A Melody Mechanical by Isolde Garibaldi
Karnivor last edited by Karnivor
As yet unpublished, the following manuscript lies tucked away at Isolde's writing desk within the bowels of the Bardic College. It appears nearly completed, but for the final few chapters, which consist of jumbled notes and many crossed over drafts that the author clearly discarded large chunks of. The cover, also but a draft, is just a pencilled sketch in black and red ink, consisting of two separate pictures front and back, each mirroring the other.
The front, then, depicts Isolde herself facing a dark doorway or perhaps a mirror, framed by a strange, organically coiling, sprawling meshwork of circuits, tubes and wires glinting red. The author's hand is tentatively outstretched, a look of wonderous fascination and wariness on her face while the doorway or mirror appears to reflect her shapely figure. But wait - it's not quite her own reflection, is it? The woman glimpsed within has her hand outstretched too, though wears a wide, wild smile, raggedly uneven robes and swaying, untamed locks coloured black instead of red.
The back of the cover features a man, positioned to mimic the bardess on the front but in mirror opposite. He has dark, short-cropped hair, a distinct chiselled jaw and cruel, calculating eyes, broad shoulders straining the strict Defender uniform jacket as his hand too stretches out towards the central doorway or mirror. But this hand is not held out in invitation or exploration - the man's gesture is determined to grasp and to control and within the mirror, the man reflected seems to recoil in fear. The mirrored man is dark-haired too, but wears a dapper moustashe, his robes neat and tidy. Surrounding the mirror/door are the same types of circuits, gears, tubes and wires as those on the front of the cover, though here they align in orderly fashion, angles and straight lines instead of waves and swirls.
'Parlay my ass, Nauran', I replied, incredulous at the notion of Talbot's supposed invitation for diplomacy. I 'know' what he wants, and I've seen all too clearly the lengths he'll go to to get it. Scenes from the College attack replayed inside my head, Vanoogle pressed against the wall, a sword driven into his gut. No. No, this isn't a parlay, this is just a different approach, another tactics employed when the first wasn't enough.
Just like Talbot's long ago dinner invitation at the Mermaid, it was only ever about getting his way. Intimidation and bullyism had failed to see me comply, and so he tried charm. 'You should've played ball', he said wearily, staring at my image in the creche-forge. But Talbot doesn't want to play, not the way I do, not for enjoying the back and forth. He wants to control the players, dictate the game.
'It's a 'trap'.'
This much, Nauran conceded, but continued to insist that we should go, that I might attend as a projected image only, and that he had a means of escape if it came to that. Apparantly he had been dealing not with Talbot directly, but with the blue-eyed construct, who would wait until nightfall when the 'invitation' expired.
Where I saw looming risk, not just of capture but of tipping our hand, Nauran saw a chance to learn - but the only things I really wished to know, I felt quite certain would be not be on offer. We argued back and forth - to my increasing frustration, lately it seemed Nauran and I could never disagree on anything without it spiralling into an aggressive, confrontational near row.
I'd brought the Oscuran mage into the investigation quite recently, for enjoying our past collaboration on the Chirade case. Despite Nauran being at odds with some of my friends and distrusted by many others, I thought he might offer a clear and dispassionate view on things, as he had before.
Now, however, Nauran presented his views as though they were the 'only' rational course of action, as if he was always right, even where I felt certain he did not see the full picture. He seemed to bristle each time we disagreed on anything, dismissing my idea of breaking the strangle-hold of Mechanus on the soldiers through song and dance as ludicrous. Even after being told by Artemis also that exactly this effect had been demonstrated, more than once, he did not quite believe me. Yet of his own conclusions, he was all too certain.
I remembered fondly our discussions during the Chirade investigation. Things were different then, perhaps because we were both on the outer fringes of the case. Now that I found myself smack in the middle of the plot, things between us seemed fraught with tension. I usually enjoy debate, enjoy different points of view for making me see things differently myself - I'd invited Nauran into the fold, partly for that very reason. I wanted him to help me twist and turn this mystery about - not to drive me near tears of frustration for insisting we do things his way.
There's never just one right way – there's never just one or the other either, back and forth, left or right – just like the creche-forge, if you walk far enough to the left, it becomes right. Reality isn't linear or fixed – as I'm sure Godfrey and Godfreya would agree. Yet if our will shapes the world, it was becoming obvious that mine and Nauran's did not harmonize.
The sun was setting across the rooftops of the city when I finally caved. Alright, 'fine' – we may learn something that could prove valuable, and neither of us are without means of escape when the trap would inevitably begin to snap shut. Hopefully…
It awaited us in a secluded area of the foothills, blue eyes glowing in the dusk. Every encounter with the construct brought the same pang to my gut, the painful reminder of our failure to save Taschereau. In accordance with Nauran's previous negotiations, the construct allowed for a set number of questions to be answered – but as I had predicted, anything of relevant strategic value was off limits. 'Tasch' could only provide the answers to such questions as Talbot allowed it to, and it did so in a heartbreakingly inhuman manner, its voice metallic and emotionless.
-Why the parlay?
'The General wishes direct interactions between himself and the bardess, as she has displayed an ability to compromise the integrity and security of the General's structure. He wishes to come to a better understanding of this ability, and discern the bardess' intentions with it, as well as propose a course of action.'
-What are Talbot’s intentions for Sally Williams?
