacious living room. From it he removed a burlap-wrapped orb. Greenwort instantly knew the nature of the item inside without having to lay his eyes upon it. “I’ve been thinking – I’ve done so little with this life and I’m already in my thirties – what better time for an adventure than now! And with all the do-no-gooders about – it’s not like I live in a good neighborhood, and I’m probably not moving anywhere respectable any time soon–”

“Why the Halajord?” Greenwort placed his glasses back onto his aged face. They were no cleaner than before.

Goldwater pursed his lips. “Truthfully?”

“Yes.”

“Even if it sounds completely and utterly insane?”

“Yes, especially that.”

Goldwater paused. He could feel (who he knew as) Mr. Green blinking at him.

“This thing has been giving me dreams about it.” He unveiled the prize beneath the burlap, whisking away the cover like he was a magician performing to a very unimpressed audience of one. Before the two men lied what was very unmistakably the Magmorb. “It’s been showing me the way to The Mountain.”

Greenwort had trouble showing any facial signs of emotion in his later years, his leathery jowls sagging so much on his face is was almost as if he had more skin than the insides it covered up. But at this particular moment, his right eye glistened perhaps a bit more than usual. He reached for it.

Goldwater snatched it back and threw the burlap back over it in a blink of an eye. He almost seemed hurt. “I call it the Hot Ball.”

Maybe it was all the excitement, or the warming presence of the – did he just call it a Hot Ball? – or maybe it was simply because his prostate was enlarged beyond belief and probably riddled with cancer, but in any case Greenwort was suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to pee.

“Where is your commode?”

• • • •

The man known as Goldwater Junip resided a small flat (which, admittedly, for as tiny and rundown as it was, was still difficult to afford on the meager salary of a columnist who specialized in writing uninspired horoscopes which bore no mark of truth about them).The shoddy apartment lied on the third floor corner of a building made of crumbling stone and plaster. This was at the intersection of Rample and Crap, the unpaved streets of which never quite got the memo to upgrade to something a bit more suitable for urban wear and tear. It was not a busy or cloudy night by any means, and the light salty breeze bore upon it the sickly salty smell of the Bungle River just a few blocks north. Tattersaw Lower always had that odor about it, the Scrubber thought to himself. He rarely even recognized its presence most times – save for nights like these, where he solemnly awaited the moments when he was to go to work.

Pericot Woodworth pondered little, arms folded neatly on his lap, as he sat in the handily embroidered carriage which the Kingman always readily provided him on his nightly jobs. As the Kingman’s sole Scrubber – a title which he bore with an intense pride and diligence. He had alternate motives, of course, for cleaning up after the Kingman’s needless murders, but he did not dwell on those thoughts when his duties were at hand. He watched the dim light which glowed from Goldwater Junip’s apartment as he awaited the Aftermath.

Lindemindt Bullstrop, a Vassal of the Kingman and a faefolk of sorts, fidgeted next to the Scrubber in the black carriage. This was Bullstrop’s first big task, the Scrubber could tell, and the impatient man would not cease the minute bouncing of his left leg. The Scrubber inhaled deeply and barely turned to deliver Bullstrop a subtle glare. The Vassal didn’t seem to notice.

In fact, he seemed to notice little. A permanent squint seemed to be screwed upon his face.

Finally, the Scrubber noticed movement on the rusty fire escape (as if a fire escape of even the finest blacksmith would have allowed anyone reprieve from even a small candle fire should the building decide it was time to set itself aflame). It was the nearly invisible billow of a black cowl, which was absolutely unmistakable against the dark backdrop of the night to his keen eyes. The Scrubber, unlike his companion, had been on enough of these jobs to recognize the hallmark of the Hangman when he saw it.

The Hangman’s tolls were always quick and clean, which is something he as a Scrubber always appreciated. It was easier to call upon the twisted magics of the shadow to disguise the means by which a cadaver bit the big one when the kill was neat.

