Heather Blackthorne woke screaming in the dark. Motes of terror, hot and blue, leapt from her skin and covered her bed in glimmering blue light. She gasped for breath, clutching her sleeping furs to her breast, shuddering as she clenched down on her own voice.
“It whispers inside you.”
Heather’s body made a simultaneous effort to leap up in defense, cower in fright under her blankets, and ward itself against magic, all while choking on a yelp of surprise. The end result was that she leapt from her bed, snatched up her mace from beside the bed, and flung her covers up in the air between her and the door.
She fell into a crouching fighting stance, her mace glowing a furious red before the blankets and furs had finished falling to the floor. The light resolved the silhouette of a man, seated in the corner of her cell. One ghastly white eye reflected back the light of her mace, the color shifted by cataract into a deep, shimmering purple.
The figure on the chair in the corner of her cell lifted a hand from his staff, in a relaxed gesture.
“Be at peace, Knight Blackthorne. I am not an agent of the enemy.”
He kept his voice low, his tone both stern and calm. Heather fed her anger into her mace, and it flared into a brighter white, illuminating her room and the intruder.
It was Jiraat, the spirit-walker who’d danced the Guiding for Major Weathers. His pink scar across his throat, and his ghastly dead eye, were both revealed in the brighter light. He squinted at the glare.
When five heartbeats had passed, and the man had neither lunged at her nor flung magic her way, Heather slowly lowered her mace. She kept a firm grip on it, however, and glared hard at the man.
I scream and then I’m pulling enough magic that everyone in the barracks should know it, she thought. Nobody’s come to investigate– right. By now they’re used to that from me, every morning. Damn it. She gave the handle of her mace a knuckle-popping squeeze.
“What are you doing in my room without my permission? How dare you. You’re lucky I don’t slap your head off your shoulders,” she snarled.
“I am here on the Lieutenant’s direction. I was called here,” said Jiraat. “Your duty is to crimes? Mine is to the spirits. One whispers within you, and calls me here. Vital, the moving blood.”
Heather frowned, and then shuddered. “You’re in league with that thing?” she said, her mace raising a little higher.
“No. That thing, Detective, is a spirit. It has a name, Vital. It is the attendant spirit of the chief surgeon of Frostmoor Fortress.”
“Well then tell it that it can get the hell out of my dreams,” she snarled. “It’s got no business in me or my dreams. I didn’t die in that mine, it’s got no business in me.”
“That’s what I’m here to do,” said Jiraat. He reached into his belt, and slowly extracted a dagger in a plain leather scabbard. Heather tensed, until he reversed the small blade, and offered it to her, handle-first.
“What’s this for?”
“For you to make a very small cut on yourself with, Detective,” said Jiraat. “I spoke to Vital as you slept. Once you make a path, it will leave you, to return from whence it came.”
Heather blew out a breath, and plucked up the dagger. “Saints damn it,” she said. “Hold on. I’ll light a lamp.”
She lifted the lamp-glass and touched her mace to the wick of the lamp, the hot silvered steel setting it alight in moments. In the warm light, Jiraat’s face was softened. His bald head and sharp nose and ghastly pale left eye weren’t any less sinister, but the spirit-walker sat with a stern dignity.
He reminds me of the stuffiest university professors, she thought. Heather sat back down on her bed, and pulled her spilled blankets over her nightclothes. She hung her mace up off the corner of the bed, ignoring the faint curl of smoke the still-hot mace head left as it charred a black spot on the wood.
“You care to explain why you felt the need to let yourself into my room unannounced?”
“I informed the Church staff on duty that I was visiting once again. They said not to disturb your rest. So I have spent my time in conversation with Vital.”
Heather glared at him over her blankets. “And you say there’s some of that spirit inside me. Even though I didn’t die, and I don’t remember any pact.”
“You do not have to die to pact with a spirit,” replied Jiraat. “Not after the first time. Most spirit-walkers retain only one attendant spirit, but they may earn the favor of others. But in this case, no, you did not die, nor are you pacted. Part of my concern in this affair is that this part of the spirit is physically manifest, and trapped inside you.”
“The blood. The– the writhing blood, we all swallowed and choked on. I was sick, we coughed and vomited all of that up.”
“Not all of it, I am afraid. Like any poison, purging helps with the dose, but not in the absolute. Some remained, and remains trapped inside you.”
“And in my dreams, I think,” Heather said. “I thought it was just my usual nightmare, but there was blood everywhere, absolutely everywhere.”
Jiraat frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t have an explanation for that. Yes, a spirit can touch dreams, but they would normally steer clear of them, and they would not be able to speak to you in your dreams if you had not died. Not clearly, anyway. Did Vital speak to you, in any meaningful way?”
