Firespinner Chapter Eight – The Oath

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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 Seven – Rain After Storm

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“So how much further, Reeds?” Roy asked, accepting a tin mug full of hot soup from Mrs. Blythe. “We covered a fair stretch of ground today. We getting close?”

“We’re about two ridges from Mete’s Grave, Mr. Harper.” Reeds passed his brother a mug before keeping O’Hara’s second offering for himself. “We should be there by midday tomorrow.”

Roy grunted in acknowledgment. Grunt and Nora settled in on a log nearby, Grunt taking a moment to swing his end of the log further under the overhang they were using for shelter. Marshall emptied the cook pot and set it out in the rain to start soaking. For a moment the six of them just shared in companionable silence.

When he finished his soup Roy unclipped his buckler, removed its sulfurite from the setting and tossed it into the campfire to recharge. The heat from the flames dimmed just a bit as the stone started absorbing some of the power into itself. Grunt pulled his greatsword over and worked the lever in the blade to release the weapon’s sulfurite, which he also added to the fire. The rest of the group followed suit, except for Nora who hadn’t used her weapon that day.

She just watched them as they went through their maintenance rituals then glanced at Reeds and asked, “Why say Mete’s Grave, Reeds? The Sanna name is Mete Wahaka, isn’t it?”

Marshal and Reeds both smiled broadly. “That is correct,” Reeds said. “But the Sanna believe a thing only exists when it is heard and understood. If I selfishly speak in a language you do not understand I become less real. So I say Mete’s Grave, that you may understand and I may exist in truth.”

“So you speak our language to be more real to us?” Nora looked very pleased with that answer. “That’s a lovely thought.”

Grunt chuckled. “Your brother must be in a difficult place, then.”

Reeds turned stone faced in a single breath. “I speak for my brother. I assure you he is quite real.”

“Of course,” Roy murmured. “Marshall is quite fortunate to have such a considerate older brother.”

Reeds frowned. “I am the younger of us, Mr. Harper.”

“Ah. My mistake.” Roy brushed his pants off and got to his feet, pulled flame from the campfire into his cufflinks and grabbed the pot. “All right, people, drop your silverware here. Marshall, could you bring the cups?”

This time he was watching closely and he saw the byplay. Reeds glanced at Marshall, who raised a finger and tilted his head towards the campfire. Then he got up, gathered the cups and followed.

It was a short walk back to the stream, barely two minutes, and they walked in silence. The light drizzle still fell but neither man felt put out. When they reached the water Roy filled the pot and set it boiling with the power in his cufflinks. Marshall produced a rag from a pocket and began scrubbing the cups, dipping them in the boiling water to rinse.

Roy fished the silverware out of the pot with his free hand, the heat little more than an irritant. “So tell me something, Marshall.”

He laughed, a belly laugh that set his clothes flapping around his rail thin body, then pointed at his mouth.

“Oh, I heard what your brother said back there. But you can make yourself known, words or not, no matter what the Sanna think.” He leveled a spoon at Marshall, an accusation. “I’ve been thinking about you two and this Sanna legend since we talked at the saloon a couple of days ago. And I was wrong. You’re not here to play out the legend of Yose and Mete, you’re here to kill it.”

Marshall raised his eyebrows and pointed at himself.

“Yes, you. Yose is the older brother, that’s why he’s named first. I know about the ways Sanna speak, you see, although I’m not nearly as proficient as your brother is with Avalon’s tongue.” Roy let the pot stop boiling. “If you two played out the legend you would kill Reeds and then you’d be alone with no one to understand you. Meaning that in the eyes of the Sanna you no longer exist and the legend would disappear with you.”

Marshall furrowed his brow and pointed at Roy.

“I know I said you can make yourself understood. The point is how other Sanna would perceive you, that usually has more import in these kinds of mystic events. So is it true? You were sent to kill the legend?”

For a long moment Marshall stared at Roy, the animation draining out of him. Or, at least, the overly exaggerated mannerisms he affected when dealing with people other than Reeds. Finally Marhsall nodded.

“They cut your tongue out just for this or did it happen earlier?”

He didn’t respond to that question.

“Fine then. I’m not sure why the Sanna chose to try killing a legend or why the two of you agreed to the idea, much less your family. But I got a warning for the two of you now.”

Marshall tilted his head, curious.

Roy dumped the cooling water back into the river and got to his feet. “Don’t try to play that stunt out with the Blythe boys or we are going to have a falling out. Do you understand me?”

The two men stared at each other. Then Marshall nodded, stacked his cups and started back towards camp. Roy snorted, not sure what to make of that, and followed after.

As they walked Roy said, “I saw what you did on the wall. I presume you’re some sort of hero? Or whatever the Sanna would call it?”

Marshall shrugged, an elegant gesture of casual indifference.

“Right. Neither of you are medicine men.” Roy sighed. Reeds would probably know but he was much cagier than his brother. Which made sense if Marshall was a genuine hero. Not much was known about them, beyond the fact that they were probably some kind of Earth magic made manifest, and their nature was entirely instinctual. So long as the hero had conviction in their cause they were almost unbeatable in combat.

That bit about conviction was really the key, the surest way to overcome a hero was to break their conviction. The best way to avoid people breaking your hero’s conviction was to keep the fact they were a hero secret. So it was something they rarely shared, even with allies. The worst bit about heroes was how little control they had over their own power; it was hard for anyone to control their own convictions and heroes were no exception. Maybe it was better if he didn’t bother asking Reeds anything and just proceeded on the notion that Marshall was one. It didn’t make a big difference in his plans going forward.

Roy was jolted out of his reverie when they came up on the campfire again. He quickly offered the Sign of the Hearth before taking his seat. He’d meant to face Mrs. Blythe as he did so, it was customary to present the sign to a Hearthkeeper when they were present, but at some point she’d offered her seat next to Grunt to O’Hara. To his greater surprise O’Hara offered the traditional response, making a zigzag with two fingers that she then held up in a V shape, creating the funnel cloud shaped Sign of the Storm.

Grunt laughed. “You’ve become a devout man in the last few years, Harp.”

“People change all the time, Grunt,” he said with a smile. “Or did you forget, Mr. Solicitor?”

“Fair enough.”

“Is devotion why you dislike people calling you Giant Killer?” Nora asked.

Roy scowled. “I don’t like it because it’s not true. There’s a grand total of three giants in the history of Avalon and only one of them was ever slain by mortal man. Assuming you accept Arthur started out human. A wendigo is a terrible creature, to be sure, but it ain’t got anything on Everest Walking.”

Reeds leaned forward, interested. “Indeed? I understand that wendigos grow in size equal to the amount they eat, and thus are never satisfied. During the Summer of Snow a group of them supposedly wiped out Tin Gulch, a town with over two hundred people. The creatures that did it must have been enormous afterwards.”

“Not as big as you’d think.” Roy held up the beads of his necklace, each about five inches long. “These are made from the finger bones of the wendigo I killed. It was about four times the size of a man. Big, but not a giant.”

Marshall laughed and Reed asked, “What would you call a giant then?”

“The smallest of the Brothers Walking was Shenandoah. You can still see his bones to the east.”

Reeds laughed this time. “The Shenandoah Mountains have existed for generations. We did not name them because of some Avalon tale.”

“Yeah, well, we didn’t know the they existed nine hundred years ago either,” Roy said, smiling as well. These were mysteries he loved pondering in free moments himself. “Legends aren’t always true, and when they are they’re rarely the whole truth. But in this case… well, the tale said Our Lord in Raging Skies chased Shenandoah Walking in the direction of the Middle Kingdom and slew him somewhere there. It’s more likely Shenandoah only made it this far before he was killed, as it isn’t like we knew this place existed at the time.”

“And how were we to know the name of this dead giant?”

“A good question I can’t answer,” Roy admitted. “But Our Lord also pursued and slew Shenandoah’s brother, Kilimanjaro Walking, in a land to the south of Avalon. He smote Kilimanjaro so hard he was buried up to his neck in the dirt. And you know what we find, down there in Nubia?”

