Firespinner Chapter Twelve – Farewells at Last Light

Previous Chapter

Roy gently took Andrew Blythe from his seat on O’Hara’s bushwalker and set the boy on the ground, sleepy and unsteady but otherwise fine. He’d spent most of the trip asleep, like his brother. The ordeal the Blythe boys had gone through had taken a lot out of them but didn’t seem to have done any serious harm. There was one curious side effect, though.

Roy watched as Andrew and River Reeds walked into the Blythe house in perfect synchronization. “I’m pretty sure that will wear off in another few days,” he said to Nora. “But if it doesn’t Grunt can put the word out and we’ll see if we can find a true blue medicine man to look at it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Harper,” Nora said. “You’ve been very kind. This wasn’t part of what you were hired for.”

“Not a problem, ma’am.”

“But not necessary either,” Oldfathers put in. Roy couldn’t help but note that he’d linked arms with the widow. “I’ll be travelling for a few days to gather up some loose ends, but I plan to come back once I’m done. I’m thinking of settling down here. I’m getting too old to sleep in the open for weeks on end.”

Grunt and O’Hara looked surprised at that but Roy took it in stride. There were consequences to tampering with magic on the scale they had and Oldfathers had assumed duties that bore significant consequences, whether he’d realized it at the time or not. The old druid knew magic and its costs better than any of them and Roy had confidence Oldfathers would see them out.

“Sounds like you’ll be well looked after, Mrs. Blythe,” Roy said with a warm smile. “Hopefully you never need my services again.”

Nora laughed. “Getting involved with one legend of the west would be enough for a lifetime and I’ve already seen two. I got no appetite for a third.”

Roy chuckled. “Hopefully if you do it will be more benign than the Yose and Mete twins or General Oldfathers.”

She glanced at the general out of the corner of her eye. “Who, him? He belongs to the east.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Then what’s the second? Or are you counting the Brothers separately?”

Nora smiled and shook her head. “Take care of yourself out there, Mr. Harper. If you ever visit Mr. Grunwald here in town be sure to stop in, you hear?”

It sounded like a dodge but Roy couldn’t figure out why she would so he let it go. “Of course.”

Roy waited as a few more quiet words passed between her and the general then they set out for Grunt’s house. O’Hara parted ways when the passed the main street in order to take her bushwalker back outside the walls, leaving Grunt with a whispered promise to visit later. That left Roy with Grunt and the general. The three men walked in silence for a while, then Oldfathers said, “I appreciate your not taking me in.”

“I’m not an officer of the law,” Roy said. “I don’t have an obligation to bring in bounties.”

“Not even an old Lakeshire officer?”

Roy shrugged. “It’s been a long time, General. I’m not saying I would’ve done what you did in your situation but you’ve earned a little grace, at least. And…” His glance drifted up towards the mountain top. “I’m not sure how Yose and Mete would react if their new father left so soon.”

The general grunted something that might have been a laugh. “As you say. Well, I suppose I can take the pieces of that nawonota off your hands, if you want. I have a stash where I can bury them for a few decades at least.”

“It’s all right. The Packards have an Iron Room for dangerous magic items set up in Hardwick. It’s a day’s travel each way and that’s easy enough to work into my route back to Leondale. I’d rather the pieces of that thing sit on iron until all the magic’s leached out of them than just bury them out in the wilderness.”

Oldfathers chuckled. “And the Railway Detectives will just take an unknown artifact – or the pieces of one – off your hands because you say so?”

“And because I work for them from time to time.”

“And Allen Packard is his uncle,” Grunt added.

“And that.” Roy hefted the bundle holding the nawonota’s pieces. “Don’t worry, General. This will be well taken care of. And I’ll get that fulminite crystal out of the slag you made of my falcatta and send it back to you.”

“Keep it,” the General said. “I think you’ve earned it and you never know when it may come in handy out there. You’re going to have more chances to use it than me anyway.”

They rounded the corner to Grunt’s house and the big man ducked in the door to retrieve Roy’s travel bag. “Tell me something, General,” Roy said as they waited. “How are you going to pass on that journal of yours if you’re settling down here? Do you think someone will just come through and take it off your hands? It doesn’t seem like the best strategy, this being the end of the rail line and all.”

Oldfathers tapped his hexwood staff on the ground once which set it to unfolding in to its full sized tree form. “The journal will tell its owner when and where to find the next person in line. I’m not worried about passing it on. Never was.”

Grunt returned and handed Roy his bag. “Half an hour before the last train leaves,” he said. “Anyone up for a last drink?”

“No, thank you,” Oldfathers said.

“Gave it up, remember?” Roy tipped his hat in the general’s direction. “General Oldfathers, as much as it surprises me to say it, it’s been a pleasure.”

“Likewise. Take care of yourselves, Mr. Harper. Mr. Grunwald. Stay true to the Quest and it will bear fruit, in time.” The hexwood was unfolded to its full twelve foot height and its branches gathered Oldfathers up, allowing him to partially recline against its trunk.

“May Our Lady guide you to warm hearthfires,” Grunt said.

“Hearthfires, gentlemen. And Roy.” Oldfathers tapped his jacket’s left breast twice, winked and then whisked away on the frantic churning of the hexwood’s roots.

Confused, Roy patted his jacket in the place Oldfathers indicated.

Felt something solid there.

And pulled out Pellinore’s Journal.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy muttered.

Grunt burst out laughing.

“This isn’t funny.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s serious as dead iron, Roy.” Grunt got control of himself. “But you have to admit it’s at least a little funny, too.”

Roy sighed and put the journal away. “Fine. Fine. Let’s go, the last train leaves in twenty five minutes and I need to stop by your local sundries supplier.”

“Sure.” Grunt locked his door and pocketed the keys. “What do you need?”

“Paper and ink. It seems there’s some writing in my future…”

Firespinner Chapter Eleven – The Day in Balance

Previous Chapter

As it turned out nothing happened for most of the day.

Roy was expecting Yose sometime between dawn and midmorning, the time when the sun was ascending, since he was supposedly tied to the Primeval Fire. But Thomas Blythe failed to appear. After midmorning they entered the time of balance, with the sun reaching apogee and slowly beginning its descent. Nothing happened then, either. As it turned out things began about an hour before full dusk when Thomas Blythe erupted out of the stream with no warning, flying over O’Hara’s rampart with a good three feet to spare. He landed with a sizzling thud, his features shrouded by a billowing cloud of steam and rippling waves of heat.

To his credit, in spite of the sudden arrival following a long wait, Reeds reacted instantly. A wall of shimmering red rectangles sprouted from a copper line on the ground, converging on a bronze talisman Reeds held aloft in his left hand. It was a crude ward and started crumbling almost as soon as Thomas collided with it. Reeds held a bronze wand in his other hand, quickly connecting a predrawn set of glyphs to finish a more effective ward that spat flames in a thicker, stronger barrier in front of the possessed boy.

O’Hara’s earthworks rumbled as the tiles on her board clacked, ensorcelled tiles and sulfurite crystals sliding across it as she reworked their formation and, in the same action, rearranged the land itself. The raised earth by the creek began to sink back into the ground as a new barrier of equal thickness but greater height formed behind Reeds.

But that wasn’t the loudest noise at hand. At the other end of the hill the massive trees at the foot of the cliff creaked to life and began to rip the cliffside apart. Rather than wait, Grunt and Marshall moved up to hack at the trees. The pines began to teeter and fall under their onslaught. But it ended almost as soon as it began when a surge of water burst from the opening in the cliff and swept both men back down towards the crater. A small figure appeared at the new entrance in the cliffside and started towards the crater, flanked by the trees.

Down in the center of the crater itself the stones began to shift. Overhead the clouds left from the previous day’s rain began to roil and churn.

“Nora!” Roy yelled. “Find the nawonota!”

That was their first gambit. If the Brothers had somehow co-opted Thomas and Andrew Blythe into playing out their old sibling rivalry perhaps the grudge could be undercut by introducing Nora into the role of peacekeeper, as Yose and Mete’s mother had been between them. Oldfathers considered it a long shot but it was simple and easy to try, so Roy lined it up first.

But it was anyone’s guess whether Yose and Mete would recognize Nora as their mother or not. So Grunt and Marshall moved to block Mete and Reeds started working on a third barrier, this one grounded in O’Hara’s earthwork itself. Or, at least, he started. Then he suddenly stopped and pivoted to look directly up the hill at the crater. Further up, Andrew Blythe did the same.

In unison both of them said, “Ket!”

The word echoed over the hillside with preternatural clarity. Roy spoke no Sanna but he knew the word “No” when he heard it. He wasn’t sure what circumstance made them say it but he did know who was saying it – they were both under the influence of Mete now. That was a lovely little wrinkle he hadn’t anticipated.

Roy tapped Oldfathers on the shoulder. “Stop those trees, General.”

He grunted noncomittally. “Easier said than done.”

But he raised his hexwood staff up, its branches unfolding into a complicated pattern, the sulfurite crystals twined in the ends of its branches pulsing with power. The general stretched his other hand towards the top of the hill in a clutching motion and the raging pines shuddered to a stop.

“Ket!” Andrew and Reeds screamed in unison once more, they reached towards the trees with their hands and made a dragging motion. The pines shuddered as if under great strain.

One shattered into splinters.

The others lurched back into motion.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy whispered. He hadn’t thought it possible Hezekiah Oldfathers could lose a contest of sheer power.

“Coalstoking Sanna ghosts!” Apparently the general hadn’t expected it either.

But he delayed the trees long enough for Marshall to get to his feet and charge back into the fray with surprising recklessness. His club whistled through the air and smashed into the trunk of one pine, which promptly shattered into flaming twigs. For a split second Roy panicked, thinking the debris would land on Nora. But as they arced through the air they were caught in the churning winds over the crater and went spinning away.

“That doesn’t look good, General,” Roy yelled over the noise. “Looks like Yose got to Marshall, too.”

“So the Brothers have all the brothers now,” Oldfathers replied, his gestures waking some of the smaller trees and sending them upslope as fast as the newly animated pines could go. Not that such little things posed much threat to the mature, sixty foot trees under Mete’s thumb. “Pull O’Hara out, she can’t be in there when Reeds and Thomas start fighting for the Brothers. I have something that will slow them down, you try and figure out what’s happening in the crater!”

“Ignis fatuus, man, I said tell me about all your tricks!” But Roy was doing as Oldfathers said, holding his fist aloft with thumb upwards then jerking it over his shoulder in the Columbian Army’s “fall back” signal.

O’Hara stepped away from the waist high board she’d set up by the river and kicked over a brazier she’d kept burning beside it all day. A cloud of viscous white smoke poured out of it and swept over the creek bed. Reeds and Thomas disappeared from view, though the fiery glow of Thomas’ presence was still clearly visible inching up the hillside.

Marshall just kept smashing trees with his club but couldn’t get anywhere near Andrew. For a moment Roy feared the boy would reach his mother before anyone else could. Then one of the huge rocks by the crater shifted.

Lifted into the air on Grunt’s shoulders.

And flew towards Andrew at speed.

Two of Andrew’s pines leaped into the path of the missile. One was smashed flat to the ground. Grunt was already hefting another one of the huge rocks, weighing it for another throw.

But Oldfathers was focused on the growing cyclone overhead. “Roy,” he yelled. “I was right, there’s something in that nawonota. I don’t know what part of the legend that is but I don’t think it’s going to let the story end that easy. You have to keep Nora away from it.”

Roy’s attention snapped back to the crater, where the widow Blythe was tugging at a larger rock near the bottom of the pit. Her hair and dress whipped in the air and her figure was half obscured by dirt and pine needles flying through the air. Roy gripped his buckler harder. “Agreed. Keep the brothers away from the crater but let them fight each other. I don’t think that’s the main show anymore.”

A brief flash of pale blue light caught Roy’s attention. Oldfathers had drawn one of his fulminite crystals, leaned against the rock and removed his peg leg. The top had a hollow just big enough for him to slip the crystal into. The general did so and held the peg back in place, vinelike tendrils around the top wrapping about the stump of his leg before he let his pants fall back into place. “I’ll take care of it.”

“What are you doing?” Roy asked.

“Cover your ears,” Oldfathers replied. “By the Breath of Mercury, I am carried upon the Primordial Whirlwind!”

Roy understood what was happening a half second before Oldfathers finished, barely getting his hands over his ears before a lightning bolt crashed down on the general. The world turned bright as day and Roy felt the sound in his sternum. The sound repeated in a frightening staccato that nearly brought him to his knees, flashes of lightning and blackened footprints tracking Oldfathers’ path uphill to Mete and his trees. The walking grove strobed with light and the trees were thrown in all directions, born on waves of crackling lightning. Within their trunks Roy saw after images of the general, his legs transformed into pillars of lightning, lashing out against the trees, the ground and the air itself.

No wonder Oldfathers had kept that trick to himself. Many Columbians thought avatars of the First Elements were blasphemous, after all, and this was a particularly terrifying blasphemy at that.

There was no time to watch the carnage. Oldfathers fought a delaying action only as the real battle took shape in the crater.

A true whirlwind was forming over it and Roy watched the sky with distrust as he approached Nora, unsure of what he was looking for. At this point they were past gambit two, where Nora tried to calm the boys once she had the nawonota in hand, and on to the part where he should just stick iron in the thing and see if that cancelled the magic at work. But Oldfathers was right – there was something in the nawonota and it didn’t seem to be either of the Brothers. That made everything less certain.

As Roy got up to the crater a towering pine tree loomed out of the chaos but before it could do more than send a few roots stretching towards him Grunt’s ax crashed into its trunk, drawing the tree’s attention. Roy scrambled down the crater, more than used to trusting Grunt to watch his back in these situations.