He gently nudged the Vassal and nodded toward the window of the target. “It’s nearly time,” he whispered flatly. The Hangman moved stealthily yet rapidly approached his destination. The Vassal, fed up with the tiny angle allowed by the viewport in the carriage door, exited rapidly and spun on his heel to try and see what was going on.

“What?” the Vassal demanded. “I can’t see a damned thing, how can you?”

The Scrubber silently clicked his door shut and buttoned his taupe colored topcoat. This was his only response.

“I don’t like you very much,” muttered the Vassal.

• • • •

The Hangman stood motionless outside the Target’s window. Glass, he thought to himself. A glass pane? This was a strange amenity for Tattersaw Lower. He hated glass windows. There were volumes he could speak on how glass windows impeded the progress of a true assassination. They always creaked. Opening them meant a certain change in atmosphere to what lie on the other side. And the few times he’d had to jump through them to make a quick escape had been far less than a pleasant experience.

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Chapter XIV
The Crew Goes to the Opera
Dramatis Personae

Ace Sedai
Bade Ignatius Guy
Caius Germanicus
Guardian
Nero Faxon
Sola Tiris

Part I: Pretending That Last Part Never Happened

Sola Tiris was pleasantly full. It had been a while since she had had her last feast, before the one she consumed the night before. Of course, meals for vampires were quite different than those of mortals, and even other supernaturals; instead she had to drink the hue out of anything colored red.

No, wait, that’s a different universe. That’s an adventure for a different time. Vampires, here in Arania, drank blood. Good, old fashioned vampire bloodsucking.

Ace Sedai’s near-lifeless body stood next to her. She eyed him pleasingly for but a moment. But Caius, who had a penchant for possessing and operating Ace’s soulless form, peeked his ethereal head out from the slack-jawed husk of a man and grinned at her. He winked knowingly and surreptitiously waggled his eyebrows. Sola, flushed, snapped her head back frontward. She could see dead people, and right now she hated it.

The Crew had tracked the elusive werebandicoot to what Sola Tiris recognized as some sort of governmental building. Its white marbleized pillars and angular, evenly intersecting rooftops gave it away and, in her opinion, made the obnoxious point of being there and subsequently being a very nice target. Men always housed their leaders in such obvious “important” places, and this hubris honestly made her job as someone who interfered with the well-beings of other leaders much easier.

But as an ill-Fated change of pace it seemed to hamper her intentions considerably this time around. Her target was a hideaway lycanthrope in the building, and could honestly be just about anyone inside. At least they were in Tattersaw Lower, and at least it was night, which meant that any potential witnesses from the surrounding blocks were impeded by the very convenient condition of being incredibly drunk. But with a werebandicoot bound to be tearing up the streets, she doubted a mostly mortal-looking vampire going twenty of thirty meters per hour over the normal speed of Man would be remembered as having much consequence anyway.

Teatime Rendezvous

“Ahem,” Bade cleared his throat from the other side of Ace. “You mentioned something about going inside?”

Sola snapped to. “Yes,” she replied hastily, as she stepped forward toward the three-story tavern.

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Chapter XIII
This One Ends with a Bang
Dramatis Personae

Ace Sedai
Annona Quinn
Bade Ignatius Guy
Caius Germanicus
Nero Faxon

PART I: And Now For Something Completely Different

Sopping wet and quite confused, Bade found himself standing in the middle of what he recognized vaguely as one of Sarcophagus Trinity’s various sepulchral ritual chambers. Archaeologists as Sarcophagus mages were, interested in nothing more than digging up ancient Aranian artifacts, any space they called theirs was usually littered with primitive finds and relics from bygone eras. This was no exception – in fact, the ritual room seemed even more so, associated as they were the Sarcophagus magical attunements and the old stuff they found by digging and spelunking. Bade never thought much of those types of studies (after all, he wasn’t ever officially a mage of the Sarcophagus Trinity anyway) and dismissed it as unnecessary clutter. It was all probably considered trash by its previous owners anyway.

