'The Noisy Tide of Time'

The Noisy Tide of Time: Prologue
A Dream of Eldredge Pym

From the journals of Eldredge Pym, Earl of Golbriggah:

The dream again. The strega who met with me seemed to think it meaningful, and though I have little truck with superstition, the things I have seen since I arrived in this Thay-ah make me question almost my sanity. I will attempt to write it out fully, so that I may consult it, or you, my dearest Margaret, may find it. It may be cold comfort for you, but I, at least, will feel some shadow of the relief your real presence would bring…

The dream: I stand on a beach of pink sand, with a sluggish, tepid surf breaking. The sand is wet and odorous, and the tide is out, revealing a shallow slope covered in red and black kelps or brackens in fantastic shapes. Small black crabs move amongst the fronds, but slowly. They do not move like crabs. There is no breeze, but something moves my hair. The sky is starless and lowering red. The sun fills half the sky, red as well. I turn and see a man striding toward me along the beach. He is naked. One of his eyes seems to shine and pulse with the sound of the surf. Behind him, a spire of white stone flashes, and I am suddenly somewhere else.

Another coast, but the sun is a copper disc, and its usual proportions. The sky is a more familiar nacreous blue, and the white foam breaks on the grey rocks under my feet. The cry of seabirds assaults me after the quiet of that other shore. The wind blows in from the sea with a tang of salt so strong that I gag and think of blood. I turn from the water and see an empty town, like you might find in any prosperous port. At the hour when the shopkeepers should be doing a brisk business, there is no one. Beyond the nearest row of buildings, I watch carrion birds circle a tower in what must be the center of the town. I know, in the way of dreams, that black murder stalks these streets. In the sky, a bank of clouds resembles a puppeteer’s hand. Bright chords extend to the tower. A mountain looms behind the town, a single massive piece of basalt. At its top, a spire of white stone glints in the light. I am once again transported.

I stand on the fissure of a glacier, my legs astride it. My breath makes dense clouds in front of me. In moments, my moustache is wet with it. In the distance, I can see an endless plain or steppe. Beneath me, I can see the light of a forge fire, and I can hear the echoes of a smith’s hammer striking anvil caroming off the ice. There is a hiss, and I turn to catch a glimpse of a woman leaping from crag to crag. Her hair streams behind her two spans or more. It is white, like her skin, the color of hoar frost. She hisses at me, and I am filled with fear like I have never known. Her teeth come to points. I try to step back and lose my footing. Twisting, I fall and catch myself by swinging hard with an ice axe that I did not know I held. With a supreme effort, I haul myself up onto the ice and lie on my back. Eventually, the cold moves me to sit up, for I know that if I lose consciousness in this place, I will die, and she will eat my dreams. The sky rolls up like a scroll. In the hills at the edge of vision and the very curve of the world, I see a white spire of stone.

In a blink, I am standing on pink sand once more. The man is closer now. The heat from his eye is terrible. I am sick in my heart looking at it. I tear my gaze away, back to the white stone spire. His smile twists into a grimace of rage, and the world shivers with it, but I am away. I stand on an outcrop of red stone much bitten and scoured by the wind. Off to my left, a green belt of fertile land hugs a river that glints and twists gently by. To my right, a sea of dunes in red, yellow, and bone white. I can hear a voice, like a lancet’s blade in my mind. It sings a sibilant song to me. It is a prayer, a supplication, a command. We thirst, it says. I can feel them, out there, the dry men beneath the dunes. They want to drink me. I search for the white stone spire, hoping for escape. It is not there. I wake, kicking and screaming, with a dry rattle in my ears like the scrabbling of a beetle and the papery touch of their fingers on my ankles. That is the whole of it. Eumenius send it does not come again.

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Act I. Scene I. A Most Unusual Ball
In which a party is gathered, a knot of Fate is tied, a battle is joined, and a blackguard is exposed!

Sveta woke and stretched in the garret room of the inn in Dockside that she shared with four strangers, taking a moment to reflect on what exactly she was doing in this teeming city with its endless variety of filth and noise. As she made her way to the door to seek something to break her fast, she noticed a note directed to her on the stand by the wash basin. Written in passable Ussuran, it asked her to come to a ball at a certain address a long carriage ride outside of Carleon, in Epsom Downs. It urged her to come in the strictest terms and hinted at knowledge of her past that, if not buried, she thought left far behind, with the grass and endless cold of the North….

Sensing a scam, not the first aimed at him in his stay in this city of hucksters, Inigo de la Vega threw the note away. Several hours later, as he was finishing a long letter to his patron, a messenger arrived with another note, urging him to reconsider in an awful Dockside variation on Avalon. The messenger rudely insisted on a reply. Neither note was signed, and the messenger would reply nothing to his inquiries. Unnerved, he decided to go to the ball—if nothing else, he wished to end the surveillance under which he was placed, or perhaps turn the tables. After an uneasy siesta, he stepped out of his lodging only to find a black, laquered carriage with unfamiliar markings and a driver in strange livery waiting…

Prince Reinhardt hesitated to leave his mount behind, but he considered that, with the old man, Essie, and Bart with him, not to mention the mystical spear, he was well-prepared to deal with any problem that might arise from a mysterious summons. What had he left Eisen for, in the first place, if not danger with a hint of intrigue—a chance to make his name. Or make it greater. He climbed in and sank into the shadows of the comfortable interior, where he could see what passed without being seen.

…And anyway, thought Werner, why not? He frowned. This seemed unlike him, and, as he travelled through the winding lanes of Avalon’s oldest city, the crowds thinned in inverse proportion to his certainty that he had been bewitched. Hands tight on his hilt, he fought down a scream…

When the cobbles and lights of Carleon, together with its stinks, were far behind, and the trees began to dissolve into the gloaming, Tur’Lokk, King of Bandits could see a well-lit manor house on top of a hill. Puzzled by the invitation, but intrigued by the many opportunities for profit the house represented, Tur’Lokk, Emperor of the Underworld smiled…

The Manor at Epsom, Carleon

As she sat next to the driver, enjoying the feel of the warm breath of summer on her face Essie, glanced behind her. Ahead and behind, a stream of carriages curled up the hill toward the manor. Below, sounds of conversation and snatches of song issued from the interior. A vague, inarticulate worry was eased, and she looked forward to seeing the dancing, and maybe taking a step or two herself…

Eventually, when he decided it was safe, Rémy disembarked and made his way past the cloak station and the dressing suites with their chatter of serving women, to the grand ballroom. Three great chandeliers softly illuminated a surging, milling crowd wearing arms and clothes from every corner of Avalon and of Théah. He noted military ranks from four kingdoms, but no sign of the Count. A fascinating wine fountain caught his eye…

Vera listened as a soft murmur of conversation rose and fell over the music of a chamber orchestra situated on an elevated platform at the far end of the room. The orchestra was playing something moody and atonal, the latest from Eisen, but she paid it no mind, she was hearing the high, humming sound of the chords of Fate, like a jangling only she could hear. Then she felt them, her sisters, working all around her. Discreetly, she drifted toward the center of the floor.

…was an odd choice, and the fact that no one was dancing is also odd. But, then, this whole thing was odd, and Mortatum couldn’t shake the idea that he had been here before. Or again. He took a moment to look over the room, and, then, the doctor saw what he knew he would, the large Vendel making a nuisance of himself to the pale blonde. Right on cue, the Prince called for ale while his grizzled companion frowned.
Next, the young musician would drift off—there. And the girl? Yes, she found a servant to question, who shook her head and scurried away. And, just as he expected, as if at some signal, the crowd began to file slowly through the doors to the south. Soon, the servant was discussing something with the dangerous-looking Castillian and the buffoon of a Prince. Now where was? Ah, yes the host, tottering out. Strange…something was not as he remembered—the women. Along the edges of the room, unmoving in their Vodacce lace, black eyes staring. He could not remember—but then the Count was talking, and all memory of what was to come was lost in the swirl of the now.

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Act I. Scene I. A Most Unusual Ball, pt. 2

Former Privy Councilor to the Queen of Avalon, Sir Benjamin Thomson, Count Rumford walked into the grand ballroom leaning on his cane. He felt bowed beneath his age and his disgrace. He nodded to Clem and commanded the stregoi with a feeble wave, praying that they did not take offense. They ought not, he thought, I paid for this thrice over. They had kept their bargain. He would keep his.

His hopes stood there, uneasy in the excellent light of the main chandelier, a gift of the former tenants who found it too heavy to move. These people were fragments of a mad dream, assembled at the whim of an old man. It was more power than the former professor of natural philosophy had ever desired, much less hoped to wield. He counted them: The prince, his counselor, his bard, and his fool. The witch and the warrior. The swordsman and the tinker. The doctor and the wyrdling. The others had not come. It would have to be enough. He ran his blue eyes over them again, and he looked like nothing so much as a predatory bird, poised to swoop… Avalon, Castille, Eisen, Montaigne, Ussura, Vendel, Vodacce. The ancient blood is here. I can do no more. He glanced toward the Fate Witches who circled the room. It was times like this that Rumford most resented his title, coming as it had without a drop, jot, or tittle of blood that might help him sense their great work.

He leaned on his cane, cleared his throat, and spoke: “I am sorry for the…irregularity of this meeting.” Rumford watched Reinhardt’s face darken at the slight of addressing the group before him. He continued, “There are those who would oppose your meeting me, and for various reasons. The stroke I suffered three weeks ago…I have let it be known that I am dead. I hoped it would buy us some time. This was to be my wake.” A convulsion ran through Rumford’s frame that was meant for a shrug. “I am sure you have questions.”

“Why are they here?”

“They are here, I regret to say, to bind you to one another, for good or ill.” A shocked silence was followed by a murmur of outrage. The Ussuran shifted, then quickly and fluidly strung her bow. Werner’s face was a mask of anger. The others were more difficult to read.

“It is true. I have never seen so many strands created at once. It is…” Vera, the Vodacce, was an apprentice witch herself, he had almost forgotten. She was unable to finish her sentence—her eyes were lost, gazing at a point beyond the ceiling.

“And why are we here?” asked the Montagnard, calmly. He might have been asking the price of cambric.

At a gesture, one of the witches nodded, and the old man breathed a small sigh. “It is done.” The women left through a service door near the orchestra stand. The sound of locks turning echoed in the silence. An expression of grief washed over his face. “I have spared no expense to call you here, in order to ask each of you to unite forces to undertake an expedition. The goal is to save Théah from a threat, the likes of which has never before been seen.”

“What sort of expedition?” asked the bard.

“What does it matter?” asked Prince Reinhardt with a laugh. His eyes were bright, all memory of insult apparently forgotten. “If there is danger to test my mettle against? This is why we left Eisen, Bart! For just such an adventure. Strange summonses—a mysterious expedition! I will join you, Count.” He looked around. “It’s not as if we have any choice.” He nodded to the door through which the strega had departed.

“The Prince…” said the Count, eyeing the others, “…was never in doubt.”

“What is the nature of the threat?” asked the Castillian swordsman, who seemed relaxed, if the well-tuned string of a violoncello could said to be relaxed.