Heather slowly shook her head. “No. There was words, but they were all metaphor, or gibberish, or nonsensical repetition. Like in the mines.”
The spirit-walker relaxed. “Well then. You did not die in the mines, and you would remember your pact, and know it. You would hear its voice often, and converse with it, as easily as I speak with you now. If that is not the case, then the matter is simple: Some of it is trapped, physically, inside of you. If we set it free, it will leave your dreams be.”
“What about the– others, who were there with me?”
“They’re next on my list to visit. Would you ask them to send word to me, so that I may help?”
Heather blew out a long breath. “Yes, that I can do.” She stared hard at the man, trying to suss out any lingering malice on his part, but her gut sat easy. He might be creepy, but he’s in the business of helping the dead rest easy. If he meant to hurt me, he could have done it in my sleep already, she thought.
“Alright, Jiraat? How does a spirit get trapped, physically? I thought they could conjure or dismiss their bodies at any time,” Heather said.
“Ordinarily they can. Vital does not understand it either. There’s a lot going on in that fortress that Vital does not understand. Mortal life is as confusing for a spirit as their realms are to us, I’m afraid.”
So, not much of value I can learn there. Saints damn it. Heather drew the knife from the scabbard. It was simple hammered iron, sharpened to an edge, the sort she might have found at her mother’s ranch beside her fork at the dinner table. She made a point of running the blade through the flame of the lamp, both to clean it and in case of poison.
“How big of a cut, and where?” she asked.
“Not large at all. Somewhere easy for it to flow to, with large vessels. Veins would be best, so there isn’t bleeding everywhere. A small cut to the top of your foot would suffice.”
“Before I do,” Heather interjected. “You said this spirit, Vital, was an attendant to the fortress surgeon. You’ve met it before, and this surgeon?”
“Yes. Doctor Francois Boulan. A good man, a good surgeon, and his spirit an excellent assistant. Vital’s animus is the flow of blood. I’m told not a single person in the fortress has suffered a stroke or heart attack since his arrival. Vital concerns itself with the proper flow of blood. Those who endure surgical treatment at their hands bleed a bit more, but the survival rate is excellent, and recovery times better. Francois is a kind man, and pleasant.”
“So what’s his attendant spirit doing flooding the mines, and trying to rip all the blood from anything it can reach?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Vital. This blood monster spirit. It must have hundreds of thousands of litres of blood to call its own, by now. Far more than the corpses could have had. Why’s it trying to take it from the living? Myself and the lord Goldbrace, and the Consul Sienna. It kept trying to trick us into bleeding. Frankly I’m not particularly inclined to go cutting myself for its sake again.”
Jiraat frowned a deep, puzzled frown. “That is very unlike Vital. Vital has always been single-minded, but Francois has always kept such misbehavior in check.”
“Well, Doctor Boulan is probably dead,” replied Heather. “Along with almost everyone else left in the fortress that isn’t a necromancer. So I don’t know that I’d call sucking the blood from a few hundred miners ‘misbehavior’, Mister Jiraat.”
Jiraat’s frown turned dark and stern. “I agree with you, Detective, though Vital’s presence implies that the doctor is alive, not dead.”
The spirit-walker leaned down, close to Heather’s feet, and spoke: “Flow, lubdub, hemological hierophant. Plasmatic reticulum hypotension, flow.”
Something crawled inside Heather’s right foot, and she gave her foot a kick, eyes opening wide. The veins on the top of her foot moved under her skin. “Oh Saints! That feels disgusting.”
“A cut then, please, Detective?” said Jiraat. “Vital is quite ready to leave.”
And I’m quite ready to have it leave, she thought. Flickers of sickly green flame, fuelled by her disgust, sprang from the dagger as she shuddered again. Quickly, she dipped the knife in against the top of her foot, and made a fast, small cut over the blue of a vein.
Blood writhed out like a living worm, tentacles of blood rising in miniature out of her body. She looked away to avoid being sick, and Jiraat’s hand reached down and plucked up the quivering clot-mass into his hand.
“Thrombus,” said Jiraat sternly, to the little mass of blackish-red in his hand. “Epithelial hementin! Burble venous leukemic phagocite!”
It sounds like he’s scolding it, Heather thought, staring at Jiraat. She pressed a corner of her sheet to the small cut on her foot, to staunch the trickle of blood.
The tiny mass in Jiraat’s hand quivered, and whispered back. The noise was too quiet to hear clearly, and even the spirit-walker had to lift the little mass of blood in his hand up to his ear to make out what it said in return.
He blinked owlishly at the mass, as it quivered and whispered, and Heather shuddered again at the reminder of the voice in the mines as it hunted and haunted them. I’m not sure I prefer this to my nightmare, now.
