It was a day and a half before they heard Ooluk’s voice again, through the stones of their cave.
“I’m here, Ooluk,” Heather said. “Give me a moment. Just about done with something.”
That ‘something’ was an array of conjured mirrors and lenses. The array began around their little fat-burning stone lamp, designed to collect some of the light and heat and shooting it off in wan beams to nearby peaks around the area. Hope I don’t have to use this trick, she thought. It’ll probably only work once.
“I’m at the healer’s home. The doctor says I won’t walk right ever again.”
Heather’s train of thought derailed, and a dozen mirrors and lenses winked out of existence around her as she lost her focus. Mouth opening in dismay, Heather reached out to touch the stone Ooluk’s voice emerged from. It was a futile gesture, but she hoped he could feel it somehow.
“I’m so sorry, Ooluk. You’ve had it hard enough, you don’t deserve this.”
“No, I don’t,” he said in agreement. “But I will pay the prices life demands.”
Heather smiled sadly. “Wish I knew a thousand people brave as you, Ooluk.”
“Well,” he replied. “It isn’t as if I was asked to dance before.”
“I’m sorry it happened to you anyway, Ooluk. We all thought you were safe enough.”
There was a pause, through which Heather could feel the boy threading his way between pride and courtesy. “Thank you, Knight Heather. But I’ve learned my lesson.”
Her heart fell. “You’re giving up?”
“No. I’m just going to dig deeper.”
A ripple ran up Heather’s belly, that was half laugh, half repressed sob. “You’re the best, Ooluk. Stay deep, stay safe. Who’s looking after you there, now?”
“Consul Sienna. She wants a report. Doctor’s out dealing with sick people.”
And I’d like her here to insert my report for her with my boot, thought Heather. The Consul’s brokerage of their exile wasn’t any less sour, with their days of deprivation. The cave stank, it was dark and frequently cold, and Ramdas was losing weight rapidly. They all were, as they stretched rations to last as long as they dared. One meal a day was becoming the norm. Gnawing hunger and a pounding headache were now Heather’s constant companions.
“Tell her we’ve got the names of her suspects. Martin Andrews, Victor LaPaix, Daniel DuCroix. Martin supplied the paper that was used in the explosive runes on the Gate. Victor’s the one who altered the automatons. Daniel’s an associate, maybe a necromancer, maybe just an accessory. Martin and Daniel left by the Sending Circle not long before it blew up. I think Victor is the one in the fortress. There might be others. There probably are. But those are the three I want found, come springtime.”
“Duly noted,” said the stone, in Sienna’s voice. “How are you four holding up out there?”
“Like shit, Consul,” snapped Heather. “Persephone’s lucid now. Everyone’s starving, and we can’t even leave this cave for fear of being spotted. Pretty sure the skeletons are being runed to see heat. That or they’ve become much better at hunting in the last few days.”
“Keep vigilant, and I’ll see about sending something up from the larders here for you, once Ooluk is recovered,” Sienna said. “Sentries said they’ve seen some new skeletons emerging from the fortress today. They didn’t look right. Our Scryers say that they’re lit up pretty bright with runes.”
“I’ll keep an eye out, Consul,” Heather said, her tone short.
Sienne’s tone, as ever, was cool and collected. “I had a chance to see Mister Jiraat. Then I made Lord Goldbrace go and see him.”
Heather snorted. “How’d that go?”
“About as well as I imagine it went for you. Quite a lot of time and horror. Less nightmares.”
Ramdas trotted over, and cleared his throat.
“Consul, Lieutenant Pramath would like a word.”
“Alright, go ahead.”
“Consul Sienna, you have need-to-know access, but I cannot rune your tongue-“
“You most definitely cannot,” said the Consul. “And you should not even suggest it again. Our geases and security runes are considerably less tolerant than those of your church, Lieutenant. They don’t even much care for the suggestion.”