But all that was a fairly moot observation given the current situation at hand. One moment Bade stood anticipating quite a violent encounter with a quite fearsome walrus-man who had both a much bigger ship and much more ability to command and operate it on the furious oceans on which they sailed, in the middle of a tempest (which Bade swore had angry eyes), surrounded by a mutinous band of brigands he and his own had hired the previous day to track down and help them against said walrus-man; the next he was being zapped by a supercharged miniature white nova into an entirely different part of Reality. Bade’s hair stood on end, even sopping wet as it was. He swiftly tried to blow a small waterfall off the tip of his nose, to little avail.

“Pardon the interruption,” a slender figure in cloak and cowl supplied from just beyond Bade’s mending scope of vision. The white flash had momentarily not permitted him to see much farther than his eyelids, and even then all he could notice was the junk mucking up the place. The woman in front of him was wearing, he could see now, robes of the mustard and midnight hues of a Level X wizard and the insignia of the Sarcophagus Order. Unless there was recently a murder and usurping that took place, there was only one person this could possibly be: Annona Quinn, one of the trio of oligarchs whom he was required to obey. This one was his favorite. He liked her much better than Lorimer.

But even a bloodthirsty were-gorilla would be an improvement on Lorimer.

She removed her hood gingerly, as she did all things, and continued with a hint of concern in her voice. “I require your assistance,” she stated flatly. Bade was surprised by her straightforwardness. He much preferred this to the typical mage dancing around the subject and deception.

It was notable, however, as she stepped forward to close the space between them, that she was not talking to Bade. She was talking to Bade’s colleague, Nero, whom apparently had also been summoned alongside him. The phasmabotomized body of Ace Sedai was there as well, and unsurprisingly the spirit of Caius Germanicus hovered nearby. He wondered if transporting Caius was Annona’s intention, or if he was just sucked here along with the crown Ace wore to which he was anchored. He had little interest in attempting to understand the workings or side-effects of unholy vampiric technology. It was probably of little consequence anyway.

No Guardian, though. Bade wasn’t sure he cared about that, either. His companions probably felt similarly. The abomination bestowed upon them a certain air of… unease. It was difficult to treat the Guardian with any sort of mutual respect.

Probably something to do with the fact that he was comprised of an amalgam of discarded, reanimated body parts.

Caius filled the silence by stepping a ghostly pace forward and extending his hand for pleasantries. “Hi,” he cheerily greeted her, “Caius Germanicus, airship pilot extraordinaire, at your service.”

Much to Bade’s surprise, she somewhat absent-mindedly returned the handshake. Even other Magi had trouble seeing Caius in all his bodiless splendor. He supposed, however, that she was a Level X.

Nero didn’t flinch at his oligarch’s request. Annona stood there silently beseeching, apprehensive of his response. She was met with cold silence.

“What is it you need?” Bade conceded. He wasn’t sure if Nero was purposefully unresponsive or if he was simply trying to work his mind around the explosion of unlikely events that swirled around them in the last two or so minutes. And it wasn’t wise to keep a Level X waiting, even if it was a seemingly good-natured one such as Annona. “Hopefully it’s local, because we very recently lost our airship.”

“Time is of the essence,” Annona said wearily. With a wave of her hand she dismissed the other Level VIs or so helping her perform her ritual to summon the crew here. Bade admittedly didn’t even notice them until they simultaneously whisked away from their shadowy positions around the room. It was nigh impossible to tell if he recognized any of them under their thick black ceremonial robes. She continued, demanding he return his attention to her, “So I won’t dance around the issue. And, just to be clear, I care not for whatever political web of Lorimer in which you’re caught. This is of greater importance – or else I wouldn’t have summoned you here with all haste.”

Annona spun ethereally on her heel and kept talking. She handed Bade some sort of worn-out satchel, and Bade and Nero both fell into step behind her. Caius, momentarily forgetting himself, began to walk with them. But after quite literally walking through the soulless husk to which he was anchored he frowned and sighed – as much as a phantom can sigh, anyway. Maybe a bit of ectoplasm spewed forth from his mouth hole. Or maybe it was more like a bilabial fricative. Regardless, he jumped into possession of Ace’s body and plodded along behind the three Magi.