Questions and answers flowed between the stern spirit-walker and the small mass of blood in his hand, all of it incomprehensible gibberish to Heather. She recognized a few words, but they were just as often replaced by liquid, squelching noises in Jiraat’s mouth. The interchange took a minute, and then Jiraat looked up and her, and inclined his head.
“Vital regrets his zeal,” began Jiraat. “Like a child set loose without supervision in the larder, he found himself tasting and fell slowly into a frenzy. He says that the doctor’s soul has not passed the veil, but the blood inside him remains still. Vital does not understand this. Only that this time, when he sampled and tasted and flowed, Doctor Boulan did not correct or upbraid him. So he conveniently presumed that it was now allowed and correct.” Jiraat’s tone turned superbly arch as he glared down at the clot in his hand.
Heather stared hard at the little bloody mass. “So the doctor, he’s still alive, somehow, but the blood in him isn’t moving. Is he frozen, or maybe time magic could have been used to pause him?” Heather wondered.
“Vital does not know. If it were time magic, spirits are atemporal in a way, so I doubt Vital would notice. And the difference between alive and dead isn’t very distinct to a spirit that will never know mortality, Detective. Nuances like that are often lost on the spirits. However, Vital is grateful to be free of you. And now that someone has told him to behave himself, I believe he will. You said he was in the mines?”
“Yes. That’s where it found us, and tried to kill us.”
“Well, it wasn’t trying to kill you, Detective. Unfortunately, Vital doesn’t understand that liberating all of your blood from you so it could flow freely forever would kill you. Do you think Vital will be safe down in the mines?”
“Safe? Do I think a mass of blood will be safe? No, I don’t imagine anything or anyone is safe down in those mines with Vital there.”
“No, Detective, you misunderstand me. Will Vital be safe? From the ones who flung fire and venom at it?”
Heather folded her arms sullenly. “I suppose, if it stays in one of the middle shelters, there shouldn’t be any arsenic there. The mine elevator was destroyed, so I doubt the necromancer will be trying to go down into the mines anytime soon.”
This is ludicrous, Heather thought. This thing, this spirit, tried to kill me, and my team. It killed all the miners that were down there that day. You can’t hang a Spirit for murder, but that doesn’t mean that you can just treat it like some innocent force of nature.
“Jiraat,” said Heather. “I want this spirit punished for what it did. It murdered… killed all those miners. Don’t quibble about intent, or realization. Even if Vital can’t understand the difference between a dead person and a living one, aside from blood moving inside it? By now it knew that blood inside someone should stay inside.”
“Under most circumstances, you are correct,” said Jiraat. “But the punishing of a spirit is a difficult thing. It really can only be accomplished by a voluntary sacrifice on the part of the attendant spirit, or else carried out by other spirits inclined to spend the magic on the endeavor. The best I can offer, Detective, is that I will convene some spirits to which I am pacted, and ask them to act against the spirit’s animus.”
“Like a trial by jury.”
“More like a mob of his peers savagely beating him,” admitted Jiraat. “For spiritual values of a beating. It’s rudimentary, but it is the closest thing to justice I can arrange, and it will teach Vital not to repeat the behavior in the future.”
“Then do that,” snarled Heather. “If it was a person, he’d swing from the neck until dead.”
Jiraat shook his head. “You can’t truly kill a spirit, but you can diminish it. Vital will be diminished, for his behavior. It will take Vital a successful pact or more to restore what he will lose. Some spirits take that sort of misbehavior quite personally.”
Heather closed her eyes. “I don’t mean to be rude, Jiraat. I appreciate that you’re trying to help, but I want you to take that thing and get the hell out of my room, and never let me see it again. I do sincerely appreciate what you did for Weathers. There’s going to be a lot more Guidings needed.”
“Many more,” agreed Jiraat, inclining his head sorrowfully. “Thank you for assisting me in my duties, Detective. Call on me again if you require a spirit-walker.”
Fat chance of that, you creepy bastard, thought Heather to herself, as she watched him depart. Her foot itched and throbbed. I’ll never bleed again without thinking of that thing.
Heather wasn’t returning to sleep after that experience, and so she washed, dressed, and dove into the kitchen for a cup of tea and to inventory the food stocks laid in so far. Mindless counting sounds a lot better than thinking about my own blood crawling around like maggots, she thought.
The tea was calming, but larder inventory did more to help her shake off the revulsion by replacing it with slow panic. There’s no way this is enough to last the winter, she thought. This town relies on the Sending gates, and hunters. This could get the town through half of the winter. Maybe two thirds. Damn it. We’ll have to ration hard and hope some hunters slip through.
A shout from outside broke into her thoughts, and she straightened. Trouble again, already? She hurried to the nearest window, and peered out. A call arose again from the south, more voices rising in excitement. Before she had time to turn away from the window, DuChamp threw the kitchen door open, panting for breath.