The centaur winced. “My sincere apologies, Consul. I am only being introduced to the realm of higher magical security. I will tread with caution.”
“And I will accept any information passed along with the appropriate levels of confidentiality. Provided you understand that anything you pass to me will be shared with other levels of the Guild as required.”
“Of course, Consul.” The centaur’s jaw worked for a moment, and then his mouth voiced words in a cadence not his own: “Please include in your notes the file, the keywords of ‘Scrimshaw Spider’. You can request this file from the central Cathedral in Bastia or the capital of Venicia. Both will have all information available to date on file. Requested file will require the following keyflow: Six left ice, three north air, one left earth. You must use a compass to ensure your north bearing to within three degrees. Please consult with an appropriately cleared scribe before contributing to the file.”
The centaur cleared his throat and worked his jaw once more, looking perturbed at the hijacking of his own voice.
“What’s it contain?” Sienna asked.
“I don’t know,” Ramdas said, his normal voice returning. “It is a directive from my minding runes. I presume something related and important. No indication of why now, as opposed to earlier.”
“It’s never for us to ask why,” the Consul said, in something approaching a sympathetic tone. “Thank you for the intelligence, Lieutenant Pramath. I trust Ooluk is cleared?”
A garbled, choked noise emerged from Ramdas’ mouth before he could speak again: “He isn’t, but it’s an allowable lapse. He’s to be killed and his remains destroyed if capture seems likely by enemy agent, now.”
“Hey!” said Ooluk.
Heather spoke up quickly to smooth over the moment. “Ooluk, ask if the Consul has someone who can rune your tongue appropriately. Trust me. Would you want to risk those necromancer bastards using you, if you died?”
There was a short pause, and then a stern and commanding tone emerged in the boy’s voice. “Consul Sienna, rune my tongue as Heather says.”
Ramdas had to stifle a laugh, and even Persephone smiled a little, at hearing someone order around a Consul.
Sienna’s voice grew a little stiffer: “As a service to the Church, I will see that it is done. I’ll ensure the Cathedral is invoiced appropriately.”
“The Guild’s cooperation is noted and appreciated, Consul,” Ramdas said brightly.
If we put her on the spot like that again she’ll probably charge us for the food, Heather thought.
Sienna cleared her throat. “House Goldbrace and House Oiselle have both indicated their private support, Lieutenant. If we can figure out a way to safely get you food, you might make it, at least as well as we are.”
“We heard that the church was looted,” Ramdas said dryly.
“Yes. Your man is alright. He took a beating, but the doctor saw to him first before those he drubbed. Broke a few noses before the mob pulled him out of there. I’m sorry, Lieutenant.”
The centaur shrugged his shoulders. “People are hungry and scared, and artillery raining down fire is cause enough for panic. I forgive them. I’m glad DuChamp didn’t break anything more than noses on the hungry and frightened.”
“He spent the first hour disbursing food to families with children, and the widows,” Sienna said. “That’s fifty-five minutes longer than I thought the situation would hold up. He’s a credit to your side, Lieutenant.”
“Gracia,” Ramdas said. “What other news from town, can you tell us?”
“Not much to report, Lieutenant. Food’s in people’s homes again, for better or worse. We’ve temporarily rescinded all tariffs and fees on food and liquor, for what good that can do. But the lack of hunting is hurting. The only reason people haven’t begun to die is the whale meat we saved.”
“Please extend our private gratitude to the houses Oiselle and Goldbrace. And let them know we are yet prepared to fight for the lives of the faithful.”
“I’ll do that. Good luck out there, Lieutenant. Knight Blackthorne, thank you for your assistance,” Sienna said.
“You’re welcome,” Heather grated. “I trust that the Guild will see to the doctor’s bills for Ooluk, owing to his generous service to the town and its defense.”
“That can be arranged,” Sienna said.
“Thank you, Consul Sienna,” Ooluk said softly.
“Good day to you all,” said the Consul.
