A Melody Mechanical by Isolde Garibaldi
An idle day at the commons, engaging in half-hearted chit-chat with Sheserai and Nathen, I suddenly felt it again. A tug on my mind's eye, gentle at first, then my vision clouded over, turned blood-red.
I blinked as the haze cleared, my surroundings now completely different. I saw a cherry-red floor, smooth, perfectly flat and gleaming like a polished ballroom floor, stretching out as far as the eye could see. A navy horizon painted the dividing line between sky and ground, and right in the middle stood two familiar figures, so alike yet each other's opposites.
Two robed figures, a man and a woman, dancing, twirling, spinning in a slow and pleasant dance upon the cherry floor. His hair so neat and straight, hers a wild and flowing mane, yet their faces were so much alike, like siblings, like twins. Like two different facets of the same individual?
The man smiled as they danced, looking out across the smooth red floor. From its glossy surface, they rose - buildings, perfectly symmetrical, metallic buildings in gridlike patterns, one after another until a whole cityscape formed around the dancers.
The woman smiled, a sweet and slightly uneven smile, looking out across the city. And suddenly, the buildings changed, a little twist here, a small individualistic alteration there - little flaws and quirks, Godfreya's idea of perfection adding flavour to the rising mechanical city.
The woman's eyes turned skywards next, and above their heads, above the gleaming metallic buildings, a beautiful chromatic veil formed, irridescent and shimmering like the rainbow.
Laughing, their eyes fixed on the strange but beautiful cityscape, the hard metal and and the translucent wonder of the sky, Godfrey and Godfreya kept dancing. They danced for some time, a slow and harmonic, pleasant waltz until suddenly, something changed.
The woman started flickering, her figure blinking in and out of focus, staticky and indistinct. The man's eyes widen in panic - he grasps for her hand, tries to grasp her and Godfreya clings on - they clutch desperately but to no avail - with a sudden, stabbing finality, she zaps out of existance.
A gasp from Godfrey - bereft, shocked, like the gasp I had heard passing through the metallic doors before. A ripple passes through the city, the buildings reverting to their original state, all the little lovingly added imperfections vanishing. The rainbow sky falters and falls, as Godfrey falls to his knees and screams out in rage, in loss.
The buildings crumble, the city turning to twisted and malformed, writhing ruins. At the center of it all, all alone now, the man grasps for something that I cannot make out because now, the vision turns blood red anew, washing the strange other world away.
And leaving me with the nagging feeling of having 'missed' something, forgotten or overlooked that one little detail that might've shed real light on things. Godfrey's search, perhaps - what had he clutched at? Had I 'seen' it, a glimpse, a quick flash with my mind too slow to fill in the blanks?
I'm missing something, and it irks me beyond words. These 'visions' are messages, hints, pleas for help maybe. And I'm just too dense to put it all together.
A thought, a hesitant guess:
Two of everything, polar opposites, but coupled with the desire to merge their conflicting ideals. Two mages, two gems, two consoles - and in that room past the bridge, a third console hidden inbetween.
What if that's not the only 'inbetween'? Is there a third gem, a third 'master control' of sorts, that you can only get to through the set of two? Is that why Talbot's hunt for Sarah continues - because Aesso's image showed in Godfreya's mirror, as his own did on Godfrey's side?
Merging the opposites opened the way forwards, past the bridge. Is there another lock to bypass - is Talbot trying to open a rift to the plane of Mechanus itself?
The days following our return to Peltarch, I spent in a zombie-like state, shock, weariness and the relentless images of the soldiers caught in the writhing metal wires on a continuous loop through my head. Del'rosa and Sally Williams - still a Captain at our recommendation to the General - were far from idle however, taking swift action to root out Talbot loyalists left and right in the ranks.
One such 'clean-up' task fell on Reyhenna's lot - to find and bring a group of suspected traitors to justice, through persuasion or force. They were hiding out in the Pissing Goat, little knowing that their equipment was being used to scry out their location. Reyhenna and I headed over, intent on a combination of intimidation tactics and smooth reasoning, though as Mint joined the team, I immediately foresaw a great deal more blood involved in the near future.
Reyhenna and Mint were both itching for a fight, but one man in the group seemed to take heed of my warning words and opted out of confrontation. Good man, I thought to myself, but once the dust had settled I realized he was anything but that.
Another in the slimy weasel category, a Carl Tusker sort, but this one with a grudge against Talbot. He was, in actual fact, the very man I'd once rescued a caged and grievously injured lady Hemway from, in that dark, dank smugglers warehouse.
The man bargained for his freedom, tipping us off to a second group hiding in the back with crates of smuggled goods in the form of weaponry, going on to note that he had other information that might prove valuable to us. Such a backstabbing rotter - but it appeared as though he'd been coerced into serving under Talbot. That resentment coupled with a bit of leniency on our part could see us with a valuable snitch on anything going on in the docks district - though it was with some hesitation that the deal was taken.
The likes of Harkwell would throw their own grandmother to a pack of wolves without batting an eye, but on the other hand - sometimes in order to catch a weasel, it helps to think like one. He might yet be worth it.
The Creche Forge II
The left door was unlocked, a perilously swaying bridge of metal plates and metallic wires strung up across a churning oily sea. The other side seemed safe enough, tantalizingly close, magic humming somewhere in the distance.
Leena flew across in falcon shape while the rest of us eyed the bridge for a moment longer, dubious. 'Fortune favours the bold', I exclaimed at last, breaking the hesitant pause and trotting confidently across. 'Or it spells their doom!', noted Artemis from behind. I just grinned, head half-turned to make a fabulously snappy retort when it happened - a slippery plate under my foot, a wire cutting into the next as I tried to regain my footing.