The widow was saying something to him as he approached but, after the lightning strike, Roy couldn’t hear much of anything. Once she realized he was partly deaf Nora motioned like she was lifting the stone at her feet, a block of stone easily two feet tall and twice as long.

Roy shook his head. “Never mind that,” he said. Or thought he said, he couldn’t even hear himself. “Something’s off, leave the coalstoking thing and we’ll move on to the next stage.”

Another series of flashes and rumbles, felt more than heard, drew Roy’s attention long enough for him to note Oldfathers descending the slope again. O’Hara’s fog had cleared and Thomas Blythe was coming up the hill again, only to stop short when he caught a crackling kick from the general.

Roy winced but focused on the task at hand. He grabbed Nora by the shoulder and tried to pull her out of the crater. The wind caught her hair and tangled it around his arm leaving it sopping wet. The day was overcast but not rainy. Roy looked up, then down, then finally back at Nora and realized that water was streaming from her hair in sheets.

He looked back up into the sky, a sinking feeling in his stomach. The clouds were spinning in angry circles. It could have been Roy’s imagination but he thought he saw a face forming there.

Nora – was it Nora? – was saying something but Roy still couldn’t hear her. But when he squatted down, put his shoulder into the rock and pushed Nora quickly joined him. A moment later the rock shifted and rolled halfway over.

Underneath was a simple octagonal frame of ivory and leather straps. Roy had never seen one but it was obviously the nawonota. He didn’t hesitate for a moment when it came into view, just pulled all the fire he could from his buckler’s sulfirite and blasted the old Sanna artifact with it. A screaming blast of wind, loud enough that even Roy’s ringing ears could hear it, tore down from the sky and plastered him flat. The blow left his head spinning and his ribs, which had been well behaved for the last day or so, throbbing once again.

For a moment Roy thought he saw something, superimposed over the chaos of the real world. A woman in the garb of a Sanna matron cowered, the nawonota held up in both hands like a shield. A Sanna man with cruel eyes loomed over her, hand raised to strike but a bewildered look on his face. A stone ax was buried in his side and a boy of no more than twelve, who’s face resembled the father he had just killed, held the weapon’s handle. His identical twin watched from the entrance of the tent, horrified. The father’s spirit was captured. As it strained against the nawonota the second brother went from horrified inaction to stealing the artifact and running away into the hills.

Not all legends were true. If they were true they were rarely the whole truth.

And the legend of Yose and Mete was apparently not one of the few that were the entire truth. No wonder Reeds and Marshall had never triggered the legend on their own, their father was already dead and it was clearly the death of the father of the family that started the story.

The vision passed almost as soon as it came, leaving Roy to get to his feet in spite of his pain, old and new. Pain he could ignore. The nawonota was another story.

And the Sanna artifact was on the move. The whirlwind that dispersed his fireblast also lifted the nawonota into the air, dirt and dust swirling around it in an ominous cloud. Roy’s buckler was mostly empty and adding the small reserves of his cufflinks and sword wasn’t going to give him more firepower than a full buckler so he changed tactics and drew his knife.

Stepped in to slash at the relic.

And got shocked in the leg before he got close.

Electricity crackled through the dust cloud now and, while dead iron would kill any magic it touched, it wasn’t a defense for his entire body. Every time he tried to get closer to the artifact the lightning snapped at him, leaving his limbs twitching and the distance the same. Roy backed away a step, growling in frustration. That was when he realized his hearing was coming back.

Not that it hand much to tell him. Nora was babbling in Sanna now, another surprise victim of the legend. He hadn’t expected it to be so all-encompassing but if the vision he’d seen was true, and not just a fever dream, then her susceptibility to the legend’s power wasn’t surprising.

A glance up and down the hill told him no one else was doing much better. Andrew Blythe was locked in battle with Marshall, much as their twin brothers fought down the slope. Nothing Grunt or O’Hara did fazed them and only the fact that the mismatched twins were fighting each other with Oldfathers poking them as a spoiler slowed their advance on the crater.

The power of the legend seemed to crackle all up and down the hillside like a living thing.

And that was when Roy had it.

All living things were a balance of four elements and, of course, as a living thing the legend was no exception. Mete was the element of earth, Yose fire, their mother water and their father air. Roy didn’t have to kill the whole legend to win. He just had to rewrite it. “Oldfathers!” His voice was barely audible over the din of battle. “New plan, get front and center!”

Hopefully the general could hear better than Roy could. All he could do now was try and pave the way for Oldfathers. Roy pulled in every last drop of firepower from the sulfurite on his body and blasted it into the crackling dust storm, burning much of the dust away and decreasing the static in the air considerably. With a sharp click Roy ejected the sulfurite from his falcatta and crammed Oldfathers’ fulminite crystal into the empty slot. It was a poor fit for the setting, not remotely the right size or shape, but with a little fumbling he got it to stay in place.

Roy gave the weapon an experimental snap, saw that the fulminite stayed in place and heaved the weapon at the nawonota. It spun through the dust storm, the bright bronze blade crackling with electricity and channeling it down into the fulminite, draining even more power away from the gathering whirlwind. Leaving a void in the legend. Roy looked around frantically. “General Oldfathers, get to the coalstok-“

The world went white and sound flew away once again. For a moment Roy saw the same family as before, now gathered around the fire. Save for the father, who was just entering the tent carrying a brace of rabbits over one shoulder. On closer inspection he wasn’t the same man as before. He was older, a little more world weary, but his eyes were kind. Kinder than the father from before. Kinder than the man who led the trees up Briarheart. But unmistakeable none the less.

Then the vision faded and the real world crept back in at the edges. Grunt was helping Marshall to his feet. Nora was struggling against the buffeting wind, which seemed to be fading but was still pretty strong. And Oldfathers was picking up the pieces of –

Of Roy’s sword. He was holding the nawonota in his other hand, still very much intact. Roy staggered over to him and held his hand out for the artifact. The general passed it to him, saying, “It looks inert, though I’m not sure that means it’s safe. What did you do?”

“That was all you, General.” He took the nawonota and carefully cut the leather that bound it together with his iron dagger. “I agree with you on the safety issue, though. I know a safe place to keep the pieces for a while. In the meantime, let’s get off this coalstoking mountain.”

Firespinner Chapter Ten – A Benediction at Dawn

Previous Chapter

An hour before the dawn of the fall equinox Roy walked through the clearing the local Sanna called Mete’s Grave. The air was damp and cold, somehow hiding the thinness of the air without making it any easier to catch his breath. The opening in the trees was a little over a hundred feet below the peak of the mountain at the foot of a steep drop which Yose had supposedly thrown his brother down.

At the center of the grove a blackened set of broken and twisted rocks, Mete’s final resting place, sat in the middle of a barren patch of ground. Brambles coiled around the open dirt and nothing taller than grass grew within fifteen feet of the crater. But the churned earth and tightly packed pine trees by the cliffside told them some trees had moved through the area recently.

There were no signs of Thomas or Andrew Blythe in the area. About fifty feet below the crater ran a small spring that fed into one of the streams they’d followed most of the way up the mountain, a stream that supposedly flowed all the way down the side of the mountain and into the lake where Yose’s heart still beat thrice a day. That was their first concern. Reeds and Oldfathers both agreed that Yose and Mete needed their fleshly avatars to clash in some ritualistic fashion – not necessarily at the top of the mountain – to fulfill the demands of the legend. They had to stop that or Andrew Blythe was going to die.

So the Brothers had to be kept separate. But Mete had to get to the clearing and reveal the nawonota. He’d hidden it somewhere on the mountain and none could find it until his brother caught him with it. True to form, although Roy had the whole group search the clearing from cliff to river, they’d found no sign of the artifact which meant only Mete could get it to reveal itself.

Given that Mete was quite possessive of the thing they weren’t likely to get a hold of it easily.

But given that something in the nawonota could be growing in power every time the story played out it wasn’t something they could easily ignore, either.

The simplest way to handle all these problems was what the general had initially planned. Keep the Brothers separate. But with the added caveat that they get close enough for the legend to actually begin. To that end O’Hara had spent the last day setting up her board of spell tiles and building a bulwark along the streambed, a towering ten foot earthwork that moved through sympathetic ties to the stones laid out on her board and backed by the mystical power the ancient ziggurat builders had used to conquer Tetzlan in ages past. Roy had also placed Reeds there to prepare as many Teutonic charms and wards as he knew and could find room for between the stream and clearing.

Grunt and Marshall watched the other end of the equation, standing guard by the unnatural clump of pines by the cliffside. Something had moved them there and, based on what had happened in Yellowstone, that was likely Mete flexing some power he received as an avatar of the Bones of Enkidu. Some of those trees were clearly large enough to think and move on their own which made their silent, stationary vigil the surest sign that something mystical held them in place. Trees of that size rarely suffered large groups of humans to stay in their presence. They were the greatest danger in that direction but Grunt with his bearded axe could keep them at bay for a while. With Marshall’s war club and superhuman fighting instincts to back him up they might even hold indefinitely.

Roy and Oldfathers positioned themselves halfway between the stream and the clearing, ready to support either end of the formation if needed.

Which left Nora Blythe standing beside the crater. The unnamed mother in the Brothers legend was supposedly the creator and first owner of the nawonota, which led Roy to hope that Nora’s presence at the confrontation would reveal a new wrinkle in the story and potentially change the outcome. As dawn approached she was seated on one of the stones surrounding Mete’s Grave, staring into the crater. She started as Roy crouched down beside her and asked, “Are you alright?”

“Yes!” She shook herself back to the present. “I’m sorry, is it dangerous here? I thought it looked a little off, but-“

“It’s a little late to worry about danger,” Roy said with a chuckle. “This whole trip is dangerous, I don’t think sitting here will change things much one way or another. I was just… worried. How are you feeling.”

The deep, predawn shadows, lit only by a handful of lanterns O’Hara had brought, exaggerated the lines of grief on the widow’s face rather than hiding them. The strained twitch of the lips that might have been a smile did little to change the overall impression. “Thank you, Mr. Harper. I’ll feel better when I have my sons back.” A new shadow took root in her eyes. “Well, mostly.”

“I understand.” And he did. Roy saw similar shadows every time he spoke to someone who knew the Folger brothers or Fat Stu. Some days he even saw it in the mirror. That was one reason he avoided them. “Mrs. Blythe, I’d like to consecrate our little band, make us ready for the day ahead. O’Hara knows the cant, but…”

“But I was a Hearth Keeper. “The smile was less strained this time. “I understand, Mr. Harper. And who will answer the cant? I know it’s traditionally the highest ranked member of the expeditionary group but…”

But the leader of their little band was a retired Lieutenant and the specter of a Major General loomed far over that. Roy nodded his understanding. “A fair question. Under the circumstances, I will.”

“Then gather the men, please.”

He did, starting with Grunt and Marshall. They did a wide circle around the riverbank to avoid Nora coming back with O’Hara. While not strictly a demand of the benediction, most military men felt it was bad luck for men and women to cross paths until it was time to begin. So they took a detour to collect Reeds then added Oldfathers to the group on the way back.

“What are we doing?” Reeds asked as they approached the clearing again. “It’s almost dawn.”

“I know,” Roy said. “This is the only time we can perform the blessing.”

Nora had climbed up on one of the rocks by the crater so she could command a view of the whole area. Roy gestured the others on before him, it was traditional for the replying cantor to stand at the rear of the assembly.

“Do we have to join this as well?” Reeds asked.

“It’s a blessing for an expedition as a whole, not individuals,” Oldfathers said. “Every Columbian and Avaloni army the Sanna fought did this before they marched to battle.”

Reeds shrugged and turned his attention to Mrs. Blythe.

She raised her hands over her head, arms spread wide, palms up and said, “O Lord in Raging Skies, turn your eyes towards your people once more. As in the days of Arthur guide us safely through storm and trial, grant us clarity against the designs of the enemy and justice to prevail over passion and violence. Fight on our behalf with your spear of thunder and your shield of winter. May we prevail over all enemies until the work is done.”

Roy swallowed once, watching as Nora concluded with the Sign of the Storm. Though he’d been an officer he’d never held a formal command and so never actually performed this cant before. But he wasn’t about to leave something this important to Oldfathers.

He stretched out his hands palm down a little more than shoulder’s width apart. “O Lady in Burning Stone, watch over our homes and hearths. Stand guard over our families with the mountain, your sword, and warm them in sunlight, your robes. As in the days of Arthur shelter us from danger and death that we may return to rest and safety and not end our days under lonely skies.”

Roy raised his hand in the Sign of the Hearth and touched it to his forehead. The others, save for the two Sanna, do the same. There was a moment of silence then Roy said, “Sunrise is in forty minutes. Get to your positions.”

They broke up and made their way to their previous places, except for O’Hara who lingered to talk to Grunt. There was long standing precedent for those kinds of meetings after the benediction and Roy allowed it to go unremarked on. That left him walking down towards the river with the General and Reeds.

The Sanna man seemed a touch amused at the proceedings. After going a dozen steps or so Reeds looked over at Roy and asked, “Will you answer something? Truthfully?”

Roy raised an eyebrow. “Have you found me dishonest so far? If so I’m doing my job poorly.”

“This is a question of a very different nature to anything we’ve discussed so far,” Reeds said. “And one man might easily lie to himself about it.”

“You’ve got my interest, Reeds. And a truthful answer, no matter the question.”

“The Lord and Lady – they’re the guardians of Avalon, correct? Sworn to that nation through their servant, Arthur, who walks as one with the Storm. Columbia’s connection to Avalon is only through the first wave of settlers who came here from there and – until Dolmenfall – the Stone Circle at Morainehenge.” Reeds spread his hands. “Are you certain the Lord and Lady extend their protection to you as well?”

