A Melody Mechanical by Isolde Garibaldi
'Louis 'is' an arcanist, isn't he? What if -…'
The plot-talk in the lounge petered to a halt at the soft shuffling entrance of black-clad Olil. The elven bard looked even more morose than her usual maudlin self, and sighed dejectedly as she slumped down by the fire.
'My vacation was cancelled...'
A little gentle prodding soon revealed that Olil's idea of a vacation was a contemplative walk through the city sewers, but that she'd been rudely interrupted by a gang of armed men, who also robbed her of her pack and the fine hides she was working on. While Olil protested the futility in fighting the cruelty of the world, Roslyn, Sheserai and I decided to take action. No one robs a fellow bard and gets away with it!
'...whatever...', sighed Olil, describing the spot and the culprits in more detail. Curiously, it turns out that section of the docks sewers matched Louis' mark on Roslyn's map, and the armed men were by no means the local scumloving cultists. Talbot's hive of smugglers and allies, then?
As the three of us prepared and quietly slipped down the stairs to the solid, fetid stench of the sewers below, the plan was to use our stealth and cunning to retrieve the pack, then tip off the city or get brawnier help in any fighting that might break out. We are all, after all, what the rougher adventurers refer to as 'squishies', clad in leather and relying on our heads rather than our strength of arms.
Around a bend, we heard voices, creeping closer to eavesdrop. Two men, big, beefy fighter types with heavy armour, stopping to chat on their secretive patrols of the down-under.
'The gnome showed up and asked for more metal', noted one with slight annoyance, spitting to the side. 'Apparantly the city's going to try and crack down on loyalists.'
The continued conversation made it clear that Talbot's base of operation remained in use, orders delivered now and then by Tusker personally. These people, whether through stupidity, greed or dissatisfaction with the way the city's run, had chosen Talbot's side, of their own free will. Not a single implant, no one to twist their arm. Had they not 'heard' what he'd done to the people following him?
Rage flared in me, a hot red rush. You bully my friend, steal her things, follow a jerkwad dictator of your 'own free will'? Olil's bleak view on humanity seems too close to the truth at time, but I am 'not' just going to sit down and despair.
In silent agreement, we waited for the second man to continue on his patrol, piling on the first as soon as the sound of the other's footsteps had faded down the hall. We weren't intending to fight, yet here we were, wailing on the unsuspecting thug! Sounds of running, from behind us, then.
I swivelled around, bowstring taut - but the clunk and clank came not from hostile feet, but a set most welcome in our midst - Leena! Suddenly, our party of squishies didn't seem quite so squishy anymore, with spellpower arcane, divine and from nature adding to bow, shield and blade. A thick layer of bark covered our leathers at Leena's murmurs, and with renewed confidence we continued on our path.
The base wasn't far, we heard movement ahead and the din of many voices. Skulking near, we spied a larger chamber opening up, where a sizable party of heavily armoured, capable looking goons milled around. More by far than we could take on without risking life and limb in the process, and something more besides.
'Traps!', hissed Roslyn, making agitated gestures to the ceiling, where numerous vats of some unhealthy looking liquid had been fastened. To enter that room would be suicide, should the trigger be released...
Dear readers, I am not proud of what we did next. I could argue we needed the tactical advantage, that we were aiding the city in ridding it of a threat, and this would be quite true. Though it isn't my forte or something I enjoy, I have taken lives before - but this...
The sight is etched on my mind's eye, the sounds, the 'smell'...
We created a small diversion, designed to gather the loyalists in the room's midst - and then Roslyn fired an explosive arrow at the ceiling, releasing a burst of the volatile liquid contained within the many, many vats. The trap 'melted' those caught in the blast, ate through metal and seared flesh off bone. It was far, 'far' worse than any of us had imagined, and for a moment we simply stared at each other in stunned silence.
But the screams drew attention. A door nearby opened, and the alarm rang out when our presence became known. Soon, we were fighting for our lives, the scene behind us blurring into just the acrid tang in the air. It was rough going, even with spells and song tipping the scales to our advantage, we were hard pressed. I knew then that we'd never have managed to survive fighting a straight fight. But still...
A final door before us, as we caught our breaths and healed our numerous cuts and scrapes back up. Wary of a trap, Roslyn ran her fingers over the handle, pressing ever so gently.
A shockwave released, 'felt' more than heard, assaulting the senses. The sound thrummed through the soles of my boots and pressed painfully against my eardrums. Roslyn collapsed, bleeding from her nose, her ears, her eyes and try as we might, we could not get her up on her feet. From within, a mocking laughter rang out.
'Didn't spot that one, did you!?'
The trapmaster was alone inside the last room, regarding us with dark, malicious glee. She was gloating of the ingenuity of her traps, trying to taunt us nearer - but wise from painful experience, we held back. Vats in the ceiling.. row upon row, and Putre, as she gave her name, seemed more inclined to die in a fiery burst of glory from her own handiwork than allow herself to be captured. Bringing us down with her, of course.
A scroll in her hands. 'Fireball'...
While Leena charged wildly, while I 'panicked', Sheserai pulled a different scroll from her belt. Calmly, she read it and Putre's muttered incantations suddenly died on her lips. The trapmaster's eyes widened, and she shouted a soundless curse, just as an enraged Leena barrelled into her.
Silence. Sheserai, you brilliant woman!
My joy was shortlived though, replaced by the stabbing pain of being on the receiving end of Putre's shortswords, the silently screaming woman refusing to go down without a fight. Leena landed the last strike, rendering our foe unconscious to be hauled off to Gaol, along with the equally unconscious Roslyn and the recovered goods, a smugglers trove of stolen equipment.
Weapons, armour, various crafting supplies - and Olil's hides, still intact! The Defenders will find good use of these goods, and that at least made our efforts worth it. Roslyn eventually came to, deafly shouting her way through the interview with Putre (or 'Janice' as Oscar called her - apparantly she started her career in the Far Scouts before turning into a terrorist and trapper for hire).
Putre professed to be working for Talbot solely for the fat paycheck, and perhaps she is. Nothing we said or did seemed to really get under her skin, and I wonder if she's the sort to love nothing but her own craft, those traps that wrought such indescribable ruin down under.
'A zecret for a zecret, zug', cooed Louis Auldreyuus, his hand resting shamelessly on my thigh. The colourful dockside information broker had proven in possession of worthwhile secrets indeed, but his comings and goings to City Hall had me convinced he was Talbot's creature. So much so that his nervous checking of his watch at the Commons, the rough-handed 'escort' away by Carl Tusker, I discarded as bait at the time. Louis, the bright dangling lure, his troubles designed to draw me in over deeper waters, hungry jaws waiting beneath the surface to snap at my secrets.
And then he disappeared.
Roslyn's canny sleuthing eventually revealed the truth - Talbot, for reasons yet unknown, had ordered Auldreyuus' death, the dirtywork as usual carried out by Carl Tusker. But unbeknownst to either, Mint, Tusker's homicidal assistant, had fished the body out of the icy harbour, raised Louis and taken him into hiding in the dark underground city of Oscura.
Sheserai, Roslyn and several others, myself unfortunately not included, tackled the task of hunting down the understandably paranoid Louis Auldreyuus, eventually meeting him at the back room of the Shining Coppers, flanked by a pair of beefy hired goons.
The story they brought back was the following:
Louis Auldreyuus, Talbot Anderson and Carl Tusker share a past as mercenaries, working for the same band before they came to Peltarch. Here, they began building influence at first in the docks, and had a base of sorts in the sewers, still in use for various smuggled goods. Talbot's star soon rose in the ranks and the inner circle grew with the recruitment of Jean Taschereau, a first star Cerulean at the time.
After the discovery of the creche-forge, Louis was invited to both its hearts. Specifically, Talbot wanted him to help control the gem and find its missing twin, but also had Louis researching a way to stay in contact with his lieutenants - Sally Williams, Tusker, Taschereau and Auldreyuus himself. The basic idea was something akin to a Sending spell, but one using the mechanics of the creche-forge rather than magic.
Louis, ever eager for delicious new secrets, set about working on his tasks but also explored the creche-forge itself. He noted it was a uniquely altered thing with different purposes - it could extend itself, grow and reform, as well as making new machines and repair damaged bodyparts. But there was also a capacity for controlling or suppressing minds, more disturbingly.
And one fateful day, Louis found the secret which would cost him his life - a hidden mechanism deep within the creche-forge, capable of shutting the entire thing down. With the discovery of the 'kill-switch', Louis knowledge of the creche-forge and the gems within seemed to come to a halt. According to the investigative team, he professed to know nothing of the rubies settings, neither Talbot's nor the larger central stone.
I'm certain he knows more, though. For now, a few things itch and scratch at my mind: the large ruby's significance and singular form (is it truly the 'blender', where two become one? And why does it appear more elaborate and refined, with settings less worn away by time?). Where is this 'kill-switch'? And assuming the chips sported by Taschereau and Tusker are the sending devices, does this mean Sally's got one too, hidden somewhere upon her person, beneath metal armour, cloth or even skin? The chips do more than simply send a message - and foolish me did just tell her 'everything'.
There must be some way to find out. It wouldn't be like Talbot to leave anything to chance, not even if he thought her devotion nigh absolute.
Setting The Stage
I came to in the corridor, blessedly cool marble pressed against my cheek, against my fragile feeling head, about to burst with a horrific, splitting headache. Staggering down the stairs to M5, I dimmed all the lights and crawled into bed, gently cocooned by silky satin sheets. Slowly, the pain subsided and I drifted into deep and dreamless slumber.
Upon waking, my mind was clear and I could feel the rough outlines of a plan just within grasp, as though it had congealed as I slept, the loose threads and vague ideas gravitating towards one another, knitting into a discernible pattern.
Regal's Fjord. The small fishing town had neither the trained defenders nor the defences to withstand a full-scaled attack, and even if Peltarch supplied the first, it'd be a close and bloody affair. But what if instead of fighting, instead of killing Talbot's army at great cost to our own, we take back what was never rightfully his?
If what happened to Vincent, to Henry could be reproduced on a larger scale, Regal's Fjord is the place to do it. He won't expect it, won't see it coming and instead of his army growing from the strike, it might suddenly shrink down to only those he keeps around the base. This could be the turning point, the triumphant opening act of our offence - 'if' it works.
So far, envoking Godfreya has been a tentative, flickering experience. It's ~worked~ - the results are indisputable, but modest in scale, just one individual at a time, a single spark of red, a flush of rainbow colours in its wake. If I'm to have any chance of affecting an entire army, I need some means of empowering the effect, bolstering her presence. I need to crank up the Godfreya and make my performance bigger, better… and LOUDER.
And who knows louder better than Vanoogle?
The dear bardic gnome's eyes glinted with dangerous levels of enthusiasm as I laid out my basic idea - a hand-held device, enchanted to ensure one's voice travelled loud and clear over a large area.
He gave me a sweetly unhinged smile and listed the materials required: two mithral ingots, high quality leather hides and a number of Soundburst and Amplify scrolls. As I explained the device's intent, Vanoogle nodded rapidly and added that he could modify his sonic pipes into emitters, linked to the amplifier rod. The emitters could then be placed around the area of effect, strengthening it further.
I left a highly enthused gnome to his work and set about presenting my plan and my recent findings to first Oscar Halbrook, then Sally Williams, the never seeing eye to eye captains of the Guards and Defenders respectively. A sceptical Sally demanded a full explanation, one which Oscar immediately lamented being granted. Even though Del'rosa's only alive because of Sally's intervention, Oscar maintains she's not to be fully trusted and preferably kept in the dark about the more delicate details.
I believe I've seen Sally's steel, her true mettle showing when it counted, but I've also seen her strain and struggle, each time she's gone against Talbot's orders. And I've seen the naked surprise on more than one face, in hearing she is no longer on his side, as though her loyalty had been entirely without question before. I can't blame Oscar for his wariness, anymore than I can blame Sally for disliking his apparant disregard for proper procedure and jurisdictional lines in the sand.
While it's so much easier working with Oscar, whose mindset is closer to my own, I can't and I won't cut Sally out of the loop. Not when she's the reason why we're still in this fight. At the crucial moment, she came through for the city and I must believe she will again, should it ever come to that.
I whittled the full regiment of soldiers Sally wanted to send to the fjord down to one - just Reyhenna - maintaining the value of the element of surprise. Regal Ford is where we set the stage for the turning of the tide, and while Vanoogle works on my props, I'd best start assemble my cast.
I need a good song too. A real show-stopper...
I woke with a pounding, blistening headache, mercilessly driving me out of the bed's warm embrace as the pale morning's sun had barely begun to light the tallest chimneys and rooftops of Peltach. I stumbled through the hallways to the kitchen, managing nothing but a half glass of water before opting to return.
The corridor swayed and flickered maddeningly before my eyes, the busts of the bardic masters leering wildly. My head throbbed and pulsed with pain, searing flashes of crimson dancing before my eyes and I had to stop, had to lean against the wall to fight the urge to curl up into a ball.
My vision flickered. Suddenly, a glimpse of movement on the floor, a glint of tiny figures moving as one. An army… a miniscule army of clockwork soldiers, marching across the smooth marble. Though - the marble glinted like snow - and were they really all that little? Perhaps it was I who was watching from a great height?
As I thought this, I felt myself swooping suddenly up, weightless, free-flowing - soaring high above the ground. There was Peltarch, shrunk into miniature from my bird's eye view, there the Icelace's cold waters spreading out, glittering like beaten lead. The Giantspires, capped with snow... and Talbot's base, the bulk of the army milling outside.
A strategic map, a living game plan - I viewed the world from above, free and mobile, yet 'connected' to every pawn in the game, every single soldier. I could see them, I could 'feel' them - I could, I realized with a start, see through their eyes, as though were they each but an extension of me.
I soared, sensing different hot-spots of attention, eventually honing in on a group of soldiers near a fishing town called Regal's Fjord. It's an independant, remote but fairly populous settlement, with only modest defences - and it was these defences the soldiers were assessing now. Wooden palisades, mundanely armed guards - I could feel the facts noted, transferred, sensing the chilling order given: scout in preparation of attack.
Images of the army's march onto the mechanical sprawl flashed before my eyes, and I couldn't help but shudder. Regal Fjord has no real desirable resources, no strategic value but for one thing - its population, fodder to be for the clockwork army's replenishment.