“It is a being…with the form of a man. Perhaps it is a man. I do not know his name. He calls himself The Adversary. I am quite sure he thinks the name funny.” The Count paused before beginning again. “I do not know how best to explain. Some several months ago, this man appeared in my dreams. He told me how best to pursue my research concerning paramagnetism…” The Montagnard seemed on the point of inquiring, but the Count raised a hand. “The nature of my research is immaterial. The end result of it was, that I collaborated in dreams with the Adversary to build what he called an Apergetic Field Projector, and when I woke, I found I could draw the plans. That they made sense. They required exotic materials, but I had recently come into some money,” he pointed with his cane at the curtains, the tables, laden with food and drink. “I found the materials. I built the Projector…and I used it.”

The Montagnard was unable to resist, “What was the effect?”

“The direct effect was a portal like those produced by the Montagnard sorcery, but I had received no mention of entering or prohibition against looking. It was like a silver mirror in space. The indirect effects…an apergetic field that resisted the force of gravity. And, little changes. Papers moved from one place to another, the color and cut of flowers in a vase would shift almost while I looked. The occurrence of changes decreased in proportion as I moved away from the projector. I was able to establish a rule for this over the weeks in which I tested the field. But also the dreams grew stronger. The Adversary thanked me. Told me that he had made contact with sympathetic individuals who have been producing large-scale apparati like the Projector, but of far greater capacity. I mentioned the little changes, and he said they were inevitable consequences of the ‘conditioning of the probability space.’” Rumford shook his head. “I wrote that down in my notebook. I have no idea what he meant—”

“But why us? Why this expedition? Is this, too, part of your dreaming?” The Castillian again.

“I dreamed you. I do not know how, but each of you was essential to stopping him.”

“I still do not understand why the expedition is to be mounted. You have not explained why this Adversary is a threat.” The Prince’s advisor spoke up, his arms crossed, his whole stance
impatient.

“One of the generators is already built. In the coming months, forces are conspiring to accelerate the construction of two others. It is a question of weeks unless his progress may be slowed. Already, the generator is putting out waves of Apergetic force that ripple across Théah bringing change. Cracks in reality opening in other places, perhaps other times. Ancient magicks, long dead, are leaking through. Ancient creatures, perhaps contemporary with the Syrneth, perhaps older, have appeared. People and things that have never yet been walk the fringes of our world, and the sovereigns of Théah are too weak, too blind, or too cynical to act against it. And it is getting worse.”

“What of proof?” spoke Werner, his voice like a rasp. “I am no lover of magic, but I will not kill on your say-so.”

“Three days ago the village of Lower Caer, which lies in the next county, was entirely consumed by a golden fog that crackled with purple lightning. Nothing but melted stone remains. Last week, a man with a long cravat, carrying a thin case with a handle, like a pistol case for duelists, appeared in my park in mid-stride. His hair was short, and he was clean shaven. He stopped, put both hands to his head, still holding the case, and screamed. He vanished again while screaming, and only the echo of his voice was left. I saw this, so did Clem. He is gone, but you may go to Lower Caer to see for yourself, and you may question Clem, or others.” There were nods at this.

“Enough and more! I have heard all that is needed to question this Adversary. How do I speak with him? Through you?”

“I broke the apparatus, and the dreams left me. I still have it, and my notes, but I have rendered it inoperative. That is, I fear, what caused my stroke. But I do know the location of one of his generators, on an isl”—the rest of Rumford’s sentence was drowned by the sound of three sets of heavy double doors exploding into the ballroom at the same moment. Reinhardt, Inigo, and Tur’Lokk drew swords, and knives appeared even before the first splinters hit the ground. Bare steel glinted in the candlelight.

Rumford merely stood, dumbstruck, in the midst of the assembled party. Filing into the room were several dozen men—if men were four feet tall and made of brass.

Clockwork Homunculus

Through the south doors, behind a group of a dozen of the little homunculi, wheeled two brass tubes the width of a wine barrel, but shoulder high on a tall man. These tubes lacked all appendages save the wheels, and the only remarkable feature on them were plates of cut crystal that gave the appearance of a face. They flanked the doors and stopped…but the homunculi advanced on the Count, who watched them with a puzzled expression. They stepped in unison, and the sound of their footfalls was like the tolling of a church bell.

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Act I. Scene I. A Most Unusual Ball, pt. 3
Care to dance?

Prince Reinhardt’s advisor quickly sized up the situation. Seeing that the little clockwork men were headed menacingly for the Count, and reasoning that they were some how concerned with the large tubes by the southmost door, he charged the one to the right of the doorway and attempted to strike it with his dagger. The tube shifted infinitesimally, and he missed, gouging paint off the doorframe.

At the opposite end of the room, the Castillian swordsman stepped between the Count and the advancing homunculi. He quickly skewers one with his blade, and it gives an almost human kick before going limp on the end of his blade. Freeing his blade, a backhand stroke misses the next one, and he narrows his eyes at the quickness and vision of the little things when his third stroke misses as well.

A scant breath had passed before Bart joined the old man by the door, and with a flurry of slashes and stabs, succeeded in puncturing the cylinder several times, his bright sword striking sparks from the metal as it gouged, to little effect.

Remy, the quick-thinking Montagnard, dodged around a group of homunculi and, grabbing hold of one of the great curtains covering the western wall, tore it free from its rings and guided it, as it fell, over a half-dozen of the little machines, immobilizing them. Seeing this, Vera, the Vodacce, lost no time in falling upon them with her blade and, striking for the center of the thrashing masses beneath the fabric, stilled three of them with as many strokes.

Tur’Lokk, eyeing the odds and seeing the cold intent with which the puny things approached the still-astounded Count, unceremoniously dumped the Count over his shoulder and sprinted toward the back end of the hall, as if six Vendel bailiffs were on his heels.

While Tur’Lokk ran with his prize toward the servant’s exits through which the Fate Witches had departed, Werner closed with the cylindrical thing to the left of the door and, wrapping his arms around it, sought to crush it and pin it against the wall with main force. With a creak of sinew and plaster, he tipped it back and held it against the wall with the press of his body, panting.

Seeking where her arrows would do most good in such close quarters, the huntress gauged the rope holding the southern chandelier aloft. The milling mass of man-things between her and her target made the decision for her, and she dodged around them to slash it with her knife. With a creak and a whine, the heavy oaken chandelier took its line out of its block so quickly that an observer might have seen smoke start from the sheave, but none spared a glance; instead, what eyes were not otherwise engaged watched in fascination as the fixture slammed into the six homunculi beneath it in a great crash of oak and paraffin. When it was still again, the motionless bodies of brass lay in a pool of slowly advancing fire.

Heedless of the crash behind them, feeling only that they were impeded in their task, and seeing the Count disappearing in the arms of the Northern giant, the man-things surrounded the swordsman and swung their weighted fists at him. The Castillian supplied the dance that the evening had been lacking so far, and the things caught nothing but air.

In three breaths, the spreading pool of burning paraffin had caught the oiled silk flooring and the south side of the ballroom was engulfed in flame. The homunculi still struggling beneath the curtain threw it off, and the old man, aiming his dagger at the crystal plate, misjudged the curving angle of the cylinder and his stroke went wild.

The Vodacce, faced with the three things her steel had not found as they lay struggling in the mass of the curtain, and now in the depths of a cold fury, attempted to attack all three at once—but her blade did not once find its mark.

Finally convinced that this was not all a game, the juggler snapped into action, darting to the aid of the old man and the bard, her oiled steel opening large rents below the faceplate of the cylindrical oddity. Stabbing over her shoulder, Remy put all the force of his arm into a lunge at the center of the thing’s face. The crystal spider-webbed crazily and then exploded outward, fine flecks of crystal making shallow grooves in the flesh of the humans gathered around it. Bart, opening his eyes after the blast, saw the whirring gears spinning in this open cavity, and attempted to bludgeon them with his fist, but only succeeded in slowing them with the pressure.

Mandrake, until now motionless, sprinted to pursue the Count and Tur’Lokk, but whether it was cowardice or heroism that moved him into action was anyone’s guess.

Werner, feeling the thing in his grasp beginning to twist and rock, redoubled his efforts and was rewarded with a creak as its joints bent with the strain of his embrace.

Prince Reinhardt, standing in the center of the room, shouted over the clank of metal, the grunts, the cries, and the licking flames, “Here I stand! Meet your end, abominations!” With a flashing spin of his spear too difficult for the eye to follow, he strode into the middle of the mill of homunculi and began stabbing. The first stroke pierced two of the little engines, and they flailed on the end of his weapon as he dispatched five more. The spear seemed to leave traces in the air like the afterimage of lightning. Fast as he was, the little men were too many.

Six of them surrounded him, some afire with gouts of burning paraffin and all heated to a dull red by the flames at their feet. Fast though he blocked with the haft of his spear and parried with its deadly tip, the homunculi whirled their tiny arms like windmills and soon blood ran down his hands from a four dozen shallow wounds, so that he could barely grip the spear.

Vodacce wits were put to the test as a glut of metal forms assaulted Vera on all sides. Reflexes alone saved her from grievous harm, as their attack penetrated her defenses and threatened crippling body blows. With a grunt, she overleapt her attackers and whirled to face them, her knife reversed and slanting to protect her wrists.

As Vera fended these off, several more drove Inigo back as he strove to keep them from pursuing the Dr. Mortatum, Tur’Lokk, and the Count. Little fists sounded dully against his flesh as he was brought to his knees with a continuous rain of sickening blows.

Bart, sensing that the tide had turned against his Prince, the Castillian, and the Vodacce, glanced over his shoulder. As he did so, a hidden compartment springs open on the cylindrical aberration and an arm shoots out, catching him in the abdomen. He staggered back, bleeding from a gash over his liver. The old man’s careful aim was jostled as Bart stumbled back, and he cursed forcefully in Eisen.

Meanwhile, a high pitched whine escaped from the thing in Werner’s grasp, and it recommenced its rocking and straining, and attempted to open a similar compartment in order to wound him, but Werner merely bore down on it until his shoulders creaked from the force of it and screamed defiance into what he imagined to be the thing’s face, whereupon it ceased moving. At the same instant, Bart bounded back at the thing that had wounded him, extending below its swinging arm with his sword and then twining around it as the creeper wraps the bough until the tip stuck in its guts and held, some gear grinding against the cutting edge with a shriek. Rémy saw that the whirling interior of the machine had slowed, and he fearlessly plunged both arms within it, wrenching at what looked to him to be an essential differential. With a pop, the box came free.
Behind them, there was a new clatter as several of the homunculi dropped lifeless to the ground, like marionettes whose strings have been cut.

The sudden lull in the middle of the floor opened up a lane of fire and the Ussuran instantly loosed. Sveta’s arrow stuck, quivering in the metal of the cylinder, an inch below Werner’s right arm pit. “Don’t just stand there!” Werner shouted to the group who seemed awed at having caused the death of the machine on the other side of the door. “Help me!” While he was distracted, the thing gave an unexpected heave, and Werner went to one knee before it, bearing the weight of it upon his cheek and shoulders. With a grunt he struggled to his feet, only to have it heave again and nearly overturn him. It tried to stab him with its hidden arm once more, but the press of Werner’s body caused it to fail.

At the far end of the chamber, the self-styled King of Bandits checked the servant’s door and, finding it locked, kicked it. The kick split the door from the lock, and it swung free.

The Prince, beset on all sides, was pummeled with enough blows to kill a man, yet thanks to shining dracheneisen and bullheaded bravery received merely a deep gash along his right thigh.

Vera, alone against six, with only her knife, is overwhelmed and pummeled until her left arm is rendered useless.