A dozen scenes of carnage and violence rushed through Roy’s mind, half-forgotten moments from the battles and skirmishes of the Lakeshire and Palmyra Campaigns where Columbians had killed one another over blind emotion and sheer stubbornness. He remembered the druids who mourned more when Roy’s men broke down the dolmen than when they buried their dead.

He remembered his own contempt for the people of Palmyra who’d walked their streets from one burnt building to the next like they’d lost all purpose. “No, Reeds,” he said, his voice a whisper. “I’m not sure they do.”

Reeds considered that answer for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you. At least that answer has the ring of truth to it.”

Reeds continued towards the stream leaving Roy and Oldfathers by the rock outcropping they’d picked as the midpoint to anchor the two halves of their formation. Roy clambered up on the rock, giving him an extra two feet of height and helping him see uphill with greater clarity. Oldfathers settled on a small stone nearby, looking downhill. They sat there in silence as the sky grew brighter.

“They came here for humanity, you know,” Oldfathers said, watching the sunrise. “Arthur was just the only one who listened.”

“Who?” Roy asked, his wandering thoughts pulled out of the past and back to the present. “The Lord and Lady?”

“That’s what the writings passed down from Stonehenge say,” the general replied. “That’s why the Watchers and the Keepers crossed the ocean with the first settlers. Their gifts that protect us from the chaos of the elemental world were intended for everyone.”

“They haven’t spread very far if that was the point.” The old memories faded back into the corners of his mind. “And the human world has plenty of chaos on its own.”

“At least we only have that to deal with.” Oldfathers laughed. “You’ve been to Tetzlan. Do you think Dolmenfall would have been better or worse with things like blood rituals in play?”

That was uncomfortable enough to call for a subject change. “What about now? How do they take a hand against this fine mess the Sanna left for us?”

Oldfathers laughed and leaned back against the rock, hands behind his head. “It’s not about who or how, Mr. Harper. I’m sure if we had the Mated Pair here to explain the whole thing to us all they’d do is remind us of the Quest.”

There were a lot of quests in the stories of the Stone Circle. Roy couldn’t think of any that were relevant to this particular situation. “Which is?”

“Cultivate a moral spirit in yourself. Oppose destruction. Build up the nation. Preserve the legacy. Above all else, defend the life well lived. For in that life is a balance of the elements and finding that balance is the duty of all druids.”

“I thought the ways of the druids were passing away.”

“Oh, that’s likely true. But the Quest is as eternal as the Lord and Lady and just because the druids are gone doesn’t mean we haven’t sown the seeds for the next generation to continue it.” He mimed casting seeds along the path before them. “That’s why I spent the last decade of my life ensure the relics of Morainehenge got out to people who would use them rather than rotting in the armories of Columbia.”

“Which reminds me,” Roy muttered, pattering his breast pocket. “I forgot to return this yesterday. I was seeing how far I could push you by hanging on to it but handing it back must have slipped my mind.”

“Did it?” Oldfathers reached a hand up to take it without bothering to look. Roy placed it in his hand and he shoved it into a jacket pocket. A tinge of humor entered his voice. “How careless. Must keep better track of it in the future.”

“Of course.” He wasn’t actually sure what the old druid meant by that but he didn’t have time to mull it over. There were more important things at hand. Yose was coming.

Firespinner Chapter Eight – The Oath

Previous Chapter

It was the same face, but different.

The lines matched the drawing from the war, but their course over his face ran deeper and broader than in the picture. The eyes reflecting the firelight were dulled with clouds, not cold as the winter sky. Whiskers overran their proper places on lip and chin, clawing up cheeks and over ears enough to hide most of his face from casual view.

But Roy knew.

He remembered that day on Briarheart Ridge. When a single officer in the uniform of the Lakeshire militia crested the breastworks at the top of the ridge, the branches of countless maple trees waving behind him. Roy had seen the man’s face through the blood spattered telescope lens he’d take from Captain Colbert’s body. He’d watched the general start down the ridge, walking as one with the forest. And ordered his men to run like death itself chased them.

“Hezekiah Oldfathers,” Roy whispered.

The camp exploded into motion, Reeds bringing his hands together in a charm as his brother put his body and mace between Oldfathers and the rest. Grunt loomed up behind the brothers, fumbling a fresh sulfurite crystal into his sword. O’Hara pulled Nora down partway behind a large rock for cover.

Roy opened himself to the fire.

The branches and logs flash burned, leaving nothing but ash in the space of a breath, and the flames leapt upwards. Roy shaped them into a burning T shape that towered nearly to the top of the overhang, arms spread wide to react to any threat the old druid might offer.

But Oldfathers did nothing.

He just stood there, half shadowed in the night, and watched them with something between amusement and resignation. For a moment the tableau held. Finally he said, “I’m old, son, but if you think a Columbian regular can kill me with one of those shoddy swords that won’t even lock in sulfurite anymore, you’ve another thing coming. Which would be a pity, I’m not here to fight you.”

That might even be true. He didn’t stand before a massive tree line that had crept up on them in the dark. A glance up confirmed no ivy or tree roots dug through the stone overhang to strangle them, no bushes waited to topple over the edge on their heads. The druid had caught them unawares but brought none of his traditional weapons.

It would be reassuring if they weren’t camped in the middle of a forest.

Roy reminded himself that this was more than a chance encounter with a wanted man. This was a master of the craft standing on the cusp of a legend made manifest. Nothing was as it seemed. But whatever goals the general brought to the table they didn’t seem to involve fighting with Roy or his group. At least not at the moment. The fire lapsed back down to its original shape, Roy pushing the extra energy he’d forcibly extracted from the kindling into the small pile of sulfurite crystals half buried in the ash of the firepit. But he never took his eyes from the man just outside the circle of firelight.

“What brings you here, General Oldfathers?” Roy asked.

“Courtesy and compassion,” the druid answered without hesitation. “I’ve just come from Yellowstone and I heard things there you’ll want to know.”

Grunt gave Roy a look, lowered his sword when the other nodded and moved to push a few new logs into the fire with his foot. Roy let the flames take hold on the new fuel source and let them go from his mind, ignoring their lonely whispers. With the magic no longer weighing on him Roy found himself exhausted. But he refused to let Oldfathers see it. “Why should I believe anything you say?”

“Why doubt me?” Oldfathers stepped into the circle of firelight. Something shifted as he did so, as if a watchful presence had relaxed. “Are we enemies?”

Marshall stepped forward, touching the head of his club to the General’s chest. Both men paused, studying one another, and Oldfathers held his hands out, palms up, a cane dangling from the thumb of his left hand.

Roy stepped forward and moved Marshall gently to one side. Oldfathers raised one eyebrow but didn’t say anything as Roy started looking him over. The cane was a solid piece of living silver. At first Roy had thought it was just tin swift with a single sulfurite setting, handy for a little extra oomph when walking about. But on closer inspection it had the sheen of silver and the crystal set in the handle was big enough that the druid could easily reshape it into anything he wanted. There was nothing in the brim or band of his plain, brown cap. He wore a neckerchief in a hunter’s knot. His worn, green jacket was damp from the rain but, as it had slowed to a drizzle, wasn’t soaking and was otherwise unremarkable. There was a pocket watch in his vest pocket but no weapons in his belt unless you counted the three glowing fulminite crystals in the loops over his right hip.

There were four loops in the belt, Roy noticed. One was empty.

He grunted and filed that away then turned out the general’s pockets. Just a few coins there. Last he checked the boots – or, rather, boot as Oldfathers had lost his right leg at the knee at some point and now it was just a hickory peg. The boot contained a lot of leg and nothing else. There was nothing at all untoward on his person, which was almost more suspicious than the druid showing up with his pockets full of incense and a belt full of weapons.

Unsatisfied but curious, Roy moved out of the way and gestured to the fire. “Take a seat, General?”

“A man after my own heart,” Oldfathers said with a rueful grin as he straightened his clothes. “I applaud your sense of caution.”

Roy just glared at him. O’Hara cleared her throat and asked, “Why do you make it sound as if you came looking for us?”

“Because I did. Or, at least, I did if you’re the group I think you are.” Nora had returned to her previous seat and Oldfathers sat by her, saying, “You are Mrs. Blythe, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The widow studied him with surprising innocence. “I can’t imagine what business you have with me, General.”

“Well, I’m afraid your older son has slipped out of town this afternoon.” Oldfathers took one of her hands gently in both of his. “Now I want you to stay calm. The situation is probably not what you think it is.”

If the general was trying to get Nora’s anger to override her fear then he was succeeding. She jerked her hands away from him, saying, “Calm? My sons are entrapped by ancient Sanna bedtime stories and I’m just supposed to stay calm?”

Oldfathers blinked once. “Perhaps the situation is what you think it is.” He glanced at Marshall and Reeds. “Perhaps that’s not surprising.”

Roy settled on a nearby rock that gave him a direct line to the druid. “Why is this any concern of yours?”

“Why?” His eyebrows shot up. “A child goes missing and I’m not supposed to be concerned? You clearly know about Yose and Mete and you think the stirring of such an ancient power wouldn’t worry any practitioner of the craft worth his implements?”

Roy scowled at Oldfathers over the fire, looking downright hostile in the shadows. “Why should it matter? These legends often stir the local elementals a bit and they can cause problems. But why would a druid – trained by and in line to inherit a stone circle – come all this way because of one local legend?”

Oldfathers’ gaze sild over to Reeds for a moment, then back again. “They haven’t told you, have they?”

Roy also glanced at Reeds, who was looking uncomfortable. But he also looked past Reeds to Marshall, who nodded. “What haven’t they told me? That Yose’s spirit sleeps in the lake by Yellowstone? That his brother sleeps here on the mountain, by the nawonota-“

He froze, mind jumping forward a dozen steps then backtracking to examine each step in the logic. A nawonota was a talisman that defended against evil spirits. None of the Noble Metals could effect a spirit so those kinds of defenses weren’t part of Vulcanic magic, the tradition he knew the most about, but Tetzlanii magic worried about spirits a great deal and they didn’t repel spirits, like a druid might use incense to repel trees. Instead the Tetzlanii trapped them for use in other rituals. If the Sanna used the same method the nawonota might be some kind of spiritual pit trap.

And Reeds said Yose and Mete were equals. The older brother was vulna, an avatar of the First Elements, and no longer strictly human. That implied the younger was vulna as well. That was a powerful thing to trap, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. And an avatar was already part spirit so the journey all the way there was easier than normal, as Yose’s fate proved. “Mete’s spirit is trapped in the nawonota, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Reeds said. “I thought you understood.”

He really should have. All the pieces were there but he hadn’t put them together because he’d focused on Oldfathers instead. “Okay, he’s in the nawonota. I don’t know anything about how those work, so what does it mean that he’s trapped there?”

“Nawonota are not designed to destroy or cleanse,” Reeds said. “They contain until a medicine man can prepare the rites to cleanse the spirits and send them to rest.”

“Based on stories the Stone Circle collected in the early days of the Columbian settlement I have reason to believe Mete is the avatar for the Bones of Enkidu,” Oldfathers said. “That alone is enough to make him dangerous even in death. But there’s also evidence to suggest the legend of his battle with his brother has played out at least twice a century since they fought.”

“How long ago was that?” O’Hara asked.

“The Sanna don’t keep time quite like we do,” the druid said.

But Reeds interrupted him before he could continue. “The Brothers cycle has played out at least a dozen times, perhaps as many as twenty. The tribes in this part of the land have kept the stories and agree on that.”

Oldfathers nodded. “That roughly matches the Stone Circle’s count, which is either fifteen or sixteen iterations. And each time a pair of powerful brothers fights, the younger dies and his spirit is taken into the nawonota.”

“So there’s more than one iteration of the story trapped there?” Grunt asked. “Or have they all fused into one super spirit?”

“We can’t know until we see it,” Reeds said, “but whatever the outcome I doubt we will find a rational, human spirit left. The Bones of Enkidu will be all that is there.”

“Sorry,” Nora put it, “but what’s the significance of these bones?”

“Enkidu was the first wild man,” Oldfathers said. “He rejected civilization and destroyed cities wherever he found them. As an avatar of the Unshakeable Foundation he represents the earth in general and humanity’s origins in the wild state of nature in particular. My understanding was that, in the original legends, Mete was balanced by his brother who was avatar for the Spark of Creation, though it’s unclear which. But Yose hasn’t had any way to fuse with his successive iterations like Mete has. If they meet again they’re not going to be in any way equal. Yose will face generations of powerful warriors alone.”

“That is not an issue so long as the nawonota contains Mete,” Reeds said. “But nawonota are not meant to stand alone. They’re meant as part of a household’s defenses, and a household is intended as part of a tribe. Without the support of these greater patterns of power any nawonota, no matter how well made, will fail and release its prisoners on the world. Mete must be cleansed and sent on before that happens.”

Roy’s attention flicked to Marshall, who looked uncharacteristically grave, and decided it was best they leave that line of discussion for the time being. “So let me see if I follow your plan, General Oldfathers. You learned the Brothers legend was waking and came here to do something about it before Mete got out of his prison.”

“Protecting Arthur’s legacy is one of my duties, yes,” he confirmed. “Can’t do that if a wild man tears the civilization he founded apart, can I?”

“Fair enough. You clearly had some plan in place to do that. Want to share it with us?”

He hesitated for a moment but Nora leaned forward, hands clasped, and said, “Please, General.”