I turned away from the fjord, sweeping my ephemeral gaze across to Peltarch, where another group of soldiers patrolled, carefully hidden from view. Again, I could sense their orders, some looking for weaknesses in the city's defences, others patrolling but stopping every so often to hide runes with sigils on them, all along the major routes leading to the Giantspires base.
An invisible leyline, an early warning system, should anyone try to approach. I zoned in closer, saw the small runes being hid in particular spots: behind a rock, under a bush, behind some tree branches.
And then, the base itself. Godfrey's creche-forge, the massive sprawl stretching out in all directions, vast like a city and hidden under the snow, dirt and rock gathering over the ages. At the city's core, the beating, pulsing heart of the creche-forge, a red glow that draws me near.
The creche-forge has two hearts, in fact - one that's already familiar and explored. The other, though - that's where I'll find 'him'.
I float closer - I look 'inside', I pass through walls, run through wirings, the cogs, sprockets and clockworks as familiar to me as my own body. Red blood, crimson life essence and black metal bones. I feel the creche-forge all around me, living, breathing, but there's throbbing hotspots of activity, three centers of it. I glimpse all three, but know I can only focus on one:
A man, unlike the Inevitables, sharpening a dagger amidst four nodes. He glimpses past swiftly, but the cringe in my gut screams Carl Tusker (slimy rat-bastard).
A construct, blue-eyed and runed, lingering near a set of wiring and a control node. Taschereau, or what's left of him, trapped in metal.
And finally, Talbot Anderson. His armour's different now, dark, beaten and battered, his cloak in tatters. He is utterly alone, a naked weariness etched onto features usually masked in cold self-confidence and fake smiles.
I focus, flow through metal and wires until I'm there, in the room with him. A crimson spy, ephemeral and undetectable. Talbot's standing near a large central control panel, looking down at a projection very similar to my bird's eye view of before. Of course - his game, his pawns, his will controlling the board. But is it really?
He looks frustrated, and I can't help but feel a little smug, drifting closer. The thrill of my secret presence is mixed with chill though - the chill of knowing that for better or worse, we're linked now, he and I, seeing through the same eyes, but with very different perspectives.
It hangs around his neck, now. The red gem, clutched by runed, black metal, digging into the ruby's surface. This is a different sort of arcane, with a signature unlike that of Mechanus. Dominate, Charm, Hold Person, Feeblemind.. the effect is directed 'inwards', and I remember the dance slowing, freezing to a standstill. Godfrey's silent whisper:
New images appear on the display, achingly familiar figures. Aesso, bubbling with excitement, seated on Horgrim's hulking shoulders. They're inside the creche-forge - these are memories stored within the place itself.
Horgrim rumbles, a baritone brimming with concern: 'We shouldn't be here. This place isn't natural, even the planar elements have been changed somehow.'
Aesso: 'I want it Horgrim! I want it I want iiiiiiit!!!'
Horgrim: 'Silvia will not be pleased if she hears we're collecting this gem without her.'
Aesso: 'Come ON Horgrim! What's the worst that can happen!?!'
Talbot stares at the scene with hollow eyes, as though he's watched it play out a thousand times. He shakes his head, frustrated.
'Ugh... show me the bardess.'
My image appears, alongside Artemis, Leena and Sheserai as we explore the creche-forge. Talbot, however, sees only me. He stares at my image, stepping away from the controls to circle it, fists clenching and unclenching.
A new scene - the south gates of Peltarch. I'm singing, dancing on the walls, the image seen through the soldiers eyes.
Sneering, Talbot keeps staring at my image. He speaks out loud, little knowing that I'm actually there to hear it:
'You played me for a fool, bardess. All those protections for the halfling, and why? To deflect attention away from yourself? It's been you all along.
'You' have this... or the second half of it, don't you? You should've played ball. We could've taken over the damned city together. But no - you just had to have it your way, didn't you?'
Talbot reaches out to strangle my dancing image, fists clenching hard. Frustration, weariness, disappointment mingling on his face, and even though I 'know' he can't see me, I feel cold. I want to get away now, but I also feel like screaming:
'My' way? You're the one who has to have it your way, who'd reshape the world, sacrifice the lives of those following you, even those who'd call you friend, just to have YOUR WAY!
But instead, something nearby draws my attention, away even from Talbot himself. Something deeply 'connected' to the entirety of the creche-forge, its heart of hearts. A large, red gem, twice the size of either Godfrey or Godfreya's ones, set at the absolute centre of the large, octagonal room. It's fastened to the floor through a mechanism that seems inactive, and the gem itself, while finely cut and somehow 'newer' than the rest, is dull and dark too.
That is, until Talbot goes near. Until 'I' follow in his shadow. His amulet glows a soft crimson - I glow too, and a spark of red ignites. The gem in the heart of the creche-forge pulses once, and Talbot startles, surprised.
'A reaction? But how?'
His fist closes around the amulet, squeezes it cruelly and Godfrey, silenced for so long now, screams.
'I need the second one, don't I? But it's not.. here... or is it?'
He turns around, a terrifying focus in his cold, harsh eyes and I 'feel' it, feel the part of me that's Godfreya being pulled towards the large ruby. She's frightened - we have to get away, but it's like running through treacle. He's trying to block our escape, but I won't have it. I won't ever 'play ball'.
Pieces of the Puzzle
Spying a much muted Jessica Hemway on her way home from the College, I invited myself along for a visit to the Hemway estate, joined by Kaitlyn and Sheserai. While it was a relief to see Jessica up on her feet again, it worried me to see her so without her usual indominably huffy spirit. It's true that House Hemway's reputation's taken a beating from the Mystery of the Eye case, followed by a resounding headbutt after the revelation of Talbot's treachery, but Jessica herself had always seemed admirably adept at keeping both her chin and her confidence up - until now.
I suspect that it's not 'just' dying that's shaken her, but that dreadful sinking realization that comes with it, knowing that the worst really can happen. And not just to other people, but to you and yours. It's strange, but after all the times we've butted heads, all the times I've tried to take her down a peg, I found myself wishing I could lift her back up. I'd much rather have her insult me so we could huff and fume at each other, and everything would feel normal again, than suffer this fragile, jarring silence.
At the front door, Jessica slipped quickly inside, mustering a semblance of normality in summoning Monty to do the 'work' of admitting guests to the estate. She'll be alright in time, I hope. She's young, beautiful, rich and though I'd never have admitted it to her face, actually not a bad violinist.
Monty, with unfailing courtesy and grace, let us in, raising a brow ever so mildly at Sheserai's official Cerulean blues. 'It's merely a social call', I tried to insist, but lady Vanessa swooped protectively down the stairs thinking differently. It soon became clear that the Hemways have lived in fear of reprisals from the city for backing Talbot financially. Public opinion had already deemed them 'traitors', ostracizing the family further.
But what if the family could argue that their support was and always had been to the 'city', and they were just as mislead as the rest by Talbot's actions? Kaitlyn and I had just seen alarming signs of the remaining army's appallingly poor equipment, and I saw a chance to kill two proverbial birds with one stone here: aid the city's defences by convincing Garric to donate funds for the sake of his family's good name and standing, and squeezing him for any and all information he had on Talbot.
'Just don't get drawn into another shouting match', I told myself most sternly, sharpening my arguments and smoothness of tongue as we awaited Garric's arrival in the comfort of the library.
Garric, like Vanessa, seemed much on edge, distinctly defensive and tight-lipped initially. While it was immediately apparant that I remain firmly in his disfavour, he eventually conceded that we had done everything possible to try and save his daughter from Tusker's murderous hands. 'I was a fool to ever deal with that man', Garric noted bitterly, finally admitting that while Talbot's true plans were never revealed, he payed a visit some time before making his move.
'He wanted a second opinion', said Garric with a sour tightening to his lips. 'Not about business, but rather seeking the aid of a sufficiently skilled mage.' Talbot, it seems, had shown Garric the red gem, asking whether it could be changed or controlled. Though somewhat evasive, Garric eventually admitted having examined the gem, noting that there was a great deal of magic invested in it, including something akin to 'Trap the Soul', but more complete and comprehensive. And he sensed a strong connection to the Plane of Mechanus.
Mechanus, Garric explained with a lecturing drone interrupted only by the shouting match I swore I'd refrain from for him scolding me on how Talbot had actually 'done' his homework, is home to a few living creatures. The souls of especially orderly, 'sensible' people may reside on this plane of clockwork, cogs and gears. The formians also call a section of Mechanus home, and the machine-like entities known as the 'Inevitables'.
All machines of Mechanus, Garric said, have one common purpose to their existence - to create a haven for logic and order. The Inevitables are machine-like creatures, vaguely humanoid in appearance if not in nature. They're designed to fulfill a singular purpose and will persue it incessantly. The Inevitables are built, created and programmed in automated factories called 'creche-forges'. These manufacturing plants, consisting of a multitude of modules working in tandem, are themselves living and conscious, much as their creations.
Garric, like Taschereau and likely Louis before him, sensed something inside the red gem, a powerful enchantment with a complex weave of abjuration and transformation woven in with something akin to a 'trap the soul' spell. Clearly, it was one of a kind and what Talbot wished was to find ways and means to change the gem's original properties, somehow alter the programming and gain control of it. He also wanted to know if Garric could sense the presence of another like it.
While Garric deemed the first request above his capabilities to perform, he nonetheless noted that there are certainly spells that in theory could accomplish the desired effect, such as a 'Dominate Person' effect directed into the gem itself.
That Garric found no trace of a gem similar to Talbot's came as no surprise, but the next revelation provided a shuddering flashback to the Ettin caverns and the strange module with the snaking wires that the clockwork soldiers had tried to attach to Horgrim. Talbot had brought something much like that to Garric for study, asking if he could activate it, even though it was disconnected from the forge.
There was something very peculiar about this module though, Garric noted. It was, as one might expect, designed to create Inevitables, but that wasn't its one and only purpose. This piece of the creche-forge had been uniquely altered to build in a certain flexibility, unheard of in the realm of Mechanus. Not only could it build Inevitables, but also create other physical structures, as well as mend wounded creatures.
That Talbot did find a way to control and subjugate Godfrey's spirit within the gem is painfully apparant now - but Garric, having declined the task as above his skills, could offer no further insight into how. But it would have to be a more powerful arcanist than himself, which left us with only two reasonable choices - Taschereau, who we could get little coherent out of in his current state, and the mysterously vanished Louis Auldreyuus.
Roslyn, canny detective that she is, had a lead on Auldreyuus, and he would be our next designated stop in the quest for sorely needed knowledge.
We left the Hemway estate on relatively good terms, having persuaded Garric to donate a weapons and armour shipment to the Defenders, in exchange for a favourable word on his behalf to General Del'rosa. I shall do so without reservations, because while Garric Hemway may drive me into rebellious rage by his constant attempts to school, scold and chastize me, he is not a traitor.
Just a stubborn old know-it-all.
In the wake of the attack, emotions ran high, anger and urgency prompting those around me to suggest one wild plan after another. But I, admittedly a fan of the plotting and the hatching of wild plans, I felt only a great and heavy weariness, bordering on defeat as I walked through the rubble of my broken home.
It took days to clean up the College, but somehow the simple, bodily tasks were soothing, letting my mind rest and slowly come to grips with things while I worked. Nate, having fought with the Ceruleans on the western walls during the attack, returned safe and sound, and in his arms I felt my strength and my determination restored, bit by bit.
We know where Talbot's ensconsed himself, and rumbling sentiment would have us marching towards the base already, sweeping forth on a wave of vengeful fury. But we're not ready yet.
By my estimation, Talbot must have depleted roughly half of the army he seized in the mountains by this point, but that still leaves a considerable force on his side, not to mention the great many unknowns in what we were truly facing.
No, we are not ready to march - not until we've armed ourselves with the particular weapons and armour we need for this fight.
Our one tentative edge, the wildly swirling magic of Godfreya, is still far from reliable, far-reaching or even fully understood. 'You're making too much sense!', Godfreya laughed in the world of cherry-red, and I try, I try not to let my head be filled with worry over what it can't grasp, was never meant to understand, because Godfreya's essence defies logic. The sense she makes is on a different level, it's based in bold sentiment, in creativity and imagination.
I still theorize - because how can I explain to others if I don't find the words for it myself? - that ever since Aesso's last performance, since Godfreya's ruby melted into the sands, her spirit formed some sort of bond to the person closest to it at the time. I'm less certain now whether it was proximity in itself - after all, Jonni held the rod, Jonni was the one to move it, while I sat astride the thing, singing and directing the movements.
'Performance' was the key to Aesso's instrument, and evoking Godfreya - sparking her power, her presence - it's much the same. Artistry, aesthetics, emotionality - all the things that make for a good performance draw her near.
I 'feel' it, when I perform, whether in song or dance - I can all but hear that machine-like buzzing hum, the faintest echo of her raucous laughter. It's a wanton feeling, haphazard, ephemeral and wild, coupled with a sense of connection to this crazy faraway place, as though I'm linked to a world swirling with infinite possibility, with boundless potential, with all the colours of the rainbow plus the ones my eyes can't even begin to make out.
It's thrilling, but also frightening - Limbo is a place where anything can, and 'does' happen - and there's so much raw power there, but so little I can do to control it. 'Be careful, Isolde', said Elvadriel, echoed over time by Artemis, by Horgrim, even Atel. But I ~can't~ be careful. I don't know how!
I've felt so helpless, even having discovered I can channel the wild magic to an extent, but I have relied on it too, with small-scaled but undeniable success. Vincent Cromwell, Henry Heartwin - and was it possibly sensing this power that drove Taschereau's construct self to retreat?
Music seems well adapted to giving the wild magic some structure - the rythm, the tempo, verse and lyrics harmonizing the magic somehow, creating a bridge to that other world of spinning cogs and whirring wheels, of hard metal and inexorable inevitability of purpose. I can 'feel' that too, a unique, individualistic connection to Mechanus through Godfreya, an indescribable sense of 'blend' as two worlds that ought by all accounts be irreconcilably different come together.
The best I can manage to describe the sensation is a cancelling out of some things, from both the wild feeling and the metal vibe, while at the same time feeling more… complete. Not whole, not entirely, but definitely 'more'.
