Parlay 'Parlay my ass, Nauran', I replied, incredulous at the notion of Talbot's supposed invitation for diplomacy. I 'know' what he wants, and I've seen all too clearly the lengths he'll go to to get it. Scenes from the College attack replayed inside my head, Vanoogle pressed against the wall, a sword driven into his gut. No. No, this isn't a parlay, this is just a different approach, another tactics employed when the first wasn't enough. Just like Talbot's long ago dinner invitation at the Mermaid, it was only ever about getting his way. Intimidation and bullyism had failed to see me comply, and so he tried charm. 'You should've played ball', he said wearily, staring at my image in the creche-forge. But Talbot doesn't want to play, not the way I do, not for enjoying the back and forth. He wants to control the players, dictate the game. 'It's a 'trap'.' This much, Nauran conceded, but continued to insist that we should go, that I might attend as a projected image only, and that he had a means of escape if it came to that. Apparantly he had been dealing not with Talbot directly, but with the blue-eyed construct, who would wait until nightfall when the 'invitation' expired. Where I saw looming risk, not just of capture but of tipping our hand, Nauran saw a chance to learn - but the only things I really wished to know, I felt quite certain would be not be on offer. We argued back and forth - to my increasing frustration, lately it seemed Nauran and I could never disagree on anything without it spiralling into an aggressive, confrontational near row. I'd brought the Oscuran mage into the investigation quite recently, for enjoying our past collaboration on the Chirade case. Despite Nauran being at odds with some of my friends and distrusted by many others, I thought he might offer a clear and dispassionate view on things, as he had before. Now, however, Nauran presented his views as though they were the 'only' rational course of action, as if he was always right, even where I felt certain he did not see the full picture. He seemed to bristle each time we disagreed on anything, dismissing my idea of breaking the strangle-hold of Mechanus on the soldiers through song and dance as ludicrous. Even after being told by Artemis also that exactly this effect had been demonstrated, more than once, he did not quite believe me. Yet of his own conclusions, he was all too certain. I remembered fondly our discussions during the Chirade investigation. Things were different then, perhaps because we were both on the outer fringes of the case. Now that I found myself smack in the middle of the plot, things between us seemed fraught with tension. I usually enjoy debate, enjoy different points of view for making me see things differently myself - I'd invited Nauran into the fold, partly for that very reason. I wanted him to help me twist and turn this mystery about - not to drive me near tears of frustration for insisting we do things his way. There's never just one right way – there's never just one or the other either, back and forth, left or right – just like the creche-forge, if you walk far enough to the left, it becomes right. Reality isn't linear or fixed – as I'm sure Godfrey and Godfreya would agree. Yet if our will shapes the world, it was becoming obvious that mine and Nauran's did not harmonize. The sun was setting across the rooftops of the city when I finally caved. Alright, 'fine' – we may learn something that could prove valuable, and neither of us are without means of escape when the trap would inevitably begin to snap shut. Hopefully… It awaited us in a secluded area of the foothills, blue eyes glowing in the dusk. Every encounter with the construct brought the same pang to my gut, the painful reminder of our failure to save Taschereau. In accordance with Nauran's previous negotiations, the construct allowed for a set number of questions to be answered – but as I had predicted, anything of relevant strategic value was off limits. 'Tasch' could only provide the answers to such questions as Talbot allowed it to, and it did so in a heartbreakingly inhuman manner, its voice metallic and emotionless. -Why the parlay? 'The General wishes direct interactions between himself and the bardess, as she has displayed an ability to compromise the integrity and security of the General's structure. He wishes to come to a better understanding of this ability, and discern the bardess' intentions with it, as well as propose a course of action.' Well duh. -What are Talbot’s intentions for Sally Williams? 'Former Lieutenant and Traitor Sally Williams', the construct insisted, continuing: 'The General's orders were to hold the city until his return, and open the gates for him. The General has since considered Former Lieutenant and Traitor Sally Williams' value and intends to offer her the means to redeem herself and shed her current status.' Heh. Bet you anything that 'redemption' involves a certain little something no longer in place, 'General'. -So Talbot does still intend to return to Peltarch? 'Yes.' -How does 'Tasch' cast spells in its current form? 'This one's form is made of rare metals from the plane of Mechanus, same as those used to create Inevitables, known to be capable of spellcasting. But its form is not purely mechanical. A fraction is organic.' Curious… but we knew the metal was rare, that's why the flesh is needed to substitute the rest. Could there be a weakness in that though – might Tasch yet respond to the Godfreya effect, or might the organic parts hold the key to the restoration of his true self? -Which parts are organic? The construct gave a precise and chilling response – it appears Gazuenheidt had created a clone, a duplicate in flesh of Taschereau's original form. The wretched gnome cut away its limbs, fusing head and torso within the shell of the construct so that flesh and metal merged. I shuddered, taking note of the information but failing as of now to see how we might make use of it. Nauran received his due reward for bringing me to the rendez-vous: a specific scroll from Tasch's spellbook, called Mage's Private Sanctum. And now for the steel jaws of this trap to trigger… The 'offer' from Talbot was the following: 'You will meet with the General in person, and allow the General to stabilize the aura contained about your person. In exchange, the General will not march unto Peltarch.' Yeah ~right~. 