“Very well. I deployed various methods to slow your son’s progress up the mountain along the most likely routes Thomas could take, although with the aid of Yose there’s little chance they will endanger him. With the time that buys me I intend to confront and purify Mete and end the cycle before your sons meet in battle.” Oldfathers gestured vaguely down the ridges. “I tracked Thomas a little ways out of Yellowstone and it’s likely that he’s following the same route you did, so he’s going to run into a powerful elemental I conjured a couple of ridges down. You probably saw it overhead this morning.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence around the campfire. “About that,” Roy said. “We certainly saw it.”

Oldfathers studied him for a second. “And after seeing it?”

“Thunderbirds are not exactly benevolent creatures, General. We dispersed it.”

The general huffed in annoyance. “Well. I can’t blame you for that, I suppose, they are typically hostile and dangerous.”

“How did you not notice?” O’Hara demanded.

“I spent most of this afternoon collecting the measures I placed on other parts of the mountain, so they wouldn’t pose a danger to anyone else later.” Oldfathers crossed his arms and stared into the fire in a fit of pique. “I’ll have to set up something else tomorrow.”

“I think not, General,” Roy said.

When he didn’t continue, O’Hara leaned in to say something but Grunt put a hand on her arm and gently moved her back. Roy got to his feet and moved to the edge of the overhang, turning his back to the fire, and looked out at the rain, which had come back for a second showing. But he wasn’t really paying attention to it.

When he’d gotten on the Express a few days ago he’d been expecting to help an old friend take care of something simple, like chasing off squatters, rounding up some bandits or maybe hunting a griffon or two. Running down a bounty, even a big one like Hezekiah Oldfathers, was a step up from that but not a drastic one. Until that moment he’d kept hold of the hope that they could catch or kill Oldfathers and be done with the matter. Ever since he’d had his first brush with the raw power of the First Elements back in Tetzlan he’d been trying to avoid them and their avatars, with only middling success. Clearly this trip was going to go into the failure column of that reckoning.

On the one hand he could walk off the mountain the next morning and let the general try whatever he wanted, regardless of the consequences. On the other hand, Grunt and Mrs. Blythe would be right there on ground zero and Roy couldn’t see anything good coming of that regardless of whether Oldfathers succeeded or failed. No matter how he sliced it, ignoring the presence of a wanted man about to acquire a legendary spirit that equaled or surpassed him in malevolence wasn’t an option. Which left only one good alternative that Roy could think of.

He turned and moved back to his seat. Grunt handed him a cup of coffee as he got settled, which Roy took with an appreciative nod. “So,” Grunt said. “How bad is it? Clay Creek? The Wilderness? Five Ridges?”

Roy blew on the coffee for a moment, contemplating. “I’d say somewhere between Five Ridges and the Summer of Snow.”

That got a low whistle. “Not good, Harp.”

“No, it ain’t.” Roy took a gulp of coffee and turned his attention to Oldfathers. “You’ve been very upfront with me, General. I’ll do you the same courtesy. I don’t believe you.”

“On what front?” The druid didn’t seem upset, only curious.

“Oh, I trust your assessment of the magical implications of the situation on the mountain,” Roy said. “You’re easily the most accomplished arcanist on this mountain, possibly in Pyrenes County. I just don’t believe that the man who should stand within Morainhenge, who has more reason to hate Columbia than any person living, who refused to appear at the peace signing, who actually ran from Columbian law with some of the most powerful relics in the nation in hand, will just cleanse an ancient and malevolent legend because he happened to take a passing interest in it. So why should I believe that’s really why you came here, and not to add that legend to the long list of powerful magics at your disposal?”

Oldfathers studied Roy for a long moment, the dancing flames setting shadows flickering across his face and giving the momentary impression he was smiling. Then the general’s cane began to twist and writhe, the crystal in its grip glowing softly, and the silver changed from a walking tool to a long, narrow bladed sword. His left hand rested on the quillons of the crosspiece. He raised his right hand, palm out, and spoke in a deep, sonorous voice. “My name is Hezekiah Oldfathers, commander of the Knights of the Stone Circle.”

Roy felt as if the world around him was falling away as the general continued. “I serve at the pleasure of Arthur, First and Forever King of Avalon.”

In the far distance something ancient and awesome turned to regard that small and insignificant campfire. Roy felt its attention fall on him, as heavy and oppressive as the air before rain. “In storm and sunshine I walk among the stone circle and steward its legacy for the coming generations.”

The fire leapt and danced at Oldfather’s words, the wind and rain whispered wordless replies and the stone wall behind them echoed it all back for the world to hear. “And I swear on the grave of Pellinore, the Hunter, that all I have said concerning my goals and intentions are true.”

The general lowered his hand and in that moment it seemed as though some new, foundational law of the universe slammed into place. Everything returned to normal a second later, Grunt’s sharp intake of breath telling Roy he’d felt it, too.

Unphased by what had just transpired, O’Hara laughed and said, “You don’t expect any of us to believe you because of that, do you?”

“He does,” Roy whispered. “And we do.”

Firespinner Chapter Six – Thunderbird

Previous Chapter

A lively stream cut through the ridge on the opposite side, ran down into the heart of the valley and turned, following the valley out of sight. It was a picturesque sight, except for the crackling amorphous creature flying back and forth over the stream occasionally shedding a lightning bolt from its wings. In truth only the core of the creature was protean, the rest of the body – head, beak, wings and talons – were well defined, if given to bending or distorting in odd ways when they moved as if the creature had no bones or joints. Which it didn’t.

“Ignis Fatuus, we’re lucky it didn’t see us,” Roy muttered, watching the thunderbird warily over the crest of the hill. “We might be able to get the drop on it.”

“Do we really have to fight that thing?” Nora asked, looking askance at the beast. “It looks like more trouble than it’s worth.”

“A fine question.” Roy looked to Grunt. “How long to go around?”

“If we want to keep going north east?” The big man thought about it for a moment. “‘At least six hours, maybe as long as a day. Depends on the route we take and if we run into anything there. Mountain lions are pretty common up here but they’re not as big a deal as a Sasquatch. Those’ll bury you with rock slides before you ever see ’em.”

“Are they hostile?” Roy asked.

“Just hungry,” Grunt replied. “Always hungry.”

“But also rare this far south,” Reeds added. “I don’t think we’ll see one until winter takes hold. Either way we don’t have time to go around. It’s about a day and a half from here to Mete’s Grave, we can’t afford a side trip.”

“Are we sure the thunderbird wants to fight us?” O’Hara asked. “It looks almost totally elemental. Those kinds of creatures rarely take note of humans.”

“Thunderbirds aren’t natural creatures,” Roy said. “They’re created via Tetzlanii blood rituals and given a purpose during their creation. Traditionally they’re used as guards. Add in the fact that blood rituals are almost always malevolent and yeah, I think it’s pretty likely the thing will fight us if it sees us.”

“It’s Tetzlanii?” O’Hara frowned. “What kind of wards did they use to contain them? I have most of the major ones with my tile board.”

“As I understand it the blood ties it back to the ritualist somehow, no wards, charms or geas needed to control it,” Roy said. “Besides, tile magic is earth and fire, thunderbirds are air and water. Magics without a common elemental factor tend to mix poorly.”

“And I’m afraid water can’t hold any kind of pattern for long so it’s not used in the Teutonic tradition at all,” Reeds said. “I don’t suppose any of you are hiding secret talents as a stone singer?”

Marshall puffed himself up, spread his arms theatrically and exhaled in dramatic fashion.

“That’s a no,” Grunt said. He glanced at Roy and took note of the way he was fingering his necklace. “Why don’t you just do your freezing trick to it, Roy?”

The wendingo bone beads were cool to the touch, free from the malice of their old owner but still so very, very hungry. “We’ll keep that as a court of last resort. But I do think focusing on the water half of a thunderbird is the best bet. It’s easier to disperse the vessel of a spell than counter its driving force anyways. Here’s what we’re going to do.”


Grunt and Roy scrambled down the side of the valley. In spite of Grunt’s extra hundred pounds of size and two handed weapon he made the descent far more gracefully than Roy did. He easily slid down patches of grass, leapt over stretches of loose stones and levered himself around small trees, where Roy seemed to get caught on every unseen root or hidden rock outcropping. But the army taught Roy years ago that he was a city slicker through and through so he was used to it. The goal was to make sure the thunderbird didn’t notice them and in that he succeeded.

Climbing up the other side of the gorge was more difficult.

For starters he’d removed the buckler from his belt and drawn his sword. Like many things in his life, Roy’s weapons were custom built to mesh with his powers. The buckler had a large eight stone crystal set in the center giving him a lot of raw firepower to draw from, a nice option to improve on the defensive qualities of the light shield or a midrange offense as needed. The sword was a falcata, a heavy chopping weapon for close combat and an effective platform for catapulting fireballs long distances. They gave him plenty of options for fighting at all ranges, the first concern of a firespinner at work. Terrible gear for a soldier in the bush, trying to move quietly and communicate via hand signals.

Worse, Grunt kept picking his way up using one hand to climb, the other all that he needed to balance his sword over his shoulder, blazing a path that Roy, with only half of one hand free, had a hard time following. Roy was pretty sure Grunt kept juggling his sword from one hand to the other just to rub it in. Still, for all the problems of climbing the gorge they made it almost all the way to the second ridge line without drawing the thunderbird’s attention.

Once there they settled in to watch. Roy did his best to contain his impatience. They’d already lost the better part of an hour crossing the valley and he was very aware of how little time they had overall. But as they said in the army, serenity was akin to alacrity. So they waited and watched.

After ten minutes it was clear the thunderbird was circling over the cleft in the ridge where the small river cut through on its way down the mountain. It never veered off into the valleys on either side of the ridge or went further along the rise in either direction. Reeds said they should follow the river to reach Mete’s Grave.

The thunderbird being there couldn’t be a coincidence. They needed to get rid of it.

Roy signaled Grunt to get ready then started to work his way along the ridge towards the river. After a minute or so the thunderbird took note and swept over him, circling in predatory fashion. Grunt leapt to his feet and his sword roared to life, bronze blade gleaming, flame pouring from its fuller.

The thunderbird shrieked. The earsplitting noise started higher than a train whistle and dropped down to a bone rattling boom. As the tone dropped the creature swooped down out of the air towards Grunt. He raised his sword point towards the elemental and the weapon spat a stream of fire at the thunderbird. The thunderbird jerked away from the assault but towards Roy, who was already pulling fire from the sulfurite in his shield, forming it into a wall to block the elemental from retreating. Caught between the two men’s attacks the body of the thunderbird began rippling with steam. It crackled in pain.

Roy and Grunt moved forward, pressing the creature between their fiery weapons. But the creature wasn’t stupid. It dodged and weaved with frightening speed, skirting the stream of flame from Grunt’s direction and swooping away across the valley in a flash of barely perceptible movement. It stopped in a crack of thunder right before colliding with the faint shimmer that marked O’Hara’s spell walls. Maybe it knew the wall was there, in spite of its near invisibility, maybe that was as far as it could go and maybe it just noticed the rest of the group waiting there, behind O’Hara’s wards.

Grunt turned and made to start down the slope, as if he had a chance of getting back to that side of the valley in time to do anything. “Wait here!” Roy yelled. Grunt shot him a questioning look. “Lighting falls and returns! Reeds can handle it, we’ll catch it on the return stroke!”

But Roy had made one mistake. It was a natural one, but a mistake none the less. Grunt told him one of the brothers worked magic and later Roy learned that brother was Reeds. He was also the brother who could talk. And at some point Roy had just started thinking Reeds was the active one of the pair, that when push came to shove Reeds did what needed doing and his brother was some kind of moral or spiritual support. He realized how wrong that assumption was when Marshall leapt up on top of the spellwall, meeting the thunderbird as it started to cross over the barrier.

One of the elemental’s talons lashed out at him, raking crackling gashes into the spellwall. Marshall met the blow with the obsidian head of his warclub, the simple but brutally effective weapon of Sanna braves. Man and beast strained against each other for a split second, an ominous energy building between them, then erupted into an exchange of a dozen sizzling attacks, deflections, blocks and counters, all in the space of a single breath.

It was so fast Roy only caught glimpses of the exchange in afterimages. Looking away was unthinkable. But Roy forced himself to do it anyway, swapping his sword and shield hands with practiced efficiency. Then he tossed the shield to his partner saying, “Grunt, discus!”

Grunt shifted his greatsword to his offhand and caught the buckler then turned the motion into a spinning throw that send the shield arcing across the valley. It wouldn’t quite make it to the spellwall but got close before it started to drop. When it did Roy reached out to the sulfurite set in it and asked the fire there to come out.

The fire power within burst out in a massive wave of flame and heat that washed over the thunderbird with a violent hiss. The blast almost pulled the creature apart in a cloud of steam but its wings beat the air and it gained enough altitude to get far enough away from the dissipating fireball to pull itself back together.

Sensing weakness Marshall threw his club at the struggling elemental and it flashed away again. But as Roy had told Grunt, the creature was forced to return to where it had been a moment ago, just as a lightning bolt that falls from the sky must return to the clouds.

As soon as the thunderbird vanished Roy’s iron dagger left its sheath. Once it reappeared in the air just over his head he threw it before he heard the clap heralding the creature’s return. The point of the dagger buried itself into the creatures body just below the wing. The thunderbird let out an electrical shriek then burst with an incredible sound that Roy felt more than heard. He and Grunt were thrown to the ground as water driven by the creatures sudden death lashed against them like knives.

For the second time in as many days Roy found himself staring up at the sky and getting wet with no clear notion how he got there. Apparently the thunderbird’s death had prompted the clouds to start raining. Rather than sit there and get water in his eyes he got back to his feet again. The ringing in his ears pulsed for a moment or two, eventually settling into time with the throbbing in his ribs to remind him that working as a professional violent man had steep costs associated with it.