Essy, blissfully unaware of the precipice to which the Castillian, the Vodacce, and her Prince are clinging, and unable to feel the weight of oblivion hanging over them all, calmly slipped the tip of a dagger under the lip of the crystal plate of the tube against which Werner was struggling. It came free with a click and a hiss. Bart, remembering what Remy had done seconds before, ignored the gnashing teeth of the madly spinning gears and the hellish heat breathing out of it and, dropping his sword, plunged his hands deep into its belly, grabbed whatever it was, and heaved. It came out with a crack, and the thing caught fire as the remaining homunculi clattered to the ground.

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Act I. Scene I. A Most Unusual Ball, pt. 4
Observations on the Deathwatch Beetle

With the last of the little metal men lying motionless on the floor in a spreading puddle of paraffin, Bart whipped out his lute and began a rousing victory song, to the tune of “As the Montan’ fleet near Caerlon lay,” but his instrument was unstrung, and he was out of breath from fighting. His voice fell with his face as he edged around the spreading flames from the destroyed chandelier. Soon, the southern end of the Great Ballroom would be in flames; the paste holding the Castillian wall-papering in place where the small puddle of fire was licking the wainscoting was already igniting with little pops that blistered the bright paper and released little gouts of flame from the bubbles like the muzzle flares of badly tamped cannon.

With a rough cry, Bart drew everyone’s attention to the growing heat. Essie tugged at the Montagnard’s sleeve to signal that it was time and more to be going, but Remy had unrolled a small collection of mechanical instruments and was tinkering with the workings of the downed monstrosity. Essie grew more urgent in her tugging, her eyes wide. Remy, disgusted at being interrupted, shouted “Mais qu’qu’y a, gran’dieu?!?” and wheeled around, only to take step back as the fire licked at his bangs. Quietly he turned back and, with a rueful smile of thanks to Essie, rolled up his instruments and tucked a crystal plate the size of two hands outstretched under his arm. They turned and headed away from the flames.

At the same time, Prince Reinhardt, bleeding from several dozen small gashes, strode over to the still-bubbling wine fountain, vaulted it, planted his spear beneath the trestle table on which it stood, and heaved. The table was overset with a crash, and wine ran ankle deep across the floor to mix with the pools of burning paraffin. The little paper cranes were carried with the flood; some were overset and some were burned. The heat in the room lessened significantly, as only a curtain on the west wall and a small portion of the southern wall were still in flames.

...some were burned...

Unaware of the Prince’s efforts, Dr. Mortatum and Tur’Lokk—who still carried the elderly Count over his shoulder—had heard the clatter of the automatons’ collapse and turned back to the room to see it already half in flames. Consulting with the Count, they attempted to pick the lock on the servant’s door giving fastest access to the library, which the Count indicated. With a click, the door came open and Mortatum led the way up the stairs and away from danger, muttering wildly under his breath.

An egress prepared, Inigo snatched one of the little metal men, grunting as its unreasonable weight caused his muscles to pull and tear at his wounds. Behind him, Essie, Ventif, Bart, and the Prince’s counselor turned their attention to the remains of the blaze. Shouldering the abomination almost in the same way that Tur’Lokk had the count, Inigo followed the three men up the stairs, his breath hissing as his boots met each riser. He could hear the more cautious steps of some behind him on the cramped stair.

When he reached the top, he was in time to see Mortatum awkwardly shoulder the door to the library open, stumbling through the door as he did so. Tur’Lokk’s massive frame, holding the Count, blocked his view, so Inigo heard only Tur’Lokk’s shout of surprise before the giant turned on a pivot. A pistol shot rang out from the library, and the massive Vestenmannavnjar took one staggering step toward Inigo as the overcharged cartridge struck him from behind. Inigo dropped his load and, as swiftly as he reached for the hilt of his sword, a still-faster form moved past him, down the hall, over the reeling Tur’Lokk and into the room.

Mortatum was thus the only member of the group with room to see what had happened. The Count’s bodyservant, Clem, hearing the door opening behind him, had reached for a pistol he had ready at hand, even as the doctor’s cursed awkwardness swung him free of the door. Clem, turning, fired at head height for most men, but the massive King of Bandit’s quick turn caused his shot to take the Count full in the kidney. Clem cursed, dropped the pistol, stepped onto the desk, and almost made it out the window before the darting form of Werner, streaking through the open door, snatched Clem from the air and slammed him down on the desk with a resounding thud.

“What were you looking for?” asked Werner of the dazed Clem, the flat tone of his voice at odds with the rage on his face. “Why did you try to flee?” Clem did not answer. “Were you the one who brought those things?” Clem’s vision cleared, but still no sound escaped him. He looked confused.

Meanwhile, Sveta and the doctor examined the Count. “It was a conical slug. It tore a great hole in his kidney. There is little I can do—I am not a surgeon. I know a spell that might…” The tension in the room became electric. The only sound was Clem incoherently replying to Werner’s insistent questions. “My master’s voice…His voice. He will…his voice…” Tur’Lokk took a step toward the desk and unceremoniously brought his massive fist down on Clem’s face in a hammer blow; the man immediately lost consciousness.

“Why did you do that?” asked Werner, surprised. “He had information.”

“He could barely put two words together. Anyway, he annoyed me.”

“You ignorant…” began Werner, but he was interrupted.

“Gentlemen, I have seen better chosen times for pissing contests,” cut in the lilting voice of the Vodacce. “He is unconscious, now, and the past concerns us little.”

“But he had information—” began the bard.

“—and you are standing in a library,” finished Vera. “I suggest we forget the servant and emulate the Montagnard.” The Montagnard was already busy at the shelves. At this moment the Prince entered the discussion, convinced that the fire below was no longer a threat.

Having heard all there was to tell, the Prince asked the Ussuran, “What are his chances?”

“Without a skilled surgeon, he will die.” Sveta’s glance took in Dr. Mortatum. “I can slow his passing, and provide some comfort, but this is beyond my healing.”

“Do what you can for him—“ Sveta’s back stiffened, and the counselor coughed discreetly. “I mean to say, of course, that I humbly beg you will do your best to aid him, while I go in search of a surgeon. Essie, Bart, old man, you are with me. I will return.”

“I can’t wait,” said Tur’Lokk, batting his eyes innocently. This elicited some smiles, and a giggle from Essie. The Prince’s brow clouded, but he did not slow as he moved for the stairs. Werner said, “I will come with you.” The Prince nodded. His entourage fell in behind him, and the rest could hear his dracheneisen rattling as he accelerated down the stairs.

When they were gone, Tur’Lokk continued, “Well, now that the air is a little clearer, I think we should—“

“Hush,” said Sveta, “the man Rumford wakes.” Everyone turned their attention to the prostrate form.

“That bastard Vaucason…the Spire…” he mumbled, eyes wide. “I see it!” Sveta and Mortatum stilled him as he tried to rise. “Al Tarik…under shadow of the…No. No, no. He comes!” yelled the Count, his eyes wide with fear. All at once, an unnatural stillness lay over his face like a mask.

“He’s dead again,” said the doctor absently. “He’s always dy—”

“Avalon folklore is interesting…” said the Montagnard, his nose pressed almost against the page of handwritten notes he was holding, his back to them. “I have read no fewer than three papers in the transactions of the Academe that flatly state that repeated experiments demonstrate a complete lack of correlation between human death and the presence of the deathwatch beetle, but nevertheless…interesting.” He fell back to reading the notes.

Deathwatch

“Fantastic. Just fantastic. The count’s dead. We know nothing. The doctor’s useless. The Montagnard’s had some sort of rune set on him, for idiocy. The Eisen are a pack of blithering dandies…” His eyes moved between the swordsman, the fate witch, and the huntress. “…and the fate of the King of All Bandits is shackled to them all in a quest to kill a man from a dream. Stupidest thing I ever heard.”

“I would not say we know nothing…interesting…there it is again…” said the Montagnard.

“I agree,” said Vera. “Thanks to the Castillian—“

“Inigo de la Vega, at your service,” interjected the swordsman.

Vera acknowledged him with a nod and a small courtesy before continuing, “—we have one of those creatures, from which we might learn much, if we asked in the right quarters. The Montagnard…” Vera paused, but Remy did not introduce himself, and she continued smoothly without acknowledging the pause “…has procured that particularly fine piece of the glazier’s craft, and it seems he has found the notes he sought.” Remy nodded at this, still not facing them. “Interesting,” he muttered.

“We have also the scoundrel who sprang this trap,” said Inigo, gesturing to Clem, whose feet jerked in his sleep like a dog dreaming of the hunt.

“Lot of good that does us—” began Tur’Lokk, but Vera smoothly stepped in.

“—and thanks to the doctor…” she said.

“Doctor Mandrake Mortatum!” said the doctor, pleased to pick up the cue.

“…and the healer,” continued Vera with a smile, pausing to allow her to say, Sveta, in a tone full of ice, “we have the last words of our late host. The Spire seems significant, but I don’t know what to make of it. ‘That bastard Vaucason’ will surely lend some clue if we question the right people. ‘Under the shadow’ we can perhaps note but not interpret, and, ‘He comes’ can only refer to this Adversary of his.”

Tur’Lokk frowned, and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the Montagnard shut the notebook he was reading with a snap and stood. “And thanks to milady…”

“You do me too much honor. My name is Fiorentino,” offered Vera, “though my claim to nobility is small.”

“…milady Fiorentino, we have a précis of our situation and almost a roadmap of success. I will only add to her excellent recitation, firstly, the thread of the village of Lower Caer, which was mentioned by the Count earlier, secondly, my name, which is Ventif de Chanceu—-charmed, I’m sure—-and, lastly, the suggestion that…interesting.”

“What?” exploded Tur’Lokk. “What is so BLEEDING interesting?”

“Why, the sound of the beetles in the walls. I have been trying to form a hypothesis as to their species; I thought they were the proverbial deathwatch beetles, which are said to attend a wake in Avalon…but…I fail to account for it. Perhaps rats. Lots of rats, or related rodentia. Nevertheless, given the altogether extraordinary—you hear it?—-nature of this evening, I would add only to milady Fiorentino’s summary that we know that we must leave here, immediately.”

“Why is that?” asked Inigo, who tended to agree. It may have been his wounds, but he was anxious to be quit of Epsom Downs, and on the hunt for the means to unravel the tangle of fate in which he found himself.

“I can only infer, from the behavior of our assailants, that they had some means of inaudible communication,” said the Montagnard, with the air of recounting a pleasant anecdote of his youth.

“Yes,” said Vera, “when the large ones fell, all of the little ones fell as well.”

“That means,” said Sveta, hesitantly, “that they may have…communicated…with who—whatever sent them.”

“Indeed…that’s int—”

“—if you say interesting again, I will tear your tongue out by its roots,” said Tur’Lokk.

“No! I hear it this time,” said Mortatum. “The noise is gone.”

At that moment, a flash of light caught Inigo’s eye. He turned toward the still-open window. The shifting curtains framed the velvet blackness of the night over Epsom Downs, but, glinting on the sill sat a small, golden insect shaped like a beetle, about the size of a pocketwatch. He drew his sword in a bright arc and flicked it over onto its back with a deft turn of his wrist. He stepped closer, as did the others.

As it lay there, scrabbling to right itself, he smashed it with the hilt of his sword. It did not burst or crush, as an insect might. Instead, there was a metallic clatter, and a series of clicks. It then caught fire and spewed a small amount of greenish vapor and was still.

