Zeitgeist 4e

Seventh Report - Danorian Consulate Murder, Day 3

When we got in, Delft was waiting for us. (This would be more impressive if our ‘early in the morning’ was before six rather than before ten.) “Good work,” he said. “But the smuggling ring can wait – you’re here to solve a murder. We need to speak to Doctor Wolfgang.”

He produced papers, from wherever he keeps them before springing them on us, and handed them to us (well, to Betty, who nearly always grabs things first even if they weren’t technically being handed to her). The papers, once they worked their way to me, turned out to be Wolfgang’s entry papers. Most of it was the same bureaucratic bullshit you see on any paperwork, nothing we didn’t already know. The useful part was down near the bottom: his local associates slash references, Barnaby Camp (a surgeon) and Lynn Kindleton (a professor at the college).

We flipped a coin, and went to Camp’s house first. Camp was home, but confused at us showing up. He’d just spoken to Officer Porter, didn’t we already have all this information?

We did not say “Officer who?” because we are professionals dammit, even if Ianco likes to set things on fire and Thava likes to use me as an arm rest. Instead, I claimed that we were just confirming things, you know how it is, and got him to ‘repeat’ everything he’d told this Officer Porter. It wasn’t much. Camp knew Wolfgang in school, and wrote letters back and forth afterwards. Wolfgang had mentioned marital problems, and that he wanted to get out. Out of the goodness of his heart, and because of their old friendship, Camp agreed to arrange a residence for Wolfgang here.

On our way out, Camp mentioned he’d offered to help Officer Porter, who was wounded. Porter had crudely refused. We got a description, so we could find him (which was true): pencil-thin mustache, police uniform, slash wound on his chest that appeared to be from a sword. I apologized on Porter’s behalf, less because I felt sorry and more because Betty had lingered to check out something on Camp’s desk. She joined us a moment later. She’d seen a letter, apparently, from the good doctor. Wolfgang wrote that he’d made a deal with criminals to escape a monster, and if Camp wanted to contact him, he should do it through Lynn Kindleton.

We went back to the office, since it was on our way, and not so incidentally confirmed there was no such Officer Porter. Also, our alchemists finally got back to us with the news that they found blood with black stuff in it, back at the hostel. In addition, the hostel staff had belatedly remembered that oh yeah, they’d also met Officer Roger Porter, and he’d examined Wolfgang’s room there. We stopped back by the room ourselves, and found that either Porter or Wolfgang had left a shirt, with sword oil left on it and shadow energy and black stuff that turned out (per Ianco’s Careful Analysis that was just looking at it really closely) to be burnt oil and blood.

Off we went to Hardwhyte University, in search of Lynn Kindleton. We checked her office first, just a room above a butcher shop. She came out at our first knock, very nervous. Before we could say anything, she asked if we knew Officer Porter.

“No,” I said. (Yes, I was the one talking. People talk more easily to a dwarf than some looming dragonborn. Thava talks when we need to intimidate the shit out of someone, I talk when we need to calm someone down, Betty talks when the person needs to be distracted, and Ianco stands in the background and plays with fire.)

Anyway. Kindleton calmed down a little after the reassurance about Porter. She told us he visited her the night after the incident, appearing after her classes her done. She said she knows nothing about where Wolfgang is, but she was being followed. Thava, Ianco and I escorted her back to the office to make a statement.

Betty stayed behind, because she’d spotted another letter – delivered yesterday morning, from Wolfgang. According to the letter, something happened (no specifics), he was scared, a messenger will come to pick up letters and food. He (Wolfgang) is in the Nettles somewhere, and probably leaving soon. So much for Kindleton not knowing where he was.

Ianco put away his fire, and explained to Kindleton that we’re here to protect everyone in the city, including immigrants like Wolfgang. Kindleton accepted that, and told us the rest. Wolfgang did hire a criminal to help him – he hired protection from Lorran Kell, the only criminal organization not unseated by The Family. According to our information, Kell was generally down around Parity Lake.

So off we went to the Nettles. We hadn’t gotten far when a ragged gentleman got our attention and offered to guide us. Unfortunately, he couldn’t actually guide us to Wolfgang, but sure, he could take us to go see Kell, off in the eastern part of Parity Lake.

(Our guide then took us by a carriage containing a lady and what she claimed was her baby and oh noes she’d been set upon by thieves. She was a lying liar who lied, and it was a trap. But we figured it out in time, and explained to the lady and to our guide that no really, we just wanted to talk to Kell, don’t make us sic the dragonborn and the fire mage on you. The second time, they listened.)

At last we were escorted into the chairless theater where Kell held court. He invited us up to his box, and sat there eating sandwiches without offering us any, while people rehearsed on stage. (Don’t remember what play, if I ever noticed. Nothing dwarven.) Kell said he knew we were looking for Wolfgang, and would give him to us for a price of a thousand gold.

We conferred. On the one hand, this was urgent. On the other hand, even emptying out all of our savings wasn’t going to give us enough money for that. Back on the first hand, I still had that Icon of Iurim, which didn’t work off of Axia Island and was pure gold. We offered it, and Kell studied it, then shrugged and agreed it was worth the thousand gold he’d demanded.

Kell took us to a desecrated church (to my annoyance and Thava’s ire, although there was no way to tell whose church it had been), and de-armed the traps. Fortunately for us, Dr. Wolfgang was indeed
there, back in the sleeping quarters. He seemed almost relieved to see constables. He was willing to tell us everything, he said, and started to do it immediately. He was born into wealth, learned to resurrect dead things, his marriage was in tatters, blah blah nothing all that useful to be honest.

I was pretending to pay attention. I don’t know what Thava was doing – roaming the back room, I think. And Betty and Ianco both got curious. I don’t know whether it was Ianco or Betty who heard strange metallic clicks coming from the front of the church, and the rustle of cloth and movement that meant people, and the sound of a staff against the rock of the floor. All I know is that as Wolfgang wrapped up the boring part of his life story, and got to the part where no really we would need to write this down, Betty whispered in my ear that we had company out front.

“Right,” I said, when Wolfgang paused. “We need to get going, back to the office so we can depose the witness.”

“Depose or dispose of?” said Ianco, from the shadows. He sounded entirely too cheerful about the alternatives.

Depose,” I said sternly. “Which reminds me, Doctor, our information is that you took some documents from the late Nilasa Hume —”

“She gave them to me, I didn’t just take them!”

“Of course, sir. The question is, do you still have them?”

“Er – no. No, I don’t.” But the doctor glanced over at the nearby furniture, involuntarily like.

Ianco might be too fond of scaring people, but he does know how to read them. He opened up the drawers of the desk the doctor had looked at, and sure enough, there was a packet of papers, in what Betty said was not Wolfgang’s writing. The doctor hung his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was frightened. Those are them. Look if you like.”

The documents turned out to have been written by Julian Lebricks, the asshole who served as Danorian security chief at the consulate. Come to find out, he’d noticed financial irregularities in Danorian factories, indicating a campaign of smuggling that was targeting Danorian enterprises. The smuggling proved too widespread to pin-point who was behind it, but he’d figured out that the things being smuggled all seemed to be going to a single project, possibly a war-ship. The last papers contained a report on LeBricks’ visit to a factory. He’d found witch-oil. According to Wolfgang, witch oil is from the Black Gate,and composed of souls awaiting rebirth.