'Former Lieutenant and Traitor Sally Williams', the construct insisted, continuing: 'The General's orders were to hold the city until his return, and open the gates for him. The General has since considered Former Lieutenant and Traitor Sally Williams' value and intends to offer her the means to redeem herself and shed her current status.'
Heh. Bet you anything that 'redemption' involves a certain little something no longer in place, 'General'.
-So Talbot does still intend to return to Peltarch?
-How does 'Tasch' cast spells in its current form?
'This one's form is made of rare metals from the plane of Mechanus, same as those used to create Inevitables, known to be capable of spellcasting. But its form is not purely mechanical. A fraction is organic.'
Curious… but we knew the metal was rare, that's why the flesh is needed to substitute the rest. Could there be a weakness in that though – might Tasch yet respond to the Godfreya effect, or might the organic parts hold the key to the restoration of his true self?
-Which parts are organic?
The construct gave a precise and chilling response – it appears Gazuenheidt had created a clone, a duplicate in flesh of Taschereau's original form. The wretched gnome cut away its limbs, fusing head and torso within the shell of the construct so that flesh and metal merged.
I shuddered, taking note of the information but failing as of now to see how we might make use of it. Nauran received his due reward for bringing me to the rendez-vous: a specific scroll from Tasch's spellbook, called Mage's Private Sanctum.
And now for the steel jaws of this trap to trigger…
The 'offer' from Talbot was the following:
'You will meet with the General in person, and allow the General to stabilize the aura contained about your person. In exchange, the General will not march unto Peltarch.'
'In the interests of the greater stability of the region, as well as the integrity and security of the General's structure, the General adds the following clause to the offer.'
Okay, get ready Nauran – here it comes.
'Submit any and all gems you currently possess that contain ties to the creche-forge, and allow for a magical scan upon your person to be conducted by Tasch. And in exchange, the General will not order the regiments that have been stationed around this plateau to carry out their orders.'
There it is. That's Talbot's 'parlay' – do what I say or 'else'.
'Tell the 'General' he can take his offer and shove it, Tasch', I said in an even voice, a giggle almost escaping as the construct did just that, diligently. 'Relaying message: shove it.' It seemed slow to realize this meant no, but past the treeline, in the darkness of the hillsides, we heard them approaching.
Footsteps, metallic greaves in perfect, clockwork unison. The blue-eyed construct's eyes glowed, but it had yet to make any hostile move itself, perhaps still working out my words true meaning.
Time to exit this particular stage.
Invisible, we fled towards the city gates, where I raised the alarm. Nauran, meanwhile, took it upon himself not to seek safety but battle, commencing to rain down fire and destruction upon the approaching clockwork soldiers.
No, no, no… don't kill them, just hold them off..!
There was nothing for it now – whether Tasch was studying me in the distance or not, I had to try. I had to put my plan to the test, and free as many as I could before they were all dead and lost. I was 'not' having another massacre at the gates – not this time, not knowing I could prevent it.
Time for dress rehearsal, then.
The amplifier rod gleamed in my hand, slender and light, encased by smooth black leather and snaking, swirling mithril coils. I held it close to my lips, so close the tip almost brushed against me, and sang a single, humming, vibrating, buzzing note.
The note filled the air, it echoed far into the foothills and the soldiers paused, momentarily, before pressing on. Nauran was still fighting, fireballs hurled through the air.
I hummed the melody – a slow and haunting melody, the notes droning, almost electrical. My lips tickled, a spark of red dancing in the air. And then I sang.
I shut out the sounds of battle, shut out my worries and concerns, let the melody claim me, the words fill me, spill out of me in a haze of red. I swayed, on top of the wall, as the haze spread, thickening into a crimson fog. Beneath me, the battle began to grind to a halt – some soldiers stopped to sway with me. Others began to flee westwards, but their movements seemed jerky, intermittent, the machinery malfunctioning.
The haze grew darker, a storm brewing within, wisps and lashes of colours erupting in the air. A thunderstorm in red, with rainbow lightning flashing, zapping, jolting the frozen soldiers.
And then I saw her, a flickering image hovering in the air.
Godfreya, long dark hair and uneven robes fluttering with the storm, swaying with the song. She smiled, that bright, wild smile, and stretched her hand out to… something…
At first it's all a haze, but then I see Godfrey's image flicker into view as well, his trim moustache curved in a smile. He takes her hand, and together, they begin to dance.
Below, twenty soldiers all bend over and reach for their heads, screaming in agony, wailing, curling up on the ground, hands digging into temples and skulls as though something snapped within. All at once and in a rush, it came back to them – everything they are and everything that was done to them, everything they were forced to do as prisoners in their own bodies.
As the first Defenders came rushing to the scene, my song trailed off and the red haze began to dissipate, revealing the scorched battle field and the bodies of the fallen past the gates. And scattered around it, twenty groaning, traumatized soldiers. In pain, in agony but alive – alive and free of Talbot's chains.
It worked. It 'worked' not just on individual soldiers but on a whole group. Twenty could have been how many more, if Nauran had just held his fire? If he'd had just a little more faith in my plan, how many more might be saved? It's a question without answer – for all that the walls might've protected me sufficiently while I sang, it's just as possible that the soldiers might have breached it before the haze had enough strength to stop them in their tracks.
For now, I'll take what I can get from this, I'll take the twenty and confirmation that my plan is possible not just in theory but in practice. Not even Nauran can deny that now, even though he insists it isn't the most reliable method.