By the time he caught up and rounded the corner (overhearing something about a drug and how it was supposed to cure lycanthropy but really just made them have psychotic breakdowns, which all sounded very terrible), he was met with the reactionary hissing of a lithe and very attractive Vampire duchess. Her fangs sprung out, but quickly she licked them away and regained her composure.

Annona continued with concern and a furrowed brow. “This… is Sola Tiris of the Eyrie,” she said, explaining more quickly as Ace-Caius stopped fidgeting. “She’s already done some investigating herself on the matter. We’re working closely with the Vampire Prince to head this problem off before it becomes widespread.”

“Rampant lycanthropes are good for nobody,” Sola commented with just a hint of venom. “We’ve met before,” she added, regarding Bade and Nero," Not sure I’ve had the pleasure with this one, though."

Ace-Caius gulped. He saw her fangs flash back out for the momentest of moments.

“So where are we headed?” he changed the subject desperately.

Annona replied flatly, “Downtown,” as she continued on, probably to attend to important wizardy business.

“Wayyyyy downtown,” Sola added sinisterly.

PART II: You Can Always Go Downtown

The four ragtag individuals – five? – stood shadowed in a particular nasty alleyway where particularly nasty individuals like themselves liked to shadow just off a street uncharacteristically called Nice Boulevard. Across the street and down a block from where they stood was a gathering of homeless individuals – they wore ragged clothing and were covered in what must have been months’ worth of filth. It made Nero yearn for a bath, but then again bathtime was quite enjoyable to the Shadow Mage. There was something about full immersion in one of the elements that—No, it didn’t show a lack of maturity. Shut up.

The problem with these “homeless” gentlemen was that, besides the general lack of hygiene and style awareness, they didn’t actually appear destitute at all. All three of them were in all manners of speaking very fit, with immaculately groomed hair and (he had decided to do a bit of dental scrying for scientific purposes to find this out) very well brushed teeth.

All signs obviously pointed to an unfortunate pattern of lycanthropy.

Their mammal-types were usually pretty obvious, Nero recalled from his time upon the Ursidae, by their mannerisms and body types. The biggest of the three, a real barrel-chested guy, had his black hair slicked back and leaned forward on his haunches so his powerful arms dangled underneath his chest. He was clearly an ape. The second, with whom the apish fellow conversed quietly, leaned up against the wall and nibbled on something ravenously. Rodent of some sort. She had the quickness of one, for sure. The third was a smaller man, actually on all fours and pacing in a tight circle between his companions and the mouth of the alley in which they stood. He had ragged hair and waddled like a dope.

“Is that one a terrier?” Nero whispered of any one of his crew who might have an answer. “He looks kind of like a Lemmer terrier.”

PAHBABLY,” Ace-Caius shouted unexpectedly. The trio of lycanthropes all looked over and tensed. The ape-man tilted his head to try to get a better angle. The tension was high; already the crew was found out because Caius just had to open Ace’s mouth.

Ratlady scurried forward to close the distance between them and from where they had heard the sound. The ape-man pivoted to follow her but with a much more methodical gait. Nero’s fingers twitched unconsciously, tapping into his magical essence. He steeled himself to start altering Reality. He could tell without looking that Bade was doing the same with his Causal abilities.

Just then, Dog lurched forward and vomited at the ape-man’s feet. The ape-man stopped and turned to his companion and looked as if he was fighting the urge to backhand him. Ratlady turned around and sniffed the air in the vomit’s direction. She immediately recoiled and walked slowly back over to her spot on the alley wall, shaking her head. Dog looked up at the ape-man, momentarily ashamed, but when ape-man lost interest Dog turned his face to the cobblestone and gobbled up the meal he was determined to digest fully.

Nero stared at Caius in a panic, as did Bade. Sola furrowed her brow angrily.

Caius’s ghostly form retreated from Ace’s body. “Sorry,” he grimaced. “I forgot I was controlling his body.”