“Ma’am! Whalers coming into the docks with a catch. Lieutenant wants you to drop what you’re doing and get down there.”
Heather was already moving. “Is Maurice on the way?”
“As soon as the first cry came up, Knight,” DuChamp replied, breaking into a trot to keep up with her. “The whole town’s coming out, everyone who isn’t on the wall.”
“Novices, Father Keza, hell, and the Circle girls? Where are they?”
“Lieutenant’s ordered absolutely everyone, Detective. Between the butcher and the natives they’re likely to have it all done before sunset. Whole town is coming out for this one.”
Slowing just enough to open the door to the church properly, Heather clomped down the walk. “We’ve carts to carry the meat?”
“We’ll need to make trips, Ma’am, but just about everyone has at least one bucket or sack. Canvas is being laid on the grocer’s cart. We’ve salt enough at the butchers.”
“Remind me to thank Father Keza for keeping the whalers in his prayers, Squire. Looks like he got heard,” Heather said. “We’ll need the confit pots again.”
“There’s not many jars left in town that we haven’t got filled, ma’am.”
“Then get some folks with skill in earth-flows to get cutting us some stone pots,” said Heather. “Big ones. The bigger they are, the more the weight is in the food and not the stone.”
They came down the hill towards the shore at a run. Heather unslung her silvered mace, and lifted it high for Ramdas to see over the gathered villagers. She sent a brief flow of her excitement through her mace, shining a light from it to get the Lieutenant’s attention.
“Make way!” Ramdas thundered for her sake, lifting his hands her way.
“Make way!” Heather echoed, returning her mace to its sling, and moving through the parting crowd.
When she finally made it through, she had to pause at the sight of the mottled gray carcass lying on the docks. Twelve meters long easy, and taller than the Lieutenant. Even if there’s wastage, we shouldn’t go hungry at all this winter.
Moving up to Ramdas’ side, Heather ran a hand through her hair. “Never thought I’d be this happy seeing a dead body, Lieutenant,” she said, beaming. “I was just inventorying the stocks when the call came in. It was looking grim.”
“The Saints have delivered us from a terrible fate, Caballero,” Ramdas said, nodding his agreement. “Though I hope you’ll be able to leave the greater part of the preserving to hands more idle than yours.”
“I’ll manage,” Heather said, watching people swarming over the whale. “Think I ought to pick up a knife and get in there though, sir. Won’t do to have us standing by when it’ll all end up in our larders at the end.”
“Si. Go, Caballero,” Ramdas said with an amused snort, turning to wave away the onlookers. Heather unbuckled her breastplate and laid it next to a post, dropping her gauntlets inside. Better than average chance of falling off. Don’t want to stay in the water longer than I have to, she thought, tapping the head of her father’s silver mace. But best keep you nearby, just in case something goes wrong. With that, she made her way into the crowd, calling for the use of a knife and some elbow space.
Butchery wasn’t something she was unfamiliar with, having grown up on a ranch. But butchering a whale turned out to have more in common with demolition work than butchery. She picked up the general trick of what needed to be done by watching the fishermen and townsfolk start the work. Carve a square wide as my forearm, about as deep as the blade, cut in a slit for a handle. Peel back and slice until it comes free, then on to the next.
The sight of all of the blood from the whale didn’t bother Heather, much to her surprise. I guess after Vital, even this mess looks like something I’d just mop up.
It was good, hard work, and if her lines weren’t as even as those of Maurice or the natives, nobody seemed inclined to complain. Food was food, after all, and every chunk of blubber and meat hauled away by villagers and dropped into sack or bucket meant another day’s food for two mouths.
Ooluk’s mounds of earth joined the carts, ferrying loads of meat up the hills to waiting natives, to loud calls in their native tongue of thanks. The weary native hunters were welcomed in great excitement, and presented with the tail-fins to applause.
The event had a festival air to it. Pots and cookfires were already setting to work around the pier, while knives by the bushel were produced, a ready replacement for those doing the butchering. Heather spotted Sister Tanya and Susanne joining the circle of old women and men sharpening and re-honing knives. Father Keza had his shirt-sleeves rolled up, revealing a smith’s corded arms, and was porting heavy buckets of fat to the carts.
Children had come out to cheer and peer at the excitement. Bits of whale skin were crisped in a pan and fed to them, and anyone else who wanted a snack as the work went on.
By the end of the first hour of work, cauldrons were boiling, meat was being sliced for salting, and the sharpening circle had begun singing as they worked. Their voices ululated in alternating songs of the northlands, and folk songs of the Empire. Someone brought out a drum, and someone else had a flute, and they played along to the work-songs.
The work went on merrily, as the sun marched across the sky. All the faces around Heather were smiling, when they weren’t over-exerted hauling chunks of meat away.