What still worries me is that confirmation might have gone both ways – that Talbot now knows precisely what I can do and will work out a strategy to counter it, rendering the next and crucial attempt a failure. Regal's Fjord has 'got' to work – and Sally Williams, in arriving at the scene herself, notified us to an upcoming meeting to discuss the particulars of the next course of action.
Nauran, just before we parted in more amicable mood, revealed that the scroll he acquired from Tasch will allow for undetected scrying, the next time we attempt to snoop. Now that 'is' clever. Why couldn't he just have told me so to start with, instead of attempting to boss me around?
Of course, he thinks I'm the one being bossy.
Or am I not bossy 'enough'?
Pliskin's voice broke the tense silence, the blonde Cerulean shuffling up to light yet another stick of incence.
'Woah, that was harsh', he commented with a relaxed smile. Nauran all but gnashed his teeth, wafting a pale hand under his nose, while on Artemis' shoulder, the raven flapped its wings in a furious flurry, as though to clear some of the thickening fumes.
'You know… if you don't have a familiar, I think you could tie the bird to you, man. It'll make it that much easier to find out what it knows', added Pliskin, before shuffling back to his bunk to relax, arms behind his head.
'I don't, actually', replied Artemis in a soft and thoughtful tone. 'And it does seem quite fond of me...'
'His name is Diaval', noted the smiling sorceror, after forming the bond. The raven nodded its head, pecking affectionately at the sorceror's gleaming hair, quorked and cawed excitedly. Diaval's memories, already glimpsed in the first creche-forge, had revealed it to be the former familiar of Godfrey and Godfreya, and now Artemis attempted to delicately delve deeper into the bird's memories, finding three notable points of interest, doors to the ancient past.
The oldest, the most deeply hidden memory eluded his first attempt, but the second 'door' opened to reveal the androgynous image of a human, with a very familiar raven seated on one shoulder. The room is a study of some sort, crammed full of paintings of strange worlds of spinning cogs and gears, alongside swirling clouds in irridescent colour. The desk and the floor are littered with notes, many crumbled and tossed aside in frustration.
The mage looks at his or her hands, held out with fingers outstretched. They're injured, flickering with conflicting energies - a flash of multicoloured lights one moment, a vibrating droning hum the next. The mage's hands twitch and spasm weakly, eyelids straining as a frustrated exclamation is released:
'This isn't WORKING! This.. BODY ... nothing but a CAGE!'
Diaval smooths Artemis' hair gently, bobbing his raven head as if to encourage him to go on. The next memory is younger, but still a long, long time ago. A chill runs down my spine as the image unfolds, and all of us grow very still, seeing the scene play out.
The same mage, now inside a room with familiarily mechanical walls. He or she is in the process of clambering up one of the walls, where cuff-like fastens are set for wrists and ankles. A ruby clutched in each hand...
This is it, isn't it? This is how it happened..
The mage spreads their arms, holds the gems tightly and utters a command word, the fastens closing around arms and legs. The damage of before seems to have spread, the body in tatters now, gaunt and trembling, though the mage's eyes burn with resolution as though determined to do everything the failing body will not. Another command word is uttered, and the mage writhes in pain as a gammut of circuitry, wires and tubes begin to latch on, inserting themselves into the body.
'Aargh! ... Not ... ENTIRELY!'
The mage twitches in pain, snarling out another command word through gritted teeth. A lash of magic erupts, a burst of wild, multicoloured energy, erupting from the body itself as though resisting the intrusion of the mechanics. The outburst forms a cloud, swirling and churning around the figure as it twists and writhes in pain.
The mechanical sprawl spreads, connects itself to the gems clutched in both hands, wrapping and coiling around each wrist like snakes, like metal vegetation, slowly subsuming the entirety of the mage's ragged frame. With a rasping breath, she or he utters a third command, and though stilled, I recognize it. Trap the Soul.
'I... will ... be ... a ... GOD ... I ... will ... be ... FREE!', the mage screams, stuttering the words out as the machinery continues to penetrate their frail and sickly form. The cloudlike colours continue to swirl, burning in bright and vivid hues against the cold, dark metal of the machine wall. The gems begin to glow brightly.
'I ... am ... EVERYTHING!', cries the mage, eyes rolling back in their sockets, frail hands clutching desperately at the gems. The sprawl's growing intrusion is countered by the cloud, looming and swirling, haphazard streaks of lightning churning within it as it spreads, filling the room.
'THIS BODY IS NOTHING ... I WILL BE FORMLESS AND THEN I WILL BE 'EVERYTHING' ... I WANT TO SEE FROM EVERY ANGLE ALL AT ONCE ... I WANT TO SHED THE LIMITS OF MY SENSES, MY 'PATHETIC' HUMAN SENSES! I WILL OVERCOME ... ! AAARRGHH!'
The storm grows rapidly, crackles of lightning, bright streaks of electricity and roiling thunder thundering as the conflicting energies swirl, churn and clash, seeming to repel, contradict one another completely.
'... NO ... NO, NO, NO ... DON'T DO THIS TO ME ..! YOU WILL LISTEN TO ME ..! AND IF YOU DON'T ... YOU WILL KNOW MY ... POWER ... GAAHNNGH ..!"
The mage screams, strains as the storm rages and the gems glow brighter still. The crescendo builds and then there is a flash of red, bright, crimson, and the body slumps, hanging limpy from the restraints.