They all turned to look back at their targets together. Only Dog, sitting patiently on his haunches, remained.

“Goddess’s wrath,” Nero spat. Caius gaped defensively.

“That was me,” Bade said quietly. Nero’s reply was simply a look that unequivocally demanded further explanation.

“They have other matters to attend to now. Now we can just talk to one of them alone.”

Caius began to float between Nero and Bade as they were talking. Nero gave him a look that was a mixture between confusion and frustration but which ultimately just looked like he was having a particularly bad bout of indigestion.

And then across Nice Boulevard, heading right for Dog from the shadows of abandoned shops’ awnings, was what Nero noted to be an extremely stealthy Vampire Lady. Sola Tiris was rapidly closing the distance between them and their target.

Sola Tiris was under strict instruction by the Vampire Prince, His Illustriousness, Lord of Blood and All Things Red (and Other Closely Hued Colors), known to his long-deceased mother, wherever she may lay, as Lucky. Any who called him by this name which he forsook centuries ago was met with a swift pike through the bottom of the neck and up past the top of the skull. He owned many pets, all of which were subjected lycanthopes of the classic werewolf variety. His butler was a domesticated werebear who looked quite funny in a two-piece suit (they never could find pants that would remain unripped when he walked). The legitimate swaths of subservient lycanthropes that escaped from their various owners were usually subjects of His Illustriousness’s hunting parties and suffered a similar fate as those who called him a name beginning with L- and ending with -ucky.

Suffice it to say he had no special love for lycanthropes. In fact his instructions included but were not limited to eliminating every one of them she encountered along the way. She was not unhappy to oblige. Rabid animals deserved a swift kick in the life-force. A fatal one. So that they died. …Yes.

The bitter thoughts of every other task the Vampire Prince demanded of her over the past several decades for once took a back seat as Sola Tiris relished the anticipation of tearing these lycans literally limb-from-furry-limb.

The mage known as Bade – one of the collection of Men she had freed from the trappings of the Heretic Archimetl back in Tattersaw Lower months ago – crept forward while those murderous thoughts consumed her. She hadn’t noticed him manipulating his vanilla magic and targeting the crouching weredog on which she was about to pounce. But something smelled… off, she noticed suddenly, with this lycan.

She looked up at the sky. Yes, the Moon was clear and vibrant against the inky darkness around it. Its beams shone down brilliantly upon them all, including the weredog, who definitely should be automatically changed into full man-beast form right now…

That’s when a werewolf emerged from an abandoned shop window and stabbed Caius right in the ghost kidney.

“Aghhbbppppplblblbl,” Caius groaned. He was learning the hard way that his phantom brain apparently processed pain the same way his physical body once had. Wolf Man here (who, by the way, had decided it was high time to transform himself into full man-beast horror form), with a sinister smirk upon his canine face, licked the blade of his knife. As his beastly tongue ran down the length of the blade, it slathered off the ectoplasm it grabbed from Caius’s midsection. The blade glowed with an ethereal translucence. Caius had never encountered a lycanthrope as a phantom before, and apparently they could not only see him but harm him as well. Even in his vantage point within Ace’s slack-jawed dummy body.

“Shit,” he uttered, and for the first time ever tried something daring: with all the willpower he could muster, he took full control of Ace’s athletic body, drew out his own ghostly rapier, and slashed at Wolf Man. He sliced clean across his chest, drawing with him a warm, thick spray of blood and tufts of fur. Ace-Caius grinned.

He stole a glance over at his companions. Vampire Lady, whomever she was, was chasing an especially feral-looking canine down the alley from whence they had come. But he only was able to see this briefly as a boulder of building rubble, promising at least a handful of broken bones to anyone unfortunate enough to be caught underneath, crashed to the ground behind them. Bade and Nero were both face-down on the cobblestone street in front of it. And up on the rooftop, having surely been the culprit of dropping the boulder (though he was unsure as to how exactly she accomplished it), was… a bandicoot lady?