Wolfgang claimed he didn’t know why Hume gave him the papers. “Random chance,” he suggested.

Right, sure. We’d try to get more information out of him back at the office. Only problem was, Betty hadn’t been kidding about people being in our way. We checked for a back door. We found a common room, a small cloister room off the common room with no door, a kitchen with a fireplace (and a fire currently burning), more bedrooms (with no doors), and a privy. No way out but through the front, through the people waiting for us.

Ianco, lurking in the shadows, turned around and looked back, with this hopeful grin. I sighed, and said, “Go light people on fire.”

I didn’t see a lot of the fight that followed – Betty and Ianco went out in front, to sneak and to light people on fire respectively, while Thava provided backup and I stayed in the rear to keep an eye on the doctor. I’d tucked the papers into my vest, but we still needed to find out if Wolfgang knew anything more that he hadn’t told us. The key points: “Officer” Porter was there, lurking outside the steel bars. All of our opponents were wearing something around their necks that allowed them to pass through the steel bars as if they weren’t there. (Betty tried to steal one of those handy necklaces, and nearly got gutted for her trouble. At least she got a pair of underwear out of it, apparently, because even gutted, she’s a master at stealing shit.) And Wolfgang shoved his way forward, healed Betty, and promptly got stabbed with a poison needle by a shadow mage for his trouble. Thava and I piled on top of him, which couldn’t have helped the wound, but at least meant he didn’t continue floating toward the door and possibly out of it. Mages. Pfeh.

Fortunately, our mage had better aim than their mage. The shadow mage got hit with a fire-ball and ran for it. Our shadows came alive long enough to hold us in place, and then let us go. We found ourselves alone in the front hallway, entirely alone – everyone we’d been fighting had also mysteriously floated out and through the steel bars, due to those damn necklaces.

A gentleman strolled up outside the steel bars, and introduced himself politely as Leon Quintall. “I don’t want any more bloodshed,” he said (with half a dozen men behind him, all with guns). “Give me the doctor and the documents, and you can go.”

“Really,” said Thava, looming in the doorway. ’How would we do that, through these?" She tapped the bars.

Quintall smiled, all teeth. “They’re my bars.”

Thava smiled back. “No, and hell no.”

Quintall’s smile didn’t budge. “One hour to think about it,” he said. “And then the easy option goes away.” He turned and left.

We revived Wolfgang, then went back into the church and searched, even more thoroughly this time, and this time we found that back door. Technically, it was in the privy, behind a heavy tapestry, but close enough. Next question: did they know? Were we headed into a worse trap? We put out the fire, and Betty climbed the chimney to the roof.

She spotted 3 black carriages, a whole bunch of knife fighters, more mages, and Quintall lounging on a metal folding chair with a metal case near him. He was eating. Porter, standing next to him, was telling him that “Kell confirmed that the only way in or out of the church is that door.”

(Kell was lying, we know that. We don’t know why. Connections? Plots? Just likes Wolfgang better than he likes Quintall? He’s a criminal, who knows.)

Quintall nodded at the news. “Good,” he said. “Go tell your boss that everything’s under control.”

Betty slipped back down the chimney and reported that we needed to get going. We returned to the door in the privy, and Ianco cast a spell so the heavy thing wouldn’t slam like the passing of doom, and we headed down this little hallway that thankfully went beside the latrine trough, not through it.

We emerge maybe a quarter of a mile downhill from the front entrance of the church – direct line of sight. Which of course meant that we could see the people there, and they could see us. We ran for it, toward the nearest house, per the doctor’s gasped suggestion. “They like me here,” he said.

I prayed like I’ve rarely prayed before, and Ianco threw somethng magical over his shoulder. Between the two, someone tripped over themselves and delayed our pursuers for a second, long enough for us to get to that house.

“Please,” Betty said (she got there first). “Help us. Help the doctor.”

The woman who answered the door blinked at us, then looked up at our pursuers. Her eyes narrowed, and she threw something I didn’t see, which summoned a wall of thick smoke. We thanked her – at least I hope we did – and then continued running, toward the gate out and back to the main thoroughfare.

We made it, just in time. As I type this up, Wolfgang is being questioned down the hall, and all of us are exhausted. But it’s not over yet. I remember those first hints. Something’s supposed to go down on the Fourth – tomorrow. And we don’t know enough.

Sixth Report - Danorian Consulate Murder, Day 2

Sixth Report: Danorian Consulate Murder – Day 2
I’ll skip the part about who got to the office latest the next morning (not Betty, for a change), and the discussion about what to do next with those of us who’d actually read all the reports. When you looked at the information we had, we could either head off to the Thinking Man’s Tavern, and find out what the late Nilasa had been doing there from people we didn’t have any leverage over (and who’d be quite happy to dose us with powdered fae pepper, or worse) — or we could go to Goodson’s Estuarial Reformatory and ask her known associates as per the criminal file Betty had brought back last night. We chose the prison – ‘scuse me, ’reformatory.’ It’s an old sailing ship, moored off shore, kept by Derek Goodson, who boasts (of course) that nobody’s ever escaped.

Goodson showed us around the place, more to boast about it than because any of us were curious. Then we got down to business: Ford Sorghum and Travis Starter, both of whom were imprisoned there. We needed to talk to them, and none of us wanted to go down into the bowels of the boat to do it, especially not me. Ianco persuaded Mr. Goodson to let us borrow his office for the discussion – something about them both being male, or human, or both, who knows. So far so good, but of course he wanted to watch. Betty explained that they wouldn’t talk – or rather, being Betty, she batted her eyelashes, and cooed something breathily, and I swear I saw the man’s eyes cross and little hearts appear in them as he left the room. (She grinned at us, and buffed her nails on her tunic. She has no shame.)

First order of business was negotiation. Sorghum and Starter wanted out in exchange for talking. Thava explained that wasn’t happening. The prisoners blanched, and changed their request to weekly visits from his son (one of them, I didn’t note which) or his wife (the other). Thava shook her head and smiled, and the prisoners promptly suggested maybe they could get their sheets changed every week, and the ability to go above-deck once in a while. Goodson, waiting in the hallway outside, agreed to their request.

Per my notes, they said they knew the deceased from seeing her around. She’d invited them to join her in a big smuggling deal, something to do with a stash of wands, that would mean a large amount of money. Why hadn’t they said something before now? For fuck’s sake, she’d said she was working with The Family. They gave us a few other names: Gael, The House Elf, Hannal Solong, Morgan Chipano. But they either didn’t have any details, or they knew better than to tell them to a bunch of cops just for clean sheets and a chance to see the sun every so often.

We left the prison, and headed for the tavern to see if our good luck would continue. Ha. The tavern, like most taverns in the early afternoon, proved to be all but deserted. If we wanted to question anyone, we’d have to come back later in the evening.