He was gratified to see that O’Hara’s group was making their way across the valley. The brothers were currently helping Nora and O’Hara get their mounts across the river. Roy tried to get Grunt’s attention but couldn’t hear himself over the ringing and assumed it was the same for his friend. So he started searching the top of the ridge on his own.

After about five minutes of looking he heard a distant voice saying, “What are you doing? We need to keep moving.”

It was O’Hara, getting down from her bushwalker with a jar of something in one hand. Roy shook his head, trying to clear the ringing a little, then said, “First we need to bury the heart. If we don’t there are complications.”

“Heart?” She gestured Grunt over and applied some kind of salve to his ears. “What heart? Elementals don’t have hearts, Mr. Harper. They’re just blobs of power and medium.”

“It’s a human heart, O’Hara.” He tapped his chest for emphasis. “Blood ritual, remember? The only way I’ve seen to make a thunderbird involves taking a beating heart from a living person. That kind of thing was why the Esperians burned all the blood ritual records they could find.”

“What happens if we don’t bury this heart?” Reeds asked.

“Hauntings. People drown in their sleep even if they’re nowhere near water. Eventually people get struck by lightning on clear days. Nasty stuff.” Roy pulled a small flame from one cufflink and used it to illuminate the ground beneath a thick clump of bushes. “You should be able to find it by smell, they’re not exactly fresh. Even if they are still beating.”

He glanced up in time to see Marshall holding his nose and shaking his head. “He says the creature did not smell when he was near it,” Reeds clarified. “Or at least he didn’t notice it. Neither did I.”

“I didn’t notice anything either,” Grunt added, scooping the gunk back out of his ears. “You gotta try this stuff, Harp.”

“Later.” Roy smelled his clothes in a few places, searching for the telltale stench of the bloodwater that made up the bodies of thunderbirds. To his surprise he found nothing. “Right, that is strange. It’s not a mild scent, it should still be obvious even with the thing dead.”

Roy pulled his light back and tucked it away in his cufflink again. “I don’t know what happened here but I want to find out.”

“You said these things aren’t natural,” Nora said. “Could the druid you mentioned have conjured the creature? Maybe he blended the Tetzlanii ritual with some kind of druidic magic?”

“That’s exactly what worries me,” he admitted.

“In that case maybe this was part of it?” O’Hara held up an odd crystalline sliver about as thick as one of her fingers. A gold band ran around the circumference about a third of the way up its length. “We found it on the way across the valley.

The crystal was a dark, smokey gray shot through with faint sky blue streaks. Roy took it and turned it over in his hands. The hair on the back of them stood out straight. “Well, well, well, someone found a chunk of fulminite.”

“What’s fulminite?” Nora asked.

“It’s like sulfurite,” O’Hara said, “except it holds the power of the air rather than fire. And no one knows an easy way to recharge it. Or any way short of standing in a storm and hoping you get struck by lightning. I’ve never heard of anyone pulling it off.”

“If it functions like sulfurite the crystal glows brighter the more power that’s in it,” Roy said, peering into the crystal’s depths. “So it must be pretty well spent.”

“Could this take the place of the heart in the blood ritual?” Reeds asked.

“I don’t know.” Roy tucked the crystal into the inside pocket of his jacket. “But it could.”

“Sounds like a very druidic thing to do,” Grunt said. “They like messing with power sources and plugging them into new mediums. That’s how they found so many different kinds of trees they could manipulate.”

“So you think this creature was created by General Oldfathers?” Reeds asked.

“It’s not simple or easy magic to do,” Roy said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of people in the frontier counties that could do it but he’s the only one we know of nearby.”

O’Hara studied Roy for a moment. “How do you know so much about these thunderbirds anyways? Could you make one?”

“I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of work for a lot of different people,” he said. “But I couldn’t make a thunderbird. Even if I could predict a lightning strike and had an alter carved and ready to take the blood, I don’t think I could bring myself to rip someone’s heart out just to make one of the foul tempered things.”

“And on that reassuring note,” Ben said, “let’s get out of this coalstoking rain.”

Firespinner Chapter Three: The Widow’s Gambit

Previous Chapter

The Argentum Express departed the next morning at eight. But Roy was tempted to wait until mid-morning and catch the local Highland train so he could cut across Pyrenees County to Trapperhorn Station and check on things there. But the local was more of an investment – the H&O Rail Company wouldn’t let him on for free like Argentum would. He was looking over his rail schedules at a table in The Singing Jack and picking at a passable meatloaf sandwich when Reeds asked, “Is the food not to your taste?”

Roy brought his gaze up from the railway tables to find the Sanna man and his brother standing there. “Do you two ever make any coalstoking noise?”

“Silence is a habit that is difficult to cultivate and easy to discard.” Marshall laughed his silent laugh and slapped his brother on the arm. “Marshall, of course, is better at it than I am.”

“Of course. You both prefer to cultivate this habit rather than discard it, I take it.”

“It’s something we’re used to, at least.” The two brothers helped themselves to chairs and Roy began gathering up his papers.

“At least you get to talk for him.” Roy snorted. “My sisters never did me that courtesy.”

Marshall opened his mouth wide and stuck his tongue out. Or what was left of it. The Sanna’s tongue ended in a stump of angry scar tissue, the rest cut out long ago from the looks of things. “It is not a choice on his part, you see,” Reeds said. “But neither is it a burden on mine.”

“Very considerate of you.” Roy piled his plate and sandwich on top of the papers and folded his hands in front of him. “All right, gentlemen, I can tell this isn’t a simple courtesy call. What’s it all about?”

“There is someone we would like you to meet, Mr. Harper.”

The signal was clearly prearranged as the woman at the next table over, who sat down about five minutes before the brothers appeared, stood up and moved over to join them. She was tall, fair skinned, with coils of dark hair barely contained under the black kerchief on her head. That and the black dress she wore were a good clue to her identity. “You must be the Widow Blythe.”

She sat down beside Marshall in a single smooth motion that spoke of grace and self-control. A quick study of her face revealed bags under the eyes and lines around the mouth, small sings of recent grief. But there was resolve there as well. She studied him with equal intensity. “And you’re Roy Harper. The Giant Killer.”

“Only Giant Killer I know was the First King of Avalon. But yeah, I’m Roy Harper.” He studied the woman for a moment longer but he didn’t see anything beyond the ordinary there. She was a strong woman, to be sure, and ordinary strength was more than sufficient for most purposes. It’d won the war, after all.

But the war hadn’t killed Hezekiah Oldfathers.

“I hear you’re wanting to help Grunt with his job.”

Confusion replaced quiet exhaustion. “Who?”

“He means Mr. Grunwald,” Reeds interjected.

“Oh.” The widow’s face returned to normal, or at least tired. “That’s right. I was told I had to convince you in order to come along.”

“Me?” Roy’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. This was Grunt trying to make a point to him, he was sure of that. He wasn’t sure what the point was and didn’t like Grunt using a widow to do it. “Did he mention that I’ve decided not to take this job?”

“Yes, but Mr. Grunwald also said he intended to ask you to serve as leader. And since you were still here in town he’d like your input on whether I stay or go, which I take to mean you have to say I can go before he’ll allow it.”

Roy took a large bite out of his sandwich and chewed, mulling over the situation and trying to figure out what Grunt’s agenda was. Finally he swallowed and said, “You shouldn’t go.”

She scowled. “You didn’t even listen to my story.”

“Don’t have to. Try something for me. Drink every bottle in this saloon dry. You know what you’ll have accomplished?”

“Nothing.”

“Nonsense. You’ll have made every whiskey and beer brewer from here to Hancock City a little richer, and that’s more good than you’ll do traipsing into the mountains after Hezekiah Oldfathers.” He tore another bite out of the sandwich, intending to end the conversation.

But Marshall nudged his brother and Reeds shifted in discomfort. Marshall made pushing motions. Reeds sighed. “Mr. Harper, you should understand that there is more in play here than personal feelings. There are obligations of great import that Mrs. Blythe must fulfill.”

Roy washed his sandwich down with tangy, metallic well water and a disgusted grimace. “Did the trees kill your husband, Mrs. Blythe?”

The blunt question took her aback. “Yes,” she said with a hitch in her voice. “But their real purpose at the time was kidnapping my son.”

His resolve wavered. “The trees are taking children?”

“Just Andrew,” the widow replied. “Harvey tried to stop them when they tried to leave with our boy and that was when they… they…”

“I understand, ma’am.” Soothing widows in these situations was something Roy was more than familiar with and his tone turned gentle without conscious thought. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

A silence settled over their group for a moment. Then Reeds broke it. “This brings us to the Brothers.”

Roy kept his attention on the widow and did his best to hide his exasperation. “Mrs. Blythe, the more of your family that is involved in this situation, the less I think you should go.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, a tinge of desperation working into her voice. “Thomas is fine, he’s still here at home. The problem is that they’re twins.”

“Of course.” Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why does it matter that they’re twins?”

Marshall held up a fist. Then raised one finger, a second, and a third. Reeds nodded. “If you would allow me to start at the beginning and go in order?”

A groan set the worst of his frustration free of his stomach so Roy could sit more comfortably in his seat. “Fine. Go ahead.”

“In the high past there were two Sanna Wahnumpun brothers, twins that shared a face. As we do.” Reeds gestured to his brother. “And as Thomas and Andrew Blythe do. The names of these brothers were Yose and Mete.”

“Yose?” Roy frowned. “Like the geyser in the lake outside of town?”

“We will get there,” Reeds said. “Now Yose and Mete were loving brothers, more so than normal. But one day they hunted a stag and could not decide which of them would take the antlers. So they gave them to their mother, who fashioned them into a nawonota-“

“A what?”

“A ceremonial defense against ill spirits.” As his brother answered Marshall’s hands were sketching a complicated octagonal pattern on the table top. “Alone it has no remarkable properties but as part of a household’s mystic defenses it has considerable power. And because of the beauty of the stag’s antlers, both boys desired it.”

“Sibling rivalry can appear over anything, I suppose.”

“As you say. The brothers vied for their mother’s favor but she knew that giving either brother the nawonota would poison the affections of the other.”

Roy grunted. “A wise woman.”

“And yet even wisdom has its limits.” Reeds sighed. “Mete stole the treasure. His brother became furious and hunted Mete to this very mountain. They climbed to the top and struggled there. Finally Mete seized the nawonota from his brother and, in the process, fell from the mountain top to his death. Struck by grief but still burning with rage, Yose was transformed. We would say he became Vulna.”

Roy sucked in a deep breath. “An avatar. I’ve never heard of the Primordial Fire offering its blessings in circumstances like that.”

“Perhaps Yose was already one. There are other stories of the Brothers that tell of their great hunts. In some of the tales they already bore the blessings of the Vulna.” Reeds shrugged. “It is not a thing I know much about. Regardless, after his brother’s death Yose lost some part of himself. In despair he threw himself into the lake in an attempt to quench the flames but to this day he has not succeeded.”

That explained the geyser. Unlike blessings from the Lord in Raging Skies and Lady in Burning Stone, which were tools in the hands of the faithful and functioned only when called for, the powers given to avatars of the First Elements were wild and barely under human control, often actively working towards their own ends when not carrying out the duties the avatars set for them. And where the guardian deities of Avalon were creatures dedicated to building civilization the First Elements didn’t have any understanding of the concept, which was why so many in Avalon and Columbia viewed their avatars as quasi blasphemous. Roy knew the Sanna didn’t see things quite that way so he kept that thought to himself. “So you believe that Andrew Blythe’s kidnapping and this legend are tied in some way?”

“I don’t think it, I know it,” the widow said. “I’ve been to the Hearthfire and petitioned the Lady to cast Shadows. The result was clear and the Hearth Mother agreed with me. My boys have been tied to something ancient and powerful.”

Roy massaged his temples, dreading where this was going. He’d been around too long and seen too much to discount old legends out of hand. It was rare they were the way people remembered them, it was rarer still for them to contain no truth at all. And true or false, they were always powerful. “Far be it from me to doubt the Hearth Keepers,” Roy said. “I take it you’ve confirmed this outcome by your own means, Reeds?”

He held up the divining tool he’d shown in Grunt’s office. “I have.”

“And you,” he looked back to the widow, “think you have to go on this expedition because the mother was the peacekeeper between Yose and Mete.”

She made the Sign of the Hearth, saying, “The shadows ended with a vision of the creche. Clearly Our Lady in Burning Stone has appointed a mother to end this.”

That kind of clarity was precious rare in Roy’s experience, dangerous to those who had it and those who thought they had it in equal measure. “Have you ever gone to war, Mrs. Blythe?”

“I met my husband on the Palmyra Campaign, Mr. Harper.” She had the gall to look proud of that fact. “I was a Hearth Keeper traveling with the Columbian Regular Infantry’s Third Division.”

Which explained some of it. Most of the Third Division stopped on the Mukwonago river, holding the bridges open. They hadn’t seen the Five Ridges.

“You don’t wear the Keeper’s Veil. Why is that?”

To his surprise she blushed at the question. “Well, Harvey Blythe was an army captain, not from the Storm’s Watch.”

“Ah…” Roy understood the problem at once but he could see from the confused looks on Reeds and Marshall’s faces that they did not. “The Lord and Lady each have their own clergy, or spirit talkers as I think you would call them. The Storm’s Watch takes only men and they serve the Lord in Raging Skies, the Hearth Keepers are all women and serve the Lady in Burning Stone.”

Reeds leaned forward, looking skeptical. “And they are not allowed to take a husband or a wife?”

“Only if it’s from the opposite order,” Mrs. Blythe said with a tinge of regret. “Otherwise it’s a breach of the vows and we – they – can no longer serve.”