I blink my eyes rapidly - in the afterglow, in the residue of the red flash, I think I see them - a man and a woman, each looking in amazement at their hands, and then each other. It's the briefest glimpse, the echo of the lightning, but I'm sure regardless - this very moment is the birth of Godfrey and Godfreya.
The raven remains, and through Diaval's memory we see the storm rage on, after life flees the mage's body. The red glow of the gems spreads through the machines circuitry, colouring the swirling, churning cloud crimson. All is red now, as the image slowly fades from view.
Shaken by the sight, we try for the last memory, the deepest, most hidden secret of the mage from whom Godfrey and Godfreya sprung. Artemis' eyes strain, and blood trickles from his nose - Diaval twitching, flapping his wings. The memory eludes us once again, and I'm left wondering whether some things, Godfrey and Godfreya wish to remain hidden.
Insight Through Incense
'Yeah, it's all about the incense', insisted Pliskin with an affable smile. The laid-back Cerulean had been Tristyn's collegue, and behind his pretty-boy smile and lackadaisical attitude, I knew a caring and good-hearted soul rested. Nauran, however, bristled with annoyance as the aromatic fumes began to fill the lab. 'I fail to see the merits of fogging up one's mind - are there no crystal balls?'
Artemis simply smiled, trading light-hearted comments with Pliskin as he laid out the equipment on the smooth marble worktop. Taschereau's implant glinted darkly, a small metal plate with red wiring and snaking tubes protruding from it. Such a small thing, to have done so much damage, tearing a man's mind apart.
The half-mechanical raven sat on the sorceror's shoulder, bright beady eyes following the procedure. It pecked at Artemis' shining hair every so often, making inquisitive little quorking sounds while Atel threw herself into the pillows brought in by special bardic request.
'Alright, let's see.. if we're very lucky, the link is still there, or traces of it anyway', mumbled Artemis as he and Nauran began their arcane study of the implant. There was a little hint of activity remaining, remnants of the magic used to transfer Taschereau's consciousness. Sending, trap the soul, dominate person… I shuddered, recalling his agonized face in the darkened gaol cell. That strangled voice echoing in my mind.
'Kill me!' ... 'Talbot, please stop...!'
The two mages stopped, trading excited looks. The telepathic link was there, and not only that, they believed it was reversible. Jean had originally used the link to allow the construct to function as his extended eyes and ears - and if we tapped into the same magic...
A flicker, a staticky blur before the image solidified. The metallic hulking shape of the construct, viewed from its own blue eyes, turned obediently towards the dark armoured man beside it. Talbot's eyes were hard and cruel, the naked weariness on his face when I'd spied on him alone firmly wiped off. He was speaking to someone smaller, a sour looking gnome.
Atel gave a sharp gasp beside me, on the pillows.
The gnome inventor and arcanist was responsible for the enslavement and suffering of many right-sized people in an ever ongoing quest for precious metals for his own constructs. We'd released an arrogant Djinn enslaved to Gazuenheidt, hoping it would slay its captor, but clearly it had failed. So 'this' was the gnome mentioned in the sewers.. damnit!
There was no sound, but I fiddled with Vanoogle's audio amplifier and managed somehow, by intuition or sheer, dumb luck, to get it working.
Talbot's voice was harsh, annoyed. 'What's it to you anyway? I need you to do your damned job. You want more materials or not?'
His imposing figure towered above the gnome, but Gazuenheidt would not be intimidated, sneering up his nose.
'You insulted my height, you petulant man! You will apologize before I do anything else!'
Talbot changed his tone, suddenly smooth and agreeable. His eyes remained cold as ever, as though calculating the pros and cons of gnomicide in his head.
'You're right. It was in poor taste. I'll tell you what? I'll give you 'all' the metal you need from the mining we've secured from the orcs - nothing planar, mind you, but good, strong steel and in exchange... I want you to do what you did for this...'
He touched his fingers to the ruby around his neck, the black metal cruelly biting into its glossy surface. So 'that's' who had constructed Godfrey's prison... the means by which to keep him subdued and firmly crushed under Talbot's thumb.
'..to that', Talbot concluded, pointing to elsewhere in the room. I didn't need to see what, I knew. The big ruby, the heart of hearts within the creche-forge. Oh, this was 'not' good news.
Gazuenheidt's eyes gleamed greedily. 'All the metal I need, right? Right, right, riiiight...'
Talbot continued with his affable front up: 'Then, my dear friend, we have a second deal. If this turns out as well as the amulet and those chips you made me, we might have room yet for a third.'
The gnome approached, peering up at the construct. 'You realize that the process is incomplete? You've got, by my estimations, 80 % of him here.'
'80 % is all I need', replied Talbot. 'I have you, anyway. Do me a favour and kill those annoying halflings the next time you tango. 'Til next time. I expect your work to be complete by then.'
'Of course', said Gazuenheidt with a cold smile, walking out of view.
'Well Jean, best get you to work', said Talbot, approaching with his dark, tattered cloak fluttering behind him. He peered up, that cold, harsh gaze suddenly seeming to penetrate all barriers, boring through the blue-eyed construct's eyes to fix on our hidden presence. He 'knew' - I could see it, felt a cold chill run down my spine.
'Cut the connection! Close it down, now!'