Reeds frowned. “A mountain named Kilimanjaro?”

“I’m surprised a Teutonic wizard wasn’t aware of that,” O’Hara said. “It was Johan von Heilman who mapped Kilimanjaro and noted the connection.”

“Most Teutonic wizards don’t think much about Avalon’s history,” Roy said. “I wouldn’t really expect them to.”

Reeds nodded. “The tradition is mostly theoretical, what history their books do teach are more interested in connecting things to the Forever Wars. Regardless, if a creature that leaves mountain sized bones is your standard for giants I can see why you wouldn’t think of a wendigo as one.”

Marshall nudged his brother’s arm and held up three fingers.

“The third giant was named Everest Walking,” Roy said. “He was killed by an alliance of Arthur, the Last Man of Wyrms, his mentor, Meryl of Linds and Our Lady in Burning Stone. His death was such a cataclysm that it carved the Everest Channel between Avalon and the Francs. That’s also how Arthur earned the favor of the Lord and Lady and became the Phoenixborn.”

“Sounds complicated,” Reeds said.

“It’s a famous story in Avalon,” O’Hara said. “And it’s particularly important to druids and hedge mages as Arthur learned a lot of the craft he used to form the Stone Circle and organize modern druidry from the Lady as part of his reward from her for aiding in the battle.”

“And, of course, that’s why the Mated Pair are the patron gods of Avalon,” Grunt added. O’Hara offered a vigorous nod of assent.

“In a manner of speaking,” Roy murmured.

“How so?” O’Hara demanded.

“Our Lord and Lady are guardian deities to the nation and they did offer special powers to Arthur because he aided them in special ways. Becoming the Phoenixborn. Walking as One With the Storm.” Roy shook his head, wondering of those titles of Arthur’s had any significance, or if they referred to aspects of his power and rule that were now long forgotten. “But much of the rest of what they offered him they offer to everyone. The Lord and Lady are intercessors between people and the raw elemental forces of magic. The First Elements are incredibly dangerous and don’t have any concept of humanity and what is good or bad for them and that makes any kind of understanding with them difficult, if not impossible. The Lord and Lady place less risky, more human magic in the reach of those who follow their teachings.”

“This is what you call druidry?” Reeds asked.

“No, druidry existed before Arthur. But he took it and organized it, made it safer and easier for people to get a handle on. It wasn’t exactly safe – still isn’t – but it’s better than what was. That’s why all the people we consider real druids now come out of the great Henges – Stonehenge, Ayershenge, the Dream Henge, Rajhenge and, until ten years ago, Morainehenge.”

“You’re very knowledgeable, Mr. Harper,” Nora said.

“After the Battle of Five Ridges I had a lot of time and motivation to learn. And I happened to be in the right place to get a start on it, too.” Roy shrugged. “I managed to learn a little from the Morainehenge druids but they weren’t exactly fond of people in Columbian uniforms at the time. The broad strokes of the story is all I know. I’m not sure what Arthur changed that made the Stone Circle a better way to produce druids or how he improved on their magic. If we find him and he doesn’t kill us all General Oldfathers could probably explain those things much better than I.”

“Yes. I believe I could.”

Firespinner Chapter Six – Thunderbird

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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 Five – Distant Rumblings

Previous Chapter

“Why are we leaving town so coalstoking early?” Grunt demanded. “We should at least put together a search pattern, we’re not even sure what part of the mountain Oldfathers is on.”

“We don’t need a search pattern,” Roy said, throwing his borrowed saddlebags over a rented mule. “If he wants to tap the Brothers legend he’s most likely going to the mountaintop where Mete fell. Reeds knows where that is and we know Oldfathers is going to be there in two days. So we need to get there in time to get ready for him.”

“Two days? Why do we know he’ll be there in two days?” Nora Blythe asked, working a bridle over the head of her riding lizard as the creature trilled in annoyance.

“Because the fall equinox is in three.” Roy slid his sheathed sword into place next to the saddlebags and gave it a tug to make sure it was secure. “Forces in balance or otherwise locked together are easiest to influence on the equinox, plus elemental forces ebb and surge at various times of the day so if you’ve the skill you can exploit those surges for a boost to your own magic. If Oldfathers is really here and trying to exploit Mete for some reason he’s going to do it on the equinox. We need to get to him before he does that because we’re not stopping him after. So we need to climb the mountain in two days.”

“Do you think Andrew is in any danger, Mr. Harper?” Nora asked.

“I have no idea, Mrs. Blythe, I don’t know what Orphanfree is planning or how your son or the Brothers’ legend plays into it. I don’t even know which one of Yose and Mete your son is a stand in for.”

“Mete, Mr. Harper.”

“Ignis fatuus!” Roy unclenched his shoulders and turned to find Reeds and Marshall had arrived with characteristic silence. “Will you two stop doing that?”

Marshall spread his hands helplessly, as if not having a tongue somehow prevented him from making any noise at all. Reeds ignored both his brother and Roy. “Andrew is clearly meant to act as Mete in this situation. He climbed the mountain first, then Yose followed. Thomas Blythe is still here in town, thus he must be filling Yose’s role.”

“I defer to your expertise,” Roy said. “Is Thomas somewhere safe, Mrs. Blythe?”

“Miss O’Hara arranged for him to stay with a trustworthy family she knows. The Guild will keep him safe.” The widow’s expression told Roy that, as a mother, she was having trouble trusting in that.

Roy couldn’t blame her. In the last month she’d lost her husband and potentially a child. He suspected he wouldn’t be functioning any better under similar circumstances. “So long as we’ve made allowances. Where’s O’Hara? She’s the only one we’re missing.”

“She’ll meet us at the north gate,” Grunt said, tugging on the straps that held his unwieldy pattern of ’61 greatsword in place by his saddle.

“Are you still using that?” Roy asked, incredulous.

“What’s wrong with it?” Grunt demanded. “We can’t all carry an officer’s toothpick or use the powers we got from the druid’s curse to throw fire. Some of us need help.”

“Well bring reliable help next time.”

“Hey, the pattern of ’61 is light-“

“Overly complex,” Roy interjected.

“-lively in the hand-“

“Terrible edge retention.”

“-and a classic design.”

“Classically ugly and doesn’t hold a flame right.” Roy jumped up into the saddle, rubbing his ribs absently.

“At least I have a weapon I know I can count on.” Grunt nodded at Roy’s falcatta, strapped in place on his saddle. “You’ve got another weird thing from your collection.”

“Hey, this is a genuine Alexopolous reproduction. Do you know how hard they are to find?”

Grunt ignored the question and changed the subject. “Speaking of ugly, did you ever get those bruises looked at?”

“I’ll get them looked at when you replace that coalstoking sword.” Roy took a deep breath and quickly blew it out. “See? I’m fine.”

“If you say so…”

Roy ignored him and glanced over the rest of the group. The twins brought their own mules loaded for a long stay in the mountains. Nora was traveling a bit lighter than those two but Roy was glad to see that she did have a straight bladed arming sword strapped to her saddle. “That lizard of yours going to be okay up in the mountains, Mrs. Blythe? I’m told it gets cold up there.”

“Old Slith has been out in snow before,” she said, patting the ugly creature on the neck. “We probably should have replaced him when we moved up here at the beginning of summer but he’s been with us so long…”

“Well there’s no snow up there yet,” Grunt put in. “It should be okay, Harp.”

“If you say so.” But Roy eyed the overcast skies with distrust.

Yellowstone was not a big town in the grand scheme of things, essentially just two roads running east to west crossing a single main street going north to south. The total footprint was barely half the space inside the town walls, which were two thousand feet from one side to the other at the widest point. Getting to the north gate was still a struggle as they dodged carts of lumber, boisterous groups of woodsmen heading out to start the day and hurrying townspeople running errands.

They finally reached the gate almost twenty minutes later.