We sat in the tavern and (quietly) went over our options. We knew that the late Nilasa Hume had been up to nothing good – not if she was involved with The Family, and possibly with fae terrorists as well. We knew she was connected to a foreign national (whom we still needed to find). But we were running thin on leads. Then Thava, looking over Nilasa’s criminal file, suggested we go pay a visit for Mr. Heward Sechim, who paid Nilasa’s bail – especially since he lived at her most recent place of residence.

Thava can knock at a door as impressively as anyone, but if a man’s not there, nobody’s going to be impressed. Instead, we headed for the place next door: Sechim’s Alkahest & Etchings. The woman who ran it was someone called Denisca Weriya, according to Betty’s information, a mage who made potions – which explained her in an alchemist’s. More interestingly, her husband was a magician who called himself The House Elf.

Betty led the way in through the crowded shelves of potions. “Hello there! Are you the Denisca Weriya who knows Nilasa Hume?”

Weriya blinked down at Betty. “I, ah…yes. How do you know Nilasa?”

Betty leaned against the counter, then straightened up, possibly because lounging against the counter doesn’t work as well with halflings as it does with taller folk. “She asked us to pick up an order for her. Is it here?”

“She hasn’t placed any orders with us. Are you sure?”

“Oh, no,” Betty said, and frowned up at the ceiling in a nice pretense of thought. “There must’ve been a mix-up, then. Maybe your husband would know, she mentioned him – where is he?”

“Next door,” Weriya said. Her eyes flicked from Betty, to me, to Thava lurking in the doorway. “He’s, ah, practicing for a show. With his honey badgers.”

Betty bade her farewell. We went next door, and found the House Elf practicing, as promised. The interrogation went from polite inquiry, to ‘why do you look so worried,’ to our subject running for the stairs in nothing flat. At this point, as might be expected when you combine a fire mage and a show-off who loves to play with knives, things went to chaos.

As near as I can tell, Ianco and Betty chased the House Elf up the stairs, pausing only to deal with the honey badgers (which proved to have vile tempers). Thava ran outside and into the Alkahest & Etchings. Unfortunately, as she was running, rather than politely sidling through the shelves, she promptly ran into something, plus two guards who’d jumped to the conclusion that she meant nothing good. (Technically true, but their mistress meant even less good.) I’d attempted to follow her: she yelled out the door for me to go after the magician. Inasmuch as her warning was accompanied by a billow of smoke and the sound of coughing, I took her seriously.

I followed Betty and Ianco up the stairs and across a bridge between the two buildings (with some difficulty – the magician had left a trap at the bridge door, and I’m not the lock-picker in our cohort, so I had to wait until Betty was done shooting at honey badgers). I believe I spent more time praying for healing than I did in fighting, as Weriya joined the fight soon enough, throwing all sorts of entirely illegal potions at us. Fortunately for us, Thava did not die, Betty really does know her knives, and Ianco’s fireballs are good for more than just property damage.

When we finally captured them, we brought them both back to the office (over Ianco’s protests – he wanted to light them on fire). The House Elf obstinately refused to say anything, but Weriya was willing to talk about the smuggling ring, in exchange for leniency. The ship Djorn Ferdman was leaving two hours after sunset, and meeting up somewhere (she wasn’t sure where), some uninhabited rock on Agre Island.

Useful information, but not for us. I can’t speak for the others, but Delft took the paper out of my hands as I started to write up my report, and firmly informed me that I should go off to bed, and someone else would take care of the smuggling ring.

“But!” I said.

“Sleep,” he said. He smiled at me, if you can call that a smile. “See if the stars give you anything useful. Go home, Magstein Astafyev.”

Fifth Report: Danorian Consulate Murder - Day 1

It’s been a rough few weeks since Axis Island. Pantera was assigned away from us, onto another team or on her own – Betty might know, but I don’t. We’ve been put in office work and busy-work, nothing out in the field. It’s been boring..

In any case. To the actual report.

11 AM, first day of summer. Assistant Chief Inspector Delft came in and informed us that we had an assignment. A young woman had leapt out of the fourth floor of the Danorian Consulate, and landed half in our jurisdiction. (Ick.) He’d brought someone with him to help us out, a fire mage by the name of Ianco. “Don’t let him destroy anything.”

Off we went, in an actual carriage, down to the beach. The Danorian Consulate faces the ocean, which gives it a lovely view but makes the heat and mugginess even worse. We still arrived an hour after Delft had appeared in our office, and two hours after the death occurred, in time only to find someone scrubbing the blood off the gate. One of our officers, Alfred Bellstar, was waiting outside to hand off the scene to us. There had been gunfire inside, he said, and then she jumped. Someone had supposedly approached the body before the constabulary got there, but he had no idea who, or where the someone went. He couldn’t tell us anything else, and walked off.

Just inside the newly-scrubbed gate waited the Danorian security chief, Julian Lebricks. He walked us inside to where they’d brought the body,, briefing us as we walked. The dead woman was named Nilasa Hume, apparently. She’d been to the consulate a few times, as she was dating one of the servants, a Danorian by the name of Braden. However, today, Julian had found her upstairs, slipping something into her pocket, and he’d fired at her. She’d fled from the window, and the rest we knew.

We reached the body at this point, and the fire mage took over. Per his magical check, Julian hadn’t told us the truth: Nilasa had a mysterious wound from some kind of necrotic energy, which couldn’t have come either from a gun or from the glass (which had left separate wounds). More, her face was healed – from something, presumably the necrotic energy – after death.

In her pockets, we found a bail certificate from the Parity Lake Police Station. More importantly, we found an empty elixir vial, tucked into her top. According to Ianco, the elixir had been one of invisibility, which is illegal. Also according to Ianco, Nilasa had not been able to wield magic.

Julian had been hovering in the background, obviously impatient for us to finish up and move on. He agreed to bring in a couple people for us to speak to. First was Braden, who didn’t require any bringing, as he’d been sitting by the body when we came in, and hadn’t gone any further away than the hallway outside. They’d only been dating a short time, he told us. They’d met at a place called the Thinking Man’s Tavern. She’d come here regularly, and used to bring chocolates for everyone. Today – well, today the chocolate had been mixed with powdered fae pepper. (Which explained how nobody had noticed Nilasa vanishing upstairs, above and beyond the invisibility elixir.)

Once Braden left again, with a last lingering look at Nilasa’s body, Thava requested to speak to the consulate secretary. She’d noticed the woman watching us as we came in, apparently. The secretary was perfectly willing to tell us what little she knew. She hadn’t been close to Nilasa, and hadn’t been a fan of hers. The only really new thing she could tell us was that she’d seen Nilasa speaking to a foreign doctor who’d come to the consulate to apply for a visa. The doctor’s name? Wolfgang von Recklenhousen, apparently. The address on file was for a temporary hostel, where he was staying while waiting for the visa.

Julian then reluctantly took us up to the scene of the crime – the room from which Nilasa had jumped. Just from looking around, it was increasingly obvious that Julian had left out more than just a mysterious source of necrotic energy. The only marks left from a weapon were from some kind of slashing weapon, not bullet holes.