“Your island has very strange insects,” said Sveta. As she spoke, two more fluttered to a stop on the edges of the window frame, their golden carapaces closing to hide their diaphanous wings.

De Chanceu spoke up: “I believe they are made of gold,” he said, prodding the unmoving one with a finger.

“Really?” said Tur’Lokk, “That’s the first interesting thing you’ve said.” He picked it up and shoved it in his pouch. Two more settled on the window frame, Inigo, Vera, Tur’Lokk, Mandrake, and Sveta looked at each other.

Remy looked at the insects, sniffing. “I smell…carbolic acid. Yes, there, my eyes begin to water and my throat to burn. Definitely an acid exhalation. I recommend you not smash any more of them if it can at all be avoided.”

“Hey!” said Mortatum in the silence that followed. “I can hear it again.”

Indeed, they could all hear it, like a hornet’s nest hidden in the walls—as if the whole of Rumford House had become a hornet’s nest, with them still inside.

View
Act I. Scene ii. Caerlon and Beyond. Part I
Flight from Epsom Downs

Bartholomew Bartles, the Bard of Badenhoeven, had not been to Avalon since he had earned that moniker during an inspired afternoon in a beer garden, long before he met the Prince to whom he had pinned his hopes of a new epic, so he was a little perplexed at the uneasiness he was feeling. After all, the little clockwork men had been defeated, and his Prince had given him plenty of material for his nascent poem, but still…

He was uneasy. He knew he didn’t like Avalon—though it was his mother country. And he knew it had something to do with beer, and the love of his life. And women. And a barn. Or maybe it was woman and several barns. Or several men, with several beers, in a barn. Or just one man and just one beer in more than one barn. Whatever it was, Bart Bartles, Bard of Badenhoeven knew that barns were bad business, like he new that babies wore bonnets. And that’s why his heart had sunk within him when the vast stables had been empty, and they had come to search the barn for a means of transportation.

Perhaps that was why he entered the barn, which loomed behind the stable like a catamount crouched over its kill, in a low roll, determined to protect his meal ticket from the particularly fierce Avalon…whatever it was that made him uneasy.

And perhaps it was the general vagueness of the threat that caused Bart to search the dark interior with a scan of his narrow eyes, like the hero of a play searching for danger.

And perhaps it was the uselessness of such a scan of interior darkness that caused him to whip his head around when he heard a noise somewhere to his left.

And perhaps it was the snort of a horse which caused this noise in the darkness.

And perhaps it was this whipping motion which caused his head to connect with the saddlehook.

Whatever the real cause of the connection—and certainly, in these latter days of Theah, nothing was so uneasy, apart from Bart Bartles at this exact moment—nothing was so uneasy, as I say, as the connection between cause and effect—but whatever the cause, head met hook, in the dark of the barn, and it was certainly the hook to the temple which caused the uneasy Bard to ease into an easy unconsciousness.

So it was that Bart, as he drifted into an even darker darkness, confirmed his vague and formless fear of Avalon barns with a very nasty knock on the head and made of that fear something real, a small scar that would become the cornerstone of a superstition that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

This episode, unknown to those who followed him into the barn, caused some uneasiness in his companions when Bart failed to return. They, however, were able to light a lantern found hanging just inside the door. Thus, they discovered the reason why Bart had failed to answer their hails.

A quick search of the barn revealed no hidden attackers, and it was assumed that the blackguards had fled. The same search yielded a team of four draft horses, and a large hay cart. The horses were harnessed and hitched to the cart in no time, and Bart’s limp body wedged between Essie and Werner, as the Prince and his counselor drove the team up to the back of the main house.

As the cart began to slow at the back of Rumford House, the air of the library seemed filled with the flitting of little metal insects. Tur’Lokk, screaming something unintelligible through the noise, batted an insect away from his face, bent, and picked up the unconscious Clem. Just then, the bookshelves lining the long wall of the library between Tur’Lokk, Clem, and the others clustered around the door tumbled over with a crash. A golden tide of scrabbling metal scarabs flowed out and began, once the individuals had righted themselves, to advance in all directions. The body of the Count was soon covered by a seething mass of gold, through which only a pale flash of bone white was occasionally visible.

Tur’Lokk, his face screwed up in a strange expression, waved the rest of them out the door, and then, rather than wade through the buzzing, clacking things, turned and dove over the desk and out the window in one motion.

Signora Fiorentino, wasting no time, snatched at the Montagnard and pulled him backward, down the stairs, a trickle of beetles trailing at their heels. Inigo, visibly pale from blood loss, followed them, stepping as carefully as he could to avoid crushing the things. Sveta, however, tarried, shoving a limb of her bow between one of the still-upright bookshelves and heaving. The Doctor, understanding her intention, lent her his strength. Together, they brought the massive shelf down in front of the door with an awful crash. A gout or plume of green vapor rose around them and, coughing, they ran down the stairs as quickly as they could, the vapor rolling after them.

As the cart topped the hill, the noise of insects filled the air. With a shout, the massive figure of Tur’Lokk exploded from a window on the third storey, holding the unconscious Clem over his shoulder like a rag doll. Twisting in midair, Tur’Lokk landed with the bulk his weight on Clem. He rolled to his feet, but Clem did not come with him. The Prince and his counselor started to rush to his aid, but he was swatting at his face and flailing his arms in the half-light of the single storm lamp hanging outside the servants’ entrance. With a shout, the giant lumbered around the corner of the building and into the night.

Seconds later, the Vodacce and the Montagnard exited the building. Essie, whose eyes were good, saw them in silhouette as they spotted the cart and began to sprint toward them, the lady holding her skirts up at the knees. Small black shapes flitted through the air around them. When they were halfway to the cart, there was a large crash from inside the building. Inigo staggered out the door, the homunculus clutched against his chest like an obscene infant. A tide of gold flowed along the ground and out the door. The Prince was standing on the driver’s bench, pointing to the library window. Perched on the sill was a large beetle, the size of a dog, outlined by the lamps within. Its carapace split, revealing two pair of diaphanous wings, through which a cloud of beetles could be seen, as well as some larger shapes.

It launched itself from the window but, finding the drop insufficient, crunched into the ground. The thing righted itself, and began scrabbling toward the cart, its brethren moving around, over, and under it in rivulets. The Prince’s faithful retainer, Zittriger Greis, wasting no time, urged the horses to a trot. With a jolt, the cart was off, and picking up speed. The large beetle crouched and sprung, kicking up clods of dirt behind it, and landed, with a lurch that threatened to tilt the cart over, on the end of the platform, a cloud of fist sized knots of gold buzzing around it. Tossing the homunculus down, the Castillian drew his weapon and sliced at the monster, his blade gouging the soft metal of its thick carapace with an ear-piercing shriek. Greis looked around at the sound, saw the thing, its golden mandibles clacking, and urged the horses to a canter. They resisted, being unused to this much urgency, and liking the darkness and the smell of fear still less, but Zittriger’s voice was soothing, and his hand on the reins was sure, and the cart began to steadily accelerate, leaving the mass of the seething, golden tide behind.

Vera, seeing that it was possible to wound the great beetle, dove at it and cut viciously at the joint of one of its forelimbs, nearly severing it before half-dancing, half-falling back toward the hostler’s seat. At this, everyone leapt into action. Essy, her aim true, knelt, grabbing the thing by one of its mandibles and thrust a knife up and into the wound opened by Vera. She jerked it free and reversed her grip, bringing the point of the blade down at an angle where the beetle’s jeweled eye socket met its armored head. The thing gave a lurch, and a small spurt of acid splashed Essie’s forearm as it shuddered and lay still. Inigo, still reeling from his injuries in the ballroom, crouched cautiously on the driver’s bench, between the Prince and Greis, deciding where best to lend his strength. The Prince, desperate to be of some help, grabbed a whip and cracked it at the horses, barking something inaudible in Essen. The forward jolt caused by the horses’ reaction caused Werner to miss as he swung a club at a cloud of beetles attacking his face.

As the Prince raised the whip again, Zittriger grabbed his forearm and shouted him down. He then calmly clucked to the horses, and the trees of the park became a blur. The glint of the pursuing beetles was slightly fainter in the night, but it tumbled over itself like a waterfall veiled in its own mist.

The dozens of beetles remaining on the back of the cart, however, were a swirling, biting mass, avoiding all the efforts to swat at them with bladed weapons. Remy rummaged in the chest behind the driver’s seat and found a horse blanket. He turned and used it to swat down a small group of the insects. As he contemplated what next to do, two larger groups attacked him suddenly. One distracted him from above, while another climbed up his pant leg and began tearing away at his knee with their mandibles. Remy fell, screaming, batting wildly at his face and leg.

Inigo and Essie, seeing Remy’s success with the horse blanket, quickly moved to a similar end. Essie ungently ripped the cloak from around the still-unconscious Bart, while Inigo murmured in the Prince’s ear and took the cloak from his shoulders without waiting for a reply. They began swatting the flitting things from the air with frantic energy just as Vera gave out a scream and commenced unlacing her bodice. She fell, heavily, on her side, but her fingers never stopped working to unknot the laces. Werner, stooping to help her, was startled when a beetle puffed a small cloud of acid into his face. He swung wildly at the cloud of bugs around his head and felt several satisfying thuds.

Remy, having finally removed his trousers to divest himself of his attackers, hobbled heavily about the cart bed, swatting down more of the buzzing, clacking swarm with that garment. Werner let out a piercing scream, as one of the beetles had split his earlobe away from the side of his head using its jaws as scissors. The side of Werner’s face was a red ruin. At this, the Prince leapt over the back of the driver’s bench, and, using his boar spear, swatted several of the glittering engines into the night. Inigo, seeing that some of the grounded beetles were crouching, their carapaces open in preparation for flight, began stomping on any he could see.

As Inigo, Remy, Werner, and Essie began wildly stomping the remaining beetles on the ground, the Prince took a cloud of acid to the face and was attacked by several of the beetles alighting on him, but their mandibles were ineffective against his Dracheneisen.

In the distance, Vera could still see the seething mass of insects following along the drive to Rumford house. Some in the flood were the size of ponies, and the general shape of the mass seemed to be organizing into something too horrible to grasp. Quickly, Vera vaulted into the seat next to Greis, whose hands were white on the reins from the concentration of seeing the pale gravel of the drive in the dark. Vera grabbed his head and turned his face toward her. She looked into his eyes.

“Greis,” she said. Zittriger’s eyes widened, and he attempted to look away from the witch before she could complete her curse, but her grip held him like an iron vise. “Greis,” she said. Her brown eyes were black in the night, and Greis felt that behind them there was nothing at all. All he could hear was the pounding of blood in his ears. “Greis,” she seemed to say, once more, and the old man’s heart nearly faltered. He knew what came next, but could not tear his face away as she leant in and kissed his lips, lingeringly. A fist of fear closed in his bowels. “By the Chariot, be thou blessed,” she said, and he found he could hear nothing but her voice. “By the sword,” she whispered, “be thou blessed.”

Suddenly, the path seemed clear, and the team of four well in hand. They seemed to frisk. Zittriger Greis, grizzled veteran of a dozen campaigns, bowed by years and the infinite sorrow of countrymen lost, now felt the invincibility of youth surging through him. He shook his head, half to clear it; it was no wonder his Prince was so rash. He remembered what it was to be young, and proud and Eisen. He clucked at the horses cheerfully, giving a playful flip to the reins, and the four surged as one, trusting their memories and his confidence to carry them through the Avalon night.