(He wasn’t sure how he knew what a bandicoot was, but he sure seemed to think he’d had experience with them at some point along the way.)

The entire top story of the building adjacent to her own rooftop was now mostly in pieces on the ground in the alleyway, so it had to have been her. But Ace-Caius hadn’t the time to dwell on the matter and remembered a much more pressing issue: Wolf Man, who was still right in front of him and certainly not dead. In fact, as Caius turned back to his crisis at hand, he saw the deep wound he had inflicted upon Gorilla Man’s chest was actually rapidly closing up. He scratched at his chest and howled a giant wolf howl. Caius excreted a little liquid ectoplasm.

Bade was thoroughly disappointed with how this scuffle was turning out. He had, in fact, been trying very vehemently to make it not end up a scuffle at all, but Fate can never be trusted when It is asked to do anything important. Even so, we relied on his mastery Causality magic all the same as he imbued himself with a much friendlier aura about his face. Hopefully it would help.

Nero and Sola Tiris didn’t seem to want to follow his lead, however. Nero had apparently had quite enough apartment levels dropped on his head for one evening and was in the process of tearing open a signature portal underneath the werebandicoot on the roof above with the opposite end high enough above the street to definitely break a couple legs or so. Sola Tiris and the wereterrier were having a snarling contest but neither seemed quite able to claw at anything except the air around the other.

The weregorilla, finally making his debut, bounded straight for Bade.

Oh, good. Causality magic had completely failed him this time.

The weregorilla stopped just short of barreling over him and most likely crushing every last bone in his body. He snorted powerfully, if one can snort in such a manner, and raised himself even higher on his legs.

“Give me the bag,” he growled.

Bade had entirely forgot about the satchel. Annona had given it to him and explained that they needed to locate the source of a very potent lycanthropy-blocker drug, take this satchel to the location (“Discreetly, I might add”), and introduce its powdery contents to the manufactory of the drug, wherever that may be. The drug had been allowing lycanthropy-afflicted individuals to appear as normal at night (even in direct moonlight – no glowing yellow eyes or anything) for a period of time, depending on the dosage. But presumably due to its less-than-legal nature, it had also been causing intense bouts of bloodthirsty schizophrenia in all but very few of them. This was all according to top-notch magical practitioners at the Academiae, according to Annona. This was why they had come out to track down some lycanthropes in the first place.

And Bade still had the satchel slung over his shoulder. Intrepidly he handed the bag over. The weregorilla sniffed it with his oversized nostrils.

Bade watched the werebandicoot crash to the ground behind the weregorilla. The beast was visibly startled to say the least, and whipped around to see the crumpled mess of limbs that had become of his female companion. He turned back to Bade and growled and hooted, scooped up her body, and bounded off the opposite direction down Nice Boulevard. The werewolf ran off with him, apparently having taken some lashings from Ace-Caius since Bade last looked over.

But Ace-Caius was nowhere to be seen. And come to think of it, neither was Nero. Or the wereterrier. He decided he didn’t care and headed back to his own sanctum, abandoning Sola Tiris to the streets where everything had gone awry.

PART III: Going Out With a Bang

Sola Tiris’s skin began to itch an incredible amount. She had run off after the weregorilla, but even he had proven too fast. Admittedly, he probably knew the city better than she. By the time she had caught up with the trail of the lycanthropes, it was nearly daybreak, and all that was to be seen was a giant hole in the stone wall at the perimeter of the southeast edge of Plink. Chasing them down in daylight would be fatal. She needed to find a place in which to rest as soon as possible. So she started knocking on doors.

She wasn’t looking for just any place to stay; she didn’t trust mortal Men to put her up for the day, as most mortal Men would take one look at a sleeping Vampire and stab her right through the undead heart. So she started asking around for a Man she could only describe as “nondescript.”

It wasn’t getting her very far, as one could imagine, and her skin was starting to itch with the impending amount of utter inferno about to be released upon her corpus. So she went to the nearest apartment as a last ditch effort and asked if there were any vacant apartments not for rent. It was just like a wizard of Bade’s type to remain that kind of inconspicuous.