It's strange how time works, times like those. A moment of perfect clarity, slowed to almost stand-still, realizing the inevitability of my fall. Leena's alarmed face infront of me, mouth a perfect 'o', and then with a rush, in the blink of an eye, I was in the oily sea. Sticky, bitter, searing hot blackness - I kicked frantically for the surface, screamed and somehow, in sheer instinctual will to live, found the spiderstick at my belt, shooting off a web to cling to.
Leena dug around for a rope, but behind me Artemis reacted quickly and resolutely - a softly chanted spell, a glowing mage's hand grasping my shuddering form, lifting me up and onto solid ground. I gagged, sputtered and chugged a few healing potions while the oil still burnt my skin.
Wary of a similar fate, Artemis flew across aswell, while Sheserai slipped her leathers off to tiptoe across in a flowing gown. All four across now, we studied the room before us, finding it empty but for two consoles with a number of dials and levers, near a single magically sealed door.
The 'key' clearly lay in the consoles, but what was it? A password of sorts, the right settings? Two consoles - all things in pairs, dualistic, opposite. That was Godfrey and Godfreya's nature, right? Artemis and I took to experimenting, fiddling with levers, buttons and dials.
A figure appearing at the turn of a lever, changing form when shifting from setting to setting. Changing size when manipulating the dial… shifting colours at the push of a button. Fun! My type of puzzle, intuitive, like painting, like laying a puzzle. Opposites, opposites...
An air elemental to our right, earth on the left. Shifting sizes, small and huge, laying on the colours, white and black... and then, a resonance in the air, a harmonic hum. In the elementals stead, the twin figures of Godfreya and Godfrey stood, alike but polar opposites. And in between the two consoles, suddenly a third.
The elusive middle ground, hm? Toggling the mechanisms of this third console soon revealed that it was able to manipulate the figures positioning, turning them left or right along the wall. I felt it, just knew it - Godfrey and Godfreya ought to meet in the middle, reconcile their difference, merge.
Artemis and I toggled a lever each, the robed figures meeting, morphing into an indistict blur - and with a subtle whoosh of magic, the door opened.
A long, winding corridor beyond it, blessedly free of bridges. Smaller chambers set into the walls here and there, prison cells of sorts? In one, we found two hulking figures, covered in plates and circuitry. They'd been orcs once, but were much transformed since, seeming stronger for their implants but blessedly dormant, inactive.
Though it gave me a major set of shivers, I suggested we bring one with us to study. If we can understand what the mechanical implants do, how they work, whether or not they can be disabled or even removed, then the soldiers likewise afflicted might, just might be saved. We have to hope.
Leena cut one down with surgical precision, slung it over her shoulder as we continued forwards, past more cells with orcs in similar condition but less extensively wired.
Finally we came to a large chamber, the end of the line. A wide open floor space, looking something like a scene, a ballroom floor. Tubes and wires hung from the wall and the raven, hitherto having been content to nip and tug at Artemis hair, suddenly fluttered off.
It pecked at the wires, insistant. Leena translated: 'Connect'
Gently, we fit the raven to the mechanism, its eyes flickering red and white as it went inert. But on the 'scene', images appeared.
First a person very familiar indeed - wild-haired, green-armoured and plucky - Leena, caught in a scene played out but a moment ago. Oh... OH! We were accessing the raven's memories!
A console set before the display area held a lever, with various settings, up and down. Back and forth in time? There was also a big, red button, which I itched to press... turns out it was the 'OK' button once a setting had been selected. So I pushed it.. repeatedly, getting a secret little thrill each time.
It 'looked' so forbidden!
The bottom-most setting seemed the most distant in time. Two robed figures flickered into view, the perspective shifting until the raven settled between them, the images solidifying. Godfrey and Godfreya, mid-conversation.
He: 'Proportionality, form, symmetry, coherence - they're not so different from aesthetics overall.
She: 'Perfection? A matter of perspective! They say the most perfect things are actually imperfect. Oh yes, oh yes, just a little flaw!'
He: 'There we are... coherent, structurally sound, everything in its place..'
She: 'Can we ever stop balancing and start blending?'
He: 'Never fear - there is a way.'
A flick of the lever, another glorious push of the big red button and 'he' flickered into view. The accursed Talbot Anderson, viewed from above as he made his way down the spiral staircase.
Talbot: 'Cut them off. The wires. Yeah. Taschereau, get in here.'
The perspective shifts, changes to the room with the twin pedistals. Talbot walks in, his cruel calculating eyes falling at the pedistal and the red, glowing gem still set within.
Talbot: 'Well, well, well. Is this the one, Taschereau?'
The reply is not heard, nor is the sight of the muttonchopped mage himself. Talbot takes the gem, then freezes a bit.
Talbot: 'Oh for the Nine's sake. We're being watched.'
The raven's view flickers, buzzes and shifts wildly as it is grabbed, crushed in a gauntleted hand.
Talbot: 'Just toss it with the rest.'
Next scene, Jean Taschereau in focus, slipping a wand into his sleeve as he speaks to someone, undoubtedly Talbot himself, pausing every now and then to listen.
Taschereau: 'No sir. Definitely planar.
Not sure, sir. Looks to me as if were built somehow. It's not purely planar. Got traces of the arcane - see the glyphs here?
Mortal design, two people with conflicting, contradictory ideas. Irreconcilable, I'd say - which can explain the weaknesses. But that's just a theory.
Ahh, that? Oh yes, it is. It matches the arcane signature perfectly - except it's the polar opposite. Fascinating.
Ahh, the halfling? I'm not sure. Do we really need her? I'm not so sure she's the one...
If you say so, sir.'