Vera turned to look behind them and sighed gratefully to see the golden tide disappearing rapidly around a bend as the horses pulled them toward freedom. In the back of the cart, Remy was slapping the last of the beetles away from the Prince’s face, and Essie was laughing as she held up her skirts and danced on the carcasses of the remaining beetles while Werner toekicked them out of the back of the cart, cursing and feeling at his ear. When they reached the turning onto the Caerlon road, Greis took it without a pause, and the party sped toward the sleeping city, grateful for the cool breeze that carried the acid stench of the dead beetles high and away.

View
Act I. Scene ii. Caerlon and Beyond. Part II
Where the hammer! what the chain! Formed thy strength and forged thy brain?

Part II.

As the Prince was in an expansive mood as the group approached Caerlon, he invited everyone to stay at his inn, the Oaten Sheaf. The convenience led some in the party to consent, but for most it was a question of mutual defense. None liked the idea of facing the little metal men or their fierce, insectile friends alone.

The gate to the city was open, as it was only a little before dawn, and their cart joined the other farm carts on their way to the great market near the Traitor’s Tree, the wheels rattling and slipping in the ruts worn in the cobblestones from an unceasing traffic on the crabbed and ancient streets of Avalon’s capital. Once arrived at the inn, the horses were unyoked and unhitched, the cart stored, and the four horses stabled next to the Prince’s prized mount.

Messengers travelled swiftly throughout the city in search of belongings scattered at various inns by the others, who made do in the meantime with the unrelenting hospitality of the innkeep, Rudolf Crofter, and his wife, Bettany. The inn itself was a large affair, even by the standards of a great city, with three storeys, not including the basement and the caves beneath that served as wine and root cellar, and it had spilled over to devour the buildings on either side of it some time in the previous century, making it difficult, at first, for everyone to become familiar with their surroundings. This was so much the case that Essie was lost three times, and, finally, the Prince paid Crofter to put them all in a suite of rooms together, though he had to displace other patrons to do so.

Finally settled and having caught a little sleep, the worst wounds were tended, bandaged, and sewn by Greis with the cheerful assistance of three of the innkeep’s steadier maids. The Prince, Zittriger, Werner, and Essie were introduced to the others by Vera. This formality over, Vera fingered the stitching under her rib line and said teasingly, “You do fine work, Herr Doktor.” Absently covering herself, she continued, “This could almost do for a hem.”

“It was my pleasure,” replied the campaigner. “It is easy to work with such fine materials.”

Vera winked at him and said, “Indeed? Then this poor piece of roughspun hopes one day to see you work with chambray.”

“We need a plan,” declaimed the Prince, bringing his tankard down too forcefully on the great table in the private dining room separating his rooms from those of the rest of the party. The table was serving as an examination and operating table at the moment. Ale slopped over the side, and the Prince had the good grace to be a little embarrassed as Vera raised an eyebrow and dropped gracefully to the floor.

“It is difficult to formulate a plan with so little information,” replied Remy, who was flipping through Count Rumford’s notes on a divan near the open window. It was hot in the Oaten Sheaf, but not so hot that the river Dee was in full stink, and so the breeze was welcome. Essie was seated in the window seat, absently juggling some small brass knobs she had acquired somewhere on her adventures through the warren of rooms that was the inn.

“Yes, but where can we find the information we need? I grow impatient. Those things must be controlled by someone. My spear hungers for this someone’s throat!” The Prince indulged himself in a faintly ridiculous dramatic gesture.

Looking up at this, Remy remembered that the Prince and his companions had not been present when Vera had summarized the state of their knowledge of the task Rumford had laid to them. He efficiently ticked these points off, finishing with, “The question of where is easy to answer. There is one of the world’s great libraries at the University, here. We can start there. If there is any literature on this Adversary, perhaps a legend or…There will be peerages, in any case. If Vaucason was known to a Count, then perhaps we can find him listed among the landed of Montaigne, or Avalon. If not, there are guild lists. We have also the homunculus to be examined, as well as the crystal plate.”

“To the University, then. That much we can do,” said the Prince, pushing back from the table.

“I do not have an introduction to the Librarian, and it will take some time for me to make an appointment with any of the gentlemen with whom I am acquainted among the faculties.”

“Surely as son of the—“ began the Prince.

“The University here predates the monarchy,” said Vera. “Royal blood counts for little among the learned of Avalon, unlike Castille or Vodacce. But,” she continued in a lighter tone, “I am enrolled. I may consult the stacks any time I wish. Let me but dress, and I am away.”

“I will come with you, Milady,” said the Prince.

“Thank you, your Highness, but, your wounds need a little time to heal, and it is not dangerous.”

“She’s right, my Prince,” said Zittriger. “You will stay and rest. She is wrong about the danger, however, as recent events show. Besides, if Bart wakes, he will want to see a familiar face.”

“The same is true if the others find their way back, and receive the messages we left,” said the Vodacce.

“But Essie can—“ began the Prince.

“Yes?” Essie said, brightly, turning from the window, but never stopping the two interlocking wheels of brass that she was juggling.

“Nevermind. You go, old man. Keep her safe. We will need her magics before the end.”

At this last, Werner, who had been so still in the corner that his presence had almost been forgotten, gave a small, sour grunt, but his face remained impassive.

Remy, closing the notebook, said, “If the table is available, I will make an examination of the little metal man.”

“I will help,” said Werner. At that, the party dispersed, Vera to dress, Zittriger to wash the blood off of his hands, Essie to see if she could find a cat or a mouse or both.

The others departed, Remy and Werner lifted the homunculus on to the table, and Werner brought several oil lamps closer so the Montagnard could see what he was doing as the daylight was not particularly strong on the table.

As Remy began, Werner asked, “What are we looking for, exactly?”

“If we thoroughly dissemble this automaton, we should find some trace of the maker” replied the Montagnard, peering into a small leather bag filled with odd—to Werner’s eye—metal probes and tools.

“Wouldn’t he be more careful than that, if he were sending it to murder someone?”

Remy smiled distractedly at this, saying, “Ah… Interesting…” he said, feeling with his finger tips along the edge of the thing’s breast plate. “Well, I’m sure he didn’t think it would fail, sending out his masterworks to—strange how we think it is a man—Hmm… now how does—that—“ he inserted a small prybar into an opening and pushed until he grunted the word—“come free? Sending them to kill some common folk, but what he didn’t count on was our potential for… Ah! There we go…” the whole breast swung open effortlessly, revealing a rat’s nest of cogs and gears. “…our potential for distraction—er, I mean destruction. In any case,” he gestured with a long probe that looked like nothing so much as a crochet hook, “it would be very difficult to make all of this custom and bespoke. He would likely need some skilled craftsman to do the repetitive casting and sanding, even if the poor soul didn’t know what he was making, and a skilled craftsman means…” Remy fell silent, seeming to forget Werner was there.

Werner looked thoughtfully at the blank, vacant face of the automaton. “And it marched determinedly to its death. I wonder what it thought in that metal head…”

“Ha!” laughed the tinkerer. “Oh, not you Werner, just this ingenious flange…It’s thoughts lie outside the scope of our investigation. If it had any at all. More likely it just marched in time with its master’s wishes. Clockwork designed to kill. Hmm. I like that, has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? The Clockwork Killer! Terrifying! You know…there was a countryman of mine. A philosopher, who thought that all life was mechanical. Could be explained by mechanistic theories of motion. Imagine. Like a caterpillar. You push it one way, it eats. You push it another way, it makes its chrysalis. You pull a lever, it emerges a butterfly. But who pushes? How hard? Which way? Where is the lever?”

Werner wasn’t listening. “Single-minded purpose. It knew its path and just… followed it from the moment it was switched on. Without question.”

“… Now, if I were to pry this…No…” Remy reached into a larger bag and brought out a kind of hammer with one rounded end that Werner had never seen before. He gave the inside of the thing’s chest cavity a resounding whack. He then prodded with his fingers a few times, nodded, and gave it about five or six whacks in a row. Satisfied, he reached in and began removing parts and handing them to Werner, who lovingly arranged them on the table.

“Order. It’s beautiful.”

Remy looked up at Werner: “Eh? It is quite beautiful, but also it is limited. Only capable of doing what it is told, not of judging, yes? Whether it is right or wrong.”

Werner nodded: “Everything has its dark side. Yet, I think I would still trade its ordered life for the nightmare mine has been.”

Remy looked back down and kept working, moving quickly, now. “Werner, the world is more ordered than you give it credit, I think. These gears, these lamps, the breeze from the window… are all bound together by the beautiful truths of mathematics.” He reached blindly for the hammer, his hand groping. Werner put it in his palm.

“Then perhaps we are all automatons, as your countryman suggested, marching towards the hammer.”

“Hm… I suppose there is an end to everything, eventually. At least Clausius maintains that it is true. I am not convinced.” Remy gave the homunculus another whack with the hammer.

“Imagine how surprised the hammer will be when the automaton smashes it.”

Remy, finally having exposed the machinery in the head, reached in and lifted down a complicated series of armatures and tangled wires. “Aha! I think we have something here… yes, yes… I believe this is the signature, so to speak, of someone I know… or knew rather… or perhaps “knew of”… Interesting…”

View
Act I. Scene ii. Caerlon and Beyond. Part III
In Which a Fool Is Suffered, an Engine Analysed, a Secret Revealed, and an Outing Prepared

Vera stamped her foot, and uncharacteristic and thoroughly mortifying gesture, but it was all she could do not to curse this fool, from whom the eponymous Arcanum could take a lesson.

Willoughby Smuth-Henley is young to have such authority, and the knowledge of that grave responsibility—coupled with his natural complaisance, smug satisfaction, light scent, excessive pomade, and immaculately cut clothing— makes his face into a parody of calm reassurance that provokes even entire strangers to slap his face. And that is before he opens his mouth. His slight lisp, which Vera is certain is entirely affected to make him have the air of a Castillian scholar, and his upperclass accent are incongruous in the extreme in a clerk, however exalted, of the library, however important.

Vera icily repeated her simple request for the fourth time, quivering with the effort of trying to guess whether he had any other way to answer a question apart from condescension, incomprehension, or meaningless platitude: “Where do you keep the peerages for Montaigne?”

“But whyever would you want to conthult thuch a thing?” came the rapid reply.

Vera closed her eyes and thought very hard about the many reasons why cursing this fool would be imprudent, not the least of which was the possibility, the way Fortune was twitching her about lately, that this could some sidhe playing a trick. Or he could be the personal fool of some ollamh or cyfarwydd, brought into the library to protect him from the elements.

“If I told you, would you give me the answer I require?”

“I’m thure I cannot tell the future. All thethe bookth are in my charge, and I cannot promithe lightly to betray them.”

Vera slowly counted to three and then turned to Greis, who had the palest spectre of a shadow of a ghost of a smile hovering over his lips. “Come, Zittriger. We will find them ourselves.”

“Forgive me, madame, but the collection ith large. It can sometimeth be difficult to find one’th way. I mythelf, though I have been here for yearth, thometimeth cannot locate the volumeth I require.”

“You don’t say?”

“I do thay. I do thay, indeed. But thtay! I have an extended family in Montaigne, perhapth, if your question really concernth the peerage, I can be of thervithe.”