Heather shot Ramdas a significant glance, and he ducked his head and walked back to the rear of the cave, giving Heather some space. She leaned in against the stone, and spoke quietly:
“You really doing okay there, Ooluk?”
“No. My leg hurts all the time. I had to move the earth while it was still broken, and I moved it badly. My old teacher would be furious,” the elf admitted. “The doctor says having a leg crushed hurts more than just my leg. That I’ll be ill for a while. I feel like I’ll be pitied all over again. Blind, and now I can’t walk right.”
Heather hung her head. “I’d take it all on for you, Ooluk, if I could. You’re doing so much for that town that we can’t.”
“Well, I can’t cook,” Ooluk replied hopefully.
Heather gave a sad laugh. “When your leg is feeling better, and if you can sneak your way in from underground, come visit us. I’ll cook. I hope you like whale. It’s all we’ve got.”
“I do. It would be good to join your fire again, Heather.”
“Thanks, kiddo. Rest up. You should probably go back inside. Or did the doctor let you punch a hole in his floor so you could touch earth?”
“He has a good stone chimney,” the elf’s voice said. “But I will go rest. Goodbye.”
Heather’s hand brushed at the rock. “Bye,” she whispered.
The skeleton did not want.
It was a complex system, built upon complex parts. But it did not want. It had only programming, and was untroubled by the dreams and thoughts that plagued some of its brethren. In life, it had been a soldier. A guardsman at a prestigious, quiet post, at a fortress more concerned with petty adamant thieves, or repelling potential military-scale assaults. In life it had been a mother of three, and then a well-respected petty officer who excelled at cannon maintenance.
Its prior tenant had been lucky. On the night watch, she’d been allowed to sleep through the general assembly. Killed quietly in her sleep, her eyes had never seen the mesmerizing banner that had claimed so many more. She’d died with a cold hand over her mouth and a knife in her throat, and then heart. She hadn’t had the chance to feel much pain. All that was left behind was flesh, and then later, bones.
She had become it, some time later. It had no name. It was merely a system, a complex system built upon complex parts. Light-sensitive runes absorbed wavelengths too long for the elven eye that had once occupied the same socket. Conductive runes carried signals from one rune to another. Runes etched into the top of her skull performed the complex work of basic image processing. It could no longer read, or appreciate art, or understand the beauty of a sunset. But it could understand shapes, and motion, light, and heat.
Its ears were replaced by air-pressure sensitive runes. They ran to the next rune, another complex one, that performed auditory processing and speech recognition. The vocabulary of the rune was perhaps one thousand words at best. Vestibular runes ensured it understood ‘up’ from ‘down’, though little else. The proprioceptive system was keyed to a sub-process of the visual. The skeleton had a difficult time with slopes and stairs. It would slip and fall once in a while. But it was enough to function.
It was dimly aware, through its choice matrix functions, that it was configured outside of standard. The vision keyed to long wavelengths was the first modification. The non-standard instructions included: Pursue a bright figure about the size of a horse, or any group of large heat signatures counting two or more together.
Then there was a complex instruction, that its aggression package had difficulty parsing. It was to acquire a target, and approach. At a distance of twenty metres or less, it would capture the image received by the light-sensing runes, and send a signal to a non-standard rune in its lower spine. No instructions for return, or after triggering, were coded.
The rune was connected to over six hundred printed runes tirelessly paper-machêd around all of its bones. They’d been applied by skeletons whose more artful minds had been preserved. Every surface of the skeleton that could be wrapped had been, and each paper seethed with a rune of Air and Fire.
It ran, smooth and slow, untroubled by the deep cold and driving snow. It no longer had nerves to be touched by the icy wind. The air plucked at a few of the outer layers of paper around its bones. With the paper wrapped around its feet, it had better footing in the deeper drifts than its brethren, and more cushioning when it struck rocks hidden beneath snowdrifts. Topographical analysis ran through its visual processing, and correlated with the proprioceptive nodes: Left foot angle delta fourteen, acceleration 2 G’s for 0.14 seconds.