'She only acts this way around you and Ros, you know', noted Sprocket quietly, his eyes fixed on Sarah's bright, wild smile as she jumped up and down on the bed, striking a dramatic pose back at us. He had been Aesso's friend, perhaps harbouring deeper feelings for the exhuberant halfling bard. While a hurt Horgrim grumbled that Sarah was but a pale imitation of the girl she once was, Sprocket would give her long and troubled looks, when he thought she was not looking. Whatever he once felt for Aesso, though, there's no doubt that for Sarah Snow, Sprocket had given his life, picking an impossible fight outside her room as the clockwork men attacked.
I'd brought her back from her hiding place, after spying on Talbot, but a nagging little kernel of doubt remained. Was Sarah safe now that he knew it was me he needed, or could he yet use her somehow, wring some little vestige of red from her?
We'd been dancing when it happened - a spark of red, a little zap and a hummy, drony sensation, Sarah's hair flying as we twirled around, hand in hand. All her awkwardness, the shy hesitance and sadness seemed to melt away with the dance, replaced by that glorious, radiant care-free Aesso smile.
'Oh wow, I feel AMAZING!', blurted Sarah, looking at her hands as I let go of them, then bouncing about on the bed in sheer, unadulterated joy. The buzz in the air lingered, that familiar aura of wild magic, somehow contained, which now struck me as very similar to Aesso's past performances.
The red gem had been the powersource of Aesso's instrument, providing its potent wild magic, but I was beginning to suspect the link between instrument and performer was closer still, that the instrument and the gems within were in fact twined with Aesso's very being, piece and part of what made up 'her'. It wasn't just Beeble, was it?
Some time later, reviewing notes from Tristyn about the mechanical orc as I walked though the corridor, my thoughts kept wandering to the imprisoned Cerulean's meeting with the recently returned Nauran. Would the damage Chirade had done ever truly heal - could, as Nauran suggested, Tristyn possibly find his freedom, find work and purpose to his life, elsewhere?
Not in Oscura, I thought, shuddering to myself as I recalled the nightmarish screams of the Well of Souls, the dark temple of Shar, situated right next to the library where I'd tried to learn more of the Shadow Weave. Oscura had been where I'd near drowned in my own misery, and I just couldn't see it helping Tristyn. Even if the underground city would grant him sanctuary, would he not slip inexorably into darkness for being surrounded by it?
Lost in thought, I failed to notice it at first. Dancing lights, a shimmer at the edge of my vision, in blue, white, green and red. I halted, blinked and snapped my focus fully to the present. What was 'this' now? It wasn't a vision, my head felt fine and intrigued, I focused on the Weave. Illusion… but that's not all. There was something 'else' too, and as I followed the lights, they lead me to A5 - Aesso's old room and Sarah's current one.
The door was a black void, swirling with blue patterns, focused on the doorknob. I reached for it, my hand about to clasp the knob when I felt a presence behind me, glowing red hands resting on my shoulders. Godfreya's wild grin, as I turned my head.
"Why the worry? There's no hurry!"
As usual, Godfreya made little sense, at least in the strict use of the word, but her nonsensical rhymes seemed to support my previous notion about Aesso - only a third, she sing-sang, one of three, borrowing her wildmagic. Sarah was most definitely that one, the only one remaining, the other Beeble. And the third? The third must be the remaining enigma, the mystery of blue, as yet unknown.
"Doesn't your head hurt?", queried Godfreya and vanished as my fingers touched the blue swirling patterns of the doorknob. And then I fell.
I fell through the door and into the endless cosmos, continuing my descent as stars streaking past. I fell and fell, eventually embracing the feeling, stretching out as Aesso once had. The memory made me smile, and I twirled about in the air on impulse. In somersaulting, I fell back into reality, landing outside A5 with my hand on the now mundane doorknob.
I turned it, and the door creaked open. Inside, seated on the floor and giggling manically, was Sarah. A wild scattering of scrolls littered the floor, covered in bright pink glyphs and scribbles, and the air shimmered and swirled with beautiful, bright rainbow coloured lights. Behind Sarah, likewise giggling, sat the crimson figure of Godfreya. They both waved to me, Godfreya flickering out of sight as I stepped closer.
Magic filled the air - a familiar magic, as familiar as the scrolls with Aesso's hand all over them. Illusion, fuelled by wild magic - unstable now, and, I noted with alarm, about to erupt...
'Sarah, duck and COVER!', I yelled, reaching for her hand as we both dove under the bed. A crackle in the air, a burst of volatile energies, the colours swirling and boiling like a rainbow storm cloud.
'GAH!', shrieked Sarah, huddled up in fright beside me. 'I found these GREAT scrolls, and read one..'
'It's okay! Ahh.. well it'll 'be' okay, once we get Horgrim..!', I replied, ignoring her pouts and moans about the ogre mage's many displeasing qualities in her eyes. Sooner or later, she'll see past the surface, I told myself, murmuring a little prayer to Sune and attempting my best dispel, managing to buy us a window of calm to escape the whirling vortex of the room.
But as we got down to the Masters Quarters, Sarah hid. I sighed inwardly - it will be later rather than sooner, obviously - and then opened the door to the guest room only to find it empty. Where 'was' he?
A group of snickering, smug students in the library responded. 'The ogre? Oh, he's 'gone'. We showed him what he really is.' My ire grew as they proudly described an elaborate ploy of mirrors and a monsterous painting, designed to drum the message home with inescapable cruelty. How dare they? How 'dare' they call anyone a monster, while being such ~beasts~ themselves, and to someone whose very presence saved so many bards lives?