Once they were through Roy understood why O’Hara hadn’t met them at the stables. She was seated high atop a bushwalker, the creature’s evergreen branches loaded with packages and bundles. Instinct born of long experience told him he was looking at a kind of walking arsenal of cantrips and prestidigitations, the kind of miscellaneous magic collection that made hedge mages so notoriously dangerous throughout Columbia and Avalon.

Eyeing the shambling creature with the wary caution normally reserved for grizzly bears or siege grade sulfurite crystals, Roy asked, “What have you got there, O’Hara?”

“Good morning to you, too, Mr. Harper,” she said. “Are we all assembled, then?”

So that’s how it was going to be. He affected a bright, hard tone. “Good morning, Ms. O’Hara. We are.” And discarded it. “Now I’d like to know what you intend to do with all that.”

“A little of this and a little of that.” Which was pretty much the worst answer Roy could think of. “Supplies for conjuring a living cloud, my personal specialty. A few Sanna charms for safely navigating the forest. A collection of Tetzlantii spell tiles that might prove useful.”

Roy grimaced. Druidic magic was heavily invested in plants as a medium for the energy of fire and many of the most powerful conjurings of that tradition created toxic smokes and residues as a byproduct. Only druids with carefully built resistances could use them safely. Worse, when their magics mixed the poisonous nature of the residues amplified one another so blending their magic was generally frowned upon. Hedge mages ignored that taboo to the detriment of themselves and others.

Some of that taboo had faded as Vulcanic and Teutonic magic, based on the far safer mediums of metals and patterns, spread. They had virtually no dangerous after effects but were not nearly as powerful as the druidic tradition either. That was a big part of why hedge mages like O’Hara could still find steady employment these days. Roy wasn’t familiar with a living cloud but if the Guild was comfortable with it he figured he’d tolerate it as well. He wasn’t familiar with Sanna totems, his own necklace notwithstanding, but he knew Tetzlanii spell tiles were a flavor of stone based magic. So long as O’Hara knew enough not to choke them with her cloud then it should be fine.

“That’s fine, then,” he said. “Just keep a handle on those tiles, I don’t want us raising a ziggurat on top of the mountain by accident.” Roy lightly spurred his mule and started down the path towards the mountain.

In spite of mustering out of the army nearly a decade ago the old marching habits came back quickly and Roy found himself tracking positions of his group without even thinking about it. The steady clopping of the Reeds brothers’ mounts were side by side behind him. The steady creaking of O’Hara’s mobile bush came next, mixed with the quiet whispers of some conversation she was having with Nora Blythe. Grunt was far enough back that Roy couldn’t hear him but, outside of the warm air of town, his body heat was enough to buzz quietly in the back of his mind despite Grunt’s place thirty or forty feet back, watching the rear. Roy considered it a good formation.

The terrain was poor and kept them from packing in close, plus there was always the chance that this far out they’d run into a tree old enough to take notice of them and spreading out meant it wouldn’t be able to grab them all at once. Hopefully their group was few enough in number that O’Hara’s wards would keep them from notice. Beyond the trees he wasn’t too sure what to expect. Outside of several months in Tetzlan he’d never spent much time in the mountains and, this far north, the plants and wildlife were very different.

About an hour out of town, as the trail approached the top of the first major ridge line, Reeds came up and rode beside him. “We will need to leave the trail and follow the river in the bottom of the next valley.”

Roy nodded. “How many times have you visited Mete’s grave, Reeds?”

“We go yearly.”

The Sanna man didn’t seem to think that was strange but Roy did. He also knew better than to approach it directly. “You’re a diviner, right? I saw you had one of those omen sticks the Sanna medicine men use.”

“A kennet stick, yes. The meaning is closer to future than omen.” Roy didn’t know much about the Sanna but he had heard they were picky about the meanings of their words. “For a short time I was in training as a medicine man, but I fear I only learned the very basics of casting the kennet. For the most part I can only take the read of the land. If we are separated I can also find my brother with it but that’s never been necessary.”

“Why’s that?”

“We have a sense for each other. He can find me with no kennet as easily as a trained diviner could find a man he’d known his whole life.” Reeds shrugged. “As for me, I’m afraid my training did not take me much further than learning a few of the protections against the leaf brothers.”

Roy shot him a sideways look. “So you can kind of cast divinations and ward off trees. Are you sure you’re going to be okay on this trip?”

“Oh, I’m a fully initiated student of Herr Magister von Stossel as well. There are actually a great number of similarities between the basic medicines of the Sanna people and the core principles of Teutonic magic.”

So Reeds was a wizard, not a medicine man. Add that to the list of things he hadn’t been expecting on this trip. “So why didn’t you just finish your studies as a medicine man? Is it because you got sent to Yellowstone?”

Reeds returned the sideways look. “What do you mean?”

“Yose and Mete were identical twin brothers. So are you and the Blythe boys. I’m not any kind of formal practitioner, or even a hedge mage like O’Hara, but I’m not so dim as to miss the pattern. Plus, Grunt told me you came to him and asked to be involved.” Roy looked back at the group spread out behind them. The only one close enough to overhear them was Marshall, who wasn’t going to share it with anyone anytime soon. “I presume this is because you came here because of the Brothers legend. Did that cut short your training?”

“I lost my place as an apprentice before we were sent here,” Reeds said, voice flat and expressionless. “But we did come here because of the legend.”

“So why send you? Wouldn’t a fully trained medicine man be more appropriate?”

“You question is fair, Mr. Harper.” Reeds turned far enough in his saddle to look directly at Roy. “Before I answer, will you answer one question of mine?”

“So far as I can, sure.”

“How certain are you that your Orphanfree is taking a hand in this?”

It was a good question and one he didn’t have a solid answer for. His instincts told him General Oldfathers was tied to things somehow but he couldn’t put that certainty into words. Finally Roy asked, “Have you ever been to war?”

“I have. My brother and I fought against the neighboring tribes many times, and the Columbians once.”

“Well, I don’t know how it was for you. I don’t know how it was or is for anyone outside the 43rd.” Roy found himself absently drumming his fingers on his saddle and forced himself to stop. “But in my experience people who haven’t been to war celebrate what is done. People who have been celebrate surviving what was done to them.”

Reeds nodded once. “There is truth to that among the Sanna as well.”

“And when I was on campaign we looked forward to things being over.”

“That was also true for us.”

“But it’s not true for Oldfathers,” Roy said. “He vanished before the Final Truce with half a company of loyalists and he was never caught. He took a reliquary’s worth of powerful relics and weapons with him.” The overcast sky flickered once, then moments later a dim rumble reached their ears as if the skies themselves disapproved.

“So you believe your general still seeks to fight a war you wish was over,” Reeds mused.

“And the power of a legend, especially a legend about warring brothers? That is a weapon that he would not ignore. Nor is it one I can leave in his hands.” Roy checked positions once more. Nothing had changed. “So tell me. Can you and Marshall take the Blythe’s places and deny Oldfathers the chance to manipulate Yose and Mete? It’s the easiest solution I can think of.”

“I’m afraid you’ve gravely misunderstood what is unfolding here, Mr. Harper,” Reeds said. “The legend of Yose and Mete offers little power to use. Rather, it is a thing that must be fed. Once a generation the legend must play out again, for the souls of Yose and Mete live on in these rivers and hills. You heard Yose’s heartbeat when you arrived, did you not?”

“You mean…” Roy studied the Sanna man in growing horror, “your people sent you here so you two could fight and kill each other? To pacify the legend?”

“More or less. There was no need for me to finish learning the medicines. I only needed enough to safely climb the mountain. Everything else I know I learned in the years since we came here, as a way to pass the time while we waited for the Brothers to show themselves.” Another flash of light and rumble of thunder punctuated Reeds’ matter of fact reply.