Evade a boulder. Jump a ledge. Run with the body held much lower than it once could have with muscles attached.
The runes responsible for powering motion were well charged. The skeleton could run for days before it would need to have its runes filled again. It would not need days. Barely an hour.
The moon had set, and the sun was many hours away. The skeleton ran by the glow of infrared light, seeping from the latent heat of the planet and escaping through the snow. Far in the distance, the occasional hare or fox lit its sensors like a bright white beacon, revealing the magnesium flare of the heat of life. Each source was small, however. Too small to fit the target profile.
It didn’t know hesitation, or critical thought. It dove down into the gully pre-programmed into its targeting systems, and slowed to a walk. Its programming was clear:
Within two hundred meters of target area, slow. Stay low. Minimum power draw from runes. Seek targets. Trigger.
The glow was dimmer than expected, but within an order of magnitude of optimal. Good enough for the targeting routines. Four targets presented themselves as it ducked into a cave. One was sized larger than a horse, and three others lay around it on the ground, their heat signatures blurred by furs.
Per its instructions, it shifted image processing through another rune, briefly. Sending a snapshot of what it saw. A few seconds later, the automaton in the fortress performing secondary signal and visual processing confirmed the target. Flaws in the image were within error tolerances.
It crept up close to the four sleeping figures, and triggered its rune.
The boom came fourteen seconds later. Heather sat up in bed, staring at her lenses, and smiled as she finished counting out loud. “About five kilometers away,” she said triumphantly. “They’re nowhere close.”
Persephone sat up beside her, and cracked a rare smile, sending motes of ice puffing from her lips. Helga yawned, and waved a hand. “We live to see another day, hoorah, hoorah. I should like to actually sleep though, dearie.”
“You might want to see this,” Heather said, and shifted a new lens over. A flick of her finger dismissed the very large lens that had sat for most of the evening in front of them. It had been collecting all the light, in all wavelengths, that escaped from their dense furs.
That’s what you get for relying on heat-vision, Heather thought. You lose all the fine details, like whether or not you’re actually seeing people and not just a projection.
The new lens revealed the mountainside was glowing a hot orange, with a sulfurous mushroom cloud rising in the dark. The cloud was lit by a hellish red glow from beneath. Rock, shattered and molten, ran a bright orange rivulet down the mountainside. Mud from melted snow and earth ran ahead of it, painting a dark brown smear down the pristine white hill.
Ramdas let out a low whistle. “It looks like a small volcano. Mi santos!”
Heather nodded. “That was a lot more explosive than they used on the Sending Gate, Lieutenant. Incendiary, too. They weren’t taking any chances. That was an explosion meant to destroy an entire cave.”
“Any chance they’ll think we’re dead, then?” Helga said.
“Chance enough that I don’t care to spoil it for them,” she said. “I’m going to drop most of the array for the next few days. If they come sweeping for survivors or confirmation, I don’t want to give them cause to doubt.”
Ramdas gestured to the lens. “Superb work, caballero.”
“Thanks, sir. But it’s probably only going to work this once. If they figure out we’re still alive, they’ll come at us a different way, and harder.”
“Let’s start thinking about how we will strike them first, si?”
Heather looked up in pleased surprise. “You mean that, sir?”
“Yes, Blackthorne. If I’m going to die this winter, I’ll not have my wife mourning a man who died a coward’s death, forsaken in some cave. But you know what we face best. These are your orders now, Caballero: Decide how we will strike, and when.”
Heather saluted. “Won’t be soon, sir. We’ll need Ooluk’s help, too. But we’ll figure it out.”
By midnight, the skeletons had stopped quartering around the crater. They’d fled back to the fortress, or back to their appointed rounds. Heather reserved her use of magic to conjured mirrors, allowing her to curve the line of sight of the Lieutenant’s spyglass. If they get close enough to sense a conjured mirror, they’re close enough to sneeze on it anyway, she thought.