Vera decided the pale glimmer of possibility was better than wandering without guidance through the stacks. She knew from experience that the vast maze of shelves, containing texts from twenty different centuries, had only local pockets of systemization. “I am looking for the family name Vaucason, an acquaintance of Count Rumford’s, and I seek to know whether there are any Vaucasons remaining in Avalon.”

“I am thure there must be a mithtake.”

“No.”

“Vaucathon?”

“Vaucason, yes.”

“I am thure it ith not my buthineth to inquire into the affairth of so great a man as Count Rumford, but it ith unlikely that a man in hith pothithon should conthort with artithanth.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Artithanth. Craftthmen.”

“I do not follow.”

“You thee how much of a shock it ith to me, then, to hear the name of a watchmaker on the lipth of a lady, who ith herthelf acquainted with a Count.”

“Watchmaker? Vaucason is a watchmaker?”

“A very fine one. My couthin Joffrey—he ith quite dim, milady, and he thtammerth motht abominably—hath a watch of hith making, in the shape of the moon.”

“Indeed, I do remember now, the Count’s friend did indeed say he dabbled in mechanics. He was also an amateur jeweler, if I am right.”

“I’m thure I don’t know.”

“I am also sure you don’t.”

“I’m thorry?”

“I would like to obtain one of Vaucason’s very fine watches. Where might I find him?”

“In the ground.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I thpoke very clearly.”

“You did. Did you mean to imply that Monsieur Vaucason is dead?”

“Thith ith but one reathon why hith work ith tho thought after.”

“That is a disappointment. Where might I find someone who…”

“Who, milady?”

“Who might know more about his works, or who might have one to sell?”

“Well, Joffrey hath—“

“Not Joffrey!”

“In that cathe, I imagine one would look on watchmaker lane.”

“There’s a Watchmaker Lane in Caerlon?”

“No.”

Vera steadied herself on the table, avoiding his eyes for fear that she would curse him before she could stop herself. She looked at the old man, but his face was nearly purple from holding in his laughter. “Why would you suggest I look there, if no such place exists?”

“Oh, it ekthithtth. It motht thurely ekthithtth. It formth part of the length of Knock Ferguthon lane.”

At this, Vera turned on her heel and walked away. Having obtained the information she required, she could not bid herself to take a proper leave.

Vera gone, Zittriger leaned over the desk and said, “You look like a man of the world.”

“I’d thay that ith reasonably thafe to thay.”

“Not for you, it isn’t.”

“I’m thorry?”

“But as a man of the world, you wouldn’t happen to know where the library keeps its etchings?”

“Etchingth?”

“The ones that must be kept discreetly. Such as a bachelor might keep in his library.”

“Oh! Thertainly! Thith way!” Just at that moment, Zittriger turned and saw Vera staring a hole at him from the stairwell back to the surface.

“Another time, perhaps,” he said, and hurried to catch Vera as she climbed toward the light.

Once arrived at the Oaten Sheaf, the Vodacce witch and the grizzled Eisen were told that they were expected in the dining room, upstairs.

Remy was just finishing explaining to the Prince, Werner, Essie, and a semi-conscious Bart that the assembly in the homunculus’s head was probably the work of one Harald Cribbage: “Or someone who has worked with him closely,” Remy continued. “This,” he held up a complicated box the size of a fist, inside which could be seen several toothy rods running parallel with one another, all connected to a series of transverse shafts that seemed to rotate a stack of asymmetrical, round plates attached to the side of the box like a stack of mis-matched coins, “is a difference engine. It is the thing’s brain. The last such thing I saw was on loan from Cribbage’s workshop to a Monsieur Biot at the Académie montaignaise. It is interesting because…” Remy lapsed into silence, seeming to weigh the thing in his palm.

“Why is it interesting?” prompted Vera.

“Oh? Well. Two reasons. First, the one that I saw was the size of a curio cabinet. Two men could have stood inside the wooden frame, comfortably. This…Well, you see how much smaller it is.”

“And the second?” asked Werner.

“The second reason is that the brightest minds at the Académie never got the thing to work as it was supposed to. It required a massive boiler and many foot-tons of coal, and it never worked. This? It seems to work. And it seems to work on the same power source described in Count Rumford’s notes.” He looked at the thing in his hand. “Fascinating,” he said to no one in particular.

“That settles it. Harald Cribbage is an Avalon name, isn’t it?” asked the Prince. Remy nodded and the Prince continued, “Then I say we pay him a visit.”

“It is not so simple, I fear,” said Remy. “You see, the professor has been missing for some weeks.”

“How do you know this?” asked Werner.

Remy walked to the table and set the piece of machinery on the table with a small scrape and a thunk. He folded his hands behind his back and turned to face them. “He is a member of the Invisible College, as am I, and all members have been asked to keep a discreet eye out for him. It seems there is a rash of missing natural philosophers.”

“But why tell us?” asked Vera. “If you are in the Invisible College, are you not charged with keeping it a secret?”

“The College is, in more ways than I can explain, a very important organization, but it has never been good at keeping secrets. Besides, I do not believe you will turn me over to the Inquisition, unless one of you is much better at keeping secrets than I am.” He made a wry face. “That was tasteless. I apologize.” He spread his arms, the wires of the difference engine swinging slightly. “In any case, my fate is bound to yours. And it seems the College’s problem has become Théah’s. There should be no secrets between us.” He looked around the room, catching everyone’s eye.

“Well said!” cried the Prince. “What of the plate of crystal? Were you able to gain anything from it?”

“Well—” began Remy.

“I broke it,” said Essie. “I’m really sorry. It’s just—“

“That Essie helped me to perform a cleavage test on it.” Remy finished calmly. Essie blushed and shifted her feet.

“Ahem,” said Zittriger, his color rising. “If this is some Montagnard word play, it is not appreciated in the company of ladies.”

Remy raised a hand. “The pattern of the break told me that it was very fine quartz. It also revealed that it was two exquisitely thin pieces cleverly joined together. They were rotated to polarize light, probably specific kinds. Apart from that, I cannot tell more—I am not a student of Fresnel.” He shrugged. “There was also a small series of numbers written in the manner of the Crescent Empire.”

“A dead end, then,” said the Prince. “Montaigne, Avalon, the Crescent Empire—all paths leading in different directions and no good reason to choose between them.”

“Not necessarily,” said the old man.

“What do you mean?” asked the Prince.

“Well, presumably, the things had to be made around here. Either that, or they were shipped from elsewhere, or brought by sorcery,” he added grimly.

“We may rule out the latter. The effect of so much sorcery would have been mass terror. The Sorte would have shown it to me, and to every Witch” said Vera.

“Shipping should be easy to check,” said Werner. “We just need to find someone at the docks, or in customs. Black market would be easier still.”

Inigo, long silent, spoke, “Shipping the parts separately and assembling them in secret would be safer. I would concentrate on the number. Surely a glazier would know where in the Crescent Empire to seek such fine craftsmanship.”

“Speaking of craftsmen,” responded Vera, “it turns out that Vaucason, if it is the same man, was a watchmaker of exceptional skill. It is an unusual name.” She gestured to the difference engine Remy was twiddling about. “And it seems the Adversary has need of such skills to make his toys. My source,” at this word Vera’s lip curled up, “indicated that we could find out more on Knock Ferguson Lane.”

Bart stirred at this and dreamily said, “Not going there. ’S danger.” He nodded back off.

“Is there nothing we can do for him?” asked Werner.

“Head injuries are iffy,” said Greis. “Maybe if the Ussuran were here…”

“That’s it,” said the Prince. He yanked on a bell pull and a concealed door opened, revealing a footman in the inn’s colors. “Do you know the way to Knock Ferguson Lane?”

The footman nodded, “’Tis three quarters of an hour by foot from here, yer Majesty. Just across the river and past New Court Blue Gate.”

“Can you draw a map?” He nodded again. “Have one ready for me in a quarter of an hour.” The man tugged his forelock and backed up into his cabinet, closing the door. At that, Prince Reinhardt strode from the room. His expression looked, for all the world, exactly like his uncle Fauner’s. Werner and Greis both gave little shudders, but while Greis saw Werner’s motion and wondered, Werner saw nothing at all.

They joined everyone else in making ready for an afternoon’s walk.

View
Act I. Scene ii. Caerlon and Beyond. Part IV
When Is an Alleyway Like an Abbatoir?

Part IV.

The party walked past Shadwell, Wapping, and Gin Alley, the parts of the city that a gentleman should avoid unless looking for some female companionship not regulated by the Jennies. Everyone headed for the docks, following the decent map provided by the footman. The stench of the river grew worse for every gloomy, narrow block they advanced into the rat’s maze. It was the middle of the afternoon, but soot hung thick in the air, and the buildings hovered over the street, almost pinching off the silvery sky far above. The buildings looked as if they were built back in the times before the prophet, when Caerlon lay fat and dark and diseased within its high walls. This particular street was empty of people, but Inigo could feel the eyes watching from the poorly-shuttered windows and filthy alley mouths on either side. The air was thick and silent, except for the bickering of Werner and the Prince.

ginLane_pix

“—not a proper spear at all!” cried the impassioned Prince.

“More than proper,” said Werner, swinging the rusty blade on a short arc by the mold-corrupted shaft. “Magic! Can’t you feel it? When I picked it up, it was like Destiny was singing to me, and only to me.”

“You can’t be serious. You sound absurd.”

“What do you mean? This spear is every bit as magical as yours.”

“I found mine on the lowest level of a Syrneth ruin!”

“Really? The way Greis described it, it sounded like you fell in an open pit while drunk and there it was.” Greis looked at Werner and made a gesture signifying, perhaps, ‘Keep me out of it.’

“It was the opening to a Syrneth temple! I am almost sure of it. If we had had some rope, I would have returned to verify the find.”

“But, alas, there was no rope to be had! And all we have is your word,” taunted Werner.

“And the spear!” insisted the Prince. “I am demonstrably faster with it in my hands! I feel invincible!”

“I feel the same way with mine,” said Werner, who picked a damp splinter the length of his forearm out of the rotting, cross-grained pole. “Only better.”

“You! You!” blurted the Prince. “You purchased that from a ragman! A ragman! With my purse! I am beginning to think that you are practising upon me.”

“Beginning to think, your Majesty?” said Werner, playfully. “At your age?”

“Sir, were you my social equal, or a member of an appropriate school, I would give you my gage right now.” The Prince was furious.

“Were you my social equal, your Highness, or your spear the equal of mine, I would show you what real magic is.”

At this, the Prince increased his pace, and Werner fell behind. Inigo smiled to himself.

With the Prince leading, the group crossed a wider thoroughfare, but it was no cleaner or more daylit than the rotting slums on either side. They crossed the river Dee on a bridge that seemed to have been swallowed by two drunken buildings leaning out to embrace each other across the swirling water. Then, they were back in the narrow, overhanging labyrinth again. The tenements crowded high and close except for the few that were total ruins, merely collapsed heaps of masonry and wood. Even there, in those charred absences, Inigo sensed people in the shadows, moving and stirring. Watching. A narrow, rotted footbridge crossed a reeking tributary to the river.