The town needed this, for more than just food, Heather thought, as she wiped sweat from her brow. After the Sending gate disaster, they need this.
Her arms were leaden, when she finally stepped back from the carcass and handed her knife over to the next volunteer. We’re going to make it, she thought, scrubbing at her arms with a coarse cloth, watching the work continue. The meat on the whale’s left hand side had mostly been cut away, exposing entrails as thick as her leg. Got about a third of it done. Should be done by sundown, at this rate.
Too bad we couldn’t do much on the other side, but this heavy bastard’s so big people’d have to hang off a crane to work both sides. We’ll get it eventually. Maurice is going to have so much work ahead of himself.
Her pleasant train of thought was broken by the feel of wind pushing gently down her arm, in a small, tight circle. That’s an air lens, again. What’s Ambrose looking at?
Heather turned her head, following the source of the feel of the magic. Far overhead, a wide distortion of air shimmered rent prisms in the air at the edges. She caught sight of scattered heads among the onlookers, puzzlement on their faces as they turned toward the northeastern walls.
If Ambrose is on the walls again, why’s he looking here? He’d be standing between us and the fortress–
Heather’s eyes flew open wide. Lifting her mace high, she fed it with her panic, causing the weapon’s head to burst into bright red flame and belch a fireball overhead.
“Everyone get back!” she roared as all heads turned her way. “That’s coming from the fortress!”
A sensation oozed across her skin like rancid meat and damp ash, mixed with the texture of slugs and wet flannel. She saw a hole sizzle into the whale’s corpse, and knew her warning came too late.
The whale’s exposed guts clenched hideously, ropy loops slipping free as the denuded tail made a great, heaving thrash. Screams of alarm rose around the dock as the mis-balanced whale fell on its side, crushing a handful of people who’d been busy with its guts. The partially butchered tail swept across the whole of the dock in a convulsive swing, sweeping crates and natives over the side and into the frigid water. Heather dropped her mace and began to haul people away from the thrashing horror.
“Get back! Get away from it!” Heather shouted.
Horrified screams rose from the onlookers. A crate of furs slapped by the whale fluke flew through the air, and broke open amidst the cooking area, upsetting a cauldron of boiling water. Heather’s guts clenched as the wailing scream of a scalded child rose into the air. The area erupted into a confused mess of conjured ice as the child tried to protect itself.
Ramdas bellowed out above the screams. “Get the injured free! Grab your meat and get to safety!” His cry was echoed along with scattered cries from the townspeople for Goldbrace and Oiselle fighters.
Heather stumbled as Ooluk’s tectonic magic rolled under her feet, and she spared a breathless glance out to sea to see what he had done. People who’d been knocked into the water began to rise up out of the waves. Raising a sandbar under the folks in the ocean, thank the Saints. Good boy, Ooluk, get those poor people out of the water as quick as you can manage.
The heavy planking of the dock began to creak, as the undead whale’s thrashing grew more and more fevered. “Get the hell back, all of you, get clear!” Heather screamed.
The thrashing whale had struck many of those butchering it. Most had leapt clear at the first shudder from the monstrosity, but some had been unlucky enough to be caught by the tail. Those who had were either floundering in the cold ocean water, or holding broken legs, or crying out over broken spines and shattered ribs.
Hurling the last of the stragglers farther back down the dock and away from the monstrosity, Heather stooped to retrieve her mace, dread clawing at her guts. At least twenty-five tons of fighting undead, wrecking everything in reach, she thought, as she stared at the scene. Dock’s got to collapse eventually, or it’ll thrash itself into the water.
A chilling, inhuman howl rose from the village, and brought Heather’s thoughts to a halt. She turned to the sound of the noise, and spotted the House Oiselle bodyguards stampeding toward the docks, ready for battle.
Pierre’s runed saber was held reversed, kept close to the back of his arm as he ran. It seethed with crackling energies, black as the void. Shadow and Lightning, saps a fighter’s will while it ruins his muscles. And coming up fast behind him, the Oiselle werewolf. This is going to get messy.
Faruza pounded toward the docks, his whip-thin form now bent into a bestial, inhuman configuration. His face had gained the narrow, sharp-toothed taper of a wolf’s, and gray and white fur covered his skin. His snow-goggles were raised, exposing yellow eyes, and his stare looked hateful enough to strike a man dead.
With each ragged breath the werewolf took in his run, thick shards of ice grew further and further out of his skin. They froze his fur into wild spikes, and encasing his wickedly curved knives in jagged icicles that nearly doubled their length. It left Heather feeling frostbitten all over as the pair passed by.
“Go!” Faruza roared, and the Oiselle bodyguards around them accelerated into a blur. They flew at the thrashing whale faster than Heather’s eye could follow. Shattering icicles flung by Faruza opened punctures in the whale. Pierre’s crackling black saber left smoking, withered lines in the thrashing creature’s flesh.