While most of his mind was still thinking about Reeds, Roy’s eyes wandered up to the ridge-line. Something struck him as odd and he couldn’t put his finger on it. Even as he spoke Roy’s eyes were straining to catch the next flash of lightning. “Why do the Sanna care if the legend is pacified? What happens if you ignore it?”

“We don’t know. Some believe it will grow and eventually plague the whole world if it isn’t fed, others offer different but equally dire predictions. We don’t want to find out so we do what must be done.”

Roy was trying to think of a response to that when the next flash of lightning came. The rumble of thunder followed it immediately. That thrust the conversation out of Roy’s mind as he scrambled off his mule.

“Mr. Harper?” Reeds asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Stay here and hold my reins. I need to check on something.” The Sanna man took the offered lead from Roy, who then scrambled up to peak over the ridge some twenty feet further ahead.

“Dust and ashes,” he whispered. “A thunderbird.”

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 Five – Life After Silence

Previous Chapter

“How many people are down there?” The Admiral asked. “A thousand? Two?” 

“Four thousand and sixty eight,” Craig said. He’d read the number in so many reports over the last hour that he didn’t even have to check. “All locked in some kind of medically induced coma, kept healthy by Terran medical nanotechnology. We’re working on figuring out how to revive them right now but it’s been slow going.” 

“Well we might be able to help you there.” Carrington manipulated something off screen for a second. “We do have a few files on their medinano that Langley and Hu brought back from their time on Earth, plus a few samples taken from the Terrans on hand that we’ve done some preliminary studies on. But we also think the Shutdown process could be hard on the people it effects, particularly mentally, with time in Shutdown as an aggravating factor.” 

“The longer they sleep, the worse they fare.” 

“Exactly.” 

The admiral returned his attention to Craig. “And that is completely ignoring the other difficulty this discovery poses.” 

“The Borealis dome can’t support five to six thousand people,” Craig said. “I know. There was a solution proposed by our head of Martian Operations.” 

“I saw it.” There was a hint of malice in Carrington’s smile. “Your boy there is going to ruin his own career with this kind of freewheeling initiative. Or he would if we were back in the Triad Worlds. I’m rather glad you brought him with you. Taking building materials from the derelict parts of Earth is a novel thought and one I am considering. Given the significance of that step, and the inevitable increasing tensions it will provoke, I’ll be consulting with the senior captains of the Newtonian and Gallilean groups but, before that, I’d like to hear your opinion.” 

Craig paused for a moment. He’d expected that question and mostly had his answer. But the answer cut so hard against who he was he still hesitated to say it. “Sir, I don’t see as we have any choice. We’re already entangled with the Martian population and we know Earth doesn’t like either of us. And the Martians waited so long for someone with the time and resources to lend them a hand, it seems cruel to demand they keep waiting. We could send a message drone back to the Triad Worlds, they might even answer us right away. But, even with the time it would save not having to drop below superluminal to do fleet position checks, we’d still wait a year to hear from them. I’m not sure Bottletown will hold together that long, now that they know the truth about their colony.” 

Carrington sighed. “I tend to agree. We’ll still inform the Triad Worlds and Rodenberry, of course, but I don’t think there will be any objection in the fleet proper to your proposed course of action. I suspect that by this time next week we’ll be formally at war with Earth, God help us.” 

“Perhaps,” Craig mused, “UNIGOV will hold to their pacifist principles.” 

“Don’t count on it, Captain” Carrington said. “Don’t count on it.” 


Volk looked around the Vault in momentary confusion. He’d never entered through the Sunbottle side of the underground bay and it looked quite different from the entrance along the edge of the dome. Most of the wall was occupied by large pieces of equipment he couldn’t attache to a purpose, some part of the old yet shockingly advanced Earth tech that kept most of the population of Bottletown in Shutdown and awaiting revival. In the first few days since finding the Vault the Stewart‘s top medical and engineering officers had swarmed the Vault, examining equipment, taking measurements and dumping code. Now the Fleet’s best and brightest minds were collaborating to try and crack it, to figure out some way to revive the people of Mars. 

By the same token many Malacandrans had rushed down to the Vault, looking desperately to see if it was true, and all the people who had left them in Silence were still close at hand. They’d transformed the aisles and stacks of pods. Now there were ribbons, piles of books or mementos stacked by the pods where long Silenced relatives lay sleeping. Portable display boards were stuck to the ends of aisles listing the hundreds of people stacked there and, in the few places where the sleepers had expired of age in spite of the wonders of Terran medical nanotech, black clothes covered the pods in a symbol of respect. 

Taken together, it made Volk feel very out of place. In five years of Naval service he’d traveled to two dozen worlds never intended for human life and put his very own boots on seventy percent of them. But walking through the Vault felt more like trespassing than surveying those places ever had. 

A soft tune echoed down the aisles and drew him away from the entryway, as if the Vault had changed from mausoleum to enchanted grotto and now fairies were tempting him further in. Volk shook his head and got his head in the present. He’d been too stressed with the whole “Martian Operations” thing the past few days. It’d been nothing but scheduling trips to and from the Stewart or facilitating meetings between the ship’s Senior Staff and the Elders of Bottletown. The culture shocks of men and women in the thirties and forties, still striving to reach their professional peaks, dealing with eighteen and nineteen year olds who were used to being the final say on everything in the entire world posed a steep challenge. Volk was looking forward to getting all that sorted and returning to his normal role as leader of a five man survey team. 

But there was a lot to sort before he could get there. 

He found the source of the tune at the far end of the Vault, near the other entry. Aubrey was there, examining Naomi’s Shutdown pod and consulting with the AI readout she’d set on the ground next to here. She looked out of place, like a sunflower in the middle of a cave, and the Malacandran girl leaning against the next rack of pods in the row and humming lent the whole scene an ephemeral air. He exchanged a glance with the girl – Gemma, if he was remembering her name right – and stepped over to Aubrey. “Everything going all right?” 

“No.” She sighed and shut the readout down. “A couple of emergency medical training classes did not prepare me for this. We got some of the medical data from… from Earth, and it says you can revive people from Shutdown without special measures for about a week. But that applies to modern medical nanotech, not this ancient stuff. Your doctor is taking precautions in case there are complications in reviving her but I’m not sure they’re going to be enough.” 

“Hey, take it easy,” he said, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Like you said, you’re not a doctor you’re a traffic controller. No one’s going to blame you if this doesn’t work. We all just do what we can.” 

“Easy to say when what you can do is fall out of the sky like a rock with all the parts the town needs to pull through.” Aubrey shook her head. “Sometimes I think I should have stayed on Earth.” 

“Really?” 

“I don’t know. There’s so much wrong there and I barely understand what’s right here and I’m not even sure that made sense.” She pressed a hand to her forehead. “I thought if I came up here to space and looked around I could understand more about what we did wrong down there and help fix it. Turns out I can’t even help with this one little thing.” 

Volk laughed and gestured back at the Vault full of sleeping people “I’d hardly call reviving all these people a little thing.” 

“You’re missing the point.” 

“Aubrey, I don’t know what all is wrong on Earth. The Admiral is keeping those details to himself and that’s his right. But I do know we wouldn’t have any idea what Earth is like or any of those medical records from Earth if you hadn’t helped out Martin when he was stuck down there. And look!” He gestured back to Naomi’s pod, decorated  with a half a dozen drawings from her kids, ready to greet her when she awoke. “There’s a lady who’s boys are missing her that’s going to see them again tonight, all because you lent a helping hand. That’s plenty to be proud of for a week’s work. Take a day off, think about what to do next after you’ve had a break.” 

“Okay.” She rubbed her hands over her eyes and blew out a breath. “That sounds like a good idea. Like a great idea. So what is there to do for fun around here, Gemma?” 

She laughed. “Fun? I guess you could sing with the choir, that’s what I usually do. Or talk to the Elders. They spend a lot of time just talking, I dunno about what. We got some old games on the central computer network.” 