The more terrible the streets and neighborhoods became, the more crowded. Groups of men were now visible on street corners, in doorways, in empty lots. Inigo loosened his blade in his scabbard and made sure his swordsman guild pin was visible. They strode on, keeping to the center of the broken streets to see and avoid the holes and standing pools of filthy water. Werner seemed to sense the danger. The Vodacce had been on alert for some time. Only Essie seemed oblivious to the nature of their surroundings. The Prince consulted the map frequently. It was obvious why the footman had not recommended a coach or horses. Some of their route was too narrow for even a horse with even a modest barrel to scrape through.

Inigo tried to seem indifferent to the mutterings and angry sounds from the men they passed. Somewhat softer voices filtered down from the upper windows: “No no the door’s not shut, gennilmen, nor ladies. No neither are the room doors neither.” Vera considered stopping to talk to them about the benefits of joining the guild, but thought better of it.

George Street. Rosemary Lane. Cable street. Finally after what seemed a very long 3/4 of an hour, at New Court, they left the stinking street, passed through a sunken courtyard, the ground squelching underfoot, and emerged in a different world. Knock Ferguson. It was not clean by the standards of the grand boulevards leading to the palace, but compared to the streets they had passed, it was as clean as an operating theater, with people moving to and fro about their everyday business. Everyone relaxed visibly.

There were several watchmakers of similar quality on this block, and Vera chose one that seemed subtly more prosperous than the others. Vera left the men, and Essie, to their boasting, and entered the shop. Remy followed her.

The shopkeep was a merry, cherubic fellow—a Venden in the old tradition, whose name was Hoeven van den Hoffle Poffle. To his credit, even the shopkeep laughed when he said it. His pate was bald, but two thick white tufts of hair stuck out, one above each ear, like his head was a caricature of baldness.

“What can I do for you?” he asked. Vera told him that she sought information about the watchmaker Vaucason.

“O, ho!” chuckled the man. “I never would have guessed a lady like yourself would be interested in the stories told in craftsmen’s cups.”

“Stories? I was told I could buy Vaucason pieces. Surely a story cannot produce a watch.”

“No, no, indeed. But a Vaucason piece, that is what we watchmakers say when a piece is very fine, and we can’t remember who did it or the mark’s not known to us.”

“I was under the impression that he really lived.”

“Oh, there’s no question about that. But sometimes, in the trade, you see, we exaggerate the skills of those that have passed on. Heh. I can’t wait to hear what they say about me.”

“Perhaps,” said Remy, “you can tell us the legend, since the lady has come all this way.”

With that, Hoffle Poffle told them the legend of the Montagnard Vaucason. It was said he came to Avalon at the beginning of the White Plague, as the fog of the Vodacce-Venden Merchant War was just descending.

He came, after traveling the length and breadth of Théah, at last to rebuild his lost fortune free of the charges of unclean sorcery that had followed him in Eisen, in Ussura, and in Innismore.

He was met Dockside by the notorious drunkard and killer Cheap Jack. Cheap Jack cut him from crotch to chin and dumped him in the river Dee, selling everything he had in his travelling case. Legend had it that Cheap Jack received twice as much gold for each finished piece, until the Royal Treasury would have been unable to hold it all. In any case, Cheap Jack was real, and he was the one who had sold Hoffle-Poffle the turtle, and it was from those wares that Avalon had come to know the maker’s name.

“The turtle?” interrupted Vera.

“Yes, I have a Vaucason-quality piece fashioned like a turtle.”

“May we see it?” asked Remy.

“Oh, no, sir. Ha, ha! No, I regret it. It is best not to handle it too much.” Remy shot Vera a conspiratorial look. She picked up her cue, leaning over the display case toward the proprietor with a look of wide-eyed enchantment.

“It would,” said the Vodacce smokily, “give me great pleasure.”

“Well,” said Hoffle Poffle, busying his hands in the folds of his guildsman’s smock, “well. I don’t see how it could hurt it too much. After all, what worth is the thing if no one ever sees it?” Vera parted her lips expectantly, and Hoffle Poffle was transfixed.

“Excellent,” said Remy. “Couldn’t agree more.” Hoffle Poffle lingered awhile, staring rather obviously at Vera’s decolletage before tearing his gaze away and bustling into the back.

He returned several minutes later with a velvet cushion, on which sat a small turtle in silver with a carapace of blue enamel. Hoffle Poffle refused to look at Vera, placing the red velvet cushion on the counter before the Montagnard, which made Vera smile and sidle closer to Remy. The shell was in blue enamel, and, without a word, the shopkeep reached out with two fingers and turned a silver ring around the shell until it made a small chime. At that, the exquisitely detailed turtle seemed to come alive with a jerk, and Remy and Vera both stepped back in alarm, the memory of the beetles and the homunculi too fresh to eschew caution. But the little thing merely bent its head until it was nuzzling the nap of the velvet, for all the world as if it were eating it. It then raised its head, chewing, and Remy and Vera both took a step closer, marveling at the detail of its neck folds. It was far beyond the creatures they had seen at Epsom Downs for realism, but then it was obviously meant to be unique.

turtle

Hoffle Poffle was also looking at the turtle intently—clearly the thing had not lost its fascination for him. The turtle then stretched its neck to swallow before rolling over to expose its plastron; while on its back, its tiny legs flailed twice, as if it sought to right itself, and the plastron popped open with a click to reveal the creamy surface of a cleverly-hidden watch face.

Hoffle Poffle, breathless, watched as the thing grew still, and almost whispered, “You can see the dial marks hours, minutes, days, weeks, and phases of the moon. It has another hand that marks the solstices. It is…not unreasonable to think a man able to make such a thing…a sorcerer.” When he unbent from his study of the turtle at last, closing the plastron with another small chime and setting it on its feet, he found himself staring at Vera’s chest. She had shifted subtly to command his sightline.

“I would buy this from you,” she breathed, looking into his eyes. Hoffle Poffle could not look away.

“We would pay any price you named,” said Remy cheefully. “The coffers of Haus Pösen are open to you.”

“Well,” said Hoffle Poffle. “Well. Well. My wife—she is very attached to this piece.”

“Should I be bargaining with your wife then, Hoeven?” asked Vera, intently.

“She…she’s away. For the afternoon. Gone marketing.”

“I see. Monsieur de Chanceux?”

“Oui?” said Remy, absently looking at the other watches in the various cases.

“I believe that our dear Hoeven would feel more comfortable if we were to come to an agreement privately. It is a sentimental piece, is it not?” She arched an eyebrow slightly at the man, and a blush crept over his bald pate.

“Y-yess—“ he stammered. “I think. Come. To an agreement. Private. Yes.”

“C’était un grand plaisir, monsieur. Adieu.” Remy left, whistling tunelessly.

Outside, it appeared that things had developed considerably. The Prince and de la Vega had apparently come to terms on a friendly duel, to be fought in three parts: swords on foot, spears on horseback, and barehanded, swinging from chandeliers.

“For while I consider you the better swordsman, I feel I overmatch you mounted. The rubber match must put us equally at a disadvantage.”

“Do you not feel, your Highness, that it would be exceedingly difficult to settle the question of superiority in arms while swinging from chandeliers?” asked de la Vega.

“What do you propose, then?” asked the Prince obligingly, when the group became aware that they were being hailed from the roof top across from Hoffle Poffle’s Flim Flams Gew Gaws and Tick-Tocks. The voice was loud, but high and thin.

Essie was the first to spot the boy. His hands were cupped about his face, and he looked like nothing so much as a bosun addressing the foretop, as he yelled: “I say, hullo! Are ye blind or blind stupid? Keep a weather eye out, there!” When he was confident they had all seen him, he gave a jerk of his thumb down Knock Ferguson lane and then made a loop with his pointer finger in all directions before turning and disappearing from view. It was at that moment that Vera stepped out of the shop and saw, at approximately the same that they had been effectively surrounded by a gang of identically well-dressed men with umbrellas. They were lounging up and down the street, and in both alleys opening off of it. When they realized they had been spotted, one approached and doffed his cap.

dandies

“Good afternoon,” he said, addressing the Prince. The Prince’s eyes narrowed at being addressed in the street by a complete unknown.

“I say,” said the Prince, “this is pretty brash. Do I know you, sirrah?”

“No, I’d more’n wager not. But I know you, yer Highness. ‘More fools know Jack Fool than Jack Fool knows,’ as they say.” He grinned, showing a wide expanse of perfectly white teeth. Werner saw his sunken knuckles, and Greis his hard eyes, but no one was fooled by his fancy suit. This man was a street tough, and cheeky with it. He swung his umbrella up onto his shoulder and leaned in close.

“Stand back, sir. You have three seconds to withdraw before I break your teeth,” said Reinhardt Pösen, who had just decided that it was worth stooping to this fool’s level to push his fist into his face.

“Well, as to that, the boys don’t take kindly to threats. Do we, boys?” There was a chorus of rude, negative responses. “And we don’t take orders at all.” His smile widened, but it never touched his eyes. “We ain’t leaving till we get what we came for.”

The Prince’s arm was halfway to the man’s face before Greis caught it. “What is it that you came for, if I might ask?” said Greis in a perfectly flat tone.

“De la Vega. Give ‘im to us, and you go on your merry way without getting blood on them pretty clothes.”

“Oh!” said Essie, “but you wouldn’t want to get your nice clothes dirty, either!”

Werner turned to de la Vega: “Inigo, do you want to go with these nice men?”

“No. But I very much want to know what they want with me.”

“I ain’t interested in a litany o’desires. You’re coming with me, or you’re watching your friends kick on the end of my knife.” He adjusted his cravat and brushed the dust off his trousers. He spat on the Prince’s shoe.

Inigo’s blade was out before anyone could move. One instant it was sheathed, and the next, its length was quivering slowly in the air between himself and his principal accoster. His speed took the dandies by surprise.

“Gentlemen,” he said, loudly enough to take in all of their “You have valuable information, which is why one of you will survive this encounter.”

“This one,” said the Prince, eyeing the talkative one, “On my honor, this one dies last.”

If you have been fortunate enough to survive the sight of an oil lamp bursting in a hayloft, you will understand perfectly the suddenness of the violence that followed, and the impossibility of establishing a clear order of events. It is simple. First, there is calm. Then, there is a torrent of flame.

Inigo’s blade lunged at the speaker, but it was deflected by the Prince’s armored forearm, who shouted, “You would not forswear me!” At the same time, Greis pivoted hard and planted his greaved forearm in the middle of the tough’s face behind him. The tough’s nose fountained red and he staggered back into the alley behind him, and Zittriger shouted something in Eisen that sounded suspiciously like, “I blew up your face!”

Inigo smiled at the Prince reassuringly and sliced an elaborate V into the first miscreant’s coat. As he was withdrawing his blade, the tough brought up his umbrella in a belated parry. There was the unmistakeable clang of gunsteel, though it is impossible to say who could have heard it.

Essie, frustrated by her inability to see the Prince, had danced wide of a punch aimed at her by a man in a suit, vaulted a rain barrel, and shimmied up the rainspout above it before he recovered, reaching the rooftop in the blink of an eye.

The first tough continued his parrying motion and brought the tip up in an arc toward the Prince, who instinctively leaned to the side as a jet of fire leapt from it. The Prince felt the wind of a musket ball pass his face. “They have muskets!” He shouted, even as another shot rang out and a ball grazed his shoulder, leaving a line of fire in his flesh.

The ruffian with the broken nose raised his umbrella at the old man, but it missed fire, and Zittriger advanced on him.