“There are many aspects to any sacred vow,” Roy murmured. “And at times you must choose which you will keep and which you will break. That’s a given when any creature as profane as a human being touches on anything as sacred as an oath.”

“You speak from experience?” Reeds asked.

Roy thought back to his oaths of enlistment. To his election as officer. To the many promises made to friends during dark days on the battlefield. To a fearsome covenant, sworn on a frigid morning in Leondale, during the Summer of Snow. “Yes. Very much so.”

The table was quiet as each of the four turned to their own thoughts. All of Roy’s instincts told him not to take a woman on what amounted to a suicide mission, particularly a woman with little arcane prowess and a deep seated grief on top of all of it. He wasn’t much of a learned man but he could tell that the circumstances on the other side of things balanced out that reluctance. Which left him with only his own judgment to rely on.

And with magic, particularly magic on the scale of a legend, it was better to be prepared than not. “Very well, Mrs. Blythe. If all you’ve told me is true I suppose we have no choice but to take you with us.” Marshall laughed his disconcerting, silent laugh and slapped Roy on the arm, then pointed at him emphatically. “Yes, Marshall, us. All things considered I suppose I’ll have to come along, too. So long as your son remains here in town and out of danger I’ll have to do my part to make sure Oldfathers keeps living up to his reputation as Orphanfree. Your sons won’t be orphans as long as I have a say.”

“We’re glad to have you, Mr. Harper,” Mrs. Blythe said.

“Don’t be.” Roy stood up gingerly, still favoring his right side, and straightened his jacket. “If Grunt’s serious about letting me run this show you’ll find I don’t play favorites and I don’t plan on making allowances for you just because you’re a woman.”

“I was under the impression Columbians were supposed to defer to ladies,” Reeds said.

“And we do. Lady is a behavior, not a state of being, and hunting wanted men through the mountains is not ladylike.” Roy started for the saloon door, then hesitated. “Which reminds me. Do any of you know where I can find Agent O’Hara?”

Firespinner Chapter Two – Orphanfree

Previous Chapter

Roy expected to wind up in the Woodsmen’s Guildhall, or maybe the back room of a local saloon. He hadn’t expected the offices of Nolan and Grunwald, Solicitors General. “I could see you with a bearded ax,” Roy said. “But Corporal Grunwald as an officer of the Court? Now that is truly shocking.”

“Anyone can slice trees,” Grunt said. “But there’s more to the business than that. And there’s more of a future to clerking, even in a place like this, than just cutting lumber day in and day out.”

The chair in front of Ben’s desk was plush and comfortable, cradling Roy’s abused back and sides in velvety softness. “This is mighty nice, Grunt. You done good for yourself.”

Grunt sat down in his chair and fished through the drawers of the desk. “That calls for a celebration. Still a whiskey man?”

“Gave it up years ago.”

He froze, looking like a child stealing sweets. “Oh?”

“Long story. I’d rather hear about why ensorcelled trees are attacking town on the regular. Based on how fast the guild responded this isn’t an isolated incident, is it?”

“It’s not.” Ben switched drawers but kept rummaging. “Give it five minutes? The Sanna boys are supposed to join us and I figured I could fill all of you in at once.”

Roy pondered that for a moment. He’d heard feelings about the Sanna were pretty strong up north, almost as strong as people felt about the Tetzlani down by the southern border. But Grunt didn’t seem concerned about two of them butting into Guild business. Either they were well known in town… or the situation was just that bad.

Maybe both.

“You know these two?”

“Not personally but the Guild Captain seems to think they’re trustworthy.” Ben shrugged. “He’s a good judge of people and I’ve never had any problems with the Sanna personally so I’m not that worried. Plus they live in town, not across the border in the Treaty Lands, so they can’t be that close to the local tribes.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Really? We’re a good day’s horse ride from the border, aren’t we?”

“Closer to two,” said a voice behind him.

Roy jerked up and out of the chair, yanking a bead of fire out of his cufflink and rolling it ready between finger and thumb of his right hand. Two tall, thin Sanna men stood in the doorway of the office, dressed in the tanned leather pants common to their people but wearing the collared denim shirts favored by most frontier Columbians. Neither one carried weapons. Roy blew a breath out, waited for his side to stop spasming and slipped the fire back into its home. “Hearthfires, you two give a man the frights.”

The Sanna in the lead inclined his head to one side, studying Roy with open curiosity. “You must be the man Mr. Grunwald was expecting today. Our counterpart in this task. Allow me to introduce my brother, Marsh Reeds, and myself, River Reeds.” Marsh held his hand palm out with all fingers pointed upwards in the traditional Sanna gesture of greeting. “He prefers to be called Marshall.”

“Does he now?” Roy studied the brothers a little closer and noted that, at a glance, the beaded belts they wore were the only way to tell them apart, for otherwise they were as alike as a man and his doppelganger. Although Marshall was most likely not a magical duplicate of his brother. “Does he speak for himself?”

“No.” Marshall laughed silently and his brother continued. “Please call me Reeds.”

“Roy Harper.” Roy folded his thumb over his first and last fingers, holding the middle two up to form a chimney and making the Sign of the Hearth. “Warm hearthfires, Mr. Reeds.”

Grunt cleared this throat. “Reeds is part of his given name, Roy, not a family name. Sanna names don’t work that way.”

“My mistake.” Roy lowered himself back into the chair, barely hiding a wince in the process. “We’re all here now, Grunt. Unless you want your Guild fixer here for the speech, too.”

“Not necessary. This is just so you three know what you’re up against.” Ben drew a wrinkled, tattered sheet of paper out of his desk and handed it to Reeds. “This man came through town five weeks ago. We think he’s been binding trees and sending them against the walls for the last month or so.”

Reeds handed the paper to his brother. “The land here is disturbed. The trees may be moving on their own, in response to it. Such is the way of the forest.”

“The Guild hedge mages haven’t noted any changes in the land in the past two months but the trees are far more aggressive than in the past. Something specific is riling them up and he’s the most likely person to do it.” Grunt pulled another sheaf of papers out. “I have the surveyor’s records if you want to look.”

“Unnecessary.” Reeds pulled out an odd, heavily carved stick from a pouch on his belt. “The land has changed in the last two moons but not in the lay of rivers or stones. In the lines of the spirit, which your hedge mages do not trace.”

The carvings on the stick seemed to move and shift of their own volition. Reeds held it up for them to study. “We can cast the kennet, if you wish.”

“I don’t doubt your divinations, Reeds. It’s true there are things in these hills the Sanna understand better than us.” Marshall passed the paper to Roy. “But our guest could easily be why-“

“Dust and ashes!” Roy recognized the paper immediately. He probably still had his own copy of it, somewhere in a trunk left from his army days. The Vulcanus Militia had printed thousands of them at the start of the Lakeshire War and many Columbian Regulars like himself had gotten copies when they took a hand in the conflict. A glance at the face in the center of the page was all it took for him to remember who it was. Major General, Sir Hezekiah Oldfathers, First in Line to Lordship of the Stone Circle, Knight of the Phoenixborn, Druid Emeritus of Lakeshire County, Columbia. Commanding officer, First Lakeshire Druidic Division. Once the second most powerful druid in the nation. Wanted traitor. 2,000 silver mark reward, dead or alive.

Roy threw the paper back on Grunt’s desk. “Orphanfree is here? Really, Grunt? Any other surprises I should know about? You don’t need two or three of us, you need the whole company back if you plan to take him on. Then at least they can bury us all in one place.”

“Orphanfree?” Reeds asked.

“He’s guaranteed to bury you before your parents, so you never have to worry about being an orphan,” Grunt explained. “Old fathers, young sons. That’s the joke.”

“It’s a joke?”

“No.” Roy snorted. “What next? You got a fourth Brother Walking hidden up here, too?”

“No giants, just the druid.” Grunt’s lips formed a humorless smile. “But we have the right person here for that, too.”

Roy leveled a finger at him. “Don’t you start.”

“The two of you know this man?”

“Not personally, Reeds,” Grunt said. “Just by reputation. He made a nasty one for himself during the war.”

“And before. And after.” Roy scowled. “This isn’t some druidic initiate, Grunt. Oldfathers came up during the golden era of Columbian druidry. If Morainehenge still stood today he’d be running it. He’s probably the most powerful and skilled druid left on this continent. You think he’s trying to level this town so you propose we go after him with five men?”

“Four, actually. Guild Agent O’Hara is a woman,” Reeds pointed out. Marshall nudged his brother. “Yes, fine. My brother would also like to include Widow Blythe.”

“I’m not sure-“

“No.” Roy cut Grunt off definitively. “We are not feeding a sixth person into the carnage, it is simply not going to help.”

“Harp.” Grunt gave his old friend a patient look. “It’s been ten years. General Oldfathers doesn’t have an army anymore and he’s not getting any younger.”

“Age and magic don’t tie together like age and strength, Grunt.”

“Plus we’ve got you and O’Hara so it’s not like we’re helpless on that score.”

Reeds cleared his throat. “I have some skill in the arcane as well. And the Widow was once in the service of your Lady in Burning Stone.”

“Outside of the cants and rituals I don’t think Hearthkeepers practice a whole lot of magic.”

“We’re talking about Orphanfree, Grunt,” Roy snapped. “It doesn’t matter if we’re all master vulcanists on a mountain covered in pine trees!”

“Fine. We’ll even the odds,” Grunt said, refusing to match Roy’s intensity. “You know plenty of other firespinners for hire. Go to the semaphore tower and sent a message to a few. Call up the Strongest Man-“

Roy got out of his seat even faster the second time, the pain in his side an echo to the thud of his fist on the desk. “Don’t say it. Ignis fatuus, Grunt, I know magic isn’t your thing but you should know creatures like that hear when you name them. And they’re likely to answer. Going to one, hat in hand, never solves problems.”

“Not even a problem like Orphanfree?”

“Oldfathers is just a man, Grunt. That isn’t, no matter what it’s called.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Harp.” Grunt sighed. “Listen, I asked for your help but there’s no hard feelings if you don’t want to. We’re not soldiers anymore. No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this one out.”

Roy pushed away from the desk with a grunt and smoothed the front of his jacket. “Fine. If that’s how it is, then that’s how it is. It was good to see you, Grunt, circumstances notwithstanding.”

Ben nodded once then turned his attention to Reeds. “Tell me about these divinations of yours, and what they suggest is going on up on the mountains.”

It was a dismissal and Roy knew it. He collected his hat from the rack and showed himself out of Grunt’s office. Marshall stared at him the entire way.

Firespinner Chapter One – Malice in the Pines

The afternoon sun struck Roy’s eyes the moment he stepped off the Argentum Express.

“Dust and ashes,” he muttered, jamming his derby hat onto his head to block the light. “Mountain air will be the death of me.”

The metal monstrosity of the sky train shifted and creaked as its frame cooled. Roy did his best to ignore it. In the recesses of his mind he knew exactly how much magic had lifted the Express off the ground in Leondale, how many sulfurite crystals had exhausted their fire to push it over the mountains to the head of the Mi-Tzi river. He also knew exactly how much power now bled from the bottom of the train’s cars behind him in smoke and embers, wasted. The fire whispered in the back of his mind. Told him it would gather if he willed it, begged him for purpose, for form, swore if he only gave in to his desire, the fire would burn it into reality.

But Roy Harper’s thoughts were his own. The fire was welcome in them only when invited and he hadn’t travelled here to burn. He’d come to work.

Roy straightened his jacket and crossed the platform towards town. The station was a few hundred feet outside of Yellowstone, connected to the town by a gravel path winding alongside the shores a of wide lake that took up the northern half of the valley. From the air the water had looked like an alien eye, a ring of reddish brown oxide deposits around a bright cyan pool with unfathomable depths at the center. But from the path the lake itself was little more than a strip of bright, rippling liquid below a picturesque landscape with the town walls giving way to the rising ridges of the Yellowstone mountains. In spite of the clear day down below gathering clouds hid the upper peaks from view. For a moment Roy enjoyed the simple pleasures of the natural world.

“Hungry tree! Hungry tree!”

Roy’s head snapped around, scanning for danger. Deep in his gut he felt something was wrong, something beyond the obvious, which was a twenty foot pine tree that had lurched out of the tree line and was rapidly closing on the stream of passengers making their way to Yellowstone. The tree’s roots thumped and slithered over the ground like dozens of crazed snakes. Loose stones and uprooted grass flew behind it, kicked up by the fast moving appendages.

The crowd of passengers panicked.

Most of the crowd saw the tree and bolted for town. Yellowstone’s ten foot tall earthworks were enough to stop most trees and Leroy could see the guard patrols atop it to fend off anything the walls alone wouldn’t deter so heading for town was a sensible move. More foolhardy souls drew weapons and formed a ragged line between the tree and the rest of the crowd.

Roy saw the telltale flares of light as two spadroons and one sword cane ignited. The weapons were deadly enough, even in untrained hands, but only against human targets. Trees were another matter. They were too hard to cut or stab effectively, had no vitals to target and sap prevented their burning easily. If you really wanted to threaten them a heavy ax was the surest bet.

That, or a fire bordering on an inferno.

Roy glanced back at the train, a few dozen feet back, opened his mind and made the invitation. Every sulfurite crystal in the cars thrummed in response. Streams of fire burst from under the train, forming into a spiraling funnel until they merged into a single, serpentine torrent. Roy turned and dashed towards the tree, the fire trailing behind, eagerly responding to his thoughts of the winding river he’d flown over for the past several hours.