Artistic performance is how I can attempt to evoke Godfreya, but it seems likely to assume that she can also call on me. The red light visions, each and all, have struck me at seemingly random moments, often when I have found myself alone, in idle or in vacant mood. The visions wash over me, typically accompanied by a pounding, throbbing headache. Is that Godfreya's doing, hers and Godfrey's idea of how to 'talk' to mortals?
'Help me', Godfrey whispered in agony, trapped, frozen in the slowest of motion in his world of crimson. I'm trying, I'm ~trying~ to fit everything they've shown me together, make sense of it, formulate a battle plan. It worries me that the silent screams that would reverberate in my head are fading, but I can't, I won't be hasty and risk the one good card up our sleeve, before I've even learnt quite how to play it.
Godfreya, whether she's tied to me or simply choosing to stick around, is definitely what Talbot wants. 'A little blend and they all bend', said Godfrey, and that sounds very much like Talbot's game. For all to bend to his will. To not only command, but 'control' entirely, make clockwork soldiers of us all.
Godfreya's power can break that control. I can use it to liberate the soldiers, but not enough to give us the advantage. Not yet. I have to hone the skill of evoking her, strengthen her presence somehow, let my music ring out so loud, so clear that the sparks of freedom ignite in everyone who listens, set a whole army free.
I have to set the stage for the performance of a life time. That'll be my sword, and my friends will hopefully be my shield, along with whatever information we can glean to arm ourselves with further.
And then to battle.
A Light in Darkness
I remember so little, from the moment I realized Sprocket was dead 'til my return to A5:s door, grasping the bloodied handle. Just Olil's thin, hunched shoulders, the broken look in her eyes, silently imploring for help, support, comfort I couldn't give.
I just ~couldn't~.
I was falling apart, my friends voices blurring around me, my vision clouded by tears, all lucid thought smashed apart, lost in a din of hurt. All that was real was the solid wall behind me and I leaned desperately against it, I slid down to the floor as the others bustled about, spoke prayers and words of comfort.
The light was fading, and I felt myself falling, spiralling down into darkness. In falling, I grasped at a distant feeling, a vague sense of recognition - was it a memory, a message or a mere phantom conjured up by my injured mind, desperate for a shrap of solace, a glimmer of hope to cling to?
I was falling, falling down into the black sky, studded with twinkling stars whose white light streaked by as my velocity increased. The brightest of them all held onto my hand - Aesso, arms and legs spread out like a star. Her hair fluttered wildly, her clothes near torn to shreds but she smiled, oh how she smiled.
There was no sound, the silence deafening and Aesso's image flickered, her image transforming rapidly, shifting in and out of existance as though changing with every blink of my teary eyes. Beeble Ravelzilch, followed by Godfreya, raven hair flying, then.. something 'else'. Something I can't quite place, couldn't fix into my mind's eye before it was gone again, replaced by Aesso's familiar face.
I saw her lips moving, remember the shouted words that now went silent but not unheard:
'He's afraid. Afraid of you.'
I'm outside A5, my hand on the bloodied handle, feeling anything but bold. Anything but the heroine, anything but a threat to the forces that have wreaked such ruin upon my home. I'm a wet rag, limp and pathetic, with nothing left to wring out but tears.
There's muffled sounds from within the room, and just as Roslyn catches up I swing the door wide open, dimly realizing we're ill equipped to fight any straggler soldiers.
He's on the floor, slumped against the wall much like I had been in the corridor on the opposite side of the door. The room's overturned, a complete mess - the mattrass flipped over, cupboard drawers yanked out and wardrobe doors flung open, Sarah's remaining belongings scattered and broken all around. And the soldier, the clockwork soldier with stab-wounds and broken, fizzing wires, struggling feebly to get up.
He's been left behind, discarded like a broken toy, his augmented red eye flickering on and off. Pity surges, wells up like a flood inside me. I can't feel rage for someone who is a mere instrument, someone used, abused and tossed aside. I feel no fear - instead, I start to sing.
With my pity, with the sorrow of the song comes a tide of red - it washes over me, over the soldier and I see, I see him awakening as I crawl over to rest against that same wall, joining him as though were we both survivors of a horrendous war or a terrible accident, leaving us crippled and shocked.
Tears in my eyes, pain and shame in his, mingled with horror. He stares at his hands, at the wires and circuits, the black metal and red lines sinking into and through his flesh.
'I cut them down', he whispers, hoarsely. 'I didn't want to, but I couldn't stop it. I just… watched myself do it, and felt nothing.'
Vivo, the young student in his care... this soldier's blade had their blood on it, but the fault was not his, it wasn't! He remembered his actions though, he remembered ~everything~ and I could see it hit him, see him curl up as though he could escape knowing what he'd become.
Little by little, we coaxed the story out: first the College, sudden orders to retreat issued as though something unexpected had happened. They were to leave, as though something bad was coming, something they couldn't risk - or was the order given for new information gleaned, something which threw everything on end? He wasn't sure, closed his eyes and stared at the floor in agony.
A sudden flicker, a flood of red washing over my vision. I see the floor, I see my hands through a haze of red - but they're too large to be mine, and twined with metal wires. The soldier's hands - seen through his eyes.
As I blink, the red haze fades and my perspective reverts to normal.
'Tusker issued the commands... he and Taschereau, so long as they didn't go against the Captain', the soldier noted, his lip twitching in disgust as he picked at a wire snaking into his flesh.
'Hey... what's your name?', I asked, trying to reach past the shock and loathing, remind him of who he was, who he 'still' is inside.
'Henry...' he mumbled, lifting his head to meet my eyes briefly with his one normal, one mechanical orb of red. 'Henry Heartwin... please, do you know if my sister's alright?'
Heartwin.. Heartwin, wait - the likeness wasn't apparant, not with the implants, but could this really be ~Trisha's~ brother? Trisha, who I had sung to in Gaol under Talbot's supervision - Trisha, whose sorrow bled out into shadows, through Chirade's wicked wiles.
It was - not only that, I'd seen Trisha below, safe and sound in the Masters Quarters! In sharing how I knew her, Henry actually smiled. 'How strange is it that I've sung to both of you, and at such bleak moments in your lives?', I wondered with a half-smile back. 'She says you helped her', mumbled Henry. I squeezed his hand and we sat in silence for a while.
Meanwhile, Roslyn took a close look at Henry's implants, hrming, frowning and musing over their design, their placement, the way they attached to him. Suddenly, she grew excited, her exclamation chasing the quiet moment away.
'Feckin' hells, I think I cin remove 'em!'
Artemis had found his way to A5, Kaitlyn too following the wake of destruction to the epicenter - the clockwork soldiers designated target was no doubt Aesso, or Sarah as the next best thing.
'It's gonna hurt like hells though', she noted with concern, but Henry Heartwin grit his teeth, stared at his implants for a mere second before nodding his agreement. Artemis assisted as Roslyn cut and worked the wires, plates and circuitry out of Henry's living flesh, while Kaitlyn held him still and provided healing when necessary.
And I - I played. Like I had for Trisha, I played a slow and sad song, soft in its melancholy, soothing for the same sake all sad songs are - because grief is easier carried for sharing the burden and knowing we're not alone. Henry Heartwin bled and he cried out in pain - but one by one, the implants were removed. I kept my gaze locked on his for as long as he managed to hold on to conciousness, but removing the eye was too much. With the final piece of snaking metal gone, Henry was out cold, pale from loss of blood.
But alive and free. Restored, perhaps not to his old self, because everything that happens in our lives changes us, but close enough. Close enough that he can set his own course for the rest of it.
Henry woke to find Trisha at his sickbed, the two siblings both survivors of horrors inflicted upon them by the cruelty of others. Their wounds are different, but they have each other to lean on in recovering. That one mercy and the knowledge that Talbot's wrongs ~can~ be undone, that's my light in darkness, the pinprick of hope that I cling to now.
Will it make a difference though, saving one out of hundreds? We have to do better, do 'more' if we're to win this fight - but for Trisha, for Henry, that one makes all the difference. Every light, every life counts, and I'll have to take the small victories to heart - Henry, Vincent, Vanoogle, Sarah and all the students saved for Horgrim's presence - I have to focus on those and not the losses, not the bleakness that's still so overwhelming.
I'll take heart. I'll see the stars and not the blackness of the void - tomorrow.
This is such a difficult chapter to write. I've started and discarded these pages several times over, stared blankly at them, cried and crumpled the attempts. There's a knot inside me that won't go away, squeezing and choking the words from flowing freely. But I must push on, I must keep unravelling the plot and follow this red thread all the way back to its source.
Even if it hurts.
Every life lost to Talbot's schemes, every soldier caught in the inexorable vice of clockwork circuitry is a tragedy unto itself, but it's always different when it hits home. When it's not just your city under attack, but your home, your family, the people you know and love. Your safe harbour, burning around you.
The cut goes deep, right to the heart of you, and there's no defence. No solace, but for what you can salvage from the wreckage, knowing you have no sure way of preventing it from happening again.
Everyone can die.
These are truths I normally like to keep at arm's length and then some, because you can't really ~live~ if you constantly expect bad things to happen. And another truth is that ~anything~ can happen, including the good things. I've always tried to focus on the beautiful, the uplifting, the desireable outcomes. How else can you make the world better?
But now, having stood in the ruins of my home, with the blood of friends and bardic family on my hands, I can't deny being shaken.
The attack was well thought out, cunningly construed and orchestrated. Unlike the massive attack following Taschereau's capture, this time Talbot's forces hit in small numbers, but spread all across the city's outer rims, keeping the Defenders busy and on their toes.
A small number took the guards at the southern wall by surprise, pushed through to the inner gates and alerted our attention. There were but three or four men, an additional six waiting in the foothills some distance from the outer gates. They simply stood there, inert, blank-eyed like puppets, and my heart wrenched in my chest.
Tin soldiers, used and abused by Talbot as though were they no longer men and women with their own will, desires and lives to lead. But what he took from them, I could restore. Wasn't that how this worked?
I didn't think it through, pushed Oscar's words of warning away from my mind as I started to sing, a slow and swaying melody from atop the walls. Come on.. come ~on~! Please…
I could feel Godfreya's presence as I sang, saw a swirl of energy around me, a flash of red, buttressed by green, by blue, orange, yellow... I felt it again, that vague sense of 'connection', bolstered by the performance, and the soldiers beyond the wall all swivelled towards me, in perfect unison.
'What are you doing?', murmured Sheserai beside me, but I kept on singing, hoping fervently for some sort of sign of humanity returning to the soldiers. A spark, a swirling red, irridescent spark as one of the soldiers reeled and swayed. He looked around, confusion written plain in his posture as though having woken from the strangest dream.
Yes - YES! It's working!
My little thrill of elation was shortlived though, as the remaining group of soldiers seemed to instantly recognize that something was wrong. They circled the awakened man, swords drawn, and I had to do something, I had to finish what I'd started and save him. Quickly, I whispered to Gnarl and Sheserai beside me, asking them to stage a diversion while I dashed outside, cloaked by invisibility.
The soldier was staring at his hands, enmeshed in black and red circuitry, still in shock and oblivious to the danger as I ran up. I took his hand in mine, whispered for him to follow and covered him too with invisibility.
He stumbled a bit, made a lot of noise but followed along as I tugged on his hand. The clockwork soldiers soon noticed it, following to make good on the kill - though they failed to see either of us and the defenders at the gate met up with force.
Roslyn joined in by this time, Rasuil as well, and as we returned to the Commons with the rescued man in tow, concern was growing all around. An uneasy churning in my gut, wondering what this small group were doing, just standing there 'waiting' in the first place.
A distraction, a ruse to draw eyes and attention away from their true target?
'Shit', Roslyn muttered, and hasted off to the College while I met up with Sally Williams to deliver the news and the still much in shock soldier by the name of Vincent Cromwell. Sally noted there were other clockwork troops awaiting, spread all across the city, and soon hasted off as alarm bells rang out.
But I followed Roslyn instead, through the doors of the Theatre. One step inside the lobby told the tale. Christina's chair overturned, pools of blood on the floor and books overturned in the scuffle...
Oh no, oh no, oh NO!
Roslyn rushed back from the Stage area and her face said it all. It was bad. It was ~really~ bad and we needed backup. NOW.
Sheserai, Gnarl and Rasuil joined us as we re-entered the Stage area, to more blood and signs of battle. And our first casualties.
His blue hair was soaked black.
Vivo Vickesen lay on the stone floor like a broken mannequin, his arm protectively flung over an unknown student. She was young, her face still frozen in fright. A new student - a fresh-faced hopeful, come looking for art and learning only to find...
Vivo and I had had our differences - he was the self-appointed voice of law and order around the College, and saw fit to administer punishments to both me and my friends, Vanoogle in particular bearing the brunt of the blue-haired bard's displeasure. But seeing him dead was a stab in my heart and I knew, suddenly and with complete clarity, that he too was family.
They ~all~ were, everyone inside this building, but none more so than..
Where was Nate? Oh please Sune, say he's at work, writing reports and safely away from here, please, please, please...
I fought to breathe as we pushed on through the wreckage. The path to the A-wing was blocked by rubble, we took the B-wing instead and found more signs of struggle, blood and debris all around.
An arm, scratched and torn under a splintered doorway...
Jessica Hemway, unconscious and bleeding, but she was still alive. I tended her wounds and she came to, shaken but lucid. 'Jessica, listen to me very closely', I said, looking intently into her eyes. Jessica, who ~never~ does anything but sneer at me, nodded mutely. 'I need you to get out of here, run back to City Hall and tell them what's happening here. Can you do that?'
Pale-faced, she nodded, and rushed off to the stage area, where Gnarl was still keeping watch. We called him in once she'd advanced to the lobby and continued the search for survivors, finding the lounge seemingly empty and completely trashed. But was it 'really' so empty?
Something wasn't right, a tremble in the air, an arcane tingle. Teleportation had been used, and recently - invisibility...
Rasuil snarled, gestured to the far end of the room while Gnarl set off a scroll to purge the invisibility from the area. And there 'it' stood - the construct formerly known as Jean Taschereau, in black, runed metal and red wires. It's eyes glowed blue, focusing on our group.