The top-most notch showed only my own image, very close in time to the present as Leena cut the orc down. But again, like all the scenes but for Godfrey and Godfreya, the focus was on a single person, the others but a blank space, silence as my memorized self listened to something said, responding.
Just then, a sound startled us from our investigation. A rythmic and reverberating thump, growing stronger. A marching beat.. clockwork soldiers, coming down the hallway! They moved as one, relentlessly nearing.
In haste, we disconnected the raven and gathered around Artemis, huddling near as he cast our getaway magic. A burst of lightning, the strange feeling of being dissolved into a million tingling, twinkling sparks, stars flickering through the void. And then the foothills, a stone's throw from the walls of Peltarch.
With the direst of news and one distinctly gruesome orc full of circuitry to deliver, we made our way directly to City Hall and General Frederic Del'rosa.
The Creche Forge I
Down the spiralling, stairlike suite of plates and steel-fibre ground, buzzing now and then with red sparks of electricity. A vast open chamber spread out before us, strange mechanical creatures suspended from the ceiling attached with wires, shifting languidly about like bizarre toys over a child's cradle.
Piles of similar creatures lay in broken heaps here and there, clear signs of the intruders prior to us - Talbot, Tusker and whoever else had entered this secretive place.
As we stepped out onto the floor, there was a whirring sound, a beam of light trailing each of us before a hatch in the ceiling opened, projecting the image of three women and one male figure. The women faded, the male figure seemingly compared with that of another, similar one. Both dark-haired, human in build but one of them more muscular, armoured, his hair a little shorter. Someone familiar… someone, it soon became quite apparant, decidedly unwelcome.
Whirr, whoosh... the figures suspended from roof and walls shifted, activated. Set metallic feet upon the ground, lifted giant axes - and attacked. One wave, two, three while we tried to eliminate every little likeness between Artemis and Talbot.
He dropped his cloak, tied back his hair, but the mechanical creatures kept coming - until, to a sudden fit of giggles, the idea struck me: gender bending!
'Arty! Stuff your shirt with socks or something!'
He grinned faintly, rolled up his cloak and made an impressively vast false bosum out of it - and the whirring stopped, the hatches closed. No more resistance now, and in the sudden stillness we noticed movement of a different, more subtle kind.
A flutter of black feathers, a strangled little caw. A raven, tossed carelessly upon the pile of broken constructs. It was still alive... but when we came closer, we noticed it too was mechanical. But only in part. Like the soldiers I tried so hard not to think of, the raven was half organic, attached to the ceiling with a fraying wire. It lived, but only barely.
The organic part seemed unharmed, but the metallic bits were fading in power, fizzling and dying. Artemis managed to fuse new magic into it, and while the wire broke, the raven itself seemed much envigourated, landing on his shoulder to enthusiastically preen and pick at his hair.
Quite unlike the soldiers, the raven seemed its own individual being. A familiar of our dualistic mages, Godfrey and Godfreya perhaps? It seemed clever, tilting its head and listening as we asked it: 'Where did the bad man go?'
'Quork!', cried the raven and flew off to the far side of the room, pecking insistantly at the right one out of a set of twin metal doors, locked with the same type of metallic wires as elsewhere in the structure around us. Without our top locksmith, I took to the task instead, musing for a moment before testing a few different combinations of wire switches. This one goes there and this... humm.. looks like it fits.. here...
The door swung open before us... and in stepping through, I half expected the abyss of darkness, the laughters left and right. Instead, a curious chamber that appeared the heart of the structure.
Two pedistals, with two sets of mirrors behind them, runic markings covering the walls in differering patterns. To the right, swirly, haphazard while to the right, square, gridlike and symmetrical.
In the floor, a singular line had been drawn between the two halves, but the gridlike pattern had begun to creep past it, subsuming the chaotic whirls. The pedistal to the right seemed dead, devoid of magic, but the left still glowed a dull red, seeming to be fading. Both pedistals had a slot carved into their surface, large enough to fit a big gem. And both slots, to no surprise, were empty.
The raven fluttered over to the left pedistal, cawed and pecked at it as if to say: 'this is what the man took'. Leena shifted into a falcon, tried to speak to the raven and got the following message, in quirky, stuttering raven tongue:
'All gone, all gone - halfling, man, no more. Before, man, woman, no more. Then halfling, man. Now man, man,'
The magic in the room seemed inactive, disconnected somehow. The balance between the two sides all thrown out of whack, broken. 'Can we fix it somehow?', we asked the raven.
'Connect', it replied, pecking at Arty's hair. 'Take me, take me, can try get back'.
The raven's knowledge, such as it might be, did not stretch past these brief words, and it soon became distracted by the sorceror's hair anew, pecking and tugging. We took another look around the room, studying the mirrors more closely this time - and spied a figure within, faint but visible when one focused. A man, screaming...
Just then, I felt it again - the silent scream, the flash of red.
The man wore neat and symmetrical robes, with a perfectly even number of wands and scrollcases on his person - but he screamed, held his face and ears in pain in unison with the throbbing pulses of red, flashing through my head, around the pedistal.
When my vision cleared, I suddenly saw another figure replace that of the first, if only for a moment - dark hair, cold cruel eyes.
Talbot Anderson. Was he trying to assert his will over that of Godfrey, crush what little essence of the mage remained within the gem? Is it possible the gems were soul jars of some sort, that Godfrey's spirit actually lived within and had tried to reach out to me through the red light visions?
The right side was dead, the magic gone - but when Leena attempted to fit what she referred to as a Chaos Shard, a wildly swirling gemstone, shifting in all colours of the rainbow, something glimpsed in those mirrors too.