Terrifying, Heather thought, backing away from the blurring melee. Her eyes watched the unfolding carnage. I’ve never seen a Chronitor in a fight before. So House Oiselle finds a werewolf who can survive playing around with time, and they put their best swordsman close enough that his magic bleeds over. And hope that the werewolf knows to stop killing before he gets to you. But if Oiselle’s sent her best, Goldbrace is going to respond in kind.
On cue, another pair of footsteps pounded onto the dock. “Keep to the other side of them, Lunette,” Ambrose said, abacus in one hand, a bag of grapeshot in the other. “I’ll give you covering fire.”
A multitude of air lenses popping into existence around Ambrose added to the sensory static flooding Heather’s nerves. The redhead nodded, and drew her slim, elegant swords from her back. A blast of chill wind caught her in the back, propelling her into the battle.
Spelldancer, air focused, Heather thought. I should jump in there, but these are combat specialists. I can’t help anymore than they can, and the injured are already being gathered up. That rune is deep in the whale, and my mace will be about as much use as trying to headbutt it.
So follow your training, she reminded herself. Put your eyes everywhere. Take it all in. Observe and learn.
The Oiselle blurs were laying into the thrashing creature with a will, sending gobbets of ruined flesh spraying outward. Lunette’s elegant swordplay conjured tight, screaming lines of wind that ripped open deep, jagged rents in the whale. She moved with the lithe grace of a professional martial artist, every motion focusing her magic through the strikes.
The undead whale’s unfocused thrashing redoubled.
“Suppresing fire! Get clear!” shouted Ambrose, as his air lenses popped around in the air in rapid succession. As the three assaulting the whale leapt clear, he sent a storm of lead balls into the thing’s head from seemingly random directions. The first two shots neatly blinded the whale, pulping eyes into useless splatter. Ambrose’s hand on his abacus scarcely moved, while his free hand was working as fast as it could, fishing shot from a pouch at his hip.
Not a whole lot of calculating to be done at this range, Heather thought, but you don’t need much accuracy to shoot a meat wall. He’s putting out ten shots a second, practically throwing handfuls of shot in the air to catch with those lenses.
Any other time, this would be a hell of a show. But this thing is so massive, and it’s got none of a living thing’s weaknesses. They’re doing a lot of tissue damage, but that’s all.
The tail slapped one of the dock-side wooden cranes, and with a loud snap, a support truss gave way. It crashed down into the water, the boom narrowly missing a woman shivering on a sandbar.
And every second this thing is still thrashing, it’s wrecking the dock and endangering people. All this skill and force from the elites of the town, and it’s still amounting to almost nothing. They’d do pretty well against your average skeleton group, until they got swarmed, anyway. But this? They might as well be mosquitos for all the real damage they’re doing to it.
When Ambrose ran out of shots in his pouch, the three on the dock descended again in their assault. The Oiselle werewolf was panting hard, the speed of its fury taking a toll physically on the slim man. Pierre and his sabre had hacked off a pectoral flipper, but was finding no use in the deep thrusts and cuts he was making to the guts of the thing. Ambrose began shaking his head when he saw that while Lunette’s great, cleaving rents split flesh beautifully, they couldn’t cut through bone.
As one, they all seemed to sense the futility of the assault. They broke away as a group, withdrawing alongside Heather’s post to form up and catch their breath. As they watched, the whale’s thrashing crumpled another small cargo crane, and swept mooring lines into the frigid water.
Ooluk’s sandbars were steadily ferrying the survivors in the water to safety, rolling bars of sand pushing them up to the coast and into the waiting hands of the townsfolk. The town doctor was already moving through the wounded, the all-too familiar cries for triage rising as people were rushed into his home.
“How do we proceed?” Pierre asked Heather, panting hard around his words. “The thing doesn’t seem to feel anything we do!”
Lunette nodded, frustration writ large in her eyes as she crouched, panting. “Air can’t cut through those bones. I could cut the tendons, maybe, if I knew where they were. Stop it from thrashing so much.”
Faruza had nothing to add. The werewolf paced restlessly, eyes locked on the whale.
He’s panting so hard, I wonder if he’ll hyperventilate, Heather thought. Up close, she saw that the ice that clung to his fur was constantly melting and reforming. His breath is like opening the oven door. He’s using all that ice to keep the heat down. Going that fast, it might be the only way to keep from cooking himself from the inside.
“The rune is buried deep in that thing,” Heather said. “Burned down right into the bone of the skull. I don’t think we can fight it, not right now.”
She gestured to two elderly natives from the sharpening circle who were walking hand-in-hand towards the dock. Great fat motes of magic gathered around them as their sour faces glared at the whale and the ruin of the meat.