'Jean!', I called out, the construct shifting slightly. It seemed somehow ill at ease at the name and I pushed, hoped to learn just how much of the real Taschereau is in there, pleading to his humanity. I even hummed a little, but the response was mechanical, machine-like, then downright hostile. The construct blasted us with magic, before teleporting off, leaving the order for our destruction with the three great-sword weilding soldiers remaining in the lounge.
They were strong, brutally so, but still I wonder - why did the blue-eyed construct leave? Had it stayed, we would surely have been slain, of that I have no doubt. Was it uncertainty I sensed, or even fear? Had something 'stirred' inside the creature of metal and buzzing wires?
Bloodied, ragged now, we pushed on, searching room by room on our way through the B-wing. B7 was empty, a few things overturned as though the room had been searched, but there was no blood, no Nate in sight. He was alright, he had to be. Maybe in the Masters Quarters.. maybe he and Horgrim together would be a match, if they'd gotten that far.
A wall of rubble blocked our path as we got closer to the stairs down, though - and a scream echoing past it, sounds of battle, of clanking armour.
Through a crack in the debris, a sight to chill me to the bone. Vanoogle, the dear, sweet gnome grasped in a strangle-hold by one of the clockwork soldiers. A sword pointed towards his gut, about to be driven in...
No no NO! Too much, this is TOO MUCH! I screamed, in panic, in pain:
Tears in my eyes, I could barely see but I aimed Vanoogle's pipes at the rubble, tried to bring it down with a blast of the sonic magic he loves so well. Meanwhile, Rasuil grasped a small something in his hand, muttered and blinked out of sight, reappearing on the other side as the soldier began to gut our friend.
Taking full advantage of the element of surprise, Rasuil shoved the soldier bodily aside and grabbed Vanoogle, while Roslyn deftly set up an explosive device in the wall of rubble.
'Y'ready?', she mumbled to the ranger past the wall, and he gave an inperceptible nod as the soldiers started to advance on him and Vanoogle, blades drawn.
'Cover him!', I screamed as Roslyn's fingers flicked the switch, and Rasuil hunkered down, threw himself like a human shield over the wounded bard.
The rubble cascaded inwards, threw the soldiers off balance and pummelled the ranger to within an inch of his life - but Vanoogle, oh Vanoogle ~lived~! Quickly, we used the momentum to rush downstairs, finding the door still closed and locked.
Oh GOOD, perhaps they haven't come this fa-...
Horgrim Blackweave stood at the base of the stairs, a smouldering, fizzing heap of clockwork soldiers piled around his feet. They had teleported in, but found the ogre mage more than a match, to my great relief. That relief grew further when Christina joined us, the quick-thinking receptionist having ushered every student and member of the faculty she could find down into the Masters Quarters and alerting our guest to the danger.
Were it not for Christina and Horgrim... I would have sagged with relief, but could find none while there were still some very important faces missing. Where was Olil and Sprocket - and where, oh where was Nate?
No sign of either, but I couldn't, I couldn't afford to think about it, fighting tooth and nail not to let the fear cripple me. We took a brief rest, knowing we had grim work still to do upstairs. The moment we returned, we found a small contingent of soldiers clanking down the stairs from the roof, throwing us instantly into another fight for our lives.
Roslyn and Rasuil skulked up the stairs to scout, while I spied a little flurry of movement further down the A-wing. Just outside A5, in fact...
Her cowled head was bent low over Sprocket's lifeless form in her lap. Olil... She sat on the floor, signs of heavy fighting all around, especially centered on A5. Aesso's former room, Sarah's current one..
A heavy clank from the roof, and I winced. We could ill afford to split up, and if there was trouble up there, I had to go. Quickly, I turned both Sprocket and Olil invisible and hasted up to the roof, Gnarl and Sheserai hot on my heels.
A scene to chill the heart awaited, a story from the pages of nightmare. Carl Tusker, sneering and dangling a terrified Jessica Hemway from the roof's edge. 'Where is the halfling?!', he demanded.
Jessica... but she'd gone out the way we had 'just' come through, how could Tusker have.. - they must've been watching the place, making sure no one got out to fetch help. I shook my head, over and over. I should've turned her invisible, should've taken her with us, should DO something now, something to save her - but I was too far away.
Roslyn wasn't though, nor Rasuil. It all seemed to play out in slow-motion, Tusker's sneering face as he reached for a teleportation scroll, Roslyn's bow singing out, Rasuil reaching for Jessica.
Tusker let go.
Jessica's face, eyes round in fright, her hair swaying and arms flailing as she fell...
Rasuil was a hair's width from reaching, and even as she fell he flung out a web to try to catch her, slow her fall. Meanwhile, Roslyn's arrows hit Tusker's knee, flung one scroll out of his hand but the weasel grabbed another, jumped off the roof and disappeared mid-fall.
All this, in the fraction of a second, drawn out as though the air was thickened syrup.
And then the fight, a rushed jumble of frantic combat with the soldiers remaining behind. Bloodied, panting, we made our way to the roof's edge, looked down to find Jessica's broken body in a pool of blood below. Rasuil leaped down with another web, but to no avail. She'd been dead from the moment she hit the ground, and all he could do now was carry her off to the temple.
While the ranger disappeared with his grim burden, the rest of us returned downstairs to find Olil and Sprocket still in the same spot. The cowled elf gently rocked to and fro, cradling Sprocket protectively. But he wasn't moving, wasn't breathing.
'He tried to stop them from entering Sarah's room', she mumbled, voice laden with sorrow, dulled by shock, and my heart sank further. My fault. We should've 'told' them ... but then, knowing has its own risks.
Sprocket was dead. Jessica, dead, Vivo and his charge also. And still no sign of Nate. It was too much, too much to bear and I couldn't be the support Olil needed, couldn't offer any comfort because my own felt utterly ripped away. I slumped down against the wall and I cried.
Sheserai prayed to Mystra, returned those she could to life. Sprocket heeded the call, but Vivo and the young student did not. As the Defenders under Sally Williams started to file into the College's halls, a semblance of security began to fall over the place, but I could find no rest.
Something drew me back to Sarah's room. 'Where is the halfling?', the soldiers had kept repeating, insisting, demanding throughout their rampage. I knew where, and it certainly wasn't anywhere near A5 - but still my footsteps took me back.
We'd never looked inside, Olil and Sprocket had sat in the hallway.
'Wait, Isolde! Yer 'not' goin' in alone', I heard behind me. Roslyn's determined pitter-patter footsteps followed as I gripped the bloodied handle and swung the door open.
I could 'feel' it though it kept evading my rational mind's grasp, eluded all attempts at formulating into words - a vague and ephemeral sense of understanding, an intuitive budding notion that I could not explain, but might yet experiment with.
Horgrim had speculated that the clockwork soldiers could somehow sense their creator's twin aspect, and this was part of what I meant to test out. If it was true that Godfreya and the wild magic from her ruby had formed a connection, attached itself to me somehow, then those transformed by the other ruby ought to react to it somehow.
I wanted to test my theory and decided that the best and safest way to do so would be by studying the mechanically enhanced orc we'd brought in earlier. Unlike the clockwork soldiers, the orc seemed dormant, quite possibly predating Talbot's seizing of the gem. A boon, since an uneasy part of me wonders whether Talbot's link to those he controls goes beyond orders - I suspect that they're all linked to what he holds, and that he can feel it, knows when something's wrong. The last thing I needed was Talbot's eyes upon me, before I'd gotten a chance to see what my own tentative connection to red was all about.
Heading down the stairs to the city Gaol, I overheard voices around the bend, blurred and indistinct. I turned the corner to see guard captain Oscar Halbrook in quiet conversation with an armoured, helmeted man, who nodded curtly and clanked off at my arrival. While curiosity bubbled up inside me, I pushed it down, having a different kettle of fish in mind for today's menue and smiled sweetly to Oscar. He greeted me affably and immediately asked for assistance with one or two of a whole little sleuth of assignments:
Interrogating Jean Taschereau, who'd apparantly been in idle and dormant mode since we last spoke, following up a clue about further Talbot loyalists, dealing with a small group of injured clockwork soldiers milling about in the foothills…
At this point, Artemis joined our conversation. Together, we decided on attempting a second hearing of Taschereau, even though it felt undeniably tough to face him after our failure to keep his mind intact. It wasn't our fault, I told myself repeatedly as we approached his limp figure, still held in that small cell within the cell. We did everything we possibly could, but my heart still wrenched as Taschereau twitched to life upon approach, grimacing and squeezing his eyes tightly shut.
Artemis eventually managed to coax a response, Taschereau's eyes opening, listening as he spoke but staring blankly through him, distant and detached.
'Where are you?', asked the sorceror, his voice kind but firm.
Taschereu: 'Two..' 'Two places...'
Okay - okay, good! The connection's still there, Taschereau seemed able to sense his 'other' self, and so could perhaps give us valuable information as to where the renegades base was, at least. I suspected he knew more still, or Talbot wouldn't have wasted such enormous resources on attempting to retrieve him. But could we get him lucid enough to tell us anything important?
'Past.. the arches...' 'Below, we...' stuttered Taschereau, staring up at the ceiling. 'Looking...' His eyes straining now, flickering towards his right.
'Hidden... away... past... the rest.. A secret...' Again, Taschereau snaps his attention to the right, leans his head as if listening.
'You listening... under... stood...'
Then, he looked elsewhere, his eyes devoid of expression, blank and dead.
I pleaded and nudged for his attention, reaching my hand through the bars to touch him, insisting. 'Looking for what, Jean?'
'The third...' he mumbled, looking straight towards me in a sudden, brief moment of perfect lucidity, recognition glimmering in his eyes. Ha! So there 'is' a third gem, just as I had speculated? A wild surge of triumph inside me as he continued:
'In..sure..ance. Empty... need...'
Need what, though? What is it they need to fill this third 'insurance' gem with, the replacement should anything happen to one of the two?
A stutter, the moment about to pass but I shook his arm, insisting while Artemis noted with alarm that the tether, the link between Jean and his mechanical other self was fading fast, hurriedly tried to follow it to its source.
'Half-.. ling', muttered Taschereau, then fell limp again. The link's broken, but not before Artemis could trace it. He saw a base camp, set very far into the Giantspires, much further than our previous explorations. Two arching mountains in the background and another mechanical sprawl, this one smaller than before. The bulk of the clockwork army mills around the site, reinforcing the notion that this is where we'll find Talbot.
We have a 'where', a location that Artemis believes he can teleport to. But with such a great many soldiers present, we need a plan that won't involve instant death the moment we get there. Direct confrontation will have to wait until we gain some sort of edge.
Though, it's possible the edge is already there. I asked Artemis to study the magic around me, as Horgrim and Elvadriel had previously. He gaped in disbelief, stupefied.
'How the ~hell~ did I not see that before? Wild magic... it's 'all' around you.'
Aha - theory supported! Now to test what it was this magic could actually 'do'...
Though I hadn't a single formulated idea of what to try, I asked Oscar and Pliskin to bring the mechanical orc to me. If I could just get a reaction, if it would stir, if it might 'look' at me the way that soldier had...
At first, there was nothing. The orc was dormant, dead still despite being spoken to, prodded and shaken. Nothing, nothing... perhaps this wasn't working! Perhaps there was something I had to 'do'...
I paced a bit, thinking. The soldier who'd seemed to recognize me... I'd been running towards the bridge at the time, but had I been doing anything else?
Just then, the orc lifted its head. Its eyes opened, turning slooowly towards me and I felt something stir, that same undefinable, vague sense of connection. The orc recognized me, or something 'about' me, rather...
A strange new sensation. I tried to let it fill me, to simply feel. It wasn't about command, it was something completely different, reverberating through my mind, a thrumming, humming connection.
Don't think too hard, Isolde - don't apply logic and reason. ~Feel~ it, intuit it. Do what you did, in the world of red...
I hummed quietly, took a waltzing step to the left, while Artemis lofted his brow, surprised. A sudden surge, a lash of magic unleashed with that one little move: I feel it, see a flash of red, buttressed by swirling yellows, blues and other bright, vivid colours.
The orc snarls as the flash of magic hits it, starting to pound on the bars, growling angrily, demanding release. None of the circuitry appears affected - it's all still there, all intact and functioning to fuel its physical prowess to dangerous levels of strength, so much so that the bars begin to bend and break.
But its ~mind~ - the wild magic's somehow bypassed the stranglehold of the mechanics to release the orc to its true state of mind - it is now much like the raven, its own individual being with all quirks and whims intact. Though unlike the raven, the orc has its very own murderous will and intent, breaking out of the cage to attack Artemis with vicious force.
I halt, stand very still, entirely silent while Arty runs a panicked lap around the cell with the orc hot on his heels, reaching for him, closing in...
And then it stops, grows inert again.
Phew - and wow!
It makes sense, it all fits together now! The soldier chasing me towards the bridge... I'd been ~singing~ at the time, a rousing war chant to bolster my ragged party's courage. Dancing, waltzing like Godfrey and Godfreya, that worked too... it somehow envoked the wild magic, called on Godfreya, didn't it?
Aesso's rod of artistic wonder had drawn much of its arcane power through the red gem, and ~performing~ was the way to utilize it. Aesso had built the instrument to suit her style and intent, but now I think she also chose that specific gem because it already worked in a similar fashion.
Come to think of it, hadn't her dream world given us the clue to its nature already? The Beholder-like monstrosity, telling us to ~dance~...
This is our edge - tenuous though it is, unhoned, unpracticed and unpredictable, I believe that this truly is the key to setting things right, setting the soldiers free. We've a chance now and it bubbles inside me, a wild swirl of possibility, of hope in the face of what seemed so recently impossible odds.
Always upon coming to, in shaking the red haze from my mind's eye, in clearing my vision, it seemed something was lost. A nagging, chafing sensation of forgetfulness, of having let some small but crucial detail slip through my fingers. I felt this way again, twisting, turning and pondering my experiences in what I've come to think of as the 'gem' world. Or worlds, given the ever dualistic nature of the creators.
Godfrey, on his knees on the cherry red floor as the mechanical buildings collapsed all around him, searching, grabbing for 'something'. Something small, some little aspect or angle I hadn't caught, a glint, a 'facet'…
I'd seen mirrors in the most recent red light visit, hadn't I? Large mirrors, in the middle of the cityscape in both Godfrey and Godfreyas world, if I recalled right - and Horgrim said that in his studies of accounts from those who knew either mage, back in the way-back-when, Godfrey and Godfreya were often noted to be fond of looking into small hand-mirrors, admiring themselves.