Thava asked Julian where the bullet holes were, partially because we wanted to know, and partially – oh, hell, Betty can take it out of my braids later – to distract him. The consul’s door was next to the room where the death had taken place, and more, the scratches around the lock betrayed that it had been picked recently. Betty got in (without leaving scratches, she said). She saw a drawer standing open, with the same marks around the lock.

Unfortunately, there’s only so long you can ask questions of a man who’s bent on concealment before either you or he lose patience. We’d long since figured out that Julian was covering for more than just the Consulate, but that hadn’t told us what else he was covering for, and he was increasingly impatient with us. He noticed Betty leaving the Consul’s room, and told us to get out. Not even Thava’s best intimidating loom could keep us in the consulate after that.

He couldn’t kick us out of the general area, however – and we had a multitude of witnesses to interview. We split up, to speak to as many people as possible.

Some interviews were more successful than others. All I got out of the businessman I spoke to was that maybe he’d heard a gun go off. But Ianco could report that apparently Nilasa had had her face covered before she jumped, and also that she hit the fence before someone shot at her. Even better, Betty came back with news that someone had identified the man who’d gone up to Nilasa’s dead body as she lay, half-in, half-out of the consulate grounds. It had been Dr. Wolfgang, the man the secretary had mentioned. Even better, the witness said that the good doctor had snatched a yellow pendant from Nilasa’s neck, then sprinted off down an alley – an alley to which the witness could guide us.

The alley was a very useful alley! It contained not only signs of a struggle, but also a paper marked with the Danorian consular seal (which contained only something about ownership of a particular badge, but still, we had a better idea as to what Nilasa had stolen from the consulate). Among those signs of struggle (footmarks, bits of things thrown around) was an oddly coagulated spatter of blood on the ground. Careful magical observation revealed the recent use of electrical magic, and that the blood in the spatter was infused with necromantic energy. (So far, so good with our new group member.)

And then the cabbie hailed us from the end of the alley, wanting to know what we were doing and did we know where the bearded man had gone.

His name was Jack Pyan – the cabbie, that is. Apparently he’d picked up Dr. Wolfgang from that alley, although the doctor hadn’t given his name. He’d driven him to the Bluebirds hostel, where the doctor had said he would be right back out. When he was not right back out, leaving Jack minus his fee, Jack had come back to where he’d picked up the man, just in case. Lucky us, we’d been there to find.

Betty and I took advantage of this opportunity, and hired him to take us over to Parity Lake Station. There, we were politely informed that it would take three hours for them to copy Nilasa Hume’s file, if we’d care to wait. Betty fluttered her eyeslashes at the cute desk clerk, and sat down, while I rolled mine and headed back to the office. They’d asked for regular updates, after all.

I got back around the same time as Thava and Ianco, who had gone to investigate the hostel where the doctor was supposedly staying. He’d had no privacy there, no room set apart – the beds were set up like dormitories, and he hadn’t left behind any luggage for us to investigate. There wasn’t even so much as a blood trail for them to follow.

Attached please find the copy of the criminal file of Nilasa Hume, the transcript of Thava’s verbal report, Betty’s report, and the report that Ianco typed up under much protest and only using two fingers. Seriously, mages.

Fourth Report: Axia Island (part 3)

We had just enough time to catch our breath before we were under attack again. Fortunately, there were no wizards this time, just lots of soldiers. We spent the next hour or so throwing up wards and barricades from whatever we could find, and shooting blindly at the next wave of attackers. (We hit, more often than not. I don’t know how. With all due respect, none of us are exactly sharp-shooters. Then again, there were a lot of soldiers: it would have been hard for us to miss.)

Finally, our allies showed up, having taken control of the harbor. Captain Smith apologized, but we didn’t have time to properly rest. We still didn’t have the Duchess – and without her, all of this would be for nothing. So we were healed, and either given Sgt. Glassman and his small collection of soldiers, or given into Glassman’s care, with one soldier each following us around like very stoic puppy dogs, or very odd-looking ducklings. Not that we were allowed to keep them, much to Betty’s disappointment.

We had just headed for the citadel, when it happened.

One of the ships, out in the harbor – one of our ships – suddenly went up in flames. A human-sized figure appeared on the wall, as if by magic, wreathed in fire. He made a sweeping gesture with his sword, and every single lamp around us abruptly went out. Then he bounded on his way, toward the citadel, with great impossible leaps. He cleared the outer wall with a single bound, slew those of the Duchess’s forces that were still fighting there, and then headed on.

We followed his general direction, though obviously much more slowly as none of us, with the possible exception of Pantera, is capable of leaping over walls like that. Pantera was not inclined to hurry in any case. She said that the human-sized figure resembled, uncomfortably closely, an Eladrin warrior from the Yerasol war – the first Yerasol War, 200 years ago. Other reports said that the sword we had seen could turn into a flail, and that the Eladrin had been wounded, somehow, by someone.

Someone would have to go after him, whoever he was. But fortunately, we were told to go over and assess what to do about the Danorian non-combatants, still imprisoned. I, at least, hoped to find Nathan Jierre, so we would have one less problem to worry about.

No such luck. Not only was Nathan Jierre not there, the highest ranked Danorian was inclined to be uncooperative. He’d declined to help one sort of Risori, he said, and he didn’t see why they should help another. Perhaps if we gave them all their weapons back. Pantera persuaded him – I don’t know how, beyond a lot of fast talking and her native charm – to settle for one sword each.

So far, so good. The Danorian (a Lt. Hester Marcine) assured us that we could sneak into the citadel via the sewers. (Thava stepped on my foot to keep me from protesting. She is twice my size, so really, she could simply have put an elbow on my head and accomplished the same thing without leaving me limping for the next several minutes. Then again, she puts her elbow on my head anyway.) They had a key that would let us in.

An excellent plan! Alas, that damn Eladrin invader messed it up. I had thought he had gone directly for the citadel, but apparently not: apparently he had been roaming around the walls, investigating. He ran right past us, as if he didn’t even see we were there, then paused by the garden maze to pull out…something, I don’t know what. Whatever it was, I could feel gravity flex under my feet, and saw a wavering hole appear in the hedge that barred us from the maze. Around the edges of the hole were that strange landscape of yellow swamp and blue sun.

None of us stopped to think. The Eladrin dove through the hole, and we dove right after him. We got to our feet, and found the Eladrin nowhere in sight. We were stuck.

Fortunately (or not), Gillye-Dhu, the creator of the garden, was right there, beating on the fire that the Eladrin had left in his wake. He wheeled on us as soon as Pantera cleared her throat. “Oh, no – your fiery friend may have got through, but you won’t!”

Pantera tried to reason with him, but he only vanished into the maze, apparently bent on abandoning us to the uncertain mercies of his maze. Fortunately, Thava’s icy wind proved better at putting out the flames than Gillye-Dhu’s beating on them. He reappeared, somewhat less crabby, and this time Pantera persuaded him that we came in peace, or at least not intending to set his garden on fire, which amounted to the same thing. More importantly, we didn’t come here to kill the Duchess. Imprison her, yes. Kill her, no. Not deliberately.

This was enough. Gillye-Dhu let us into the keep. The soldiers marched alongside us, as Betty rode in Pantera (who had switched to panther form, as being more flexible in general), and Thava carried me in as if I were a sack of flour, loosely in one hand with my shirt rucked up about my ears. It was very undignified.