'Those freak soldiers probably came because of him', stated a sneering woman, dismissing my fury with a wave of her hand. Never have I been so sorely, so seethingly disappointed in my own kin and kind as this day. Never has it been more plain to me what true ugliness is - I was staring it in the face now, and it mattered not that the bards were fair enough of appearance and fashionable of clothing - their actions stunk like pig dung, their close-minded, petty cruelty more revolting than hairy warts and hunchbacks combined.
I don't know that I've ever been so furious before. Is this what paladins call righteous rage, before smiting the ruins of the unjust upon the cold ground? I certainly wanted to do just that, but a flash of rainbow colours down the hall brought me back down, and I continued my search while the reeking dungpile students slithered back into their holes, still congratulating themselves.
I ran to the kitchen, thinking that if Horgrim was anywhere in the College still, it'd be in the pantry, comfort-eating chicken. And I was right. Together, we dispelled the wild magic and a grumbling Horgrim confiscated the scrolls. Sarah was nowhere in sight, but I was too upset to care.
'You're ~my~ guest', I stressed to Horgrim, 'and I want you to stay.'
The College felt stuffy, stifling that day, a dull but persistant headache driving me outside to work instead. I sat at the Commons, alone but for my notebook, drawing deep lungfuls of the cool, crisp air. The song was starting to come along, the melody felt right, the theme, the slow but rythmic tempo. I'd opted for an a capella version, to be bolstered with illusions created through Aesso's baton instead of instrumental aid. Something about that felt right too, though my enthusiasm was dampened by the heavy, foggy feeling in my head.
Ugh. Focus Isolde, focus…
I shook my head, took another deep breath and stared at the songsheet. The words blurred before my eyes, turned to incomprehensible gibberish. I blinked hard and the text turned crimson, glowing, floating on the page which itself began to glow red next. Then the very air seemed to thicken, turn into a red haze enveloping my senses. The ground underneath my feet split open, revealing whirling machinery, intermingled with glowing, multi-coloured lights and then the doorway appeared. The same dark metal door of my first visions, solid and solitary. It opened slowly as I stood, complete crimson inside.
I step through, letting the crimson tide wash over me, and find myself 'elsewhere' again. Not the cherry-red floor this time, not the shimmering dome of irridescent colour - this time I drift along a winding, narrow corridor, familiarily mechanical walls curving softly around. To the right, the wall's pattern grow more rigid and grid-like, to the left wispier, cloudier, more effervescent.
I feel a low, thrumming, electrical vibe all around, a rythmic sensation like the beating of a heart. Am I floating in the blood stream of this mechanical beast, travelling through the metal bones of a giant? Visibility is low, but I trail my fingers along the walls, choosing left, going with Godfreya.
Left, left, ever turning left, until the walls begin to grow more structured again, gears and sprockets set in regular, even grids. Have I come full circle, then? The faint red glow in the air intensifies ahead, forming another doorway of sorts. The dividing line, the 'cut' between halves?
I step through the light and out into a room, elsewhere within the creche-forge. The area is vaguely familiar, but different, 'older' than I recall. Dustier, murkier, long since abandoned.
Twin pedistals, each holding a ruby, dull and inactive. A dusty, darkened mirror behind each, and on the wall, three paintings. To the left the familiar swirling chaos of Limbo, to the right, the precise clockwork world of Mechanus - but in the middle...
My head hurts, trying to take the painting in. It defies the senses, makes my mind spin and reel. I 'can't' describe it, the words don't exist to do so - is it a pattern, some form of code? It's utterly bizarre, so strange and alien that I'm forced to turn away for feeling my concentration slipping, my head starting to pound.
No, no, not yet. I collect myself, focus on the rubies instead. Again the similarities strike me first - the same idea, the same intent and maker behind them, but this is an earlier draft, a rougher outline isn't it? The rubies are empty of magic, abandoned and discarded. They seem less finely cut than Aesso's or Talbot's versions, but alike in size and colour.
The mirrors, likewise, are vacant, so dull I can hardly even catch my own reflection in them, though as I reach out to touch the left ruby, I hear the faintest little feminine hum, catch the briefest glimpse of a woman with a haphazardly draped robe and a wild mess of dark curls in the mirror. She looks like me, but her face flickers and changes before she fades entirely, like an echo dying out.
The flickering glimpse of Godfreya comes not from the ruby, but somehow all around - just like last time, in spying on Talbot, I feel her consciousness spread all around, ingrained in the very fibres of the creche-forge itself, flowing through circuitry like hot blood pumped through its veins.
This section of the creche-forge seems highly modified, but old, unused for centuries, abandoned. It holds very little else and so I risk another long look at the middle painting, struggling to even begin to visualize what my eyes take in. It doesn't strike me as textual, nor has it any sort of proper 'form', though certainly formal rather than substantive. I can't make sense of it, and again I'm forced to look away. I close my eyes though, as if I can somehow burn the image onto my retinas, for the residual to linger and slowly translate to something clearer, something I can hold onto.
As I open my eyes again, I see a shimmer of red from behind me. Another doorway of sorts, another flood of crimson engulfing me as I move swiftly through the walls to a different, yet nearby portion of the creche-forge.
This chamber's even older than the last, but the basic structure is familiar if cruder, more rudimentary still. Here, there are no paintings on the walls, no mirrors or panels. There 'are' two rubies, rough cut, dull and inactive, but rather than pedistals holding the gems, they are clutched by skeletal hands.