Ahead, the situation had gotten much worse. An arm in a gray sleeve stuck out from under a tangle of roots, a still burning cane sword lying on the ground a few feet away. One of the men with spadroons was trying to work his way around to the trapped man while the other was swinging frantically at the tree’s waving branches in an attempt to get its attention. Roy slowed and reevaluated his strategy. Flashburning the tree wasn’t an option now, in fact he’d pulled too much fire from the train to attack without hurting the trapped man.

A wave of the hand split the flames in half and Roy scattered what he didn’t need into the grass along the path. That would keep it going for a minute or two if he needed to come back for it. The man working around the side of the tree jumped away from the unexpected spray of flames. Seeing that, Roy tweaked the placement of the fires just enough to keep him separate from the tree. That gave him enough room to work. The rest of the fire got crushed down into a bead as small as Roy’s pinky joint that he wove through the flailing branches.

Touched against the trunk of the tree.

And let go.

The resulting explosion blew two of the lower branches off of the pine and sent it slowly toppling over. Through sheer force of will Roy shaped the explosion up and away from the trapped man and the effort left him winded. It wasn’t a simple matter for a downed tree to get upright again but it was possible and the pine immediately set about it, branches waving in erratic spasms that set the trunk undulating like a snake. Roy grabbed the grass fires back up, still advancing, and dumped the flame on the tree’s upper branches, spreading the pain out. Then one of the men still on their feet joined the effort, his spadroon tossing out angry gouts of fire in short, fat bursts.

But, while needles blackened and bark charred, the pine refused to burn.

Roy dashed past the downed man as the other spadroon wielder vented and sheathed his weapon, dragging the injured man out of the way. The pine’s roots dug into the ground and the massive tree nearly spasmed fully upright again. Fire wasn’t going to keep it down. For a moment Roy considered trying his bone bead necklace but decided that, given the circumstances, adding snow to the equation was counterproductive. So he finished pulling on his dueling gloves, the heavy leather supple and familiar in his hands, then drew his last card to play.

The dagger over his left hip came free with a soft rasp. Dead iron, cold wrought in the old style, forced into the shape of a weapon by naught but a hammer and human will.

Forged to kill magic in all it’s forms.

And life was the highest form of all.

Branches flailed wildly but Roy slipped past them and plunged the tip of the dagger down into the trunk of the tree with all his weight behind it. The tree bent almost double with a tortured groan, folding until up around the dagger like a book, then snapped straight, fast as a jumping spider. Its trunk smashed into Roy and sent him flying through the air. He didn’t remember landing.

As he lay staring up at the sky, feeling the waves of the lake lapping in his hair, he felt it again. Something about the tree was off. Or maybe it was just his ribs, which he felt throbbing with every heartbeat. Whatever the matter was, it would have to wait. He bolted back to his feet, viciously pushing his complaining ribs to the back of his mind, expecting to find the last two passengers at the mercy of the tree.

Instead he found the tree struggling to do anything with half its roots cut away. Two woodsmen were cleaving through its branches, their heavy bearded axes propelled in complex, lethal cutting patterns by gouts of fire blasting from the back of the ax heads. The gleaming bronze blades never stopped moving and, in the time it took Roy to stagger out of the lake and across the gravel path, the tree toppled to the ground a final time.

Twitched once.

And didn’t move again.

After a moment’s pause the woodsmen moved in and began hacking the tree to pieces, stripping the branches from the trunk with shocking speed. Roy swayed on his feet, caught his breath and wiped water out of his eyes. Turned out his hair was soaked. He took the handkerchief out of the breast pocket in his vest and ran it through his sopping locks then looked around for his hat. Found it in the grass beside the gravel pathway, dusted it off and put it back on. And went to talk to his employer.

“That you, Grunt?” He rasped out as he got close to the woodsmen.

The bigger of the two paused in hacking the tree to pieces just long enough to glance at Roy. “Up already, Harp? You need to learn to take it easy.”

Roy took a deep breath; quashed a wince as his ribs twinged extra hard. “Easy is for old men.”

A final swing of the ax cut the top third of the tree away. Ben Grunwald slung his weapon over his shoulder and grinned. “That’s what I’m trying to say, Harp.”

“Bite your tongue, kid.”

Grunt laughed and shouldered his ax. “You’re only a year older than me, Harp.”

Roy looked along the trunk and found his knife. One attempt was all it took to realize he couldn’t bend down and retrieve it.

Grunt’s companion reached down to grab it for him. “Gloves!” Grunt snapped. “That’s an iron dagger, Will. Put on gloves! Dust and ashes, man, look at the way it’s burned into the bark.”

Will hesitated, embarrassed. Roy resisted the urge to join in with Grunt. Yes, the the dagger had sapped the magic out of a two foot section of the trunk leaving it gray and lifeless but it was hard to pick the damage out of all the burns they’d left on the runaway plant.

The kid fished a pair of thick work gloves out of a pocket, yanked the implement free and handed it back to Roy with a sheepish look. He couldn’t have been more than half Roy’s age, probably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen, but even so he was big and strong, standing a full hand taller than Roy was. Most men were taller than Roy, of course, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t annoyed by it.

He snatched the dagger back from Will and put it back into its sheath then looked around for any further complications. Patches of fire still burned in the grass. A quick thought rounded all of them up into a small, angry red orb. Since it was a long walk back to the train and he couldn’t keep control of the flames over that long a distance Roy settled for channeling the remaining firepower into the sulfurite crystals in his cufflinks. They’d needed topping off after the long train ride anyways.

The three other passengers that fought with the tree looked like they were going to be okay, though the man in gray who got trapped under the pine’s roots had some nasty bruises and limped a bit. Then again, Roy was feeling much the same and he expected to make a full recovery. The rest of the passengers who’d run for it were out of sight, presumably safe inside Yellowstone’s earthworks.

“You some kind of wizard?” Will asked, watching Roy from the corner of his eyes.

Roy snorted. “Do I look like I’m coalstoking Dutch?”

Grunt laughed. “It’s the way you dress, Harp. The only people this far north who bother with those fancy suits of yours are the pompous types. ‘Course he thought you’re a wizard.” Grunt threw an arm over Roy’s shoulders and thumped him on the chest, which hurt but Roy ignored. It wasn’t as bad as the flannel of his bright red shirt scratching against Roy’s face. “But Harp’s just been touched by some druid nonsense, just like I was. Except it made me bigger and taller and it made him angry.”

“If I was as angry as all that you wouldn’t have that arm.” Roy shrugged Grunt’s arm off and straightened his suit. It was tailored but made of cotton and he didn’t think it was all that fancy.

“But what about…” Will waved his hands theatrically towards the scorch marks on the ground.

“Don’t worry about it,” Roy grumbled. “Grunt, you got some kind of druid or medicine man in town? That tree didn’t seem like it was running wild.”

Grunt glanced back towards town, where a larger party of woodsmen were coming out through the main gate to come meet them. Then he turned to his companion and gestured to the loose pile of wood that had once been a tree, still twitching but too small to move or think on its own anymore. “Will, lash up that lumber and help the boys get it back to town.”

The unspoken message came through loud and clear. Roy should ask again in private. “Am I the only one you invited to this little party?”

“The only one who said he was coming. We might see Van Der Klein or Cain, but they never said one way or another.”

“Klein ain’t coming. He just got married two months ago.”

Ben’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“Books tried to get ahold of you but you weren’t at your last three addresses.” Roy looked out at the scenic mountain peaks and the menacing forest line. “He didn’t know you put on the flannel and came up here to cut trees.”

“Ignis fatuus.” Grunt looked dejected. “Can’t believe I missed that.”

“Speaking of-” Roy began to reach into his jacket then gasped as pain shot through his side.

“Let’s get you back to town,” Grunt said. “The Woodsman’s Guild has someone to look at that for you.”

They started down the path to Yellowstone again. Roy managed to get the package out of his pocket after a moment. Thankfully it didn’t look damaged from the fight. “Books sent me your mail and asked me to bring it to you.”

Grunt took it with a grin. “He can’t stop with the sending things, can he? Natural born quartermaster. Seen him recently?”

“At the wedding.”

“Is he doing well?”

“He’s fatter than ever and still making money hand over fist.” Roy shook his head in disgust. “Who knew there was so much wealth in selling beans to the old continent.”

“Chocolate ain’t just any beans, Harp.”

“I suppose.” There was a gurgling, coughing noise then an enormous pillar of water shot up out of the lake. “Dust and ashes, what is that?”

“Yose’s Heartbeat,” Grunt said. “As the locals call it. It’s a geyser in the lake that erupts every morning, afternoon and witching hour.”

“Lovely.”

“Anyway, even if Cain doesn’t come-“

“Cain’s not coming.”

Grunt gave him an odd look. “Was he getting hitched, too?”

“There’s a price on his head. He’d be stupid to show his face around anyone from the unit.”

“A price…” Grunt sighed. “What’s he wanted for?”

“Killed a woman down in Winchester County.”

“So it finally came to that.” Grunt shook his head. “Well, you’re right, we probably won’t see him then.”

“We’d better not. If I see his worthless face I’ll cremate him myself.”

They walked in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. Then Grunt gathered himself and said, “Well, you were the only one who came but that’s all right. The Guild brought in a fixer and two of the local Sanna are pitching in. Five should be enough.”

“Let’s hope so.”

Grunt laughed. “You make it sound like you already know what the job is.”

Roy looked over his shoulder at the woodsmen gathering up the downed tree. He wasn’t an expert but he was fairly certain it was too small to be thinking and moving on its own in the first place. And even if it was big enough to move itself trees knew better than to stray too close to human habitation. There was no reason for it to get that close to Yellowstone unless it was ensorcelled. “I might have a guess or two at that…”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty One – The Precipice

Previous Chapter

“I thought you said you’d done this before.”

Gemma stopped in the middle of banging the rust off one of the eight servo stations that needed replacing. “We didn’t have to do it in suits down in the Sunbottle. Not to mention the rust.” With a final bang she got the access panel on the side of the servo open and started rummaging around inside. “How did it even get out here, anyway? Didn’t think there was enough oxygen or moisture in the air outside the dome.”

“I dunno. Maybe it worked its way around from the inside. Maybe there’s a similar reaction with the atmosphere out here.” Pak handed her a cable tester when she waved for it. “Maybe we just got bad parts when these were installed.”

“That’s comforting.” She fiddled for a moment then yanked a set of cables out. “No good.”

“Will replacing those add any time to fixing the hatch?”

Another set of cables came out of the hatch with similar abruptness. “I want to say not much but I’ve never had to rerun a set of these in vacuum rated gloves. It could just be a few minutes per servo, it could turn into as much as half an hour.”

“How long did this take down below?”

Gemma glanced at him over top of the hatch. “Twenty minutes with an experienced crawl team, thirty if I was on it. We’re getting two crawl teams plus the watchers you pulled, so we only need to do two servos per team. But the real problem is how deep we need to go.”

The lip of the hatch was about four inches above the red Martian dirt underfoot. Pak gave it another once over, he’d been certain there weren’t any servos down there but he hadn’t looked closely before. He’d been under the impression they wouldn’t do much on the bottom of the frame.

“Deep into the wiring,” Gemma said with a giggle. “Not underground. Corrosion tends to spread once it gets onto something. We may need to rip out part of the wiring in the dome walls or even find a junction box and rerun an entire line in order to get power moving to these things again.”

“Great.” Pak scooped up the hammer she’d been working with a moment ago. “Well, let me know if you need a hand with anything.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get the next servo case open.” He started towards the other side of the hundred and twenty foot hatch. “The sooner we can get all these tests done and start the replacements the happier I’ll be.”


 

“…And this is the Sunbottle.”

“Impressive.” It really was. Harriet hadn’t expected to feel outdone by the Malacandrans at any point during her visit but the reactor’s main floor atrium was enough to take the breath away after a few days on the bleak surface of the Red Planet. “Was it built like this or did you remodel it?”

Nobari shrugged. “It’s not really clear what is original and what was added by the Founders but the early records suggest at least part of this was added after Bottletown was established. Most of our existing facilities started off as remains for Borealis and were expanded to accommodate more people as the population grew.”

“Why not just expand out into the old colony?” Aubrey asked. “We have a lot of old, unused buildings on Earth but we were never shy about reappropriating them if we had a need. It’s just most of the time we didn’t.”

“Most of the old places are – were – unsafe. And there’s the question of whether we can feed everyone if we expand.” Nobari made a noncommittal noise. “Or that’s what I would have told you two weeks ago. There’s a lot about the Founders that only the Eldest and his or her successor know. Normally I’d be in the process of passing most of that on to Elder Rectenwald now that I’m Eldest but, to be honest, I’m not sure how much of it is going to be relevant in the future.”

“So you think you stayed out of the rest of the colony because only these buildings were masked by the reactor?” Harriet understood that was what the Naval engineers thought.

“That’s a possibility, although I don’t have the first clue how to tell if it’s true.” Nobari led them across the atrium to a door at one end of the oval and let them in. They arrived in a bare office with a single bookshelf at one end. “Most of our knowledge of the Founders’ era tells us about how things work but not why they work that way. In the Founders’ time people were not sent into Silence as young as now and there were fewer people overall, so they had more time to delve into the whys of the hows. Now most of what they learned just sits here and gathers dust.”

“What do you think the whys are, Eldest?” Harriet asked.

That drew the first genuine smile he’d shown that day. “Me? I’m an odd person to ask, don’t you think?”

Harriet fumbled for a moment, a bit taken aback. “Well, you’re the Eldest, aren’t you?”

“That doesn’t mean as much as you might think,” he answered, laughing. “I’ve known most of the Eldest’s secrets for about twenty days and I’ll leave the position in about the same period of time, Oyarsa willing. That’s about average for an Eldest’s tenure. There’s really not a whole lot of weight to the position, or at least there wasn’t until we had you folks to deal with.”