Now and then she paused to study the fortress. She’d committed the layout she’d seen to memory, and began to sketch it out on paper. Her drawings listed estimated distance in paces, and noted sightlines. She checked her details with the spyglass when anything escaped her.
Starvation had begun to wear Ramdas down, and the centaur slept heavily that night. Heather politely pretended not to hear as Helga and Persephone made love, a product more of Helga’s frantic relief than romance. A frozen cave isn’t anyone’s idea of a honeymoon retreat, Heather thought drily.
Now and then motion from atop the fortress walls caught her eye. Once, a small flash of light and explosion marked the spot an explosive bolt had been loosed at something unseen near the base of the wall. Heather didn’t spot any figures around the fortress through the spyglass, and she frowned.
The skeletons are shooting at something. But what? There’s nobody out there.
An extra lens in front of the spyglass didn’t reveal anything more. Despite the powerful magnification, there wasn’t even footprints in the snow.
Are they shooting at wildlife? Why? Only thing it could be would be mice under the snow, or voles, something small. Did they upgrade the sentries on the walls to see heat, too? If so, what are they doing wasting ammo on something so small?
Heather sat up straight in thought. Unless they’re taking no chances, now. Either they don’t believe we’re dead, and they’re on high alert. Or they believe we are dead and are moving forward with plans they didn’t dare to before. Either way, we’ve got skeletons shooting at heat signatures as small as mice, around the fortress. They’re not letting anything get close. If they can see heat at night, how can we hope to get close enough to strike?
A few minutes later, while Heather watched the moon rise, Persephone’s murmur drew her attention.
“Mind if I join you again?”
Heather tilted her head. “I don’t mind. Something you want to talk about?”
“Duty,” Persephone said. She gathered some furs around herself and fixed her robes, before stepping down to the entrance of the cave. “Brr. You don’t get cold here? It’s frigid outside.”
“I get cold,” Heather said quietly. She reached into her jacket, and produced a smooth rock, juggling it from hand to hand. “I put my anger into a rock, and tuck it into my woolens. Keeps me warm enough. When I get too tired to be angry, I get cold. I’m not there yet. So what’s this about duty?”
“Helga told me more about what happened,” Persephone said. “We all washed up here thinking we were dregs. But I don’t think you’re dregs, Blackthorne. I think you’re the reason any of us are alive, or feel like there’s a plan.”
“Well there isn’t one yet,” Heather admitted. “But I’m working on it. See the fortress out there? Use the spyglass.” She passed it over.
Persephone peered through. “Yes, I see it. What am I looking for?”
“The plumes. They’re still working that smelter. And they’re working it hard. And that’s the part I don’t get. They’re smelting these adamant automatons, right? But they’re going to be so terribly heavy, the only way I can see them leaving is by boat. And not a small boat. They have to know that by springtime, the Emperor’s navy is going to be here in force to retake the fortress. Of that, there’s just no question. So what are they planning to do? They can’t use the Sending Gate. They can’t walk anywhere of consequence, there’s no overland route to the Empire or anywhere else. They’re planning something, because they’ve gone to so much trouble to get where they are now. But I don’t know what, and every day those smelters are going, we’re giving them more time to do whatever it is.”
Persephone scratched her cheek. “Well, I’m stumped,” she said.
“Me too,” admitted Heather. “I get the feeling the answers are behind those walls.”
She gave Persephone a thoughtful glance. “But I’m starting to get an idea of how we’ll get behind them again. Are you going to be able to join us if we go on a suicide mission?”
Persephone gestured to herself. “Do you know someone more qualified?”
Heather cracked a smile. “Careful, Lieutenant. That almost sounded like humour from you.”
“Gallows, maybe, but I’ll take it,” Persephone said.
“You made a really fast turnaround. We were getting worried you’d be like you were for months, or maybe forever.”