The hands belong to an equally skeletal... body of... a humanoid creature? The nature of the remains is difficult to make out, entirely entwined as it is with the surrounding circuitry, meshed with snaking wires, plates and tubings as though attempting to merge with the machinery. Each hand clutches a ruby, each one raised up, arms extended in surrender, in welcome, extacy or pain.
The circuitry has subsumed the body entirely, but seems to focus on certain parts especially - a thick cluster of wires from the firmly grasping hands to and through the head, through the heart, the tubing sprouting out in different directions from these centres and into the creche-forge proper. It's a chilling sight, yet mesmerizing, pulling me near.
I reach out towards the ancient remains when my head begins to hurt, flashes of red, of that indescribable, unimaginable 'something' reverberating, breaking the vision's solidity. The creche-forge crumbles, disintegrates around me and I fall, I spin and twirl until the floor catches me.
'Ah, there we go, she seems to be coming to', says a chipper, manly voice nearby. I smell cigar smoke, sense the heat of a crackling fire somewhere nearby. This isn't the Commons, this is...
As I sit up, the small, cozy office spins around me and Oscar Halbrook's smiling, curious face doubles, triples, quadruples for a moment before my vision clears. Next to him sits Ysberyl, the quiet woman apparantly having come across my unconscious self outside, and opted to carry me to what I presume she intended as a safe place.
My head hurts and I wish for nothing so much as solitude and the true comfort of the College, to catch the vision's fleeting details. It disturbs me to have been so defenceless, and I can't help but feel vunerable still, irrationally upset at finding myself in the guard captain's office.
I 'should' be grateful, I should, but it bothers me to have been hoisted about like cargo, to have been caught so entirely unaware. To be so without control, when seeing red. The full significance of my vision is elusive as ever, but I can't escape the notion of 'evolution', of one and the same idea being tested, discarded, refined and persued again and again over the countless years of Godfrey and Godfreya's grand project.
'Can we ever stop balancing and start blending?', asked Godfreya, to Godfrey's smiling response. 'Never fear, there is a way!' Is the large, finely cut, singular ruby I saw with Talbot the way - and if so, was it designed not by his command, but by the creche-forge itself as the new, perhaps the final step in Godfrey and Godfreya's evolution, their ongoing dance?
While Olil donated the fine black hides we'd recovered from the sewers, I traded yet another favour to Oscar for a bar of mithril for Vanoogle's continued work on my audio-enhancing project. That's two I owe the moustaschio'ed captain of the guards now, two unnamed favours to be called in at gods only know what moment. But so be it - I'm sparing no expenses, for wanting so desperately for this to work, for there to be a way to not just fight Talbot's plans, but do it without this constant sense of loss.
I swore it to myself, up there in the mountains, with Godfrey's silent scream inside my head and the soldiers cries ringing in my ears - I swore I'd save them, that I'd set this right if only there was a way.
So many deaths since. So much blood, pain and sorrow, tears beyond count. The bodies at the gates, after the large-scaled attack - wave after wave of soldiers, mindless and blank-eyed instruments of destruction, women and men turned into tools, attacking what they were sworn to defend. The futile pleas of the defenders, forced to strike at friends and former comrades in arms.
We killed them all. We won and we 'lost'. We lost each one, all over again.
The soldier in the mountain keeps returning to me, the one who told us to run while he and his brothers in arms held the line against their own, so suddenly turned against us. I see his face and I wonder at his life's story, the people who loved him, shaped him, the gaping holes his absence will bring to their lives in turn, the ripples of this one life's passing forever changing what is yet to come and what could have been.
There's a bitter taste in my mouth, a sickened feeling in my gut that insists I could've stopped this, that I was warned but too slow, too dumb to put the pieces together in time. But I can't afford to count the bodies, list our losses and my own mistakes. I have to invest in the future instead. I payed Vanoogle what he asked, indebted myself to Oscar and scrounged up the rest of the supplies needed.
Two lives reclaimed, just two out of how many? No, I mustn't think that way, it'll work, it 'has' to, with the right song, the right setting, the perfect pitch and tempo. I pushed my doubts away and had settled down to working on the song, when suddenly the whole College shook.
The inkwell bounced off the table, the fountain's water bobbed and splashed. An earthquake, an attack? A thrumming sensation in the soles of my feet, a rhythmic, recurring pulse of sound. Coming… from above?
The sound hit me as I rushed up the stairs and cracked the door from the Masters Quarters open. It 'hit' me like a shock wave, assaulting eardrums and body alike and dropping students and teachers to their knees in agony throughout the College. I clamped my hands over my ears and reeled, rushing through the hallway towards Vanoogle's room, only to find the excitable gnome dashing past with a maniacal grin on his face.
Clutching a slender rod in his hands, Vanoogle swoshed up to the rooftop, faster than a greased weasel, while I staggered after, leaving the pained cries of immobilized bards behind me.
The soundwaves hit the city, rang out across rooftops and set window glass to shaking precariously. Down below, people ran wildly, clutching at their ears, and like green hornets from a poked nest, Defenders started forming up outside the College.
Vanoogle, the source of all this commotion, has never looked more extatic.