A woman, much akin to the man in the left-hand mirror but his opposite: uneven robes, odd numbers of wands, her hair in disarray. And then, flickering past in aching briefness... a halfling woman, bubbly, cheery smile turned towards us with equal shares mischief and wonder. Aesso...
The Chaos Shard didn't quite fit, the magic around us reacting as if attacked, lashing out in bursts of red, wires flailing. The reaction was worse still when we attempted to fit it into the 'orderly' side, testing to see if we might flood the system and cut Talbot's power off at the core.
The structure's in-built defences seemed to kick in, forcing us to abandon the attempt and move on to explore the left-hand door in the main chamber.
The Giantspires - Clocks and Clouds
We ran, stumbled through snow and skidded across ice, the uniform stomp of booted military feet slowly fading behind us. Deeper into the Giantspire peaks, in unknown terrain now.
Finally it seemed as though our persuers stopped, appearing to turn around. A hazy glimpse of the renegade army, disappearing into the distance. I rested my hands on my knees, gasped for air and began to cry anew.
Stop it Isolde, stop it. This isn't helping!
But I couldn't stop, not completely. I bit back the sobs, willed the tears to dry but was still shaking, still reliving the scenes we'd fled, been unable to stop from playing out. We all just stopped, huddled into a small shelter from the wind, a jagged outcrop of rock, trying to collect ourselves.
Alright… there's no turning back, no changing what's done but we were still alive. There were still options available, things we could do to fight back. Option one: teleport back to the city immediately, report the events to Del'rosa, warn everyone. But the soldiers that had gotten away - dear gods, say they really had gotten away, were safely en route home - they could do that too.
We were here, temporarily away from persuers. Why not try to learn more? If we could find the place I'd first seen in my vision, the high snowy slope where Talbot must've found the gem..
We rested a while, spoke and tried to make sense of the peculiar magic at work, while inside of my head, there was still flashes of red, the silent screams at Talbot's use of the gem's powers. Planar magic and transmutation. Okay - what is the source of the first - can we break it down, determine that much?
Mechanus, the plane of machines, of clockwork, cogs and wheels and order, artificial intelligence. But what we'd seen wasn't orderly, it was deformed, twisted... like the sprawling mesh of wires I'd seen bleeding down from the College's roof, consuming, transforming the lounge.
Something nagged at my mind, an old academic debate, the sort I'd never payed much attention to but nevertheless encountered in bardic circles.
Clocks and Clouds - different notions of the structure, the interpretation of reality as either predictable, logical and orderly, or fleeting, ephemeral and beyond our ability to grasp or fully comprehend. Wispy, soaring like a cloud...
Walking on clouds, in Aesso's world, brought into being through the magic of the rod and her own wild imagination. Clouds, engraved into my mask's inside, the symbol of the Night Parade. Was any of this relevant, making sense to what was going on?
As we mused, the snowfall ceased for a moment, vision clearing up ahead to reveal a darker something atop a high slope ahead. Magic emananated from the area...
Ontop of the rise, a familiar sight - the ancient sprawl I'd seen when I stepped through the second door, the very site I'd seen Talbot enter...
It looked different from the one where the soldiers had been transformed, stable and less twisted. The snow had been cleared away at some point, with but a thin fresh layer coating the metal wires and tubes. A metallic doorway was visible, a bit down into the sprawl.
No sign of movement, no screams inside my head. We took a collective breath, and stepped through the heavy metal doorway to a winding, spiralling staircase leading down.
The Giantspires - A Sprawl Mechanical
Sally Williams awaited us outside Del'rosa's quarters, dejected and shaken by her own actions, expecting nothing less than to be punished for it. Disobeying orders, going against Talbot, betraying him… she was anguished, but we pushed her harder still. Where had Talbot taken the army? What was their true objective?
'You're asking me to betray him again?', asked Sally with tears glistening in her red-rimmed eyes. 'I saw you there, on the snowy slope with the steel plates and wires sticking up from the ground', I noted, watching her face. She resisted only for a moment, mumbling dejectedly, confirming that my vision had been truthful - they'd found something in the Giantspires, the mysterious wide-spread sprawl of mechanics, but while Talbot and Tusker had entered it, the rest had but chartered the outlines. That fit with what I'd seen, and I nodded.
But if that was their target, what did Talbot need so many men for? Were they going to excavate the whole ruins? 'Did they have any shovels with them, Sally?' A troubled shake of her head, a knit of her brow. 'I don't know anything more than that, but I can mark the spot out for you on a map', she concluded, resuming some of her former poise. Having her usher and boot us out the door to avoid any tipping of our hand even brought the tiniest bit of satisfaction back in her eyes, and we left to prepare to follow the army's multibooted footprints.
Our team was small, no more than four in total for the entire length of the journey to follow: myself, Leena, Sheserai, Artemis and Atel, the latter two alternating with Atel beginning the trip with us and Artemis teleporting in later, having consulted with General Del'rosa on a few arcane matters of defence.
The Defender army had cut a wide swathe through the forest and up the slopes of the Giantspires, easily followed though we ran into scattered bands of orcs running in the other direction, as well as the local worgs and winter wolves. Progress was relatively fast, but the stragglers caused our small group considerable pains until we came to the orcish caverns leading up to the snowier peaks beyond.
Here, the signs of the army's passing were much more vivid. They'd not only slain all the orcs, but put heads on spikes, bodies on display for all the rest to see: this is what happens when you mess with Peltarch. I'm certain Talbot had whipped the army into a victorious frenzy by the time we finally came upon them, past the first uncovered sprawl of mechanical debris.
'Transmutation magic', Sheserai declared, to the quizzical nod of Artemis, who studied the remains with much curiosity, adding that it was also planar in nature. But we couldn't linger, there were voices near and one booming out above the rest - Talbot Anderson.