Or admiring 'themselves'? Could it be that Godfrey saw Godfreya through the mirror, and vice versa? Through the looking glass, everything's not only reflected, but reversed... were Godfrey and Godfreya not so much the polar opposite as the 'mirror' opposite of one another?
The gem consoles had mirrors too, not to forget. These had felt instantly significant, showing images of both mages, but not only them - Talbot had flickered past on Godfrey's side, Aesso on Godfreya's.
I wonder now, would Godfreya's mirror have shown my image too, had the magic there been active? And Talbot... I can't be certain, the flickering was so rapid, so indistinct - but it's possible, it's plausible, makes perfect sense if it's true that I saw his image flashing past while Godfrey faded.
There's something in these thoughts, something important. Mirrors, reflections, different facets of a single whole. Windows, a surface which might reflect but also let you see through it, an opening from inside to out and vice versa.
Windows to other worlds...
Something Horgrim said reminded me of the last trembling moments of our escape from Aesso's crumbling realm. The marble rod swaying in Jonni's hand, its magic flooding the sky, opening up portals, peep holes, windows to 'elsewhere'. I hadn't thought it important where, looked only for the desert, for the familiarity of our own plane, but now I remember.
That's why it had felt so familiar, wasn't it? The mechanical city, I'd ~seen~ it before. A rift in the sky, revealing it in all its metallic splendour, capped by a glorious rainbow sky...
Dancing With Myself
Closer and closer, the faint whirring, whining sensation building to a constant humming, droning sound, not altogether unpleasant. A hustle, a bustle, a rythmic machine-like buzz with a different undertone.
A woman's undertone?
Yes, a woman humming along with the electrical drone of machinery! I could hear her now, even as Horgrim's voice faded out and my vision blurred to a red, foggy haze.
The humming filled my head as the red haze washed over me, obscuring my vision completely. When I came to, I found myself standing amidst a multitude of massive, tall mechanical buildings, reaching up as if to touch the expansive red sky, each one of them perfectly straight and rising in gridlike patterns from the cherry red floor.
A woman's figure stands before me, her smile as wild as her hair is frazzled, robes dishevelled and asymmetrical. An uneven number of wands and scrolls are attached to her belt and to my great surprise, she looks straight at me.
'What do you think you're doing here?', Godfreya demands, her wild eyes darting over me, watching me with a mixture of amusement and challenge. Gobsmacked, I fumble for an explanation, only to have her laugh and wag her finger.
'Don't play games with me, what do you 'think' you're doing here? You're giving me reasons! 'Reasons' don't exist except in the stories we tell ourselves about them!'
I stare at the figure of the woman I believed lost, try one more time to explain:
'I think Godfrey's in trouble, I can hear him screaming in my head..'
But as I speak, the woman's image shifts, blurs. Her hair turns crimson red, her robes transform into shimmering blue silk. She's 'me', and my own voice retorts, peevishly:
'You don't hear anything! 'I' hear him screaming. Don't you know how this works!?' Oh, what's the matter? You're not pleased to see me?'
'Isolde' is flickering, the image unreliable and fading in and out, soon morphing back into Godfreya.
'We have to help him', I insist, but she huffs and notes:
'He didn't help me. Why should we help him? He let me go! They took me away and he didn't do a thing about it. Why should I return the favour?'
I try to argue, describing the vision of before of Godfreya flickering, Godfrey panicking, trying desperately to grasp her hand, but the woman starts giggling.
'You're making too much sense!'
She gives a mad-cap grin, twirls around and giggles, the sky transforming over our heads, turning rainbow-hued while the perfectly symmetrical buildings twist and coil.
'He, we, you… he, you, WEEE!'
Godfreya finishes her twirl, bops me randomly on the nose and suddenly, I can't help but grin. I really 'am' making too much sense and it's not the way to go about things, not now, not here. So I start twirling too, spinning and smiling up at the glorious rainbow sky.
The woman's image flickers again, turns to a halfling of aching familiarity. With a bubbly grin and bouncy step, Aesso twirls and flickers, the sky's colours flickering with her.
'So he is, so what? Who cares? He didn't! Why should we? Now you're talking, just twirl and twirl!'
I hum and spin, Aesso twirling with me. Impulsively, instinctively, I reach for her hands and start to dance. Godfreya reappears, her smile wilder, wider now as we dance, but flickers again, turning into an image of myself.
I'm dancing with myself, and we take turns following, leading. Around us, the buildings grow taller and the sky turns brighter, starting to twist and bend as the dance grows wilder. The buildings seem to sway, flickering back and forth, north to south as the perspective twists, turns inside out and leaves me standing in my 'other' self's position.
The world looks the same but it isn't, this is somewhere else, somewhere new, and the person I'm dancing with is Godfrey Gosrun. His smile is calm and austere, his mustasche as neatly trimmed as his hair and he carries a perfectly even number of scrolls and wands attached to the belt of his perfectly even robes.
'We?!', exclaims Godfrey, 'I dance, me, myself and I - myself and me, let's dance, step one, two, three. Mind the tempo, mind the rythm - each song a symmetry, each note in its place.'
We dance, Godfrey and I, a pleasant and harmonic dance, with him taking measured, precise steps while I improvise, a sway here and a little twirl there.
'Yes, yes, you're right! You're convicing me! Wait, that's not entirely accurate... I... we...
I can see, you and me, keep on stepping, one, two, three.'
He's not exhuberant, but there's still something joyous to Godfrey's dance, a clear enjoyment in each precise, controlled movement. Around us, the cityscape grows, the mechanical buildings towering upwards.
'There, do you see? That's all it takes. A little blend and they all bend!'
I grin, impulsively dipping him back and Godfrey follows easily. The whole dance is so 'easy', as if we've done this before, and to my amazement the buildings dip too, the black steel plates and red wires, bending malleably as though were they too dancing.
'Half a person, it's bound to worsen - a person whole, there's no toll', notes Godfrey, mirroring my grin with a more measured one. 'A little blend and they all bend!'
The dance slows gradually, draws out as though the world was drenched in syrup. Godfrey's face, close to mine, his lips barely moving as the desperate whisper reaches my ears:
How, Godfrey? I'm trying to help, but I don't know how!
'I've told you how.'
Time slows to a crawl and Godfrey's image starts flickering - a woman, a man, a halfling, me, a man...
The flickering intensifies, the images unreliable and fading in and out as the buildings start crumbling around us - a woman, a man, a woman, a man - I try to grasp onto the hands of the one I'm dancing with, but they too flicker, my hands, a man's, a woman's... I'm dizzy now, disoriented.
Finally the image fades entirely, zaps out of existance, leaving nothing but a little speck of dust at my feet - his feet? Her feet?
The dust is red, melting into the grassy ground, as though were it sand... and with this, my vision turns blood red, blotting out the scene entirely.
I woke up on the floor, with Horgrim Blackweave's concerned ogre face frowning down, a huge blue hand gently nudging me. I had fainted, or so he thought - but upon hearing of my experience, Horgrim furrowed his brow in thought. I had asked him to attempt to detect any unexplicable trace of magic around me only a moment before passing out, and he had felt 'something' - he checked again now, noting that this same something had grown considerably stronger.
The same wild magic Elvadriel had noted with such concern, perhaps, after my very first red light vision? Some sort of transference from Godfreya, a strand of her chaotic essence? I'd assumed her lost, flickering out of existence with the gem's crumbling into the desert sands, but now I'd not only seen but actually 'spoken' with her.
There are obviously still so many things I fail to comprehend, and while the vision filled my head, pounding and throbbing like a crimson headache, so too did my frustration.
'Help me', Godfrey's voice echoed in my head. But how? How did any of what I'd just seen translate into a working plan to defeat Talbot?
An Ogre in the Guest Room
While Sarah had been squirrelled away to what may well be one of the best defensible spots Narfell has to offer, and one we hoped to be less predictable than most, Horgrim Blackweave continued to be a hunted ogre - chased from The Witch and Seer Inn and Maria's tower by the vengeful Silvia the Fey, attacked in the Giantspires by Talbot's regiment and then continually persued by the clockwork remnants of Defenders under his command.
One day, by random chance, a twist of fate or providence, myself, Sheserai and Gnarl stumbled upon the ogre mage once more cornered, this time in the Ettin caverns. A sizable group of clockwork soldiers had Horgrim trapped, but it was not their armour, not their heavy weaponry that sent chills down my spine, but rather a sinister piece of equipment, a module nearby with wires twisting and writhing as though alive.
They meant to attach that horrific thing to him, make him one of 'them' - suck out all the knowledge his vast intellect held. No, no no no!
We hadn't much time to act, but had overheard the ruckus from afar and managed to slip near unnoticed. Again as though fated, I held in my hand a scroll of Scintillating Sphere, snatched from one of the fishmen mages outside. That module, the snaking wires… with any luck, it might fry as the sprawling mesh of circuitry had under Leena's blasts of electricity.
Gnarl set of a sonic blast to stun a few of the soldiers, while I aimed the sphere, murmuring a quiet prayer to Mystra, whose priestess chanted beside me, prepared to rain down divine light upon the still reeling group of hostiles. With the burst of lightning striking blessedly true, Horgrim was freed to join the fight and together we managed to overcome the clockwork soldiers.
As we took a short breather and discussed the situation, one of the fallen soldiers wires buzzed. He rose anew, or perhaps had merely been momentarily stunned - at any rate it seemed our cue to leave. I felt another chill, wondering whether our words had been transmitted elsewhere. Had I revealed anything of note, if that was the case?
I couldn't be certain, but what was soon apparant was that the clockwork soldiers had no intention of giving up persuit. More came, as we tried to make our way out of the caves, many more. Far more, noted Horgrim, than had ever come after him alone...
With waning spellpower, our best chance was to run. The Nars pass was our intended path, but as we neared the stairs we heard it, felt the reverberation of countless heavily booted feet, marching in perfect unison towards us. Nnnh, not that way, not that way!
Instead, we turned tail and hasted towards Oscura, the Wellspawn an unwelcome delay as the first persuers caught up with us, relentless, mindless, singularily focused. But, I noticed with growing alarm, not on Horgrim Blackweave, but myself. One of them seemed to 'look' at me.
He halted for a brief moment, and I could swear I saw a spark of recognition somewhere in those dead eyes. Not compassion, humanity or a sense of self rising to the surface - nothing, alas, to provoke hopeful thoughts. But recognition nonetheless.
He came at me with purpose, with weapons raised, and in that fearful moment it seemed to me as if all the clockwork soldiers gravitated towards me, pulled like metal to a magnetic source. With trembling hands, I hid under invisibility's cloak and tried to usher the rest towards the narrow bridge spanning the chasm, our best chance at bottlenecking our persuers.
The Oscuran guards pitched in once we got that far - two viciously effective men with a (thankfully) larger appetite for coin than writing reports or asking probing questions as to why an ogre and three Peltarchians came running to their city with such peculiar and troublesome persuers.
Horgrim grumbled and rumbled about the city's corruption and vile ways, a notion much reinforced as we were beset by bandits but a stone's throw from the docks. Their attempted robbery had not, however, taken into account the stubborn tenacity of dwarves and Gnarl was not in a forgiving mood. Blood wet the ground before we continued on, leaving the bandits chief beaten within an inch of his life and a few men short for the attempt.
Now that I'd found Horgrim, I was not about to let him wander off and get into trouble again. With a won't-take-no-for-an-answer determination, I made him my offer - stay at the Bardic College, hidden within the guest room of the Master's Quarters, and he might not only be safe and comfortable for the time being, but find respite to work on his research properly and compare notes with yours truly regarding the red gem troubles.
We smuggled an invisible Horgrim into the city, through the streets, past the Commons, past one insufferable Jessica Hemway and into the College proper. Christina almost fainted, but I firmly believe this is for the best, not just for Horgrim but for the city. If Talbot gets hold of our ogre friend, if what he knows becomes a tool at that man's disposal, we're all in much more dire waters.
I confess that it is with dread that I imagine Eowiel's wrath, should she happen across an ogre perusing her precious and jealously guarded library, but I couldn't very well have Horgrim wander the student quarters and spread rumours and panic running rampant through the halls.
He liked his room, seemed weary and grateful even, when I escorted him in. The tension of our last meeting, the grouchy, resentful hurt in him, it seemed to have faded somewhat. I know it still pains him to have Sarah reject his friendship, but I felt an understanding now, between myself and the blue-skinned ogre. I think he's finally started to accept the fact that no matter our many differences, I actually ~like~ him.
And I suspect he likes me too. Not that he'd ever admit so!
We spoke for a while, as Horgrim started settling into his room. Godfrey and Godfreya, the natural topic of conversation. Despite his grumblings and denial, Horgrim had indeed delved into further studies of the two mages, noting first and foremost that they had ~never~ been seen together.
Furthermore, both had disappeared at the same time when their big project/s were completed: the creation of the twin rubies, each powerfully and uniquely enchanted with a number of transmutory magics and variations of many spells.
Horgrim noted that Godfreya's gem had potent wild magic abilities, drawn from the realm of Limbo, irreconcilably different in nature to Godfrey's gem, which to no surprise links to the plane of Mechanus. These two planar sources are complete opposites, entirely incompatible, yet the common obsession shared by both mages was "blending" or "merging", finding the strange nooks and crannies between theoretical perspectives, the commonalities between order and disorder, systems and anarchy.
This is what their grand project was all about, and I believe they found a way, that I saw it play out during their dance, when the grand mechanical city and its veil of rainbow sky formed, grew around them.
'You can't mean you saw them both, that's unheard of', said Horgrim in disbelief, adding that the gems ought to be entirely independant of one another, due to their opposite natures. But even as he began to expand on the logical impossibility of my vision, I felt it, heard a slow, very faint whining in my ears. A distant 'something', gradually growing nearer and louder.
The Thin Red Line
Roslyn, alongside Ginger, Whisper and a few others had chanced across Jean Taschereau and a group of clockwork soldiers near the old druid's glen, in hot persuit of Horgrim Blackweave. It's clear that anyone that's had close contact with Godfreya's gem or holds knowledge of it is a target, underscoring the notion that there's something Talbot does not yet possess, be it knowledge or something more.