The Eladrin had obviously already come through: the keep had not been undefended, but by the time we reached it, the defenders lay slumped on the ground, slashed and burned and dead. Thava chose to head up outside, with her great wings, aiming for the roof. The rest of us used the stairs. We reached the top floor, only to pause outside the door at the sound of voices.

Betty peeked through. There were only three people, she reported – well, three left alive: the Eladrin had clearly hacked his way through the Duchess’s last defenses as easily as he’d done the first. The Duchess knelt on the ground, hand over her bloodied stomach, warily eying the Eladrin, who paced around her in a circle. A man – Nathan Jierre, we hoped – cowered in a corner.

For obvious reasons, I did not have a notebook and pen with me at the time, and wrote down what I remembered in short form and in great haste, so I can only give a general sense of the conversation we overheard. The Eladrin was angry with the Duchess – extremely angry, because she had ‘displeased the court.’ The Duchess was trying to calm him, and persuade him not to “do anything you might regret.” I find I wrote something about being the ally of a kingslayer (presumably the Eladrin’s objection, as surely if the Coaltongue had sunk, then the King would have died), and devils, and a promise to pull away from somewhere or someone (Tiaflis, I believe).

The Eladrin did not calm, no matter what the Duchess promised, or promised that she would promise. He abruptly turned, and flung open the door behind which we were uncomfortably lurking. Pantera, talking even more rapidly than usual, talked him out of killing us immediately. Instead, he turned away.

“Leave, or I kill the Duchess,” he said bluntly. “Give this message to your masters: the Unseen Court did not endorse your Duchess’s actions, and they desire her execution as a traitor. I require a ship, prepared with an unarmed skeleton crew. I shall sail to the Risori mainlane, where I shall let go the crew. I shall keep the Duchess with me for now: she will be returned to you once I have the ship.”

As he listed off his demands, Betty snuck over to the Duchess without being noticed. Thava – who had been listening as well, from the roof – tossed down a rope, and Betty tied up the Duchess, before looping the rope around her bonds so Thava could raise the Duchess up the roof and relative amounts of safety.

“Can we send our minions instead?” Pantera asked. Smith, behind me, grumbled, but didn’t say anything.

“No! What are you looking at?”

I don’t know who looked. Not me – I couldn’t see Betty anyway, as I’m fairly sure she was using her newly-found invisibility. Perhaps Smith or Ruby. Certainly not Pantera. Regardless, he looked around, and finally noticed what Betty was doing, and that he was about to lose his hostage, so Pantera attacked.

We had two priorities: get the Duchess out of there (and healed, or else we would have a dead Duchess on our hands, and we wanted to avoid that if possible), and get Nathan Jierre out of there (without him dying either). Oh, yes, and none of us dying from an angry Eladrin either. Thava hoisted up the Duchess to the roof and safely healed her, while I trotted over and all but dragged Nathan Jierre out of the room and down the stairs. Unfortunately, this means that while Thava, Betty and Pantera assure me that the fight was gloriously dramatic, the stuff of all kinds of epics, I wasn’t actually in the room to see what happened, so all I can report for certain was that the Duchess survived, Nathan Jierre survived, and even the damn Eladrin survived.

I will not review the aftermath in too much detail. War was averted. Lya Jierre came on a Danorian warship, and assured us we had done well. Rumor from the sailors is that, if negotiations go well, she will marry our king – I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Nathan Jierre certainly didn’t seem to want to see her nearly as much as she wanted to see him, afterwards. The Duchess was publicly stripped of both magic and title, then imprisoned. And according to those who study the stars at Axis Island’s observatory, there is indeed a blue star, that – who knows? – may, or may not, have a planet orbiting it, on which yellow swamps can be found.

The stars tell me nothing. Perhaps tonight.

- Magstein Astafyev

Third Report: Axia Island (part 2)

According to our briefings back on the Impossible, the keep walls weren’t merely stone. Behind a layer of stone lay an absolute web of iron bars, enchanted to push away any would-be climbers; rings of gold, to repel teleportation; and scattered chunks of opaline, a stone that apparently absorbs magical energy. Fortunately, the opaline is scattered, and a weak spot had been found on the outer wall where a ritual would allow us to pass through the wall, without the magical energy being drained away by the opaline and leaving us trapped inside the wall.

I had expected that Thava would be doing the ritual. She pointed out that I’d studied a great deal more about mage-craft and arcane lore than she had, and my protests that I’d been studying arcane lore about the stars, not just general arcane lore (if such a thing exists), were met with the flattest flat look imaginable. Note to self: perhaps do not get caught reading quite so often. Pantera said that she knew about plants and animals, not rocks and magic, and promptly turned into a panther, which made it difficult to argue the point. And Betty…well, no, nobody really expected Betty to do the ritual.

The ritual took all of five minutes, and worked perfectly. Thava tugged one of my braids, said, “See?” and headed through the wall. Fortunately for her, she is twice my size, and my senior, and I have a sense of self-preservation, or else I would’ve been tempted to kick her shins.

Our information had stopped at the outer keep wall. We were supposed to be following the infiltration team, after all, not leading them. Worse, the outer keep wall protected something like an entire village, rather than leading straight to the inner keep. After a moment’s conference, we split up and went to scout the area.

For the most part, the area was completely, eerily deserted. Some of the buildings were damaged, as if there’d been fighting here. We found people only in a few places. On the far side of town was a non-descript warehouse that (according to Betty) wasn’t at all non-descript on the inside: it concealed a teleportation circle, possibly how the Duchess got in. Nobody was going to get in that way now: even without the ten or twelve men guarding it, dozens of golden blades hovered in the air over the circle, ready to eviscerate anyone trying to use it. In the center was the central keep, protected by an inner wall with even better safeguards than the outer, and beyond that (in one of the useless few pieces of information we had about this area from that original briefing) a hedge labyrinth that had been created by a male dryad named Gilly Dhu. And finally, closest to our first position was a former stable, guessing by the stalls and the smell (which made Pantera, still in panther form, sneeze, and then have to hide from a confused guard). It had been turned into an impromptu jail, with about as many guards as the teleportation circle, and five times as many prisoners.

“We could free the prisoners,” Pantera suggested, when we met up again and exchanged information. She’d changed back into her usual form, but kept wrinkling her nose every so often, as if she could still smell the stable. “That would distract the Duchess’s forces – and maybe what’s-his-name, Nathan, maybe he’s there!”

“Sea gate first,” Thava said firmly. “We need back-up, and time’s short.”

She was right. But that led to the next important question: how were we supposed to get to the sea gate? We could see it, out along the sea wall, but the only way there was to walk along that sea wall, right under the sight of anyone standing guard on the lighthouse over the gate. Even if a miracle occurred, or Betty snuck like she’d never snuck before, the gravel on top of the wall grated loudly underfoot. We’d be under attack before we got even close.

“We still have another of those water-breathing rituals,” Betty said thoughtfully.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Not more water!”