We found a series of noochs and crannies, snuck closer to hear.
On a high ledge overlooking a large swathe of the sprawl stood Talbot, flanked by the weaselly Carl Tusker and mutton-chopped Jean Taschereau. The army awaited below, massed before the dig-site, replete with magical glyphs, planar inscriptions and symbols, gadgetry and wiring. Something wrenched inside me, an instinctive feeling of dread.
Talbot's loud and compelling voice rang out:
'Troops! Soldiers! Tonight we've crushed the orcish menace and discovered what it was they'd been hiding all along. They were AFRAID! Afraid we'd FIND IT! When Del'rosa ordered my regiment here, they attacked in full force and swore revenge!
Now, it's safe for us to delve below - we'll discover its secrets, learn its powers. March forwards unto the mechanical wonder and explore every section of it!'
My dread turned to a churning, sickening maelstrom of fear as the first division marched dutifully onto the sprawling mesh of wires and plates, soon followed by the next and the next after that. We agonized, knowing something was terribly wrong but uncertain if we dared reveal ourselves, so vastly outnumbered and alone.
'I sense magic', Sheserai mumbled, 'transmutation and illusion..'
Oh no.. no no NO! There's 'definitely' a reason Talbot's standing well above, removed from proximity to the sprawl - it's dangerous, he's using the soldiers to...
A silent scream in my head, piercing my consciousness with sudden sharpness as Talbot raised his hand, a glimmer of red coming from within its firm grasp. The gem...
The first solders had reached the center of the sprawl, joined in inexorable and steadfast rythm by more when it started to writhe underneath their feet. Subtly at first, billowing like marshy ground, but then snaking tendrils of wire and steel started flailing, snaring legs, wrapping around limbs. Like that first vision of mine... I'd screamed at the encircling wires, made them go away...
And I screamed now, as loud as I could, desperate to be heard:
'FALL BACK! By order of General Del'rosa, FALL BACK NOW! RUN!!'
Screams erupted, the flailing wires and circuits tightening their grip, beginning to 'insert' themselves - piercing through skin, through skull and bone. Panic rippled through the ranks, but some, oh some heeded my cry and instinctively followed the order while beside me, Leena unleashed powerful bursts of lightning, frying the red buzzing sprawl of circuitry, releasing some its victims.
But those that remained...
They screamed and twitched, hung like helpless puppets in the metallic wires that probed and latched onto them, inserting plates and reddish circuitry. The sight has etched itself unto my mind's eye and no amount of trying can erase it - the screams from outside, the silent scream within, a red haze before my eyes.
Talbot's 'doing' this - he's subjecting the soldiers to this torture on purpose, hurting them, transforming them...! Get that gem AWAY from him!
A rush of air as Artemis launched himself up through the air to land on the high ledge above our heads. Talbot's voice, livid at our intervention, ordering our prompt execution. The twang of Tusker's crossbow, a poison bolt slotted into place but Taschereau hesitates, seeing Artemis.
He's not like the rest. Not quite, but not quite different enough either. Not enough to do anything to stop the massacre below. Taschereau stays his hand, but Tusker fires the crossbow, forcing Artemis to make a quick retreat to the ground.
Meanwhile, the wild scramble off the sprawl continues, roughly half the army managing an escape - those who had yet to march, and those at the outer edges, just about scraping by. But within, now released from their wires, buzzing with red circuitry... Talbot's own army.
An army of mindless automatons, clockwork soldiers at his beck and call. He raises his hand, sneers and repeats the order while inside my head, the silent scream reaches a crescendo:
In perfect unison, the modified soldiers turn our way, swords raised, eyes dead of empathy or independent thought. They are ordered, they will execute.
Artemis and Leena attempt to fry their circuitry to release them as the first wave attacks, but it's no use. We're vastly outnumbered and above our heads, the wretched weasel Tusker fires off a bolt that sets off an avalanche of ice and snow, blocking our escape. We must run, but we can't go back the way we came.
'Go!', shouts an unknown Defender soldier, one of those who managed to climb onto the ledge where we stood. 'We'll cover your retreat!'
Sweaty strands of dark blonde hair plastered to his brow underneath the helm. Pale blue eyes in a face no older than my own, plain but earnest, with a light scattering of freckles across a broad nose. He won't survive, I know it and he knows it it as our eyes meet for that one brief moment. What is it that gives men such courage, to make a stand they know is hopeless? As I turn with one last look across my shoulder, I see a sword biting into the soldier's side, yet somehow he stands firm, shouts again.
And we ran.
A Despot's Design
It didn't take a miracle - it took a disaster. I 'knew' something bad was coming, had been building for some time. I was forewarned but was still too slow to put the pieces together, too cautious to take risks and learn what I needed to in time. Too slow to save them.
The nightmarish scenes flash before my eyes whenever I close them, whenever I hear that silent scream in my head, reverberating, throbbing red like a migraine.
I have to break this down, tell the tale in steps and lucid narrative, fasten it to paper and leave it there because I can't, I can't let the horror of what's already taken place keep me from working towards making it better. It's ~got~ to be possible, it just has to.
Talbot made his move.
During a promotion ceremony for a certain Jean Taschereau - the very same man Talbot had pushed and twisted my arm about crediting to get said promotion 'for the sake of his wife and kids' - General Frederic Del'rosa was shot with a poison bolt and rushed off to the infirmary in critical condition.
'Orcs!', cried Talbot, the likely suspects having just a week or so prior attacked the gates in vicious force. Using his reputation as a man who gets things done, a war hero and a leader, Talbot declared himself interrim General in Del'rosa's stead, immediately declaring war on the orcs.