The group's arrival disrupted the attack, allowing Horgrim to teleport to safety, while Jean Taschereau himself was captured most ably and knocked unconscious. However, upon close inspection there was a small portion of circuitry even in Talbot's supposedly trusted right hand man - and what's worse, once in jail and tended to, Taschereau would not wake up.
'Could' not wake up?
Guard captain Oscar Halbrook came a-calling at the College, asking for assistance with the captive's rousing and interrogation - that is, after he could tear his roguish self away from flirting up a storm with Christina. Gosh, that girl has a thing for the officials, though admittedly Oscar's decidedly less official than most in his position.
For all his easy-going style, however, the man is both shrewd and steely when push comes to shove, and decidedly not the type I'd ever wish to have the need to lie to myself. Sally Williams, diligent and controlling as is her own style, attempted to make Taschereau's case a military one, but Oscar quite cleverly shot that down.
The number of people crowding into the cell was considerable at that point, Roslyn and I joined by Artemis, Kaitlyn, Whisper, Rasuil, Sheserai and probably others yet. Third Star Pliskin was present, noting that the investigation into the circuitry and wiring on the orcish body was ongoing, but complicated by the fact that it had animated quite violently, at least once. Caution is clearly required, frustrating as that may be.
Taschereau was held in a cage within the larger cell, fixed in an upright position though obviously unconscious. The implant glinted behind his ear, a black metal plate, gleaming red wires sinking into his skin. I shuddered, conflicting emotions rushing through me at the sight of the muttonchopped mage's limp body.
I knew Taschereau was loyal to Talbot, but had always kind of liked him regardless. Up until the plateau, when Talbot's true colours were finally revealed. Taschereau had stayed his hand, had not attacked Artemis when ordered to, but neither had he done anything to stop what was happening below. And he could have, he out of all people should've known what was happening, surely?
But now, I wondered. Was he like ~this~ even then, wired up and under Talbot's control? Or, had Talbot done this to him after, to ensure, enforce his unquestionable loyalty?
A closer study of the circuitry revealed it to be somewhat different than expected - planar magic yes, and transmutation, but also traces of evocation. Evocation? Whatever for?
Taschereau's eyes flickered back and forth, rapidly, as though were he not so much unconscious as dreaming. Artemis, while delving deeply into the study of the magic emitting from the captive, grew completely quiet, frozen in concentration. Sheserai attempted to dispel some of the magics, and it did 'something'…
Taschereau's flickering turned to straining, struggling, his face contorting in pain. A Sending, Artemis said when finally speaking, his voice a bit shaken. An outgoing transmission, of more than just words, a massive outpouring, something 'ripped' from Taschereau to elsewhere.
He struggled more, managed to stutter the words out in pain: 'Aargh! Kill me!!'
Focusing on the Weave, on the magic pouring forth, several of us saw it - snowy mountains, a base of some sort - and then, with a chilling thud to my gut, there it was. A humanoid construct, black metal and red wires. A vessel in steel for the new and 'improved' Jean Taschereau, whose conciousness, memories, living mind was being siphoned out of him...
Taschereau cried out, pleaded brokenly: 'Talbot, STOP! Please!'
Through dispelling, we bought a brief window of time to work in, but dispelling alone would not stop the transmission from completing. We had to try something else, something more drastic. With a heavy heart, I had to concede that Taschereau's own plea had not been for pain alone - he knew what was happening, had begged us to stop it at any cost, or all that he was would be lost. He'd be Talbot's mindless metal servant, unless we put a stop to it.
But I just couldn't, I couldn't resort such extremes without having tried to help him in some other way - none of us did. There ~had~ to be another way, there had to - and so I asked Pliskin to open the cage, and for Artemis to physically attempt to cut the wires out of Taschereau's neck.
It was a delicate procedure, the wires complex and set deeply into his neck, so close to vital arteries. Kaitlyn held Taschereau's head while I sang to him, trying to soothe his increasingly panicked movements while Artemis' knife sliced deeper, working with precision and intense focus.
It was going well, or at least seemed to until suddenly, the knife's edge knicked a thin red wire, ever so slightly. A spark, a fizzle, and Arty dropped the knife, sucked at his zapped fingers. The transmission continued, two thirds complete now ...
We were running out of time, had to act fast or we'd lose him completely. My voice sounded strangely calm and even as I gave the go-ahead to Roslyn, who had held her bow with an arrow knocked the whole time in readiness.
She grit her teeth. I looked away, but heard the thud of impact, felt Jean's body grow limp while somewhere in the background, Oscar whistled low.
Artemis, shaken and pale-faced, dealt with the grisly task of removing the wiring after death, while Sheserai prayed to Mystra for the power to return Taschereau to the living. It worked... in a sense. He breathed, he opened his eyes, but seemed blank, not recognizing us or who he was himself, large chunks of his mind ripped out.
He complained of being cold, being stiff... and the wiring in Arty's hand still glimmered, had a trace of magic yet to it. Maybe... yes, the link 'is' still there, we can backtrack, try to recover something yet! Artemis gave it his best shot, and it helped, it helped a 'bit', something more lucid returned to Jean's eyes.
'He... he wants to... bring it here... 'All' of it. You.. took half...'
With that struggled out message, Taschereau lost consciousness, and whatever else he may recall had to wait. For now, we looked at each other and I saw my own sense of loss, of failure and horror mirrored in the eyes of my friends. It could've gone worse, but there's no denying that it could have gone a lot better too. Taschereau's mind balancing on that thin red wire...
But maybe it wasn't all lost. Maybe, like the raven, the mechanical vessel storing half of Taschereau's mind could be connected to the living, transferred back where it belonged? It's possible, at least in theory, but we'd need the construct intact to have a chance.
Meanwhile, while we were not content with half of Taschereau, neither was Talbot. He sent Tusker with a large portion of the clockwork army to the western walls, demanding Taschereau and the halfling to be delivered to them. Tusker, also with a glowing red something to his neck, hid at a far distance - but not far enough to dodge a well-aimed arrow from Roslyn's bow, knicking the circuitry.
Tusker retreated from the field, but not before he had badgered Sally Williams to greet them as Talbot had ordered. She resisted, though it's clear it still pains her to go against her old captain's command, while Tusker ordered a final massive assault on the walls. The gates were broken, Sally, Kaitlyn and Anna Blake holding the line of the bottleneck, while the rest of us rained down arrows and spells from above and behind.
The battle was brutal, the bodies piling up in countless numbers, broken wires buzzing and empty eyes staring at the sky. So many, and despite being told it was futile repeatedly, people kept trying appeal to the mindless soldiers, reach through to who they once were, before the wires. But nothing short of death would stop their onslaught, once the order was given. Nothing gave them pause, not pleas, not injury or pain.
A thin red line - red wires, gleaming metal and circuits, robbing a person of will, humanity, independant thought. It's beyond horrific, and there's GOT, there's got to be a way to undo it. But until we find the solution, we must fight.
An idle day at the commons, engaging in half-hearted chit-chat with Sheserai and Nathen, I suddenly felt it again. A tug on my mind's eye, gentle at first, then my vision clouded over, turned blood-red.
I blinked as the haze cleared, my surroundings now completely different. I saw a cherry-red floor, smooth, perfectly flat and gleaming like a polished ballroom floor, stretching out as far as the eye could see. A navy horizon painted the dividing line between sky and ground, and right in the middle stood two familiar figures, so alike yet each other's opposites.
Two robed figures, a man and a woman, dancing, twirling, spinning in a slow and pleasant dance upon the cherry floor. His hair so neat and straight, hers a wild and flowing mane, yet their faces were so much alike, like siblings, like twins. Like two different facets of the same individual?
The man smiled as they danced, looking out across the smooth red floor. From its glossy surface, they rose - buildings, perfectly symmetrical, metallic buildings in gridlike patterns, one after another until a whole cityscape formed around the dancers.
The woman smiled, a sweet and slightly uneven smile, looking out across the city. And suddenly, the buildings changed, a little twist here, a small individualistic alteration there - little flaws and quirks, Godfreya's idea of perfection adding flavour to the rising mechanical city.
The woman's eyes turned skywards next, and above their heads, above the gleaming metallic buildings, a beautiful chromatic veil formed, irridescent and shimmering like the rainbow.
Laughing, their eyes fixed on the strange but beautiful cityscape, the hard metal and and the translucent wonder of the sky, Godfrey and Godfreya kept dancing. They danced for some time, a slow and harmonic, pleasant waltz until suddenly, something changed.
The woman started flickering, her figure blinking in and out of focus, staticky and indistinct. The man's eyes widen in panic - he grasps for her hand, tries to grasp her and Godfreya clings on - they clutch desperately but to no avail - with a sudden, stabbing finality, she zaps out of existance.
A gasp from Godfrey - bereft, shocked, like the gasp I had heard passing through the metallic doors before. A ripple passes through the city, the buildings reverting to their original state, all the little lovingly added imperfections vanishing. The rainbow sky falters and falls, as Godfrey falls to his knees and screams out in rage, in loss.
The buildings crumble, the city turning to twisted and malformed, writhing ruins. At the center of it all, all alone now, the man grasps for something that I cannot make out because now, the vision turns blood red anew, washing the strange other world away.
And leaving me with the nagging feeling of having 'missed' something, forgotten or overlooked that one little detail that might've shed real light on things. Godfrey's search, perhaps - what had he clutched at? Had I 'seen' it, a glimpse, a quick flash with my mind too slow to fill in the blanks?
I'm missing something, and it irks me beyond words. These 'visions' are messages, hints, pleas for help maybe. And I'm just too dense to put it all together.
A thought, a hesitant guess:
Two of everything, polar opposites, but coupled with the desire to merge their conflicting ideals. Two mages, two gems, two consoles - and in that room past the bridge, a third console hidden inbetween.
What if that's not the only 'inbetween'? Is there a third gem, a third 'master control' of sorts, that you can only get to through the set of two? Is that why Talbot's hunt for Sarah continues - because Aesso's image showed in Godfreya's mirror, as his own did on Godfrey's side?
Merging the opposites opened the way forwards, past the bridge. Is there another lock to bypass - is Talbot trying to open a rift to the plane of Mechanus itself?
The days following our return to Peltarch, I spent in a zombie-like state, shock, weariness and the relentless images of the soldiers caught in the writhing metal wires on a continuous loop through my head. Del'rosa and Sally Williams - still a Captain at our recommendation to the General - were far from idle however, taking swift action to root out Talbot loyalists left and right in the ranks.
One such 'clean-up' task fell on Reyhenna's lot - to find and bring a group of suspected traitors to justice, through persuasion or force. They were hiding out in the Pissing Goat, little knowing that their equipment was being used to scry out their location. Reyhenna and I headed over, intent on a combination of intimidation tactics and smooth reasoning, though as Mint joined the team, I immediately foresaw a great deal more blood involved in the near future.
Reyhenna and Mint were both itching for a fight, but one man in the group seemed to take heed of my warning words and opted out of confrontation. Good man, I thought to myself, but once the dust had settled I realized he was anything but that.
Another in the slimy weasel category, a Carl Tusker sort, but this one with a grudge against Talbot. He was, in actual fact, the very man I'd once rescued a caged and grievously injured lady Hemway from, in that dark, dank smugglers warehouse.
The man bargained for his freedom, tipping us off to a second group hiding in the back with crates of smuggled goods in the form of weaponry, going on to note that he had other information that might prove valuable to us. Such a backstabbing rotter - but it appeared as though he'd been coerced into serving under Talbot. That resentment coupled with a bit of leniency on our part could see us with a valuable snitch on anything going on in the docks district - though it was with some hesitation that the deal was taken.
The likes of Harkwell would throw their own grandmother to a pack of wolves without batting an eye, but on the other hand - sometimes in order to catch a weasel, it helps to think like one. He might yet be worth it.
The Creche Forge II
The left door was unlocked, a perilously swaying bridge of metal plates and metallic wires strung up across a churning oily sea. The other side seemed safe enough, tantalizingly close, magic humming somewhere in the distance.
Leena flew across in falcon shape while the rest of us eyed the bridge for a moment longer, dubious. 'Fortune favours the bold', I exclaimed at last, breaking the hesitant pause and trotting confidently across. 'Or it spells their doom!', noted Artemis from behind. I just grinned, head half-turned to make a fabulously snappy retort when it happened - a slippery plate under my foot, a wire cutting into the next as I tried to regain my footing.
It's strange how time works, times like those. A moment of perfect clarity, slowed to almost stand-still, realizing the inevitability of my fall. Leena's alarmed face infront of me, mouth a perfect 'o', and then with a rush, in the blink of an eye, I was in the oily sea. Sticky, bitter, searing hot blackness - I kicked frantically for the surface, screamed and somehow, in sheer instinctual will to live, found the spiderstick at my belt, shooting off a web to cling to.
Leena dug around for a rope, but behind me Artemis reacted quickly and resolutely - a softly chanted spell, a glowing mage's hand grasping my shuddering form, lifting me up and onto solid ground. I gagged, sputtered and chugged a few healing potions while the oil still burnt my skin.
Wary of a similar fate, Artemis flew across aswell, while Sheserai slipped her leathers off to tiptoe across in a flowing gown. All four across now, we studied the room before us, finding it empty but for two consoles with a number of dials and levers, near a single magically sealed door.
The 'key' clearly lay in the consoles, but what was it? A password of sorts, the right settings? Two consoles - all things in pairs, dualistic, opposite. That was Godfrey and Godfreya's nature, right? Artemis and I took to experimenting, fiddling with levers, buttons and dials.
A figure appearing at the turn of a lever, changing form when shifting from setting to setting. Changing size when manipulating the dial… shifting colours at the push of a button. Fun! My type of puzzle, intuitive, like painting, like laying a puzzle. Opposites, opposites...
An air elemental to our right, earth on the left. Shifting sizes, small and huge, laying on the colours, white and black... and then, a resonance in the air, a harmonic hum. In the elementals stead, the twin figures of Godfreya and Godfrey stood, alike but polar opposites. And in between the two consoles, suddenly a third.