“It’s a colony, they’ve only got so much leisure time to start with,” Volk said with a chuckle. He leaned back against the pod behind him only to feel his hand bump against something. A stack of three books slid off the pod and landed in a jumble on the floor. He stooped to pick them up, thinking they must be of recent manufacture. He hadn’t seen that many books around Bottletown before. Looking closer he realized there was a red book, a green book and a gray book, each about the size of the old paperback format. 

His landmark oriented surveyor’s brain flashed back through his trip from the entrance and realized he’d passed at least four stacks of identical books on his way. He flipped them around to read the titles. Out of the Silent Planet. Perelandra. That Hideous Strength. “Where did these come from?” 

“Damian came down and left them for his father. For when he wakes up.” Gemma pointed towards the pod they’d been resting on. “He told me once he loved talking about Ransom’s notes – the first book, I guess – with his father. Solomon Drake was a petitioner, too, and I guess listening to his dad talk about the story of Dr. Ransom was a big part of why Damian followed in his footsteps. So he’s probably really excited to talk to his dad about the rest of Dr. Ransom’s life. I heard he read the other two books the very first day he got them.” 

Volk stacked them back on top of the pod, ambivalent. “Well,” he finally said. “I hope they enjoy them.” 

“You don’t sound fully convinced,” Aubrey said. 

He shrugged. “This may sound odd but until I was twelve I thought James T. Kirk was a real person who really saved the galaxy from disasters. I didn’t realize how much of what he did would actually cause disasters, or that no person was really as brave, insightful or persuasive as Kirk. My dad is a true believer, convinced we’re always just days away from that perfect kind of society. But once I saw all the flaws in the details – people who didn’t ever live by the perfect standards, standards that contradicted and the like – I couldn’t look at it like he did anymore. We haven’t really been on good terms since I told him that. I’m not sure we’re doing anyone favors here.” 

She put a hand on his arm and rubbed it soothingly. “Listen, I don’t know much about this Rodenberry person you worship–” 

“We don’t exactly worship him.” 

“Whatever. I don’t know about him any more than I know about Priss’s Catholics or Dr. Ransom so I can’t speak to what you do or don’t believe. But I can tell you this. UNIGOV lied to us about their perfect society and hid all those flaws in the details from us.” She turned him around and looked him in the eye. “If you hide the truth you’re no different than they are. Gemma and her people survived on top of a faulty nuclear reactor for a century and a half, they can make it through this, too.” 

Volk smiled. “You know, I think you’re right.” 

“Me too!” Gemma chimed in. 

That got an actual laugh from him. “Fine, fine. But believe it or not that’s not why I came down here to find you.” 

“No?” Aubrey laughed. “So what brought you here.” 

“The Admiral is asking you to come back to the Sea of Tranquility,” Volk said, some of his good humor leaving him. He’d hoped to get to know Aubrey better but the harsh reality of Naval life had its say in all things. “He didn’t say exactly what it was about, just that you needed to know Steven had agreed to cooperate.” 

“I… wasn’t expecting that.” She visibly gathered herself and nodded. “When we finish Naomi’s revival operation I’ll be ready to go.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of taking you away before it,” Volk said. “Check in with me afterwards and we’ll arrange your transfer back to the Stewart. I understand one of the Newtonian ships will be coming to pick you up the day after tomorrow. It’s been a pleasure working with you.” 

He started back towards the Sunbottle entrance but stopped when he heard Aubrey’s voice. “Volk?” 

“Yes?” He turned halfway and looked back. “Something wrong?” 

Aubrey was staring at the stack of books now. “Are you staying here? On planet?” 

“That’s the plan. I am the head of Martian Operations, after all.” 

“Do me a favor?” 

He shrugged. “Sure. What is it?” 

Her fingers rested on top of the red book. “Find out why it was different.” When she saw Volk’s blank look she added, “The outcome. Mars and Earth both have societies based on stories with little to no truth in them. So why were they so different? Why did Earth reject something new and a little frightening, in spite of all our supposed history telling how we were kind, welcoming and courageous? Why did Mars accept people so far outside what they were used to when their story is all about the consequences of distrust and cruelty? If we can’t work it out UNIGOV is going to keep Earth a silent planet, no matter what the Ransom books say.” 

Volk nodded. “I understand your question, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to answer it. Better men than me have spent lifetimes trying. But we’ll do our best.” 

And as he walked out of the Vault, as all the details of responsibilities and tasks swarmed in around him once more, Volk admitted he’d made an impossible promise. Rodenberry thought space was the final frontier, that humanity must surpass itself before it could challenge the stars. In truth, Volk thought it was quite the opposite. Life as a department head, however brief, had convinced him that the intricacies of the human experience were far deeper and more difficult than anything he’d experienced on new planets. Either way, it was never boring out there. 


Pak looked up when Gemma returned to the watch tower. Alyssa had left an hour before, leaving the bottler team reconnecting the secondary boards to the power system unsupervised, which led to one conclusion. “I take it they finished reviving Naomi?” 

“Yup. Her family and Alyssa’s practically threw a party right there in the Vault! It was something.” Gemma sat down in the chair next to his. “Then Volk hustled Aubrey away, she’s going back to Earth for something or another.” 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Pak said, entering a final command sequence and looking at her while he waited for the last code to compile. “You two seemed like you got to be good friends.” 

Gemma waved a hand. “Sort of? I thought the way Volk followed her around sometimes was cute. I feel kind of bad for him, with her going so far away.” 

“Oh.” He hadn’t gotten that impression at all. “Well, we have a bit of a wait before anyone else is revived but I guess I can deal with it. Anyone you’re excited to see again? I know my sister and I have been talking about what to show our parents when they wake up.” 

Gemma made a very noncommittal noise. “I annoyed my dad a lot before he went into Silence,” she said. “Mom ran interference but I think I gave them a lot of headaches. I don’t know what to say to them when I see them again.” 

“Don’t talk about the past,” Pak suggested. “Talk about the future. What do you want to do with them now?” 

Gemma looked up at the watch tower’s ceiling for a moment. “I want to go to Earth.” 

The urge to smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “I’m sure that’s not something they’ll expect.” A pinging noise told him his code was done and he turned back around to look at his handywork. “Perfect.” 

“What are you doing?” Gemma asked, coming to look over his shoulder. 

“Testing out some new equipment and software the Rodenberries gave us.” He pointed to a simple display of Malacandran orbital space, complete with a bright green dot representing the Stewart. “We can monitor incoming flights now. See?” 

“Oh… Not bad, head watcher. Not bad.” 

She was getting cheeky for a watcher in her first cent. But then, maybe that wasn’t so bad. Things around Bottletown were changing, almost entirely for the better. Perhaps the watch tower would be less of a dead end job in the future, and head watchers would need a more personable touch. Time would tell. The board sounded a clear tone as a small blue dot departed the Stewart, one of their landers coming in with some new batch of people, equipment or mix of both, to push Bottletown a little further on their way. Maybe soon they’d reclaim all of Borealis. But for the moment, at least the space they watched was far less silent. 

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Four – Final Resting Place

Previous Chapter

Volk popped the vent and let the impact gel drain out into the container underneath. The quiet gurgling nooise had an odd mournful sound to it, as if the lander already understood it was destined to be broken down and recycled. With the lander’s power plant offloaded and running the colony dome and valuable cargo unloaded and awaiting installation the lander was bereft of purpose and scattered over half a square kilometer of Martian soil so Captain Gyle had finally ordered it tossed into the nanofacturies planetside and broken down into its base components. If the Stewart really needed a sixth Tigris class lander they could always rebuild it in their more advanced facilities shipside. But right now no one was missing it. 

A banging noise came from inside the main hull section, followed by a frustrated growl and the distinct sound of a nanosealer hitting a bulkhead at throwing speed. “Shit.” 

A smile tugged at the corner of Volk’s mouth. So someone was kind of missing it. He climbed up the canted hull and slid into the lander’s main hatch, adjusting his balance in an effort to stay upright on a floor canted about twenty degrees off level. “Got that flight recorder yet, Langley?” 