“But you are the one dealing with us,” Harriet pointed out.  “That makes it your decision and makes your thoughts kind of important, no?”

Nobari rocked uncomfortably from one foot to the other and back again. “Perhaps.”

Long honed instincts told Harriet she wasn’t going to get any more pushing harder. Better to let the interview’s subject take some time to sort their thoughts out. “I know this is a strange time for you,” she said. “We’ll let you–“

“Eldest!” A harried looking young man burst into the room, panting.

Nobari pivoted instantly from uncomfortable contemplative to decisive actor, pivoting to look back to at the door in the same moment. “What’s wrong, Ramone?”

“The wing fields are fluctuating towards the edges of the orange zone in shorter and shorter intervals!” He paused and gasped in another breath. “We could be looking at a complete field collapse!”

Momentary confusion crossed Nobari’s face, then he nodded. “This is because of the conduit problem Elder Alyssa was working on?”

“Yes, Eldest!”

Nobari started for the door with purposeful strides. “Show me.”


 

The crates took up a full quarter of the spacelock and the last batches of parts were still trickling in from fabber labs across the ship but, based on her expression, Alyssa was already overwhelmed by what she was seeing. Craig suppressed a smile and asked, “Is anything not up to your standards?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Pretty much the opposite, in fact.” She was looking over the injector assembly in her hands with a critical eye. She indicated a small patch near the primary coupling. “I’m not even sure what some of these parts do. I presume this is the secondary regulator, because that’s where it is on the parts we use, but this is far too small to be an exact replica of them.”

“It’s not,” Deveneaux confirmed. “It’s  a modern regulator with a quarter the size and twice the redundancy as what you have now. We’re not replacing your primary regulators right now so they aren’t going to take all the burden off the injection system but they will remove some of the strain. You can keep running your reactor under its current settings for another couple of centuries before the problems start again. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Alyssa put the injector back into its spot in the crate and closed the lid. “I don’t understand why you would consider sharing technology like this immoral. You could do so much good with it.”

“It’s not the technology itself that’s the problem,” Craig said. “Human beings are influence by their environment, up to and including the technology and culture around them. We think introducing technology and culture to those who aren’t prepared to deal with it is a harmful influence to the people in question. It distorts their culture and prevents them from developing into who they would be otherwise.”

“What if who they would be otherwise is less human than the people they will become if you help them?”

“That’s hardly a new line of thought, ma’am. But it’s also a very dangerous one. Many evil things in the past were done in the name of helping other people.” Craig shrugged. “Ultimately we decided that intervention beyond certain boundaries was something we couldn’t be trusted with. Humanity is not a thing we let ourselves define.”

“If you won’t define it, why have the word?” She locked the crate closed with a little more force than necessary. “We never wanted to become a colony locked in a dome, hiding from our homeworld, ignorant of how half our technology works. It was a terrible thing, made worse because we remember just enough to know that, in many ways, we are so much less than what we should be. Even then, we may never conform to what you think humanity should be, either. But it would be nice to at least know enough to judge whether you’re lying to me about the evils of the past. We could find our own ways to avoid them, then.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Craig’s mouth. He knew when he’d lost a point. “I think we can do that, at least. Is everything to your liking?”

She glanced down at her inventory list. “I think I’ve seen everything. And yes, it all looks more than functional in our reactor.”

“Excellent, then I’ll–” A low whistle in his ear informed him of an incoming communication. “Excuse me for a moment.”

He moved a couple of paces away and flicked a finger so his AI would tell him who was calling. A bland voice told him, “Harriet Thacker.”

Craig frowned. She was supposed to be on the surface, doing journalist things. He accepted the call. “Miss Thacker?”

“Captain.” She sounded a little frantic. “You need to get Mrs. Pracht and Commander Deveneaux on a line down here ASAP. Something’s gone haywire in the Sunbottle.”

“Understood. Standby.” He cut the line and looked across the spacelock. “Chief Merryweather! Start loading it up! Alyssa, Commander, we need to make a quick visit to the comms lab…”

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty – The Middle Ground

Previous Chapter

Harriet watched what was quickly turning into one of the oddest arguments she’d ever witnessed take shape. On one side was an enormous two meter spacer, an experienced surveyor who’d visited more planets in the last five years than most people would see in a lifetime. The other was a kind of dumpy mother of two who’d lived her whole life under a single colony dome and first met someone from outside said dome less than a week ago. They were apparently debating the theological implications of nuclear physics.

“We know that the reactor was modified to disguise your colony, Miss Pracht,” Fyodorovich was saying. “But there are a dozen other ways we could achieve the same end with safer equipment. Part of the reason your reactor is failing is because it’s been forced to do something entirely outside its specifications.”

“It’s not a matter of the technology at work, Volk,” Alyssa replied. “We know the reactor is a nuclear fusion device. But Ransom’s notes also suggest its part of how the Oyarsa defends the colony against Thulcandra. How do we know replacing it with two different pieces of technology keeps the same effect?”

“But what if you don’t need it anymore?” Fyodorovich countered. “You’re not in any meaningful danger from Earth now.”

“Only for as long as you stay,” she countered. “And then only as long as Thulcandra is and remains as helpless as you say it is. You can’t honestly expect us to put our trust in something that flimsy, can you? Outsiders haven’t exactly done right by us in the past.”

Volk sat back in his chair, an old thing left by the basecamp’s previous occupants that had more dust for padding than cushions. It creaked ominously under the navy man’s weight. His face gave little away and, since he hadn’t given Harriet any clues on his negotiation strategy before Alyssa had arrived with the Eldest, she wasn’t sure if he’d expected this dead end or what his next move might be.

But it turned out Volk’s plans didn’t matter at this stage. Eldest Nobari leaned forward, rested his forearms on the table and said, “Commander Fyodorovich, at this point I think we’ve said all that can be said on this front. The Sunbottle is our only tested defense against the threat of Thulcandra. You could very well explain enough of your technology to Alyssa to convince us your new countermeasures could work. The spiritual protection they offer us from the Enemy might even carry over, whether or not you believe such a thing is possible. After all, the original Sunbottle came from Thulcandra itself, a planet on the other side of the spiritual battle we live in. I’m sure a reactor made by those who don’t believe in it at all could function just as well.”

“But you’re unwilling to take our word for it,” Volk said.

“Correct.”

The big man sighed. “Under the circumstances, I understand. At least to an extent. Can I ask you something, Miss Pracht?”

“Of course.”

“Does the name C.S. Lewis mean anything to you?”

Harriet glanced up at that. She’d mostly been watching the transcript her AI was building up until that point but the introduction of this new, unexpected name got her attention.

“I’ve never heard it before,” Alyssa said. An honest answer, by Harriet’s assessment. She hadn’t met the Martian woman until they visited the ship two days ago but Alyssa struck her as the type to wear most of her feelings on her sleeve. That undoubtedly made puberty hard but journalism easier. For the journalist, not Alyssa.

Nobari, on the other hand, shut down. It was less obvious, just a rapid flick of the eyes from one person to another, a twitch of the cheek and slight turn of the lips suggesting he’d heard something he hadn’t expected. Then all motion left his expression in a clear attempt to withhold any tells. A well done poker face implemented a split second too late.

Volk grunted and changed the display on the holoprojector he was using, replacing the current image of  the layout for a replacement reactor with a new image of a large landing craft. “Fine. A full replacement is the safest, fastest way to solve your problem but there is another option.”

“Retooling the Sunbottle.”

He glanced at Alyssa with an amused smile. “I suspect that’s along the lines of what your previous proposed solution was?”

“Yes.” She seemed less amused at the line of thought. “But that assumed we had the time to fabricate a whole new set of junctions and injectors, plus enough batteries to store enough power to run the dome in the meantime.”

A new set of readouts were ready and projected for them to look at. Volk began pointing out parts of the plan as he explained. “That assumes a couple of things. First, that you have to use battery power. But if we bring down a Tigris-class lander we can hook the ship’s generator into your power grid and run your buildings off of that. The reactor only needs to be offline for about a day before you can start booting it up again, in about two days you can run the full dome on that level of output and a Tigris can put out enough power to run Bottletown for about a week, so plenty of breathing room.”

“What about the rest of the dome?” Nobari asked.

“Your crops and equipment can last a couple of days without gravity or air circulating. We’ll keep the EM shielding up so you don’t catch any extra radiation from the sun. Brownouts like this used to be a regular thing on some of the space stations we have so we’ve had plenty of chances to work up measures to deal with them. Nothing we’ve experienced suggests it will pose a problem for anything you’ve got down here.”

“But we won’t have the raw materials strip and replace one full injector system until we strip some of the parts,” Alyssa objected. “That alone pushes our timeline out a day and a half, maybe two. And adds the fisher’s equipment back into the list of things that have to run.”

“No. Because that’s the second thing your plans assume.” The project switched images again, this time changing to pure text. “I’ve been talking with our engineering experts onboard the Stewart, that’s how I knew this problem was coming in the first place. We’ve put a lot of the parts into production shipside already. If you didn’t need them they could’ve always been recycled and this way we weren’t wasting any time. And not only have we already started, our fabbers work much faster than yours. A full set of replacement hardware should be ready to go within six hours.”

Nobari leaned forward and studied the readout intently. “I see why you’re so reluctant to impress yourselves on others,” he said after a moment. “You could sway a huge number of people to your side with these kind of gestures. What do you want in return?”

“Eldest,” Alyssa hissed.

“It’s fine.” Volk cleared the readout. “Personally, I’d just like your goodwill. These kinds of goodwill gifts are common in diplomacy but if you don’t like feeling indebted you can just let us take your old injector systems. Once we break them down we’ll be no worse off in terms of raw materials.”

Nobari leaned back and thought about it for a moment, then glanced at his companion. “Alyssa?”

“I’d like a closer look at the plans for your lander. And I insist on looking over your replacement parts before you send them down. But…” She hesitated a moment, then shook her head. “I can’t think of any reason not to do it this way.”

Nobari nodded, as much to himself as to anyone around him. “Very well. Let’s do it.”

Volk stood up and shook his hand. “Certainly. I presume you want to get this done as soon as possible?”

“Sooner, if we can get away with it,” Alyssa said, also standing.

“Then let’s get you spaceborn ASAP.”

Harriet stepped forward, moving around Volk as the big man led Alyssa out of basecamp, choosing instead to approach the Eldest. “Excuse me,” she said, moving her AI to her off hand so she could offer a handshake. “Mr. Nobari? Could I trouble you for a comment?”


 

Craig looked through the diagrams Deveneaux was explaining and said, “You say it has less than a year of service left?”

“That’s our most generous estimate, yes.”

“Why wasn’t I briefed on this immediately?”

“Well…” The engineer glanced over at the ship’s tactical officer just down the table. “I did intend to bring it up as soon as we reached these conclusions but there were other issues demanding your attention at the time.”

For a split second Craig wondered if his career was over. It was a Prime Directive violation and he hadn’t even been able to ask Admiral Carrington to formally order his crew to intervene for the sake of form. At the same time his heart was with Volk. He wanted to help the children Earth had abandoned to Mars. He just wasn’t sure that they were going about it the best way. Then again, the Malacandrans had been on the verge of addressing the problem before the Stewart arrived. Perhaps without the distraction of their presence on the ground in the first place they would have solved the reactor’s problems already. He rocked back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for just a moment. “Okay, Commander, how long will it take us to finish producing the replacement parts they need?”

“Assuming Commander Fyodorovich brings their techs up immediately? We should have all the parts finished an hour after they arrive. Depending on how long the inspection takes we can get a lander loaded and back out in another two.”

“That’s awful fast,” Rand muttered, looking at the parts inventory. “How much of this did we have in inventory already?”

“None of it,” Deveneaux replied. “It’s two hundred fifty year old tech, why would we have it on hand?”

“You’re going to nanofacture all this in…” Craig did some mental estimates. Ninety to a hundred minutes to get up from Mars, plus an hour after they arrived. “Two and a half hours?”

“This is four hours of work, at least,” Rand said.

“Five, actually.” Deveneaux shrugged. “When I couldn’t discuss it with you I checked with Fyodorovich. We decided it was worth going ahead and starting on, so I cleared the cues on the fabbers and started production.”

Rand straightened in surprise. “You canceled my type two shelters?”

“You’re not going to need an outpost on Mars if the reactor melts down, Commander.”

“I agree,” Craig said, clearing the holodisplay. “Well done, Commander Deveneaux. Keep me posted if there are any developments in the situation. I’ll report to the Admiral.”

“Wait. One thing.” Rand visibly got his head back in the game. “How are we getting a lander inside the colony? Do we need to include some way to open the dome?”

Deveneaux shook his head. “I’m told that’s something they can handle on their side of things.”


 

“Okay,” Pak said, looking around at his fellow shift heads and Gemma. “Who here has ever replaced the servos on an exterior door? Or has anyone on their shifts who has? Lawrence? Tupulo?”

To his surprise, Gemma raised her hand.

“Really?”

“I used to be on one of the crawler crews.” She clasped her hands together and her fingers worried at each other. “Not many people know it but there’s a set of exterior doors at the bottom of the Sunbottle. We had to replace the servos once a year.”

Pak gave the girl a hard look. She was odd, and a little flighty, but she’d never deliberately lied as far as he knew. “What possible use for an exterior door do you have down there?

She threw her hands out in an enormous shrug. “I don’t know. Crawlers just take replace parts, we aren’t told what they’re for.”

“Fine. Go check with the crawlers on shift today, see if they have any of those servos on hand. It’ll save us time if we don’t have to make the parts from scratch.” He looked up and out the watch tower windows, towards the hatch in the dome a few hundred meters away. “We got enough on our plate as it is.”