Once he made his move, Talbot wasted no time. It's clear to me now that he'd been planning this for some time, and while I'm trying very hard not to drown in self-blame, I can't help but feel I should've been able to get closer, done more to stop what was to come.
Talbot gathered the army - nearly 'all' of the Defenders, minus the Cerulean Knights (thank the stars for that) and one of his own three regiments, that of ever dutiful Sally Williams. They were just about ready to march out when I stumbled out of the College at the crack of dawn, woken by the stir and rumours swirling.
I snuck close as the march began, troupes pouring out with determined boot stomps, ready to wreak havoc on the scapegoated orcs. Spying Talbot and Sally Williams a ways off, I managed to eavesdrop on their conversation and felt my blood run cold.
Talbot: 'You know what to do, Interrim Captain. Don't you worry. We'll be back sooner than you think and I'll expect a warm welcome.'
Sally: 'Of course, General. We'll keep the city safe and do our best to rehabilitate Del'rosa.'
Talbot: 'Don't let any civilians give you a hard time. Who knows what nasty tricks they might play.'
Talbot had ordered maximum security around City Hall, and for no one to be allowed near Del'rosa (noticably not called the general) and his two 'hand-picked' physicians. Alarm bells were ringing through every fibre of my being, and I had to try something. Sally Williams, for all her staunch loyalty to Talbot, for all her cold disciplinary attitude, is not like the rest of his gang of loyalist thugs. She's a true soldier and, I knew for witnessing it firsthand, distinctly not a fan of the underhanded style that Talbot secretly employs.
I had to tug the wool from over her eyes, had to get her to listen. It didn't start off well. 'Garibaldi', Sally sneered, 'have you come here to gloat and poke fun?' What I said in response, I cannot recall with clarity, only that I argued as if my life depended on it, trying desperately to sow some little seed of doubt in her mind, enough to at least get her to check on Del'rosa personally.
'You're a healer yourself, aren't you Sally?', I asked, pleadingly. 'Wouldn't it be prudent, extra diligent even, if you were to see how he was doing?' All my other arguments but this, she brushed away adamantly but now I saw a flicker in her eyes, an uncertainty mingled with annoyance. 'Very well', muttered Sally Williams, 'if it'll shut you up'.
We entered a muted City Hall, made our way through to Del'rosa's chambers. Sally bid me wait outside and I did - until I heard raised voices from inside. Reluctant to have Sally cross enough to throw me out, I turned invisible to slip inside and find her arguing with a beefy swordswoman with a dockside drawl.
'I'm your superior officer and you will let me pass', said an irate Sally, while the swordswoman leaned lazily on the blade of her pommel, all cocky and smug in noting her orders came from Talbot directly. 'An' there's nothin' you can do 'bout it, unless ya wanna be defyin' the general's orders.'
Not good. Not good at ~all~. This wasn't a physician, this was a prison guard and I murmured as much to Sally, unseen. She flinched, grit her teeth and agreed. The woman and her sister had both transferred from Tusker's regiment to hers, just days before the poisoning took place.
'You know something's not right here, Sally', I whispered insistantly. And she did, I could see her struggling. She had her orders - she had ~always~ followed orders but what if those orders were misleading? What if the right, the good, the 'correct' thing to do was something else? What if the real general was at risk, the city and all that she'd sworn to protect?
Sally's eyes strained, filled with tears as she fought the decision through, grit her teeth and insisted one more time to be let through - or else. 'Or else what?', laughed the swordswoman, bragging how she was the stronger fighter of the two and would hand Sally her ass and deliver her in chains to Talbot when he returned.
'Ye'll be courtmarshalled, bitch!', said the beefy girl and took a swing. The fight was on, and I could tell it wasn't just bravado - Talbot had set his best fighters to the task, in case his orders were questioned. But unbeknownst to the fighting wench, Sally had a little helper…
I sang and I screamed, I hasted and healed, and though the fighting was taxing, Sally persevered and kicked the door to the General's bedside open. There, the brawny sister of the first guard awaited, startled and angry. 'Whot th'hells are ya doin' 'ere Williams? Talbot's gonna have yer head fer this!'
This woman was tougher still, and before I could intervene, before I could try anything, had launched herself at Sally with sudden and deadly force, slamming her head hard against the bedpost. Blood spattered, Sally sagging and sinking to her knees. No no NO! You have to get up or all is lost!
I tapped Sally's forehead, mumbled a spell of healing and shuddered with relief as she got to her feet. 'Th'hells?', said the brawny thug. 'Ya got someone in 'ere with ya?'. Well, at least she's smarter than her sister, I thought to myself, wincing and slapping all the healing I could muster onto Sally as she fought the clearly stronger fighter without backing an inch.
Finally I was out of healing, and the swordswoman swung wildly at the air around me in search. One last trick.. this had better do it. I turned ethereal, grabbed my shield and rapier and stuck the thuggish wench with the pointy end. Take THAT!
My efforts, feeble in martial prowess though they may be, took the pressure off Sally enough for her to land a solid hit and finally the goonish gal hit the floor. PHEW!
We rushed to Del'rosa's side, found the General pale and unmoving, looking in a very bad state indeed. I played my flute of arcane mending, one note and then another, but it gave little but temporary relief. The poison, whatever it was, must be something beyond the ordinary. We needed an expert, someone skilled in herbal lore and medicin. Someone... someone like... oh gods, let Leena be loitering at the Commons today too, please please!
Gruff, shaken but determined, Sally Williams sent me off to fetch help, under strict orders not to be seen. What we'd done could be construed as high treason - and if Del'rosa died, we were in some serious trouble.
'Don't die, don't die, don't die', my heart sang out with each step I took through City Hall, dodging this guard and that, patrolling soldiers and watchful eyes. Invisibility, my friend, my savior...