“You’ll be fine,” Thava said heartlessly. “Besides, how else are we getting there? Infiltrating the Duchess’s forces and hoping they don’t figure us out even more quickly than if we just attacked?” She waited until I winced and looked down before continuing. “All in favor of going under water?”

So that was how we came to attack the sea-wall from under water. Betty swam on ahead, and came back to report that there was a ship at the dock and a patrolman nearby, a few more patrolmen on the walls, and something big and impressive up in the tower by the light-house, but they were scattered and if we were quick, we had a chance that they wouldn’t notice us until too late.

At first, we were quick enough. Betty surged up out of the water, knife in hand, and I followed with an assist by Thava. We slid the dead patrolman into the water as Thava and Pantera joined us, and headed up the walkway toward the wall. Unfortunately, as we reached the wall, our luck finally gave out. The chill that Pantera breathes on our enemies during battle only startled one of the patrolmen, rather than freezing him, and he shouted the alarm.

From there, well – battle was joined. I remember looking around for Betty, and not seeing her until suddenly the soldier I was facing collapsed to the ground, his dead face still stuck in a startled expression, and Betty grinning at me, waving a cheerful hello with her bloody dagger, before turning and vanishing into the shadows before my eyes – apparently in between making jokes about distracting the soldiers with a lap dance, she’d been mastering her new amulet and its shadow powers. I remember people boiling out of the ship, and Thava running past me back down the walkway, drawing her sword as she ran, and telling me over her shoulder, “Betty’s been hurt – heal her!” I remember Pantera leaping in the air as the fae drake lashed out at her with its tail, landing safely on all four furry feat. And I remember firing my pistol, hammer held tightly in my other hand, and praying to Moradin for healing, for holy light, for my shots to go where I aimed them already, and oh yes, for that thundercloud that the wizard (that we hadn’t known about until he followed his fae drake down) decided to sic on me, to go away. Being hit by lightning is very, very not fun. Being hit by lightning while wearing chain-mail and still dripping wet is especially not fun, even if you run away from the lightning.

I don’t remember who, exactly, turned the crank that raised the sea gate. Not me. It may have been me who set off the fireworks that let our allies know that the gate was open: I don’t remember for sure. In any case, we all sat down, and tried to avoid the ridiculously bright light right next to us as it rotated, and listened as shouts of surprise and anger came from the inner keep. They’d realized we were here. They’d be coming for us. But we had a minute to catch our breath.

[to be continued]

Second Report: Axia Island (part 1)

A few weeks after the events on the Coaltongue, Assistant Chief Inspector Delft called us into his office. This was not reassuring. Generally he comes out to us. Then again, most of our assignments have been , well, the sort of assignments that don’t require a private briefing: look out for malcontents and don’t cause a scene are fairly standard instructions.

When we went to Delft’s office, there was a Danorian Tiefling lady there. He introduced her as Lya Jierre, some sort of minor Danorian governor (only he was more specific). I expected some sort of political assignment. Instead of explaining why she was there, though, she asked us to solve a puzzle for her. On Delft’s desk, she’d put three little ivory towers, each three inches high and set on a steel plate, and three stone rings in red, green and blue, each with three matching strings coming from them, and little magnets at the end of each string. The towers, she told us, were meant for actual towers. The rings were magical power sources. And the threads were canals. The puzzle was to arrange everything so that each tower could tap into all three power sources, without the thread-canals touching.

I’m not sure if the puzzle was meant to be that easy, or if (as Thava dryly assured me later) that we’re just that good. But it took us only a few minutes. We set the three rings in the middle of the towers, one above the next above the next, and extended the strings to the towers, and thus the puzzle was solved. Lya Jierre laughed, and praised us for being able to think outside the box, so Thava was apparently right.

Delft then abandoned the puzzle as if he’d never set up expensive children’s toys on his desk, and began the briefing we’d expected in the first place. Despite the Duchess’s escape (he said, without any glaring at us at all), no civil war has begun – yet. Our intelligence networks managed to track her down, to Axia Island in the Yerasol archipelago. Unfortunately, Axia Island is an important Danorian outpost, with its own steamworks and military fortress. Even better, the Duchess has not merely taken refuge there, she and her allies have actually taken it over. Lya Jierre was there, not merely to propose strange little puzzles about towers and magic, but to ask Risur – unofficially – to get their king’s dangerously errant sister out of there before they had to attack, and thus cause a war. The deadline? In three days.

I don’t remember if any of us actually asked ‘why us.’ For all our recent fame, we aren’t the top team in the Constabulary. As if to make sure we remembered that, Delft assured us that there were much more experienced people who would be taking point on the mission. We were to go along solely because we were the last to have spoken with the Duchess before she vanished, and who knows? We might spot something useful because of that.

(Yes, we were extraordinarily lucky last time. But it would be nice if our own superior admitted we have more abilities than just luck. Then again, he was speaking in front of a Danorian, and it’s never a bad thing to have a potential enemy underestimate you.)

We were to take the Royal Navy Ship Impossible, and head at top speed for Axia. Once there, we couldn’t just land at the docks (too obvious) or the beach (which had warning spells in place to alert the fortress). Oh, no. We had to sneak up from the far side of the island, and go underwater via sea caves, then sneak into the fortress and raise the sea gates. A team of top infiltrators – the ‘much more experienced people’ Delft had already mentioned, presumably – were to secure the caves and open the gates, while we followed. We would have no other back-up besides ourselves, Delft told us, with a cheerful, tobacco-y grin. Not until we opened the gates.

Then he turned to Lya Jierre, who nodded to him graciously as if she’d been briefing him, and then looked back at us. She had only two demands, she said. First, that we remember the deadline of three days. And second – if at all possible, if we even found him, keep Nathan Jierre alive. He was her nephew, and the last she’d heard of him, he’d been on the island. Worse: he’d been in the fortress.

After that we were allowed to ask questions. Unfortunately, Lya Jierre hadn’t been to the island herself in ages, and even then only to the fortress, so she couldn’t help us much. She warned us that the island was prone to strange magics, although she couldn’t describe them beyond that; she let us know about an archaeological dig going on, and if we could please avoid damaging that, it would be greatly appreciated; and she didn’t know anything about the local wildlife, whether any Eladrin had been seen on the island, how the ‘strang magic’ might relate to or with the Duchess, or who exactly the Duchess’s unnamed ‘allies’ were. Just that we had three days to go, retrieve the Duchess (and hopefully save Nathan Jierre), and leave again.

We thanked her, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘Betty,’ who is the best at smiling at important people, even when she’s not flirting. Lya Jierre bowed and left, without, I hope, noticing how frustrated we were – the grumbling was more audible now. Delft did notice. Of course. He waited until her footsteps had faded before he said, more quietly, “You’re right. Something more is going on: it’s not just that you’re handy, or we’re closest. So keep your eyes open. And if the Duchess doesn’t make it alive…well, that’s just a tragedy, isn’t it. Good thing you’ve got a Ghost-talker.” And he grinned again.