“No.” Volk found the nanosealer sitting in the lowest corner in the room and picked it up. “I forgot how damn hard it is to get these things out on purpose.” 

“Removing them wasn’t part of your training on Somme class landers?” 

Langley’s head appeared in the doorway to the cockpit. “Under the circumstances, if we crashed one of those we were expected to sterilize the crash site and go to ground. I have experience with that but I suspect you wouldn’t appreciate it, much less the Borealis folks.” 

“You blew up your escape pod when you landed on Earth?” 

“Yup.” He disappeared back into the cockpit, his voice echoing through the empty compartments of the ship. “And my Somme when it went down, although that had a much bigger boom.” 

Volk made his way towards the cockpit, stepping carefully in the slimy remains of the impact gel. “This may be an indelicate question to ask but how many ships have you crashed?” 

“Four.” He’d pulled the entire side of the central computer compartment off and was trying to balance it on the pilot’s chair but it wasn’t cooperating. He sighed and just tossed it in the corner. “We’re recycling everything anyway.” 

“Isn’t that kind of a lot of ships to crash?” 

“In my defense one of them was an actual waterborn thing and I was six.” He dug into the guts of the computer, pushing racks of purpose built processors and general purpose storage drives out of the way. “The other two involved getting shot by hostile parties before the crashing part took over and this one was calculated and deliberate-” 

“Sure.” 

“-so I’m confident my flight privileges are in no danger.” 

Volk handed Langley the nanosealer when he waved a hand for it. “Well, I do plan on putting in a good word for you though I’m not sure how much difference it will make in your command structure. You did get us down with everything of note intact and no casualties.” 

“That’s a first,” he muttered. 

Not a subject he felt a need to dig into. “So if you want…” 

Langley came out with the flight recorder in hand. “Yes?” 

“I’m trying to say, you don’t have to stay here and work cleanup. We’ve got a second lander on landing orbit now, stuffed with all kinds of engineers to sort all this out. And I was under the impression you were here to keep an eye on Miss Vance.” 

“Well you’re wrong. I’m here as her security blanket. She gets nervous very easily and is away from everything she’s ever known, plus a lot of the assumptions she’s always held about humanity got seriously shaken about a week ago. She wanted a familiar face to come along with her to Mars.” Langley shrugged and tossed the flight recorder into the seat beside him and scrambled to his feet. “That was me. But she took to you folks and the Bottletowners like a fish to water, like I kinda suspected she would. She keeps running off places without telling me. Frankly, I think it’s healthy for her and I’ve taken a strict hands off policy about it for the time being.” 

“So she’s more Starfleet’s speed than the Klingon’s?” 

He laughed. “More or less.” 

Volk took the flight recorder and started working his way out of the cockpit. “So how did you get exposed to the Great Man’s work, if I may ask? I know our recordings came from the original colony records but I was under the impression not many people put a lot of weight behind his work most places.” 

“In general we don’t. Until a few years ago I knew only the stereotypical stuff about Rodeberry’s work – he was overly idealistic and had notions about human nature which don’t really bear out. Everyone knows it’s more nuanced than that but few people dig in to his stories to get an idea of how. So after I was shot down over Minerva I got rotated back to Copernicus and went on leave for a bit. Wound up taking a bunch of correspondence courses to brush up some skills and I signed up to audit an introductory course on the ‘Great Man’ from the Naval Academy in New San Francisco along with everything else. And the thing that stuck out to me most was the guest lecturer who came in to talk about the Klingons.” 

Volk smiled. “Professor Pachelli.” 

“You know him?” 

“He’d just started teaching STC 201 when I took it,” Volk said. “That’s ‘Introduction to Rodenberry’s Antagonists,’ if you were wondering. Fluent in Klingon and mean as vinegar, he had definite ideas about what the best aspects of the Great Man’s work are. Let me guess. When he was guest lecturer he gave the ‘Five Insights into the Klingon Mind’ talk.” 

“That’s the one. I got interested in Klingons, their stories were fun and I thought the idea of them as antagonists was clever. The honor code let Kirk and Spock outmaneuver them without always resorting to violence. But also another indication that Rodenberry was writing without considering human nature. No one sticks to their guns to that extent, and having the bad guys do it instead of the good guys isn’t great messaging either.” Volk hopped down onto the ground and Langley followed a moment later. He glanced around the empty field the lander sat in and dropped his volume to a quiet but still conversational level. “Still, I’ve been thinking about Klingons a lot the last couple of days.” 

“Oh?” Volk looked around as well but couldn’t find anything noteworthy. “Why is that?” 

Sins of the Father.” 

“You’ll have to refresh my memory.” 

“Worf’s father is censured by the Klingon government and, after investigating, Worf chooses not to tell the truth in order to protect the reputation of a powerful Klingon. In doing this he prevents a possible civil war but is dishonored for his father’s supposed actions. Worf believes trading the truth for lives is the honorable choice.” Langley held his hands out and tilted them like he was a scale, weighing justice. “But then the Klingon ruler dies and the powerful Klingon Worf protected fights a civil war to take power. And the war is worse, because he had more time to gather allies from inside and outside of Klingon space, than it would have been if Worf just disgraced him. In the end, Worf made the wrong decision.” 

This was ringing some bells somewhere in the recesses of Volk’s memory. He’d always enjoyed the later stories, from the Deep Space Nine incarnation, more and many of the details from the era Langley referred to were spotty. “Yes, I remember that story, somewhat. What’s significant about it?” 

Langley sighed. “Never mind. Just make sure you tell the Malacandrans the truth. They deserve to know that the story they’re living in is over, Fyodorovich. Tell them who C.S. Lewis is. Show them the other books he wrote and let them know the Silent Planet talks to them again. The truth will out, one way or another, and any fallout from that will be worse later. Not better.” 

Then he took the flight recorder out of Volk’s hands and walked off towards the Old Borealis basecamp. Volk glanced at his empty hands with a start. “Hey!” 

“I need a copy of that descent telemetry,” he said, “or no one will ever believe I pulled it off!” 

Volk shook his head and followed after, still not sure what he made of the man. 


Pak watched as Elder Alyssa and the rest of his guests worked their way along the outside of the dome. While blueprints and programming for custom built vacuum suits was one of the many blessings the Rodenberries had given them over the past few days a form fitted suit you were unfamiliar with was almost as cumbersome as a poor fitting one and it was slow going for most of them. With the exceptions of Volk and his silent shadow. Pak was now convinced Spacer First Class Shen was actually some kind of personal watcher that Volk’s superiors had tasked with keeping him out of trouble because she’d refused to leave him alone since he’d crashed his ship in the cornfields three days ago. 

Out of the Malacandrans who’d come out with him only Gemma had any kind of time logged in suits so the rest of them, from the Eldest down to petitioner Drake, stumbled over every hillock and flailed against every gust of wind. They still got where they were going inside of a quarter hour. “We saw this doorway when we first arrived,” Volk said when he saw where Pak had stopped. “But it didn’t look operable. Now power readings, anyway.” 

“It doesn’t need power,” Pak said, taking the hatch by the handle and lifting it completely off its hinges and setting it aside. Without the added gravity inside the dome it was an easy enough thing to accomplish. “It hasn’t worked that way in more cents than I can count.” 

Volk just stared at the door for a minute. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of that.” 

“In my experience,” Alyssa said, “overthinking things is Rodenberry way.” 

“Speaking of doing things the hard way…” Pak turned and tried to pick the Thulcandran woman out from the crowd. With everyone in vac suits it was hard to do. “There’s an entrance at the bottom of the reactor, right? Why aren’t we using that?” 

“We don’t have the passcodes to open the door,” the Eldest said. “And we can’t be sure the door isn’t boobytrapped.” 

“What’s a boobytrap?” Alyssa asked. 

“Nothing good,” Volk said. “Let’s go down and see what this place is all about.” 