Out the gates, closing them fast before anyone noticed, to the Commons, please be there... and she was! Relief flooded through me and I hurried up towards the tree under which she and the usual suspect Artemis slothed about, whispered my errand urgently and bid them follow discreetly, unseen.
There was some commotion, suspicion of intruders as the gates opened anew upon their entrance, but both helpers found their way into Del'rosa's chambers. Leena set about concocting a cure while Sally distracted the troupes outside.
'Shit', muttered the druidess. 'This is some badass stuff... basilisk blood and spider venom mixed. He'll slowly petrify...' Now it made horrific, chilling sense. The guards posted, the orders to keep everyone out. Del'rosa was meant to turn to stone slowly, while the venom poisoned every vital organ inside. Depetrification would result in his inevitable death, blamed on the orcs or even the poor mage casting the magic.
Leena cursed and mumbled, rooting through her pack and mixing things in obvious haste - there wasn't much time, Del'rosa was fading with each moment and his fingers were already stiff and grey. She ground up a stone of fleshiness, mixed it with an antidote potion, water, herbs and such, applying the cure externally intially, then having him sip the diluted rest.
Please live, oh please oh ~please~...
A gasp, a shudder and groan as Del'rosa's eyes blinked open. The words he'd tried to utter with such difficulty now rolled off his tongue and the dashing General sat up straight, attempted to get out of the bed at once.
'That rat-bastard slime-sucking weasel...!'
Clearly, Del'rosa was under no illusions as to who was really responsible for his condition. Things moved fast, once his health was restored, and the task now appointed us was two-fold: discover what Sally Williams knows and where her true loyalties lie - can she be trusted, can she be counted on to root out the rest of the Talbot loyalists remaining in the city? And secondly - follow the army, find out what Talbot is up to. He'd found something, Del'rosa said, up in the Giantspires. Something he had been ordered to leave be, but clearly had other plans for.
I saw it flash before my eyes just then, a sudden silent scream ringing in my head. Red tubing, black wiring, steel plates and buzzing mechanics, a sinisterly glowing red core.
The sprawl begins to flail and writhe as though in pain or in a panic, then stops just as suddenly. The twin laughters again - reversed this time around? Had left turned right and right turned left? It was difficult to say, but like before the raucous one dies out, leaving the other to let out a gasp. It bleeds into a sob, and then all is silence.
Talbot Through the Looking Glass
Another vision, this one striking me as I was walking up the stairs towards the lobby. Suddenly the light faded, a flickering reddish gloom filling the corridor and the mechanical, electrically buzzing sprawl of tubing and wiring flashed before my eyes, leaking down from the ceiling to pool across the floor.
The twin laughters again, echoing around me until one chokes and dies out, the other gasping - then the room changes, realigns, the haphazard and almost organic sprawl turning crystalline, strict and orderly.
Another metal door appears, directly infront of me. With Elvadriel's urging fresh in mind, I try to be cautious, to find out what I'm dealing with. Detect magic reaffirms my gut feeling - the magic is the same as before. But now I'm certain: it's intentional, targeted towards me.
Again, the door opens without my intervention, sliding up invitingly. Inside, nothing but inpenetrable darkness, but as I step through there's no laughter, no sound at all. Dead silence is followed by a blindingly bright white light, and then I'm 'elsewhere'.
I see a snowy flattened slope, the landscape stretching out into the distance, blurred by the falling snow that all but covers the ancient sprawl of tubings and wire on the ground, stretching out as far as the eye can see.
There's flickering images in the distance, vague outlines of humans approaching the sprawl, starting to clear away the snow and debris, pointing and talking soundlessly. I get the distinct feeling that I'm not really here - I'm but a fly on the wall, silently witnessing a scene that may already have played out but clearly holds significance.
I put my mask on, focus on the moving figures. With a start, I realize that they're not just vaguely familiar - I know precisely who they are, at the very least one of them. Dark, short-cropped hair, broad shoulders and cruel, cold eyes, gleaming now with curiosity and calculation - Defender Captain Talbot Anderson.
Talbot, the constant thorn in my side ever since I'd refused his thinly veiled demand of credit given to his company for the destruction of Beeble Ravelzilch - his goons had arrested Atel and Leena, threatened to do the same to Sarah just for being a hin bard living in Aesso's old room, summoned me from my bed in the dead of night for a meeting… and though I have no proof as of yet, I'm certain that the blame for Christina's tears of frustration at a veritable avalanche of paperwork can be traced back to that same source. Talbot, or possibly Garric Hemway put my home through a bureaucratic version of the hells.
And now here he is, assessing the mystic remains of the electrical sprawl as though looking for another stepping stone to power. Or looking, in fact, for something specific? Talbot issues an order and a couple of his goons start jogging off, further and further into the distance along the edge of the sprawl. He approaches the point where I'm standing, and then with a rush, I'm through the door, back in the corridor leading up to the lobby. The tubes and wires fade, the light returns to normal but my questions remain, buzzing and flitting inside my head.
Talbot, everywhere I turn I see him or someone working for him. Talbot, insistantly seeking Aesso, the order for her arrest still all too actively persued when neither Ceruleans nor guards have pressed charges. Why?
Did he 'find' something, in that vast wasteland of ancient wires? Something powerful and potent, something, perhaps, belonging to Godfrey Gostrun? When I look back upon my first encounter with Talbot, he was insufferably bossy, yes, cold and hard, yes - but much more careful in his approach, cautious even.
I had guessed it was his ever more bloated regiment that caused the bolder moves, that he deemed the time was right to push - but perhaps there's more to it still. Is there in fact a proverbial red string that ties this story together?