We were to leave that afternoon. Delft sent us off to the quartermaster to get new supplies, which I won’t bother listing out here: those supplies included money, and the strong suggestion that we might want to do a bit of shopping. Pantera and Betty headed one direction, whispering together and looking over a little list Pantera had produced from a pocket; Thava went another, while I went in a third. Next time, I’m going to follow Thava, even if she does tease me about being the same size as a child of hers: daggers are easy to come by, and amulets – even amulets that work – only slightly more difficult, but good, affordable rituals? Those are hard. And Thava came back with several.

As soon as we were finished and all packed up, we boarded the RNS Impossible, a 220-foot clipper ship (according to the sailor who helped us on board, who was ridiculously proud of his ship). I remembered Captain Smith from the reception on board the Coaltongue, and he remembered us. By the second meal onboard, this had become less flattering. The Captain is not only a devoted Millerite, he likes to discuss philosophy during meals, even when his prospective debate partner is starving and would like to just eat for now. His crew is stubbornly devoted to king and country, at least, so it doesn’t matter how much of a pacifist their captain might be, or how annoying he might be about it, so long as he can still command them.

We arrived at Axia Island on the day of the first quarter moon – the second of the three days allowed us. The experts came on board to meet us, or perhaps to allow us to meet them. There was Tanya, who was a shaman whose hound companion kept growling at Pantera, and who was the one who insisted on going over every detail of the plan with us, even details we shouldn’t have needed to know. There was Letmas, who changed accents every hour or so, all of them sounding perfectly authentic to my (admittedly inexperienced) ear, and whose mastery of visual illusion was so perfect that it wasn’t until he banished the shadow of himself that he’d left sitting there, and stepped forward with the tea he’d gone to make, that we even realized he’d left. There was Dan, ridiculously tall even in comparison to Thava, who’d fought in the Yerasol wars, and offered us “lessons in breaking stuff.” And there was Burtan, agoblin who carried a surgical kit full of gleaming blades, and who gleamed a bit himself from an amulet he wore that was constantly scrubbing him down. According to Letmas, Burtan had once had to hide from pursuit for a few sickening hours in a privy’s pit – a privy that was in active use – and afterwards…well.

The mission plan was fairly simple. The Impossible would hoist a black flag and black sails. The infiltrators would go in via the underwater sea caves, up to a mine that was apparently fairly close to the fortress. They would trail a rope along behind them: once the caves and mine were secure, they would signal us by the rope. We were to follow along the rope. Once out of the mine, all of us would head along the north side of the island to the fortress. The infiltrators would breach the wall, secure the fortress, secure the Duchess, save Nathan, and all we had to do was trot along in their wake.

Then, hardly five minutes after the infiltrators had left, the rope jerked and pulled, hard, in a way that wasn’t like the signal at all. Betty and Pantera hardly waited for the water-breathing ritual to take effect before they dove off the ship: I, on the other hand, had to be almost shoved off. I don’t like deep water, and I really don’t like drowning, and I’d been dealing with sailing by pretending, very hard, that I wasn’t on a ship at all. The idea of diving through water to who-knew-what, that had apparently already taken down a much more experienced team, was not a pleasant one.

When we reached the cave, however, it became clear that our choices were nil. The ceiling of the cave had collapsed on the team, leaving only Burtan alive, and him with a badly broken leg. According to him, the world had eddied around them, so they were suddenly in a swamp with yellow frogs croaking at them, and a purple sky above – and then they were equally suddenly back in the cave, with the rocks collapsing around them. The cave seemed to have stabilized again, or at least Betty didn’t show any signs of vanishing off to yellow frog land when she went poking around it, so we sent Burtan back via one of Thava’s rituals, and did not send me back despite my suggestion, and headed off.

We finally emerged into air again, to find ourselves in a large open gallery of a cave. A wooden dock was anchored to the wall with iron spikes, perhaps to keep it from collapsing when the world shivered around it. In the middle of the room rose a large pillar with some kind of glyphs on it that I couldn’t read, and a white splinter of rock rising out of one side of it, with a gold coin perched on the end of the splinter. With a little help from Thava and Pantera, I looked at it more closely, and realized it wasn’t merely a gold coin like you’d see in the marketplace, but some sort of magical or religious offering. On the uppermost side, the craftsman had punched the constellation of the Eagle, which (according to my Sky-seer instructors) is associated with the planet Avilena, which governs weather and the air.

There was a brief debate about what to do with the coin. Thava and I both argued that it should be left alone, because what if taking it away meant that all the air in the cavern suddenly went away? Pantera nodded, and Betty shrugged.

Naturally, as soon as our backs were turned, Betty stole the coin from its place. Thava must have noticed, because she said, “Betty!”, and I started to turn to look – and then someone shot at us.

Most of what happened over the next few minutes, I didn’t really understand at the time, so I must reconstruct from what my companions told me after the fact. Apparently the coin didn’t control the air in the cave: it attracted (and controlled) air elementals. Likewise, the person shooting at us, a Nicholas Duppers, had a necklace with two similar coins on it, attracted and controlling a shadow elemental and an earth elemental. And he was not only shooting at us, he was sending those elementals after us, while yelling rather incoherent things about how “you killed all my men, you dirt-worshippers – that wasn’t enough, now you want me dead as well?” Pantera tried to call up and point out that we’d only just arrived and hadn’t killed anyone, thank you, but Nicholas only shot at her and screamed that he was going to die.

He didn’t die. Neither did we, although more of the credit goes to Betty and her control of the air elemental than to any of us on our own. We tied him up, as we had been told to take prisoners, and huddled over the coins he had had. Betty traded in the coin of air for the coin of shadow (the Amulet of Nem, according to the inscription on the back), while Thava took the coin of air, and I was given the coin of earth (which was the Golden Icon of Urim, according to its inscription).

Nicholas roused while we were sorting this out, and sat there, glaring at us. Pantera crouched down and talked with him, and this time got something resembling useful information. When the island had been attached, he stole the icons and fled into the mines. The Amulet of Nem allowed him to go insubstantial, and dark vision as good as Pantera’s, while the Icon of Urim allowed him to raise a stone wall three feet high out of the earth. Supposedly the air icon allowed its holder to fly, but he hadn’t been interested in that, not underground. The rest of the miners? Fled into the jungle, he supposed. He hadn’t dared look.

We did. The earth was massively disturbed, as if there was a mass grave there, and the tree branches were hanging ominously low, dripping with something that looked like blood, as if the trees themselves had roused and killed the miners as they fled. Was this local magic, or the doing of the Duchess’s allies?

The world flickered around us as we debated the question. Suddenly we were in a vast marsh, like the one Burtan had tried to describe, complete with the yellow frogs croaking gloomily at us, and the purple sky above. A blue sun shone above. The world flickered again, and we were suddenly back in the real world. My shoes and the bottom of my cloak smelled slightly of the fetid marsh-water.

Unfortunately, being back in the real world wasn’t much better than dimension-slipping. We heard a metallic grinding in the distance, getting nearer, and the thump of footsteps: Pantera said she also heard the echo of voices, too many to make out clearly. She headed off to see what it was, and we followed. It was an iron Golem, missing its head: the jagged edges of its neck gave no clue as to whether it had lost the head to an explosion or just to age and rust. It leaked as it lurched along, black oil with white flecks in it. We left it alone, because even a damaged Golem is dangerous, and headed along toward the fortress.