The stairs down were caked with red dust. Most of the lights were dark but they’d anticipated that and Volk passed out four portable lanterns and they picked their way down with appropriate reverence. “Why do you think your Founders closed this part of the dome off?” The Thulcandran woman asked. “The plans don’t show anything interesting down here.” 

“We don’t have any idea,” the Eldest said. “We just know they didn’t want it reopened until we’d made peace with Thulcandra.” 

“That’s why you’re here, Aubrey,” Volk said. 

“I always wanted to be a living loophole.” But she didn’t seem too put out at the idea. 

At the bottom of the stairway there was a locked hatch. The lights fucntion for the twenty or so feet leading up to the landing and this entrance had power. A key pad at the center of the hatch suggested how people gained entrance. Eldest Nobari pushed his way to the front of the line. “Naomi told me the combination before she passed,” he said. “It’s part of the oral tradition.” 

“What happens when you open the door?” Volk asked. 

“Those instructions come once we enter the next chamber,” Nobari replied. “But I don’t think anything dangerous. Naomi said it was our last, best chance to see peace with Thulcandra but she didn’t know anything more than that.” 

He put the code in and the hatch clunked. The Eldest was reaching to open it when Volk gently pulled him back from the entrance. “Shen? If you would.” 

The small woman wormed her way to the place Nobari had been standing, taking her weapon in her hands and nodding to Volk. He reached out and opened the hatch. 

The room inside was dark but as soon as the hatch opened completely old lighting systems snapped to life, marching across the chamber in an ever expanding circle of illumination. At first Pak was listening for the instructions that would tell them what happened next. But he lost track of that notion as he began to realize how big a room he was looking at. It was nearly thirty feet from floor to ceiling but he couldn’t tell how far it went in any given direction because it was full, floor to ceiling, with racks of pods. He wasn’t sure what was in the pods but they were about ten feet long and three feet high. After a moment Pak realized with a start that they were the exact size of a Glass Coffin. 

“The floor, sir,” Shen said, gesturing to an illuminated strip running down the center of the aisles. Most of the lights were white but a blue strip led off to the left. “I think It’s telling us where to go.” 

“I agree. Aubrey what do you- hey!” Volk pulled her hands away from her helmet. “Keep that on until we know what’s going on here.” 

“It’s a Vault,” she said, voice wooden. “Schrodinger’s Vault.” 

“What’s that mean?” Pak asked. 

Shen knelt by one of the pods, down at the point where the blue lights ended. “Wait, Naomi is in here. What the hell is this?” 

“She’s gone into Shutdown,” Aubery said. “They all have. Your Founders put everyone into Shutdown in the hopes that they’d get revived once Earth broke its silence and contacted you again. None of your elders are dead, just waiting for us to break the Silence…” 

Chapter Twenty Three – Long Way Down

Previous Chapter

“You’re crazy!” Cates said. 

At the same time Alyssa said, “I don’t like the sounds of this plan, Dex.” 

“We skim down in a single orbit, use the atmosphere as brakes during the nadir of the first stage of the loop then bounce up a bit and repeat. We’ll lose about half the hull on our belly but we’ll be down in twenty five minutes, tops.” Langley jerked a thumb at himself. “At least, if I’m flying. Clearly your guy doesn’t have the chops for this.” 

Volk gave the Copernican pilot his best officer’s stare. “Langley, if this is just some overwrought way to make Ensign Cates feel inferior it’s in poor taste.” 

“Lieutenant,” he replied, “I did almost this exact landing pattern over Earth less than a week ago in a far less robust or maneuverable craft and on that run everyone who was alive before impact with the ground was just as alive after.” 

“A weird way to say it,” Volk countered. 

“One of us in the pod died during the orbital bombardment on the way down,” Langley said, matter of fact. “There’s no ground based barrage to worry about here.” 

“Mars has a lot less atmo than Earth,” Cates said. “You can’t count on it to brake as hard at any point during descent.” 

“Martian gravity is a lot lighter, too, and the thinner atmosphere is an upside since otherwise we’d burn up, you ain’t got the armor on these things to make a really fast landing in standard atmo.” He spread his hands. “Come on, LT, what do you say?” 

“Lieutenant,” Cates snapped, “we don’t have the thrust to land safely even with a landing profile configured for maximum air resistance.” 

“I wasn’t kidding when I said crash the ship.” 

“We’re not all that has to survive the landing,” Alyssa put in. “This is all kind of pointless if the reactor parts don’t survive.” 

“That cargo hold is the sturdiest part of the ship, if we flood it with impact gel it’ll be fine.” Langley jammed his hands under his arms and clamped them down tight, clearly anxious to be doing something. “We can do this but if we’re going to try it we need to start down soon.” 

“No, this is stupid.” Cates waved towards the back of the ship. “What about the reactor? You heard what they said, we need that to power the dome some other way or we can’t–” 

Volk grabbed Cates by the collar of his evac suit and dragged him out of his chair. “Thank you, Ensign, that’s enough. Sergeant Langley, take the conn please. Everyone else take a seat and ready for vacuum. And Alyssa, let the colony know they’re going to have to open both sides of their airlock long enough for us to get through. We can’t go in the normal way.” 

To his credit Cates didn’t press the point once the decision was made he just scrambled into different chair and started strapping in. Langley took his place and set to work, changing the lander’s angle of descent sharply and hitting the acceleration thrusters hard. Since his hands were full Volk took his helmet and fitted it in place for him. Alyssa and Cates followed suit. The ship’s comms crackled and Captain Gyle’s voice came over. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich, explain the change to your landing profile.” 

He waited just long enough to pull his own helmet on and transfer communications over before answering. “Fyodorovich here, Captain. Have you been briefed on the new situation planetside?” 

“The failing reactor? The report just came through. We’ve got Commander Deveneaux working on it. Does this have a bearing on your vector?” 

There was a horrible moment where Volk tried to decide if he should acknowledge the potential pun or not. Discretion was the better part of valor. “Yes, sir. Sergeant Langley thinks we can get down fast enough to prevent a catastrophic failure if we make a powered emergency landing.” 

“Very interesting,” Gyle said. “Mr. Fyodorovich we don’t have the time to make a replacement for the parts you’re carrying if they’re destroyed on landing.” 

“Understood, sir. But we think we can land this safely. What are the odds we find a way to keep the reactor intact long enough to make a conventional landing before it irradiates half the dome?” 

There was a long moment of silence on the other side of the comm. Volk hoped the Captain made up his mind before they were too deep in the gravity well to turn back. Finally Gyle came back long enough to say, “Good luck, Lieutenant.” 

Volk reached across the board and triggered the manual override to flood the cabin with impact gel. As the clear, noneuclidean liquid filled the chamber Langley got set up in the glove box that would let him manipulate the lander’s controls without having to fight the liquid’s temperamental viscosity. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “thank you for flying Drop Ship Transportation, we hope you will enjoy today’s crash for the rest of your lives. We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that it is a good day to die.” 

“Oh, shit,” Volk muttered. “He thinks he’s a Klingon.” 

“Q’plah, motherfuckers!” 


“They want us to what?” Pak threw the old wiring aside and moved out of the way so his crew could keep working on the servo replacement. 

“You have to open both sides of the airlock,” Harriet said. “They’re coming in very, very fast and Volk says the lander will punch through the internal door one way or another so he’d like us to get it open if we can.” 

“That’s not possible,” Pak said, trying to keep from yelling into his comm. He didn’t want to deafen the woman. “There’s safeties to keep us from opening both halves of the door.” 

“Can’t you override the safety?” 

“The programming language isn’t one we have a manual for…” Pak looked around for a loose board. “But I can try to do something.” 

“Well if you can’t figure it out get your team away from that hatch in eighteen minutes because by that point you’ll be in the line of fire.” 

“Great. Great, thanks.” He signed off the comm and looked around. “Gemma! You’re in charge here, finish up these replacements and clear the scene in ten minutes, got it?” 