The elusive middle ground, hm? Toggling the mechanisms of this third console soon revealed that it was able to manipulate the figures positioning, turning them left or right along the wall. I felt it, just knew it - Godfrey and Godfreya ought to meet in the middle, reconcile their difference, merge.
Artemis and I toggled a lever each, the robed figures meeting, morphing into an indistict blur - and with a subtle whoosh of magic, the door opened.
A long, winding corridor beyond it, blessedly free of bridges. Smaller chambers set into the walls here and there, prison cells of sorts? In one, we found two hulking figures, covered in plates and circuitry. They'd been orcs once, but were much transformed since, seeming stronger for their implants but blessedly dormant, inactive.
Though it gave me a major set of shivers, I suggested we bring one with us to study. If we can understand what the mechanical implants do, how they work, whether or not they can be disabled or even removed, then the soldiers likewise afflicted might, just might be saved. We have to hope.
Leena cut one down with surgical precision, slung it over her shoulder as we continued forwards, past more cells with orcs in similar condition but less extensively wired.
Finally we came to a large chamber, the end of the line. A wide open floor space, looking something like a scene, a ballroom floor. Tubes and wires hung from the wall and the raven, hitherto having been content to nip and tug at Artemis hair, suddenly fluttered off.
It pecked at the wires, insistant. Leena translated: 'Connect'
Gently, we fit the raven to the mechanism, its eyes flickering red and white as it went inert. But on the 'scene', images appeared.
First a person very familiar indeed - wild-haired, green-armoured and plucky - Leena, caught in a scene played out but a moment ago. Oh... OH! We were accessing the raven's memories!
A console set before the display area held a lever, with various settings, up and down. Back and forth in time? There was also a big, red button, which I itched to press... turns out it was the 'OK' button once a setting had been selected. So I pushed it.. repeatedly, getting a secret little thrill each time.
It 'looked' so forbidden!
The bottom-most setting seemed the most distant in time. Two robed figures flickered into view, the perspective shifting until the raven settled between them, the images solidifying. Godfrey and Godfreya, mid-conversation.
He: 'Proportionality, form, symmetry, coherence - they're not so different from aesthetics overall.
She: 'Perfection? A matter of perspective! They say the most perfect things are actually imperfect. Oh yes, oh yes, just a little flaw!'
He: 'There we are... coherent, structurally sound, everything in its place..'
She: 'Can we ever stop balancing and start blending?'
He: 'Never fear - there is a way.'
A flick of the lever, another glorious push of the big red button and 'he' flickered into view. The accursed Talbot Anderson, viewed from above as he made his way down the spiral staircase.
Talbot: 'Cut them off. The wires. Yeah. Taschereau, get in here.'
The perspective shifts, changes to the room with the twin pedistals. Talbot walks in, his cruel calculating eyes falling at the pedistal and the red, glowing gem still set within.
Talbot: 'Well, well, well. Is this the one, Taschereau?'
The reply is not heard, nor is the sight of the muttonchopped mage himself. Talbot takes the gem, then freezes a bit.
Talbot: 'Oh for the Nine's sake. We're being watched.'
The raven's view flickers, buzzes and shifts wildly as it is grabbed, crushed in a gauntleted hand.
Talbot: 'Just toss it with the rest.'
Next scene, Jean Taschereau in focus, slipping a wand into his sleeve as he speaks to someone, undoubtedly Talbot himself, pausing every now and then to listen.
Taschereau: 'No sir. Definitely planar.
Not sure, sir. Looks to me as if were built somehow. It's not purely planar. Got traces of the arcane - see the glyphs here?
Mortal design, two people with conflicting, contradictory ideas. Irreconcilable, I'd say - which can explain the weaknesses. But that's just a theory.
Ahh, that? Oh yes, it is. It matches the arcane signature perfectly - except it's the polar opposite. Fascinating.
Ahh, the halfling? I'm not sure. Do we really need her? I'm not so sure she's the one...
If you say so, sir.'
The top-most notch showed only my own image, very close in time to the present as Leena cut the orc down. But again, like all the scenes but for Godfrey and Godfreya, the focus was on a single person, the others but a blank space, silence as my memorized self listened to something said, responding.
Just then, a sound startled us from our investigation. A rythmic and reverberating thump, growing stronger. A marching beat.. clockwork soldiers, coming down the hallway! They moved as one, relentlessly nearing.
In haste, we disconnected the raven and gathered around Artemis, huddling near as he cast our getaway magic. A burst of lightning, the strange feeling of being dissolved into a million tingling, twinkling sparks, stars flickering through the void. And then the foothills, a stone's throw from the walls of Peltarch.
With the direst of news and one distinctly gruesome orc full of circuitry to deliver, we made our way directly to City Hall and General Frederic Del'rosa.
The Creche Forge I
Down the spiralling, stairlike suite of plates and steel-fibre ground, buzzing now and then with red sparks of electricity. A vast open chamber spread out before us, strange mechanical creatures suspended from the ceiling attached with wires, shifting languidly about like bizarre toys over a child's cradle.
Piles of similar creatures lay in broken heaps here and there, clear signs of the intruders prior to us - Talbot, Tusker and whoever else had entered this secretive place.
As we stepped out onto the floor, there was a whirring sound, a beam of light trailing each of us before a hatch in the ceiling opened, projecting the image of three women and one male figure. The women faded, the male figure seemingly compared with that of another, similar one. Both dark-haired, human in build but one of them more muscular, armoured, his hair a little shorter. Someone familiar… someone, it soon became quite apparant, decidedly unwelcome.
Whirr, whoosh... the figures suspended from roof and walls shifted, activated. Set metallic feet upon the ground, lifted giant axes - and attacked. One wave, two, three while we tried to eliminate every little likeness between Artemis and Talbot.
He dropped his cloak, tied back his hair, but the mechanical creatures kept coming - until, to a sudden fit of giggles, the idea struck me: gender bending!
'Arty! Stuff your shirt with socks or something!'
He grinned faintly, rolled up his cloak and made an impressively vast false bosum out of it - and the whirring stopped, the hatches closed. No more resistance now, and in the sudden stillness we noticed movement of a different, more subtle kind.
A flutter of black feathers, a strangled little caw. A raven, tossed carelessly upon the pile of broken constructs. It was still alive... but when we came closer, we noticed it too was mechanical. But only in part. Like the soldiers I tried so hard not to think of, the raven was half organic, attached to the ceiling with a fraying wire. It lived, but only barely.
The organic part seemed unharmed, but the metallic bits were fading in power, fizzling and dying. Artemis managed to fuse new magic into it, and while the wire broke, the raven itself seemed much envigourated, landing on his shoulder to enthusiastically preen and pick at his hair.
Quite unlike the soldiers, the raven seemed its own individual being. A familiar of our dualistic mages, Godfrey and Godfreya perhaps? It seemed clever, tilting its head and listening as we asked it: 'Where did the bad man go?'
'Quork!', cried the raven and flew off to the far side of the room, pecking insistantly at the right one out of a set of twin metal doors, locked with the same type of metallic wires as elsewhere in the structure around us. Without our top locksmith, I took to the task instead, musing for a moment before testing a few different combinations of wire switches. This one goes there and this... humm.. looks like it fits.. here...
The door swung open before us... and in stepping through, I half expected the abyss of darkness, the laughters left and right. Instead, a curious chamber that appeared the heart of the structure.
Two pedistals, with two sets of mirrors behind them, runic markings covering the walls in differering patterns. To the right, swirly, haphazard while to the right, square, gridlike and symmetrical.
In the floor, a singular line had been drawn between the two halves, but the gridlike pattern had begun to creep past it, subsuming the chaotic whirls. The pedistal to the right seemed dead, devoid of magic, but the left still glowed a dull red, seeming to be fading. Both pedistals had a slot carved into their surface, large enough to fit a big gem. And both slots, to no surprise, were empty.
The raven fluttered over to the left pedistal, cawed and pecked at it as if to say: 'this is what the man took'. Leena shifted into a falcon, tried to speak to the raven and got the following message, in quirky, stuttering raven tongue:
'All gone, all gone - halfling, man, no more. Before, man, woman, no more. Then halfling, man. Now man, man,'
The magic in the room seemed inactive, disconnected somehow. The balance between the two sides all thrown out of whack, broken. 'Can we fix it somehow?', we asked the raven.
'Connect', it replied, pecking at Arty's hair. 'Take me, take me, can try get back'.
The raven's knowledge, such as it might be, did not stretch past these brief words, and it soon became distracted by the sorceror's hair anew, pecking and tugging. We took another look around the room, studying the mirrors more closely this time - and spied a figure within, faint but visible when one focused. A man, screaming...
Just then, I felt it again - the silent scream, the flash of red.
The man wore neat and symmetrical robes, with a perfectly even number of wands and scrollcases on his person - but he screamed, held his face and ears in pain in unison with the throbbing pulses of red, flashing through my head, around the pedistal.
When my vision cleared, I suddenly saw another figure replace that of the first, if only for a moment - dark hair, cold cruel eyes.
Talbot Anderson. Was he trying to assert his will over that of Godfrey, crush what little essence of the mage remained within the gem? Is it possible the gems were soul jars of some sort, that Godfrey's spirit actually lived within and had tried to reach out to me through the red light visions?
The right side was dead, the magic gone - but when Leena attempted to fit what she referred to as a Chaos Shard, a wildly swirling gemstone, shifting in all colours of the rainbow, something glimpsed in those mirrors too.
A woman, much akin to the man in the left-hand mirror but his opposite: uneven robes, odd numbers of wands, her hair in disarray. And then, flickering past in aching briefness... a halfling woman, bubbly, cheery smile turned towards us with equal shares mischief and wonder. Aesso...
The Chaos Shard didn't quite fit, the magic around us reacting as if attacked, lashing out in bursts of red, wires flailing. The reaction was worse still when we attempted to fit it into the 'orderly' side, testing to see if we might flood the system and cut Talbot's power off at the core.
The structure's in-built defences seemed to kick in, forcing us to abandon the attempt and move on to explore the left-hand door in the main chamber.
The Giantspires - Clocks and Clouds
We ran, stumbled through snow and skidded across ice, the uniform stomp of booted military feet slowly fading behind us. Deeper into the Giantspire peaks, in unknown terrain now.
Finally it seemed as though our persuers stopped, appearing to turn around. A hazy glimpse of the renegade army, disappearing into the distance. I rested my hands on my knees, gasped for air and began to cry anew.
Stop it Isolde, stop it. This isn't helping!
But I couldn't stop, not completely. I bit back the sobs, willed the tears to dry but was still shaking, still reliving the scenes we'd fled, been unable to stop from playing out. We all just stopped, huddled into a small shelter from the wind, a jagged outcrop of rock, trying to collect ourselves.
Alright… there's no turning back, no changing what's done but we were still alive. There were still options available, things we could do to fight back. Option one: teleport back to the city immediately, report the events to Del'rosa, warn everyone. But the soldiers that had gotten away - dear gods, say they really had gotten away, were safely en route home - they could do that too.
We were here, temporarily away from persuers. Why not try to learn more? If we could find the place I'd first seen in my vision, the high snowy slope where Talbot must've found the gem..
We rested a while, spoke and tried to make sense of the peculiar magic at work, while inside of my head, there was still flashes of red, the silent screams at Talbot's use of the gem's powers. Planar magic and transmutation. Okay - what is the source of the first - can we break it down, determine that much?
Mechanus, the plane of machines, of clockwork, cogs and wheels and order, artificial intelligence. But what we'd seen wasn't orderly, it was deformed, twisted... like the sprawling mesh of wires I'd seen bleeding down from the College's roof, consuming, transforming the lounge.
Something nagged at my mind, an old academic debate, the sort I'd never payed much attention to but nevertheless encountered in bardic circles.
Clocks and Clouds - different notions of the structure, the interpretation of reality as either predictable, logical and orderly, or fleeting, ephemeral and beyond our ability to grasp or fully comprehend. Wispy, soaring like a cloud...
Walking on clouds, in Aesso's world, brought into being through the magic of the rod and her own wild imagination. Clouds, engraved into my mask's inside, the symbol of the Night Parade. Was any of this relevant, making sense to what was going on?
As we mused, the snowfall ceased for a moment, vision clearing up ahead to reveal a darker something atop a high slope ahead. Magic emananated from the area...
Ontop of the rise, a familiar sight - the ancient sprawl I'd seen when I stepped through the second door, the very site I'd seen Talbot enter...
It looked different from the one where the soldiers had been transformed, stable and less twisted. The snow had been cleared away at some point, with but a thin fresh layer coating the metal wires and tubes. A metallic doorway was visible, a bit down into the sprawl.
No sign of movement, no screams inside my head. We took a collective breath, and stepped through the heavy metal doorway to a winding, spiralling staircase leading down.
The Giantspires - A Sprawl Mechanical
Sally Williams awaited us outside Del'rosa's quarters, dejected and shaken by her own actions, expecting nothing less than to be punished for it. Disobeying orders, going against Talbot, betraying him… she was anguished, but we pushed her harder still. Where had Talbot taken the army? What was their true objective?
'You're asking me to betray him again?', asked Sally with tears glistening in her red-rimmed eyes. 'I saw you there, on the snowy slope with the steel plates and wires sticking up from the ground', I noted, watching her face. She resisted only for a moment, mumbling dejectedly, confirming that my vision had been truthful - they'd found something in the Giantspires, the mysterious wide-spread sprawl of mechanics, but while Talbot and Tusker had entered it, the rest had but chartered the outlines. That fit with what I'd seen, and I nodded.
But if that was their target, what did Talbot need so many men for? Were they going to excavate the whole ruins? 'Did they have any shovels with them, Sally?' A troubled shake of her head, a knit of her brow. 'I don't know anything more than that, but I can mark the spot out for you on a map', she concluded, resuming some of her former poise. Having her usher and boot us out the door to avoid any tipping of our hand even brought the tiniest bit of satisfaction back in her eyes, and we left to prepare to follow the army's multibooted footprints.
Our team was small, no more than four in total for the entire length of the journey to follow: myself, Leena, Sheserai, Artemis and Atel, the latter two alternating with Atel beginning the trip with us and Artemis teleporting in later, having consulted with General Del'rosa on a few arcane matters of defence.
