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]