“Ten minutes!” She pulled herself out of a servo hatch and stared at him. “How am I supposed to do that? And what are you doing?” 

“Just get it done!” He sprinted off towards the closest network node he could tap in to. 


The worst part about an emergency landing was the waiting. There was nothing quite so terrifying as sitting in a chair, looking out a viewport and watching the air around your ship slowly superheat from the friction of your passage, knowing you were bound for a sudden, sharp stop sometime in the near future. Except maybe sitting in a chair with no viewport. Volk caught a quiet whimper come over the open comm circuit he’d established among the four passengers in the lander. 

“Everything okay, Mrs. Pracht?” 

“Sick stomach,” she said. 

“Ah. Well, if you do lose anything your helmet has an automatic suction system that should deal with it. Let me know if it doesn’t.” 

“This happens a lot?” 

“More than we like to admit.” 

“Crosswinds moving north-northwest,” Cates said, cutting in to the channel. “Brace for it.” 

“In this atmo it’ll be a walk in the park,” Langley said, his hands working the controls frantically. 

And to Volk’s surprise the jolt a few seconds later was pretty negligible. “Damn,” Cates muttered. “How did you do that?” 

“Practice. Panic about crosswinds once we’re halfway down, kid. Until then, try and relax.” 

Langley had probably meant it as much for Alyssa as for Cates but, if so, it was lost on her. She was starting to huff a bit in her helmet and Volk was getting worried. Spacers went through a lot of training to acclimate to the stress of being in a vacuum suit, to say nothing of space flight and emergency situations. “Calm down, Alyssa,” he said. “Only fifteen minutes to go.” 

“Is it supposed to be this warm?” She asked. 

Volk glanced out the viewport and watched the air glow brighter and brighter. “No. Not really.” 


Where the exterior door and its servos had deteriorated quite a bit the network hub was still in surprisingly good shape. Pak managed to get it open and connect it to his board in under a minute. After that he got so wrapped up in trying to get access he never noticed Harriet coming up behind him. He nearly jumped out of his skin when her hand touched his shoulder. “What?!” 

“Sorry…” She huffed, panting and sweaty. “Got… lost. Thought you were… at the hatch.” 

He tried to slow his heart down. “No, I had to come here to get in the network. What did you need?” She just held out the small, comm sized box the spacers seemed to use as their all-purpose computing solution. After a moment’s hesitation Pak took it and said, “Hello?” 

“Is this the person in charge of reprogramming the hatch systems?” A voice asked. 

“That’s me.” 

“I’m told no one down there has any significant experience with this kind of thing.” 

Pak grimaced. “True enough. Is it too much to hope you have a solution ready to go?” 

“We’re going to do everything we can to help you.” Which he noticed was not a direct answer to his question. “Now, we’re going to be working in ENDEMIC, the English language version of ColSystems’ Dome Engineering Management Information Codec, which is a very simple and robust programming language from that era.” 

“I’m glad someone here is an expert on it.” 

“I’m just reading from the first page of the manual, kid. We’re not trying anything fancy, just pasting a new command bypass over existing code so hopefully it won’t take us too long to sort it out. Now you need to get system access.” 

“I’m working on that.” 

“There’s a back door you can use by bringing up the file directory…” 


“We’re crossing a warm air pocket in twenty seconds.” For all the animosity previously Cates seemed to function as Langley’s copilot just fine. “Shorter to skirt it to the north.” 

“We’re going too fast to cut around it neatly like that. We’ll just ride the turbulence.” 

Alyssa whimpered, the only noise she’d made for the past three or four minutes. “Easy,” Volk said. “We’re more than halfway down.” 

“We can’t just fly through it, we’ll hit the updraft and bounce like a bad penny!” 

“You have pennies on Rodenberry? I thought the Federation was beyond money.” Even Langley’s barbs had lost their playful edge and sounded more like a straining man trying to distract himself. 

“Steady, Langley,” Volk said. “Banter isn’t necessary if its distracting you.” 

“Gotta rag on someone, LT,” he shot back, “or I wind up doing it to myself. That’s even more distracting.” 

“By all means, rag on me then,” Cates said. “Just don’t smash this thing on the ground.” 

Another nervous sound from Alyssa. Then they hit the turbulence and engine two burst in to flames. 


“Try compiling it again.” 

Pak hit the right key on his board. “Same error message. Maybe we’re going about this all wrong, Mr. Deveneaux. What if, instead of creating a new opening subroutine, we tried just disengaging the safeties on the servoes for the inner door and cranked it open by hand.” 

“That’s going to be very slow to open and reseal, Pak,” the stranger on the comms said. “I don’t know if that’s adviseable.” 

“We have eight minutes left. I think It’s or only option to get this done before your ship crashes straight through the hatch and we can’t reseal it at all.” 

“Fair point. Okay, Pak, try the following commands…” 


Volk finally got the fire in engine two out. “You have full thrust on the starboard side again, Mr. Langley.” 

“Peachy.” The lander’s engines roared back to maximum, a new and somewhat ominous whine added to the mix. “We are twenty seconds away from the dome, people. If you’re the praying type, now is the time.” 

A quick glance at Alyssa told Volk she’d taken Langley’s advice some time ago. Assuming she hadn’t passed out. The woman had many admirable qualities but a love of flying wasn’t among them, unfortunately. He ran through a mental list of things he needed to do before crashing the lander and he could only think of one thing left to do. “Mr. Cates, stand by to release the braking parachute on Mr. Langley’s command.” 

“Wait, this ship has a parachute?” 

What?!” Volk and Cates demanded in unison. 

“Langley to Borealis, confirm entry hatch is open!” 


Pak clung to the side of the manual servo release, doing his best to resist the rushing tide of air trying to rip him out onto the surface of Mars. “This is Pak Teng Won at Hatch Five, hatch is open.” 

“Then hang on to something, we’re coming through and it isn’t going to be pretty.” 

“Already hanging on, thanks.” 

But his words were lost in the deafening howl that rose up, swallowing even the roar of the wind, as a flying craft the size of a house tore through the hatch. A wave of scalding air bore through the hatch with it, momentarily reversing the flow of wind through the hatch and almost knocking Pak to the ground with the suddenness of the reversal. As soon as he had his feet again Pak hit the automated controls for the outer hatch, sealing the dome again in a matter of seconds. But he didn’t pay attention to that because the ship smashed to the ground with a horrifying grinding, hissing noise. 

Half an acre of Martian corn flashfried into ash under the superheated hull or got ripped up in a tidal wave of dirt and plants that scattered everywhere in front of the sliding extraMartian object. For a moment he didn’t think it would stop before it hit a building but then a colorful black and gold object exploded from the back of the ship and expanded into a parachute that looked like it was half the size of the Sunbottle. It billowed under the force of the air for a moment then tore in half down the middle but that was enough to stop the ship before it even crossed the clear space between the fields and Old Borealis. Pak heaved a sigh of relief. Then realized that even though the ship hadn’t hit anything that was no guarantee anyone was alive in that thing. 

He’d covered half the distance to the ship when hatch popped open on the top of the ship and a suited man dragged himself out, a weird slime dripping from his whole body. He looked unsteady but that didn’t stop him from ripping his helmet off and throwing it down hard enough that it bounced five times before rolling to a stop. “Perfect landing, Cates. Let’s see you do that next time.” 

Pak let his headlong dash slow to a walk. Ramone had sent bottlers with hookup cables to loop the lander in. The parts on the ship would let them fix the Sunbottle. All four passengers on the lander had crawled out and looked like they were okay. 

Gemma came up by him, looking equally shellshocked by the craziness that had come and gone in the last half hour, and asked, “So, are we done?” 

Pak took a deep breath and let it out. Laughed. And said, “Yeah, I think the disaster is averted. For today.” He slapped her on the back. “Good work.” 

She turned bright red for some reason. “Uh, yeah. Thanks.” 

Pak put it out of his mind and went to see if they needed any help unloading the lander.