The Defender army had cut a wide swathe through the forest and up the slopes of the Giantspires, easily followed though we ran into scattered bands of orcs running in the other direction, as well as the local worgs and winter wolves. Progress was relatively fast, but the stragglers caused our small group considerable pains until we came to the orcish caverns leading up to the snowier peaks beyond.
Here, the signs of the army's passing were much more vivid. They'd not only slain all the orcs, but put heads on spikes, bodies on display for all the rest to see: this is what happens when you mess with Peltarch. I'm certain Talbot had whipped the army into a victorious frenzy by the time we finally came upon them, past the first uncovered sprawl of mechanical debris.
'Transmutation magic', Sheserai declared, to the quizzical nod of Artemis, who studied the remains with much curiosity, adding that it was also planar in nature. But we couldn't linger, there were voices near and one booming out above the rest - Talbot Anderson.
We found a series of noochs and crannies, snuck closer to hear.
On a high ledge overlooking a large swathe of the sprawl stood Talbot, flanked by the weaselly Carl Tusker and mutton-chopped Jean Taschereau. The army awaited below, massed before the dig-site, replete with magical glyphs, planar inscriptions and symbols, gadgetry and wiring. Something wrenched inside me, an instinctive feeling of dread.
Talbot's loud and compelling voice rang out:
'Troops! Soldiers! Tonight we've crushed the orcish menace and discovered what it was they'd been hiding all along. They were AFRAID! Afraid we'd FIND IT! When Del'rosa ordered my regiment here, they attacked in full force and swore revenge!
Now, it's safe for us to delve below - we'll discover its secrets, learn its powers. March forwards unto the mechanical wonder and explore every section of it!'
My dread turned to a churning, sickening maelstrom of fear as the first division marched dutifully onto the sprawling mesh of wires and plates, soon followed by the next and the next after that. We agonized, knowing something was terribly wrong but uncertain if we dared reveal ourselves, so vastly outnumbered and alone.
'I sense magic', Sheserai mumbled, 'transmutation and illusion..'
Oh no.. no no NO! There's 'definitely' a reason Talbot's standing well above, removed from proximity to the sprawl - it's dangerous, he's using the soldiers to...
A silent scream in my head, piercing my consciousness with sudden sharpness as Talbot raised his hand, a glimmer of red coming from within its firm grasp. The gem...
The first solders had reached the center of the sprawl, joined in inexorable and steadfast rythm by more when it started to writhe underneath their feet. Subtly at first, billowing like marshy ground, but then snaking tendrils of wire and steel started flailing, snaring legs, wrapping around limbs. Like that first vision of mine... I'd screamed at the encircling wires, made them go away...
And I screamed now, as loud as I could, desperate to be heard:
'FALL BACK! By order of General Del'rosa, FALL BACK NOW! RUN!!'
Screams erupted, the flailing wires and circuits tightening their grip, beginning to 'insert' themselves - piercing through skin, through skull and bone. Panic rippled through the ranks, but some, oh some heeded my cry and instinctively followed the order while beside me, Leena unleashed powerful bursts of lightning, frying the red buzzing sprawl of circuitry, releasing some its victims.
But those that remained...
They screamed and twitched, hung like helpless puppets in the metallic wires that probed and latched onto them, inserting plates and reddish circuitry. The sight has etched itself unto my mind's eye and no amount of trying can erase it - the screams from outside, the silent scream within, a red haze before my eyes.
Talbot's 'doing' this - he's subjecting the soldiers to this torture on purpose, hurting them, transforming them...! Get that gem AWAY from him!
A rush of air as Artemis launched himself up through the air to land on the high ledge above our heads. Talbot's voice, livid at our intervention, ordering our prompt execution. The twang of Tusker's crossbow, a poison bolt slotted into place but Taschereau hesitates, seeing Artemis.
He's not like the rest. Not quite, but not quite different enough either. Not enough to do anything to stop the massacre below. Taschereau stays his hand, but Tusker fires the crossbow, forcing Artemis to make a quick retreat to the ground.
Meanwhile, the wild scramble off the sprawl continues, roughly half the army managing an escape - those who had yet to march, and those at the outer edges, just about scraping by. But within, now released from their wires, buzzing with red circuitry... Talbot's own army.
An army of mindless automatons, clockwork soldiers at his beck and call. He raises his hand, sneers and repeats the order while inside my head, the silent scream reaches a crescendo:
In perfect unison, the modified soldiers turn our way, swords raised, eyes dead of empathy or independent thought. They are ordered, they will execute.
Artemis and Leena attempt to fry their circuitry to release them as the first wave attacks, but it's no use. We're vastly outnumbered and above our heads, the wretched weasel Tusker fires off a bolt that sets off an avalanche of ice and snow, blocking our escape. We must run, but we can't go back the way we came.
'Go!', shouts an unknown Defender soldier, one of those who managed to climb onto the ledge where we stood. 'We'll cover your retreat!'
Sweaty strands of dark blonde hair plastered to his brow underneath the helm. Pale blue eyes in a face no older than my own, plain but earnest, with a light scattering of freckles across a broad nose. He won't survive, I know it and he knows it it as our eyes meet for that one brief moment. What is it that gives men such courage, to make a stand they know is hopeless? As I turn with one last look across my shoulder, I see a sword biting into the soldier's side, yet somehow he stands firm, shouts again.
And we ran.
A Despot's Design
It didn't take a miracle - it took a disaster. I 'knew' something bad was coming, had been building for some time. I was forewarned but was still too slow to put the pieces together, too cautious to take risks and learn what I needed to in time. Too slow to save them.
The nightmarish scenes flash before my eyes whenever I close them, whenever I hear that silent scream in my head, reverberating, throbbing red like a migraine.
I have to break this down, tell the tale in steps and lucid narrative, fasten it to paper and leave it there because I can't, I can't let the horror of what's already taken place keep me from working towards making it better. It's ~got~ to be possible, it just has to.
Talbot made his move.
During a promotion ceremony for a certain Jean Taschereau - the very same man Talbot had pushed and twisted my arm about crediting to get said promotion 'for the sake of his wife and kids' - General Frederic Del'rosa was shot with a poison bolt and rushed off to the infirmary in critical condition.
'Orcs!', cried Talbot, the likely suspects having just a week or so prior attacked the gates in vicious force. Using his reputation as a man who gets things done, a war hero and a leader, Talbot declared himself interrim General in Del'rosa's stead, immediately declaring war on the orcs.
Once he made his move, Talbot wasted no time. It's clear to me now that he'd been planning this for some time, and while I'm trying very hard not to drown in self-blame, I can't help but feel I should've been able to get closer, done more to stop what was to come.
Talbot gathered the army - nearly 'all' of the Defenders, minus the Cerulean Knights (thank the stars for that) and one of his own three regiments, that of ever dutiful Sally Williams. They were just about ready to march out when I stumbled out of the College at the crack of dawn, woken by the stir and rumours swirling.
I snuck close as the march began, troupes pouring out with determined boot stomps, ready to wreak havoc on the scapegoated orcs. Spying Talbot and Sally Williams a ways off, I managed to eavesdrop on their conversation and felt my blood run cold.
Talbot: 'You know what to do, Interrim Captain. Don't you worry. We'll be back sooner than you think and I'll expect a warm welcome.'
Sally: 'Of course, General. We'll keep the city safe and do our best to rehabilitate Del'rosa.'
Talbot: 'Don't let any civilians give you a hard time. Who knows what nasty tricks they might play.'
Talbot had ordered maximum security around City Hall, and for no one to be allowed near Del'rosa (noticably not called the general) and his two 'hand-picked' physicians. Alarm bells were ringing through every fibre of my being, and I had to try something. Sally Williams, for all her staunch loyalty to Talbot, for all her cold disciplinary attitude, is not like the rest of his gang of loyalist thugs. She's a true soldier and, I knew for witnessing it firsthand, distinctly not a fan of the underhanded style that Talbot secretly employs.
I had to tug the wool from over her eyes, had to get her to listen. It didn't start off well. 'Garibaldi', Sally sneered, 'have you come here to gloat and poke fun?' What I said in response, I cannot recall with clarity, only that I argued as if my life depended on it, trying desperately to sow some little seed of doubt in her mind, enough to at least get her to check on Del'rosa personally.
'You're a healer yourself, aren't you Sally?', I asked, pleadingly. 'Wouldn't it be prudent, extra diligent even, if you were to see how he was doing?' All my other arguments but this, she brushed away adamantly but now I saw a flicker in her eyes, an uncertainty mingled with annoyance. 'Very well', muttered Sally Williams, 'if it'll shut you up'.
We entered a muted City Hall, made our way through to Del'rosa's chambers. Sally bid me wait outside and I did - until I heard raised voices from inside. Reluctant to have Sally cross enough to throw me out, I turned invisible to slip inside and find her arguing with a beefy swordswoman with a dockside drawl.
'I'm your superior officer and you will let me pass', said an irate Sally, while the swordswoman leaned lazily on the blade of her pommel, all cocky and smug in noting her orders came from Talbot directly. 'An' there's nothin' you can do 'bout it, unless ya wanna be defyin' the general's orders.'
Not good. Not good at ~all~. This wasn't a physician, this was a prison guard and I murmured as much to Sally, unseen. She flinched, grit her teeth and agreed. The woman and her sister had both transferred from Tusker's regiment to hers, just days before the poisoning took place.
'You know something's not right here, Sally', I whispered insistantly. And she did, I could see her struggling. She had her orders - she had ~always~ followed orders but what if those orders were misleading? What if the right, the good, the 'correct' thing to do was something else? What if the real general was at risk, the city and all that she'd sworn to protect?
Sally's eyes strained, filled with tears as she fought the decision through, grit her teeth and insisted one more time to be let through - or else. 'Or else what?', laughed the swordswoman, bragging how she was the stronger fighter of the two and would hand Sally her ass and deliver her in chains to Talbot when he returned.
'Ye'll be courtmarshalled, bitch!', said the beefy girl and took a swing. The fight was on, and I could tell it wasn't just bravado - Talbot had set his best fighters to the task, in case his orders were questioned. But unbeknownst to the fighting wench, Sally had a little helper…
I sang and I screamed, I hasted and healed, and though the fighting was taxing, Sally persevered and kicked the door to the General's bedside open. There, the brawny sister of the first guard awaited, startled and angry. 'Whot th'hells are ya doin' 'ere Williams? Talbot's gonna have yer head fer this!'
This woman was tougher still, and before I could intervene, before I could try anything, had launched herself at Sally with sudden and deadly force, slamming her head hard against the bedpost. Blood spattered, Sally sagging and sinking to her knees. No no NO! You have to get up or all is lost!
I tapped Sally's forehead, mumbled a spell of healing and shuddered with relief as she got to her feet. 'Th'hells?', said the brawny thug. 'Ya got someone in 'ere with ya?'. Well, at least she's smarter than her sister, I thought to myself, wincing and slapping all the healing I could muster onto Sally as she fought the clearly stronger fighter without backing an inch.
Finally I was out of healing, and the swordswoman swung wildly at the air around me in search. One last trick.. this had better do it. I turned ethereal, grabbed my shield and rapier and stuck the thuggish wench with the pointy end. Take THAT!
My efforts, feeble in martial prowess though they may be, took the pressure off Sally enough for her to land a solid hit and finally the goonish gal hit the floor. PHEW!
We rushed to Del'rosa's side, found the General pale and unmoving, looking in a very bad state indeed. I played my flute of arcane mending, one note and then another, but it gave little but temporary relief. The poison, whatever it was, must be something beyond the ordinary. We needed an expert, someone skilled in herbal lore and medicin. Someone... someone like... oh gods, let Leena be loitering at the Commons today too, please please!
Gruff, shaken but determined, Sally Williams sent me off to fetch help, under strict orders not to be seen. What we'd done could be construed as high treason - and if Del'rosa died, we were in some serious trouble.
'Don't die, don't die, don't die', my heart sang out with each step I took through City Hall, dodging this guard and that, patrolling soldiers and watchful eyes. Invisibility, my friend, my savior...
Out the gates, closing them fast before anyone noticed, to the Commons, please be there... and she was! Relief flooded through me and I hurried up towards the tree under which she and the usual suspect Artemis slothed about, whispered my errand urgently and bid them follow discreetly, unseen.
There was some commotion, suspicion of intruders as the gates opened anew upon their entrance, but both helpers found their way into Del'rosa's chambers. Leena set about concocting a cure while Sally distracted the troupes outside.
'Shit', muttered the druidess. 'This is some badass stuff... basilisk blood and spider venom mixed. He'll slowly petrify...' Now it made horrific, chilling sense. The guards posted, the orders to keep everyone out. Del'rosa was meant to turn to stone slowly, while the venom poisoned every vital organ inside. Depetrification would result in his inevitable death, blamed on the orcs or even the poor mage casting the magic.
Leena cursed and mumbled, rooting through her pack and mixing things in obvious haste - there wasn't much time, Del'rosa was fading with each moment and his fingers were already stiff and grey. She ground up a stone of fleshiness, mixed it with an antidote potion, water, herbs and such, applying the cure externally intially, then having him sip the diluted rest.
Please live, oh please oh ~please~...
A gasp, a shudder and groan as Del'rosa's eyes blinked open. The words he'd tried to utter with such difficulty now rolled off his tongue and the dashing General sat up straight, attempted to get out of the bed at once.
'That rat-bastard slime-sucking weasel...!'
Clearly, Del'rosa was under no illusions as to who was really responsible for his condition. Things moved fast, once his health was restored, and the task now appointed us was two-fold: discover what Sally Williams knows and where her true loyalties lie - can she be trusted, can she be counted on to root out the rest of the Talbot loyalists remaining in the city? And secondly - follow the army, find out what Talbot is up to. He'd found something, Del'rosa said, up in the Giantspires. Something he had been ordered to leave be, but clearly had other plans for.
I saw it flash before my eyes just then, a sudden silent scream ringing in my head. Red tubing, black wiring, steel plates and buzzing mechanics, a sinisterly glowing red core.
The sprawl begins to flail and writhe as though in pain or in a panic, then stops just as suddenly. The twin laughters again - reversed this time around? Had left turned right and right turned left? It was difficult to say, but like before the raucous one dies out, leaving the other to let out a gasp. It bleeds into a sob, and then all is silence.