'In the interests of the greater stability of the region, as well as the integrity and security of the General's structure, the General adds the following clause to the offer.' Okay, get ready Nauran – here it comes. 'Submit any and all gems you currently possess that contain ties to the creche-forge, and allow for a magical scan upon your person to be conducted by Tasch. And in exchange, the General will not order the regiments that have been stationed around this plateau to carry out their orders.' There it is. That's Talbot's 'parlay' – do what I say or 'else'. 'Tell the 'General' he can take his offer and shove it, Tasch', I said in an even voice, a giggle almost escaping as the construct did just that, diligently. 'Relaying message: shove it.' It seemed slow to realize this meant no, but past the treeline, in the darkness of the hillsides, we heard them approaching. Footsteps, metallic greaves in perfect, clockwork unison. The blue-eyed construct's eyes glowed, but it had yet to make any hostile move itself, perhaps still working out my words true meaning. Time to exit this particular stage. Invisible, we fled towards the city gates, where I raised the alarm. Nauran, meanwhile, took it upon himself not to seek safety but battle, commencing to rain down fire and destruction upon the approaching clockwork soldiers. No, no, no… don't kill them, just hold them off..! There was nothing for it now – whether Tasch was studying me in the distance or not, I had to try. I had to put my plan to the test, and free as many as I could before they were all dead and lost. I was 'not' having another massacre at the gates – not this time, not knowing I could prevent it. Time for dress rehearsal, then. The amplifier rod gleamed in my hand, slender and light, encased by smooth black leather and snaking, swirling mithril coils. I held it close to my lips, so close the tip almost brushed against me, and sang a single, humming, vibrating, buzzing note. The note filled the air, it echoed far into the foothills and the soldiers paused, momentarily, before pressing on. Nauran was still fighting, fireballs hurled through the air. I hummed the melody – a slow and haunting melody, the notes droning, almost electrical. My lips tickled, a spark of red dancing in the air. And then I sang. I shut out the sounds of battle, shut out my worries and concerns, let the melody claim me, the words fill me, spill out of me in a haze of red. I swayed, on top of the wall, as the haze spread, thickening into a crimson fog. Beneath me, the battle began to grind to a halt – some soldiers stopped to sway with me. Others began to flee westwards, but their movements seemed jerky, intermittent, the machinery malfunctioning. The haze grew darker, a storm brewing within, wisps and lashes of colours erupting in the air. A thunderstorm in red, with rainbow lightning flashing, zapping, jolting the frozen soldiers. And then I saw her, a flickering image hovering in the air. Godfreya, long dark hair and uneven robes fluttering with the storm, swaying with the song. She smiled, that bright, wild smile, and stretched her hand out to… something… At first it's all a haze, but then I see Godfrey's image flicker into view as well, his trim moustache curved in a smile. He takes her hand, and together, they begin to dance. Below, twenty soldiers all bend over and reach for their heads, screaming in agony, wailing, curling up on the ground, hands digging into temples and skulls as though something snapped within. All at once and in a rush, it came back to them – everything they are and everything that was done to them, everything they were forced to do as prisoners in their own bodies. As the first Defenders came rushing to the scene, my song trailed off and the red haze began to dissipate, revealing the scorched battle field and the bodies of the fallen past the gates. And scattered around it, twenty groaning, traumatized soldiers. In pain, in agony but alive – alive and free of Talbot's chains. It worked. It 'worked' not just on individual soldiers but on a whole group. Twenty could have been how many more, if Nauran had just held his fire? If he'd had just a little more faith in my plan, how many more might be saved? It's a question without answer – for all that the walls might've protected me sufficiently while I sang, it's just as possible that the soldiers might have breached it before the haze had enough strength to stop them in their tracks. For now, I'll take what I can get from this, I'll take the twenty and confirmation that my plan is possible not just in theory but in practice. Not even Nauran can deny that now, even though he insists it isn't the most reliable method. What still worries me is that confirmation might have gone both ways – that Talbot now knows precisely what I can do and will work out a strategy to counter it, rendering the next and crucial attempt a failure. Regal's Fjord has 'got' to work – and Sally Williams, in arriving at the scene herself, notified us to an upcoming meeting to discuss the particulars of the next course of action. Nauran, just before we parted in more amicable mood, revealed that the scroll he acquired from Tasch will allow for undetected scrying, the next time we attempt to snoop. Now that 'is' clever. Why couldn't he just have told me so to start with, instead of attempting to boss me around? Of course, he thinks I'm the one being bossy. Am I? Or am I not bossy 'enough'?