“Looks like the natives have a plan,” she said.
Lunette frowned. “They look really angry.”
“A child was scalded,” said Ambrose. “They are.”
The two old women raised their hands together, and a loud shout of “Hoh!” shot from their lungs.
The ocean around the harbor went still, a circle of stillness across the water spreading fast, until the water was glossy and smooth as a mirror. Heather’s skin prickled, her eyes widening as she watched the ocean go so terribly, utterly still. The water pulled away from the shoreline, exposing ten feet of wet, pitch-soaked wood of the docks.
Heather scanned the shoreline in alarm, but found nobody left in the water. Anyone left on the dock is dead by now. Ooluk’s got the rest to safety. That’s what these two here were waiting for, a clear coastline.
The ocean pulled away from the shore by a few more feet, and then a great wave of seawater rose in the harbor. It moved with slow, terrible violence, curling and breaking overtop of the dock, splashing down upon the mangled whale and sweeping it up.
From the shore, the two elderly natives spoke together in one short, angry word. All the water of the great wave froze over with a deafening snap. The humongous wave turned to ice in an instant, and the thrashing whale, the furious battle, and the sudden weight of new ice finally proved too much for the dock. It gave way on one side with a terrible crash, tipping the undead whale and ice into the water.
With its corpse mostly encased in ice, the whale could do little more than twitch a fluke as one of Ooluk’s sandbars began nudging it out away from shore.
Float out, and sink to rot, Heather thought sourly, eyes sweeping over the ruin that once was the docks. So not only did our necromancers rob us of most of our meat, they did some ugly damage to the town’s ability to get back up and running again once summer comes. And they’ve dropped the morale of the town far enough you’d need to be a dwarf to find it.
The native couple turned and fixed the quartet of House fighters with a withering, disgusted stare. Even Faruza seemed chagrined as his fur receded, his face pulling back to a more human shape accompanied by grisly snaps and pops of bone reshaping itself.
Unable to help herself, Heather cleared her throat, raising an eyebrow as four sets of unamused, frustrated eyes turned her way. Fixing her gaze on Ambrose, she raised an eyebrow. “So. What have we learned today?”
Faruza merely snarled, breaking away from the group to stalk back toward Oiselle’s compound. Pierre sheathed his sword and hurried after. Lunette slammed her pretty swords back home beneath her shield, and blew out a hot, frustrated snort that scattered the splinters of one of the dock planks.
Ambrose, to his credit, met Heather’s eyes with a cool stare. “That techniques honed for use against the living make little difference to the dead, Knight. Yes, your point is well made. Thank you.”
Heather relented. “And that they’ve got access to the same techniques and army doctrine that you have, Mister LeClaire. They were using air lenses. The only reason any of us noticed is that they decided to take a real close and personal look at the whale.”
Ambrose frowned. “Aye. When we train to use the lenses just for surveillance, they use extremely little magic, because they’re just conjured air. They’re difficult to detect until they get very close. Easy to make, easy to break. They’re probably using lenses and reflectors to watch from above. But if they’re up high overhead, it’s likely only Scryers will detect them. Most of them will be too high and too faint to detect.”
“But why would they even do this?” Lunette asked, looking over the wreckage of the dock. “We don’t threaten them any more today than we did a week ago.”
The bodyguard’s choice of words dropped a cold brick into the pit of Heather’s stomach. Ambrose looked away from Heather, as he came to the same realization: “A week ago,” Ambrose said, “our side hadn’t set out to disrupt their entire plan.”
“Yeah. I think they picked their timing carefully,” Heather said, her voice sour. “This was their retribution for the mess we made in the fort.”
Heather raised a hand as Ramdas trotted up to the group.
“Don’t ruin your new boots, sir,” she said. “Whale crushed the town cobbler. That’s the last set you’ll have for a while.”
“Si, I saw,” grunted Ramdas, stepping with care around a puddle of whale blood. “I’m surprised to see you here, Caballero, and not with the doctor.”
Heather knuckled her brow. “I’ll be headed there soon, sir. Debrief with House Goldbrace. House Oiselle’s folks didn’t care for my tone, I think.”
“I cannot imagine,” said Ramdas, folding his arms.
“Well, as I was saying, Lieutenant. The timing of this bothers me, coming after our mission in the fortress.”
“You think this was retaliation, Caballero?” Ramdas asked.
“Yes, sir, but not just that.” She gestured to Ambrose. “They’re using Imperial army techniques for surveillance, like Ambrose was for sniping. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have been from the start. They could have raised all kinds of hell with a talented Gorgon. Easy to get line-of-sight when a few lenses and conjured mirrors can put your gaze wherever you need it to be.”
“So they could strike at any time, but they haven’t been,” concluded Ramdas.