Minutes later she stood at the threshold to what she guessed correctly to be Bade’s sanctum. She had knocked; he had answered. So now here they stood, Bade very surprised and confused and Sola Tiris looking very haggard and skin-crumbling-aparty.

“Can I come in?” she rasped. “I need a place to sleep.” For all their pride, Vampires were still unable to enter a home without express permission. This made for some unfortunate prostrating before others. Especially unfortunate when asking a non-Vampire. Usually Sola Tiris banked on the presumption that not many Men, mortal or otherwise, knew this weakness. This was not one of those times. She employed no guile, no womanly deception, and stared at him with a bit of honest fear in her eyes.

Also a lot of played-up, not-so-honest fear. Okay, maybe she was being a little deceptive. But this was an emergency. She could feel the rays from the Silver Sun slowly creeping down the hallway to her like a boogeyman.

“Um,” he said, and then conceding, “Sure. Come on in.” He beckoned her past him as he held the door ajar. She walked in briskly, ready to get out of the Sunlight, and by great fortune Bade’s tiny abode allowed none in. Sanctums, she supposed, didn’t exactly inhabit a place in which the Silver Sun rose and set in any normal fashion. If at all. At any rate she could sense his unease and his desire to be left alone as she passed by.

Almost as if he were waiting for the cue of her arrival (and maybe he actually was, she mused), Nero ripped open a magical portal and both he and the ghost-possessed-brainless one stepped through.

Hereby ensued what will henceforth be known as the infamous blood orgy. Details shan’t be shared, but for this basic outline: the Vampire was fiending for blood, and the shambling phasmabotomy victim was the perfect subject. The ghost started to feel the euphoric effects of the fangs, as he was anchored to the headband the victim wore, and decided to possess him. Rigor mortis of a certain part of the victim’s male anatomy kicked in, questionably due to interference by the ghost, and from there it can be left up to one’s imagination what transpired. The two Magi were not present or supportive of this encounter.

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Chapter IX
Enter: the Mobius!
Dramatis Personae

Ace Sedai
Bade Ignatius Guy
Bowser
Caius Germanicus
Lorimer
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Nero Faxon

PART I: Not Him Again

Bade stood somberly in the financial district of the majestic city of Titan. Dark plumes of smoke billowed from the center of Treasury Square, well within the safety perimeter local West Viridian guardsmen had established to keep civilians out. The security precautions didn’t stop the occasional passerby from stopping and staring at the swath of destruction left in the wake of last week’s “accident” – though admittedly most of Titan’s inhabitants simply shuffled by on their way to where they were headed with barely a glance in the direction of the aftermath – and Bade was one such nonthreatening civilian to take a pause. A long one, as it were, as he had been affixed to that very spot for the better part of an hour, but the guardsmen patrolling the sector in which he stood didn’t seem to notice. Bade was good at that – not being noticed. It was a specialty of pale mages such as himself.

Or maybe they did notice; after all, many of these guardsmen, nonmagical as they were, were under the employ of at least one Fulcrum mage. Some of them, Bade wagered, even knew of magic. Somnambulists, they were called: those “sleeping” individuals, not able to harness any sort of magical energy themselves, but who knew about it and served its practitioners nonetheless. Those types of men tended to recognize a mage when they saw them. Bade tried not to relish in their transparent fear of his kind. Even now, the guardsman nearest Bade seemed to be sweating uncomfortably and avoiding eye contact.

The pale mage strode inward from the outskirts of Treasury Square. He had been summoned by Lorimer to meet a location just adjacent to the soul tempest – however that came to be.

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Chapter VIII
Half the party more or less dies in this one

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.

“Let’s go.”

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.

“Yes.

“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.

“Yes.”

“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.

“…Shit.”

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.

RESPECTFULLY,
THE AVIARY

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.

Unless…

“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:

“Forgive me.”

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.”

Conclusion.

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.
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Chapter VII
The Ogresaur of All Ogresaurs

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.”

FINIS.

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