I need to find that site, find out what he learnt or took from it. There's one person who might know, but I'm extremely hesitant to trust him. And I'm all too certain that he'll make me pay dearly for it. The blonde woman though - she might be different and I'm fairly sure I saw her on the site itself. But for her to be convinced to tell me, that would take a miracle of some sorts...
Godfrey / Godfreya
Horgrim Blackweave, still on the run from the vengeful Silvia the Fey, had temporarily sought refuge in the mage's tower in the Rawlins. We had in fact seen to that ourselves, springing the ogre mage from a potentially tricky situation, and I visited soon after the first red gem vision with the naive hope of a friendly greeting.
But Horgrim's hopes had been dashed one to many times of late - Silvia's wrath coupled with Sarah's refusal to even speak to him seemed to have sunk the mage into a dark mood, ripe with bitterness and self-pity. It took all my convincing to get him to even hear me out, let alone help, though he had but a few weeks earlier spoken of the red gem with great concern.
I have to fix this, somehow. It's strange, but out of all the dire, world-, limb- and life-threatening situations I've found myself in of late, it's still this sort of thing that upsets me the most: friends, people I care about being hurt and at odds with one another.
I want to wave a magic wand, make everyone smile and miraculously get along again, but I'm not Aesso. Nor is Sarah - I had in fact just tried to soothe her concerns, assuring her that she won't be compared to Aesso, won't be expected to be anything but who and what she is, in her own right. Even if I sorely wish she could find it in her to see past the smelly ogre, the scary necromancer in Horgrim and recognize the person who still holds such boundless love in his heart.
Sigh. Perhaps in time, things will improve. I'm just not so sure that time is on our side in this matter.
For now, a crotchety Horgrim noted that most of his notes had been lost to fire, with but one item of interest remaining - a book, bearing the image of a robed mage with a feminine figure, weilding a rod in each hand. Both rods had a stone set atop them, a glistening jewelled pommel, but when Elvadriel and Atel joined us in discussing the subject, there was some controversy.
'Ah yes, Godfrey Gostrun', stated Elvadriel confidently, while Atel shook her head. 'No, no, Godfreya! A sorceress obsessed with chaos.'
'No no no! Godfrey, entirely a fan of order and logic!'
But what if it's both? What if Godfrey and Godfreya were both aspects of the same crazed mage, split in two as my vision suggested, each with their own red-gemmed rod? What if … what if there was balance to this duality, now overthrown - what if Godfreya and the chaos she represented had died out, like the laughter in my vision?
Was this the cause of my vision? The chaotic, wild sprawl of wiring...
With no small amount of alarm, Elvadriel detected magic lingering around me, even several days after my experience - wild magic, so potent that it had still not dissipated entirely. I must be careful, she insisted, but I don't know how - I've no control over any of this.
Jonni, Horgrim pointed out, has studied the red gem through Legend Lore. Perhaps it's time to attempt to speak with another blonde Cerulean, and with any luck compare notes.
With a book resting on my knees, I was cozily snuggled into my favourite couch in the lounge, deeply immersed in my reading when the room suddenly began to transform around me - peculiar devices sprouted, clips of steel and snaking wires grew, bled down from the ceiling to form a chaotic sprawl of buzzing, reddish electrically charged metal all around me. The light dimmed, reddish and murky, while a large metal doorway formed right infront of me on the couch.
I could sense it, the feeling reinforced as I slid my mask over my eyes - this was no dream, but some manner of illusory magic at play, and a familiar one at that. I recognized this magic, it had coursed through my tiny pixie self as I sat astride Aesso's Rod of Artistic Wonder…
The doorway loomed before me, shrouded in mystery, temptingly unknown. A whirlwind of thoughts inside my head - ought I attempt to dispel the curious vision before me, was it but another residual effect, a transference from the rod's destruction - or was this deliberate somehow? Was someone, something, trying to send me a message?
I took a cautious step forwards, pondering. Without having touched the handle, the door swung silently open before me. Inside its frame, an inpenetrable dark abyss, but all around me the sprawl of electrical tubing spread out, consuming the lounge entirely.
I had to know. The destruction of the red gem, of all three of them, that's on me now, on everyone of Aesso's friends. If something's wrong, then we have to set it right because she can't. Aesso is out.
I took a deep breath and stepped into the darkness, to the strange and alien feeling of being split in two. Laughter around me, to the left and to the right, but even with the mask I couldn't pierce the blackness, couldn't see anyone. But I heard it clearly - a hearty, throaty laughter to my left, rash and rapacious, gradually amplifying. To my right side, a brooding, musing, austere chuckle, more controlled and subdued.
The rising crescendo from the left was cut off, died out suddenly. From the right came a gasp - then all was silence and I stepped outside the frame, on the other side of the doorway. The wild sprawl of sparking metal wire withdrew, the lounge reforming, reclaiming its familiar shape around me.
In the aftermath of the Mystery of the Eye, it soon became apparant that while one chapter of the story had been closed, the consequences of Aesso's last performance stretched further still.
All three gems in Aesso's Rod of Artistic Wonder, blue, green and red, were powerfully enchanted objects in and of themselves. Their destruction had effects, caused ripples and ramifications yet to be fully seen. The green gem, the dreamjade, played a key role in the case of Beeble Ravelzilch, the Eye of our former mystery.
The ruby had once belonged to a mad sorceror. In time, the Deepwood Court claimed it for Aesso's instrument project, the red gem fuelling the rod's link to the arcane. Horgrim Blackweave, in the wake of Aesso's first catastrophical performance, had been the ruby's guardian for many years and was well familiar with its properties. It was to the ogre mage that I turned, when the first ripples of red reached my conscious mind, on an otherwise ordinary afternoon in the Bardic College's lounge.