“More or less, sir. So it’s a question of timing. Why the whale, and why now? It’s an opportunity, sure, but they could have animated that whale anytime. In fact, the more intact the whale was, the better it might have fought, and the more damage it would have done. They could have animated it while it was still attached to the kayaks, and let it swim away. They didn’t. And we were raising quite a ruckus before they even had the whale ashore, so they didn’t miss it coming in.”
“Si, simple enough, they wanted to cause the most havoc they could. Having people close to the whale endangers them.”
Ambrose cleared his throat, and ticked a few beads around on his abacus. “I think, if I can speak from a military point of view?”
“Please do, Senor Ambrose,” Ramdas said.
“They’re setting up a pattern of retaliation. We shoot a bullet, they shoot a cannon. Detective Blackthorne and my Lord… do whatever they did, and cause havoc in their camp.” He gestured out to the fortress. “And they did this to ours. If push came to shove, either side could do a hell of a lot of damage to the other striking first, but there’d be inevitable retaliation.”
“So they want detente,” offered Ramdas. “A stalemate. They don’t act first, and they discourage us from acting at all.”
“Between the cannon, the smelter, and this?” Heather said, collecting her armor, “I’m almost certain. I think Mister LeClaire is right. They want the adamant, and they want us to keep out of their way.”
“Yes,” said Ambrose, fingers clacking along his abacus. “But with the timing of when they attacked us by the whale, it’s more than that.”
General Montvenue sat back in his chair, roaring with laughter. “Now that was a cunning show you’ve put on, Vincent. Quite a show. I must commend you. I’ve always wanted to see the noble house pets show what they’ve got. Not much compared that what you brought them. The ignominy! Beaten by a dead whale.”
Vincent allowed a small smile past his face, as he turned a dial on the automaton, refocusing the lenses in front of his eyes. “I thought you might appreciate that, General,” replied Vincent. “Your information has been very useful so far. Are you sure you won’t reconsider joining our side? You’d make a hell of an addition to the strategy table.”
The general turned his rotting head Vincent’s way. His once-sallow skin had gone blue and green in places, and both of his eyes had been replaced by runes chiseled into his sockets through the meat that was left them.
“My dear Vincent,” said General Montvenue. “The instant I’m free, I’ll kill you with my bare hands, and spend my last moments bringing everything you’re doing to ruin.”
Vincent scowled back. “You’ll never be free, General,” he replied, and then pointed to the town. “Just as they will never be, not this winter, not ever.”
“Oh? Don’t let them know that,” replied General Montvenue. “Or they’ll throw everything they have into proving you wrong.”
“Of course not, dear General. That’s why I let them have the whale meat they’ve got. Just enough to barely scrape through the winter.”
“How is it you knew to let them have that much?”
“A properly tuned crystal excites waves of lightning without the expenditure of Thaum, General. They can transmit across short distances, or if empowered by just a very tiny amount of Thaum, over surprisingly great distances. Even through walls. They’re loud enough to be heard even from here, if you know how to listen.” He patted the adamant automaton at his side once more. “And I know how. Nobody looks for a bit of crystal and wire tossed into a gutter, or slipped under a pew. Not when there’s no magic to it, no reason to notice it.”
“So you have little crystal spies among them, then?”
“Many. Flown in by Martin’s little birds, or sold and traded or given away as favors to the vain girls of the town. Trivial. They just look like cheap earrings, General. Scarcely bigger than a fingernail. So I know how much to feed them, General, and how much to starve them. Not quite enough food that they can afford to take any risks, not so little that they try something desperate. I like my cattle cowed.”
“Then I suggest, Vincent, that you should let them see a show of force, and make them grateful for their walls.”
“I agree, General,” said Victor.
“And you should kill that blind elf the first chance you get. You should read the imperial geographer’s complaints about the boy and his kind. Raising mountains, rewriting their maps.”
“They’re fools,” snapped Vincent. “And so are you. A talent like that is worth far more than some petty mine. Kill him? If my employer had known about those talents we’d have recruited him and to hell with the mine.”
The General smiled. “It’s not too late to change your plans, dear Victor. Why don’t you kidnap the boy instead, and let my men rest in peace?”
“Because, General, I’d rather have both.”
The General Montvenue rose unsteadily to his feet, an internal sluicing of rot squelching inside the bloat of his abdominal cavity. “Oh? Where are we going now,” inquired the General.
“It’s where you’re going, General. You’re the orator, the leader of men. You’re better equipped than I to make an impression on Frostmoor. Besides, isn’t it military doctrine that bad news should come from the top?”
General Montvenue inclined his head. “Yes, it is,” he replied. “It’s really a shame you won’t join me out there.”
Victor smiled, and patted the automaton next to him fondly. “I’m with you everywhere, General. Even where the snipers can’t reach. Now, go put on a show.”