Persephone reached in and touched her tongue. “Lieutenant put a geas on my tongue, that conflicted with my duty,” she said. “I’d been drifting around in my own head, everything was like a dream, coming and going. Time didn’t feel like it was flowing right. Words would come and go inside me, but I couldn’t make them come out. So I tried to just hold quiet and watch, and learn. I didn’t recognize you or Helga or Pramath until the next morning. You were all just faces and voices,” she admitted. “But then that geas hit my tongue and my other runes conflicted with it. Suddenly I had a driving need inside me to come back, to wake up.”
Heather frowned. “I’ve heard of that happening. Runes changing the brain. Not usually for the better.”
“Well, I don’t think it could get much worse from where I was at, from what you and Helga tell me,” Persephone said. “I can’t complain.”
“Why would the runes conflict with you, anyway?”
Persephone tapped a finger over her mouth. “I carry the stories for relics. All of them. That was a huge part of my training, learning all the stories I could. Not just for the relics you carry, but the ones that might be lost or found, or fall into your care. That’s a lot of stories to memorize, and to perform them so that people remember, and people care about them. They’re all technically classified, but I have to be able to tell them. If I thought I was dying, and I was the only one who knew a relic’s story, I’d be compelled to pass it on. Even to a necromancer. To anyone. Those stories are worth much more than my life, Blackthorne.”
Heather frowned. “Come on. They must keep copies!”
“Plenty,” Persephone agreed. “But reliquaries have burned before. Stories have been lost, even when dozens of copies floated around. It can’t be allowed to happen. So, I had to bite my tongue off.”
“Oh,” Heather said, eyes widening. She stared at Persephone. “You’re serious?”
“Yes. I don’t really remember it. The runes did what they had to inside me to carry out their duty. Feels like a bunch of things inside me finally connected right, if that makes any sense?”
“Well,” Heather said, mouth working as she fought down some queasiness. “I guess the ends justify the means, in this case. You’re back. If you don’t mind my saying so though, Lieutenant, you were never one tenth this chatty before.”
“I might not be in a few days time. The runes are still working on me. But I’ll use it while I have it.”
Persphone hesitated, and then blew out an icy little gust between her teeth. “I was so afraid all the time, Blackthorne. I still expected every day for someone from back home to show up, arrest us, and drag us back. It was even worse after Major Weathers died, because he couldn’t protect us. So, I was cold. I’ll try not to stay that way. It’s just hard when I let it out. Magic always comes with it.”
“We all start that way as kids,” Heather pointed out. “It’s our most natural state, Lieutenant. Giving form and will to our emotions, shaping it into magic. Don’t beat yourself up about it. We all came here with a lot on our plates.”
“Thanks, Blackthorne. I’ll try not to. Beat myself up over it, anyway.” Persephone rubbed her forehead, and winced. “Definitely still working. It’s not going to let go of me until I do it now, is it?”
“What’s that, Lieutenant? Do what now?”
“My duty. I’ve decided I need to discharge it, or part of it. You already know the story of the Saint behind this one, so, here.” She plucked the wrapped book out of her robes, and pressed it into Heather’s hands.
Heather frowned, and sent some of her puzzlement coursing through her father’s mace, lifting it up for light. “You’re issuing this to me, Lieutenant?”
Persephone nodded. “I’m keeping the amulet, but this prayer-book’s going to do the faithful more good in your hands. Go on, unwrap it. Keep it faithfully.”
Heather carefully unwrapped the linen around the small leather book, and unwound the cord binding it shut. It felt old, at least a few hundred years old, and the dusty deerskin leather of the book had been hand-tooled with care.
The inside front cover had an inscription, which read:
This book belongs to Jordina Aysha, my fine sunshine. – R. S. Please return if found.
Heather gasped, and then turned and smacked Persephone hard on the arm.
“You dropped Saint Aysha’s prayerbook off of a cliff?”