Noo, no no... this is an anti-ruler of Peltarch device, my dear, sweet friend! A liberator, the anti-thesis of command! I tried to reason, but Vanoogle had outdone himself and was drunk on the results, positively in love with the ear-piercing wails of sonic bursts emitted from the intricate rod in his hands. In the end I pleaded and cajoled, while below Sally Williams marched up, bellowing orders to Reyhenna and Sheserai to bring the culprits down.
'Don'tyouwanttorulethecityIsolde?!', asked an earnestly enthused Vanoogle. 'Wecouldbringaboutabardicempirewhat'snottoloveaboutthat!?'
No, I don't want to rule the city - I'm much better at being 'unruly', which is also more fun by far. What I did want, was for Vanoogle to not end up in jail for having created what I'd asked for and more, and so as Reyhenna's heavy boots thudded up the stairs, I finally convinced him to hand the device over. He shot her a nervous smile and bolted down the stairs, leaving me to the explanations - as I'd hoped.
Sally Williams, while much displeased, grumbled at my declaration of this being just a 'test run' of the device's capabilities. But she'd been informed of my plan, had in fact signed off on it to an extent already, and could not protest it too much now. It was a good thing I'd kept her in the loop, I thought to myself, only to question it in the next moment. Talbot, I knew full well, had his own devices in play.
Oscar's seeds of doubt churned inside my head, coupled with the nagging concern growing in me since hearing Louis Auldreyuus' description of Talbot's intended means of communication with his officers. Sally Williams had left to file her report on the incident, but Reyhenna lingered at the Commons, loitering next to me.
Reyhenna, who had access to the same locker room as Sally, who could perhaps check up on her in a less obvious way than I. For all that Sally'd listened to me in regards to Del'rosa, she still didn't like me and after the sonic debacle, I was reluctant to push my luck. But Reyhenna could do it 'for' me... in fact, I knew she had something of a soft spot for the stern Captain, even though she'd of course phrased the sentiment in crude Reyhenna terms.
After the longest time, Reyhenna returned to the Commons, the grin she'd worn upon departure wiped thoroughly off her face. She was stiff-lipped now, as concerned as I've ever seen her. 'Come with me', she said without preamble. 'Now.'
Sally Williams awaited us, looking strangely vunerable and ill at ease, with her armour off and a knit of worry behind the frown she tried to plaster in its place. 'Jorino claims there's something at the back of my head', she conceded, grudgingly allowing me to check.
Damnit. I'd hoped to be wrong, I'd hoped but before I even felt the square outlines of the chip, I knew Rey was right. It was well hidden underneath Sally's thick blonde hair, and small enough that she hadn't noticed it herself.
'This is impossible!', she said with a voice growing gradually fainter. 'There's no way he could have...'
The chip was inactive, but held a contingency - like a sleeper agent, it would spark into action at a certain word or trigger - perhaps even a specific voice. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out whose.
'He'd hold meetings, dinner and wine.. often late at night, after work', mumbled Sally, almost to herself as I examined the implant. A numb look on her face, but in her voice I thought I recognized a familiar note of shame. The shame of loving someone who can't or won't offer you the same devotion in return. Someone who refuses your desire, tramples on your heart, while foolish you still goes on hoping.
'I'd suggest... that he and I would share such a meal... professionally of course, but he always declined. Except.. that one time.'
Reyhenna's face tightened with anger as Sally described the scene - the unexpected dinner invitation, Talbot's insistance that she have some wine, even though she doesn't normally drink. The memory loss, the headache the morning after. 'I thought it was the wine', mumbled Sally, staring off.
'I'm going to take his fucking 'head' off', muttered Reyhenna, as Sally suddenly gritted her teeth and retreated behind her cold militaristic shell.
'Get this thing out of me', she ordered sharply, insisting we do it now, despite our lack of medical training. I was sweating, flash-backs of the screaming Jean Taschereau playing before my mind's eye, but tried to put what we'd learnt through that experience to good use.
A cut to display the chip. Blood, Sally wincing as we dabbed at the peeled back skin, but there it was. Black metal, red wires, blinking ever so faintly. Okay, focus Isolde. We're 'not' losing another one.
I stared at the device, tried to 'feel' the energy going through it as I hummed a soft, slow, buzzing note, trying to find the connection, the thread to snap. There.. there! An electrical vibe, a tickling spark of red. Something gave way, but there were arcane markings in blue engraved on the chip itself. Not Mechanus, this... Auldreyuus work perhaps?
Dispelling had seemed to stem the tide at least, while we worked on Taschereau. I tried it now, with all the focus I could muster, pulling, unravelling the knots in the Weave. There.. now!
'Start cutting now.'
Reyhenna was sweating bullets, visibly willing herself to make the incisions, her fingers shaking inbetween cuts and tugging at the snaking wires, while Sally bit down a scream, bleeding profusely. It wasn't the most delicate of work, but it 'did' work. It did - and an exhausted, pale-faced Sally Williams bid us leave.
Oscar, ever the bloodhound, soon came snooping for clues as to what we'd been doing in Sally's office for so long. He knows she has feelings for Talbot - that's why he doesn't trust her, but would telling him this accomplish anything but giving him possible leverage to use, next time the two butted heads?
I told him nothing, because a balanced scale of power seems preferable from my own perspective - but most of all for that look on Sally's face. She's not the first woman to love the wrong man, and she won't be the last - but our own pain is always different than the rest, for being 'ours'. Shame is the shadow of love, and for that I kept my mouth in solidarity.
'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.