Not far along, we found an overturned wagon, with swords and firearms spread across the road as if they’d fallen there. Pantera, wearing her beloved panther shape, prowled forward and sniffed at them, then sat back, frowned, and shook her head firmly. Something was wrong. It was a trap, and we needed to spring it, just to make sure.

Somehow my earth elemental was nominated to go forward and try to pick up one of the swords. I don’t know what, if anything, it thought of the question – it’s not like elementals really have expressions – but when I thought my wish at it hard enough, it shrugged and went over to the weapons and started piling them in its arms. It had gotten two swords and three guns before suddenly, chains of ice materialized out of thin air, and yanked its arms half out of their sockets.

Pantera swears that elementals don’t even feel pain, just a sort of general energy drain, and it could get itself out eventually. I still felt guilty leaving it behind.

As the wagon vanished from sight behind us, the world flickered again. We were in a place with a blue sun again, perhaps the same, perhaps not – there was no way of knowing. Then the world flickered back to reality again, and we found ourselves by ancient bricks, crumpled in piles that perhaps used to be buildings. There were glyphs and pictograms on the bricks, similar to the ones we’d seen on the pillar back in the mine, but I couldn’t begin to guess what they meant. That a building had been important somehow, presumably. Betty looked at it wistfully, and Thava reminded her sternly that we’d been told not to disturb the archaeological sites.

Beyond that was the first signs of current civilization – the campfires of the Danorians who had escaped the jungle’s anger. Unfortunately, our attempt at a greeting only sent them fleeing off behind the old brick buildings. We waited around a little bit, long enough to dry off by one of the campfires, but there wasn’t time to simply wait for them to calm and return. We only had a day left.

But we were halfway there. The fortress walls were finally in sight.

[to be continued]

First Report: The COALTONGUE

I studied the sky the night before this started, and received a vision – of a crowd and a ribbon and a great Beran city and a girl with a lisp singing the national anthem, of great danger among many little details. I told Thava and Betty and Pantera the next morning, because what use are visions if they aren’t shared? Perhaps this time it would be useful.

As too often happens, however, the vision was clear only in retrospect. The crowd was because we were assigned, like half the rest of the Constabulary, to work as security for the launch of the Coaltongue. Of course there were malcontents who wanted to somehow ruin it, but it was Thava and Betty who had the most luck tracking them down. We caught a small conspiracy of Dockers, of which one was standing under a tree with a ribbon, and one was watching a girl with a lisp sing, and one was in a store, studying a map of the Beran city of my vision. The others were gracious and didn’t tease me at all, but it was still frustrating. There are times when I feel like my faith in the great smith who placed the stars in the sky is more direct help to me than all the confused instruction I got from the Skyseers.

Our reward for doing a good job was another job, as the proverb says. We were to be allowed to mingle at the party that accompanied the launch, while still serving as security. There were those who did not approve of this new technology, after all, and we were particularly warned against the Duchess, the King’s sister. We were to keep our heads down, and not talk to any nobles who hadn’t talked to us first.

Naturally, the Duchess sought us out – or rather, her elven handmaiden (whom Pantera said was actually Eladrin) did. The Duchess wanted a private room, some place to rest from the crush of the crowd during the party. That was easy enough to find, and it was pleasant to talk with the Duchess for a little while. It’s so rare now to encounter someone who genuinely believes in the Skyseers. Unfortunately, the Duchess was also quite blatant about not believing in the power of steam, despite the proof of its strength rumbling under her feet, and warned us all quite seriously not to be swept away by her brother constantly talking about ‘progress.’

(Meanwhile, Pantera was trying to talk with the handmaiden – Pan is rumored to follow the path of the Vekeshi mystics, and I saw for myself she was fascinated to talk to an actual Eladrin. Unfortunately, the woman obstinately clung to the claim that she was merely elven, and please just leave her alone, to the point where the Duchess interfered. In retrospect, I’m not sure what we could have done differently – we couldn’t have arrested the handmaiden without causing a scene, and for what? We had no proof of anything beyond, perhaps, that she was Eladrin, and that’s not a crime. But I still wish that we’d listened to Pan and done something, even if I don’t know what.)

The party was quite pleasant, although we didn’t really talk with anyone. Captain Smith was there, debating philosophy with a dwarf (the Captain, was, of course, arguing Millerite philosophy, while his companion was backing Eschatol), and I believe Betty had the chance to flirt with the engineer who designed and helped build the Coaltongue. I don’t know whether she learned anything: she has an active interest in mechanics, but an equally active interest in sex, and it’s anyone’s guess which side will win out when she has an attractive engineer at her disposal.

We toured the ship, since we had the opportunity, and I’m glad we did. Part of that is because the Coaltongue is a true accomplishment, beautifully made regardless of one’s opinion on steam power, and part of that is because of what we learned that we were able to later use. The gun deck, for example, has three rooms that hold explosive powder, that will not explode by any accident because of the power of the charms hung from their walls. And down in the engine room, the great furnace must be constantly fed with fire gems, or else the ship is dead in the water. We chatted with the guard on duty by the great cannon, who seemed so proud of the deadly power next to her, as if it were all hers, and Betty found a more cooperative target in one of the young engineers who was feeding fire gems to the furnace, despite his colleagues teasing him about shirking his share of the work. And then we headed back upstairs, because it was nearly time for the king to give his speech.

The king spoke, and the ship was launched, and off we went on our short little voyage to the entrance of the harbor. Unfortunately, there had been one face noticeably missing: the Duchess. So off we four went to knock at her door.

She wasn’t in. She was sleeping, the handmaiden claimed, but her voice was distant, as if across the room. We broke down the door, and found the handmaiden half out the window, and the Duchess nowhere to be found. There were signs and sigils upon the ground, indicating that someone had done a fire ritual in the room.

From there, my memory grows hazy. There was a Halfling in the room that we hadn’t even seen, who tried to kill us and was killed instead. Someone (the Eladrin, I presume) summoned fire spirits that ran toward the armory and tried to take down the spells that kept the powder from exploding, then a wall of fire to conceal her as she ran down toward the engines (which last badly hurt Betty, who had gotten too close for the Eladrin’s comfort). The guard who had boasted about the cannons was killed, by the Eladrin or one of her companions, I don’t know which. So was the engineer who had shyly flirted with Betty: his compatriots were in the pay of the Eladrin, and tried to kill us. We killed them instead, and immobilized the Eladrin, but too late: between them, they had broken the furnace and set it to overheat so it would explode and take the entire ship down with it.

Pan was the one who came up with the solution. She pulled out the amber wand that the Eladrin had been using to heat the furnace even faster, then bounded up to the armory and came back with a small armful of the anti-fire charms. That was enough to calm the furnace. It was no easy trick to get the ship back to land again – I believe they had to tow it somehow – but it was not sunk.

Our reputation has improved in the wake of this. Not that much: I’m fairly sure the senior constables believes we were nothing more than ‘lucky,’ and anyone could have done what we did. But it’s reassuring to get some respect. If nothing else, perhaps Thava will be less grumpy about how she left Ber for this.

- Magstein Astafyev


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