Remy’s sword lopped off another of the bandit’s hands just above the well-tailored cuff, and his return slash took him in the throat, ending his life in a churning ruin of red.

Werner said, “Nice hat,” and brought the haft of his new spear down in the cleft between the neck and shoulder. The rotten length of wood exploded, sending splinters into the lout’s neck and face, and jostling him so that his aim was disturbed enough to save Werner’s life. The report of the umbrella gun was simultaneous with the crack of the shaft, and Werner did not, at first, know that he had been shot in the side, and burned severely by the flare of the muzzle.

Meanwhile, the Prince grabbed the first ruffian by the lapels and pulled his face close, managing to say, “You—you—you—“ before the blackguard brought his bespoke leather demi-boot down on the Prince’s instep, hard. The Prince let go.

Greis, advancing on the broken-nosed goon in the alley, showed that he still had a few things to teach his young charge, as he snarled in perfect Avalon, “You have the look of a goat I once knew. What’s it like to grow up watching your mother spread her legs for the whole barnyard?” He laughed as the man screamed through the blood flowing from his nose and leapt for him.

As Reinhardt reeled back from his attacker, he felt a blow like the kick of a horse to his left shoulder blade. He turned and broke the jaw of the man who had shot him, point blank, in the back. The smoke was still rising from the barrel of the pistol as the man’s hat hit the ground behind him and he reeled forward.

Vera sidestepped the rising barrel of another umbrella gun and brought her dagger down, ripping the arm that gripped it from forearm to wrist.

Remy stooped and grabbed the umbrella dropped by the man he killed and hurled it up to Essie as she reached the roof top. Then he turned and, fighting back to back with Inigo, created an impenetrable arc of flashing steel around themselves, forcing their assailants back.

Staggering under the realization that he had been shot, more than the physical effects, which had not yet made themselves known to his conscious mind, Werner swung the broken end of his spear haft at the man who shot him, but failed to connect.

Essie, seeing his plight, aimed the umbrella gun down at the top of Werner’s attacker’s head and drove his bowler into top of his skull. He fell dead and Werner knelt on top of him, looking up at Essie in relief.

Vera, hoping to dispatch her opponent quickly, lunged for his throat with her blade, but missed as he brought the curved handle up and around to deflect it to the side. Whirling with the momentum, she kicked the back of his knee and withdrew a pace.

Werner, seeing that one of the gang hanging back and aiming carefully into the throng from the corner of the alley opposite Greis, launches himself from his kneeling position and tackles the unsuspecting man into a pile of broken masonry behind a crate, where he quickly hooked his heels into his hips and began choking him from behind, rolling in the brick dust and a spreading pool of his own blood.

The Prince, surrounded now, bellowed as another ball pierced the meat of his calf. The sound caused the old man to miss his timing on a kick to the throat of his swollen-nosed opponent that would have sent him choking to the grave. As it was, it merely clipped his carotid and sent him spinning into the wall.

The Prince, who had somehow gained enough room to bring his spear to bear, sent it darting two times through the defenses of the attacker who had shot him in the calf, and, quick as that, two bright red lines bloomed on the breast of his bespoke linen shirt.

Inigo, sensing the need to help the Prince, suddenly switched from his defensive timing and caught his foes off-guard, causing one to swing wild and catching the other with the slashing tip of his blade and severing the tip of his thumb between the nailbed and the joint.

Vera darted once more at her attacker, who seemed to be slowing from the slash along his forearm, but her blade found only vest cloth.

Inigo, reversing his swing, skewered the man who had swung wild, killing him instantly.

Remy took advantage of the now thumbless man’s flinch to score a slash along his ribs, causing him to drop his pistol. At that moment a knife seemed to bloom from the man’s left shoulder, and Remy followed the angle of its hilt up and away to see Essie on the rooftop readying herself for another throw.

As she cocked her wrist back, the Prince brought the haft of his spear around in a half-arc so fast that the butt of it blurred, taking his man in the eye. The ruined organ ran down his face and dribbled on his cravat.

Behind him, Inigo grimaced as a misstep on a cobblestone’s upthrust corner forced him to guide the point of his opponent’s knife into his shoulder. The wound was light, none of these men were fighting to kill him, but the mistake chafed at him. He was growing tired. He feared what would happen to the others if the fight continued much longer.

At the moment the knife found Inigo’s shoulder, Greis’s strong right hand found his opponent’s throat and pulled it out with the sickening pop of cartilage tearing. He wheeled exultant, and, seeing his Prince at bay, charged into the thick of the fight.

Vera’s opponent, seeing that the dandies were now outnumbered, turned and charged at Inigo, trying to scoop him up and run for freedom. Before he reached his target, however, Vera dropped to one knee in the street, scooped up a fallen pistol and fired it at the charging man’s back. He stumbled, and Remy performed a backhand, forehand combination that severed his quadriceps and just missed his jugular before he could hit the ground. As he bounced, two knives bloomed in his back, hurled by Essie from her rooftop perch.

Spinning, Remy turned back to Inigo’s opponent in time to see him yank his blade free of Inigo’s shoulder. He lunged in at the man’s exposed back, but he turned, and Remy’s blade merely scored him over the kidney. Just then, Greis bowled him over, sat on his back, yanked up on his hair with one hand and drove a knife into the soft tissue under his jaw with the other hand.

At that moment, all eyes turned to the Prince, who was facing off against the uninjured spokesman for the shattered group. The man opened his mouth as if to speak, raised his hands from his sides and spread them in a gesture of peace, and turned on his heel and fled in a flash. He was around the corner before the wounded Prince could do more than swear.

“Where’s Werner?” asked the Prince, who was surveying his companions.

“There!” shouted Essie, pointing to the alley below her. Remy and Inigo rushed around the corner to find a barely conscious Werner still squeezing at the neck of one of the dandies. Inigo brought his basket down with a meaty whack on the man’s head, and Werner slumped in relief and exhaustion.

“I’ve been shot,” said Werner. Remy helped him apply a makeshift bandage to his wound, and Inigo half-carried him around the corner to where the others were watching Greis apply needle and thread to the Prince there in the street. Essie half-slid, half-fell down the pipe she had scrambled up and calmly began searching the corpses for her knives. All the windows of the shops were shuttered. The street was deserted. Everything was still. Six dead men and one unconscious one lay in the puddling blood and dirt of Knock Ferguson Lane.

The whole thing had taken perhaps two minutes. A crow settled on the sign announcing Hoffle Poffle’s shop. The victors looked at one another blankly as a cloud passed over the face of the sun.

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Act I. Scene ii. Caerlon and Beyond. Part V - Tur'lokk's Journal
Come see the adventures and foibles of Tur'lokk as he attempts to save the world on his lonesome

From the Journal of Tur’lokk, The Bandit King.

“I’ll never reveal His plan to you, savage!” stammered Clem through a bloody throat.

“Quite right, you’re a man of your word,” I told him as I sprang to the window, “but I still have plans for you, my honest man.” His eyes widened as he noticed the momentum wasn’t slowing down. My rakish grin was likely the last human visage he ever saw. Lucky devil. I wonder what it says about a man when he knows how to fall just so onto another’s sternum such that one soul is snuffed from a body, while the other’s shoulder absorbs no more than the slightest jolt?

And so my charge began. Such a noble and glorious task such as world-saving could hardly be put in more capable hands. I have in the last hour been saddled to a motley crew of tinkers, jugglers, arrogant pigs, swordsmen, witches, and the gods know who else. My soul is bound to theirs in a struggle to save the world from magical machinations and the end of this, my earthly dominion. Lesser men would see a geas as a curse, a saddle of poor fortune, a sentence of a future ruled by the fates and not the ambitions and aptitudes of said geas’ bearer. And that is why they are lesser men, and I am the Bandit King!

As I ran off into the night my plan was already taking form where others would have only seen void. Those beetles were made of gears and, lest we forget, gold. Gold has been precious since man first invented that noblest of creations, the coin. The day the first coin was minted was a glorious day for the merchant and the Owners of Things. The night was a glorious night to my people, the people of shadow and burglary . Where there was gold, there would be gold shipments. And where there were gold shipments, I would find my people.

~ ~ ~

A few boasts, false promises, and drunken whorings later, I found myself at the hilly crossroads of Milasan. In recent months there were reports of highly protected shipments traveling northwesterly, fading into the regular merchant caravans traveling southeasterly at this very spot. Once the caravans made it to their next stops, the guards and shipments were dispersed and their valuable carriage cargo was lost in the morass of textiles, spices, and impostor relics. They blended in, and that camouflage was their greatest asset, hiding their true purpose.

A wise King does not forgo a good plan, even if it does come from his enemy. I would acquire this golden freight as it reached the crossroads, and fall into a false merchant wagon driven by my men. In this way I could stop these Enders of the World in my own fashion, using my own natural talents. And if I’m to line my pockets with enough gold to make the angels blush, so be it! I take it as my tithe from the Fates for putting me on this path.

I was able to accrue a score of good and honest local thieves to jump the one-wagon shipment just as it arrived at the wagon ruts leading into the southeastern merchant parade. They were due to meet just before midday when the sun wouldn’t be in my marksmen’s eyes. My black powder charges were set in the wheel ruts, my men had their guns and bows cocked to dispatch the guards forward and aft, and I had pockets, sacks, and straps by which to load as much gold as humanly possible onto my person and my borrowed horses. They were thirty meters from my mark as I lost my hold on the situation, and all hell, as it were, broke loose.

A giant bolder, the size a small cottage, crashed down the side of the hill opposite my station and turned the horses hauling the wagon into mere memories of their former mortal equestrian pride. The wagon tipped and crashed against the road as the shipment broke into a thousand shards of twisted metal and shattered wood. Black-powder charges exploded from hiding spots not housing my men, killing half the shipment guards outright. And in my confusion and outrage I heard what is the most aggravating sound ever to pass over my ears. As the death rattle of a babe to its mother’s ears, this voice is to my soul. It is worse than the call of a husband to his wife as you lie next to her in their bed. It is the music of perdition, and the song is a ballad of sorrows.

“You are in the domain of Manuel, the Lord of Thieves! The treasures you carry are now the property of me and my band of warriors! Surrender now, and you will not suffer the same inglorious end as your comrades-in-arms!”

Castillen cocksucker.

Sure, he has the swordsmanship of a fighter, and a dexterity that I’m man enough to admit I envy. But what does that make him? A thug? A thief? It doesn’t make him a leader of men! He was scraping by on cast-offs when I was studying philosophy and tactics. He can gut a man, but I can steer his passions! Fool. And it seems that by some miracle he stumbled into the same plan that I had. Lucky fool!

“Seize their weapons, men!” I bellowed “ And hold your ground! Cover the standing guards and carriers, you dogs!”

Manuel, my old rival, spun around in bewilderment at being robbed at his own robbery. But when he saw my magnificent visage cast against the dull scrubs of the hills he grinned a hateful grin, knowing his betters when he saw them. Or, at least, he recognized me. And he recognized my ability to acquire twice the men that he could. And twice the muskets pointed at his head.
“Tur’lokk! My old… friend. You’re in the wrong country! You’re supposed to be exiled in the Ussura wastes! Or, that is what the local magistrate and I decided for you, when I last saw you. In stocks” he said with a sneer.

“Aye, you did. And I thank you for it! I made many a friend in those wastes! And before they furnished me with a hide-bound boat to paddle back to the lands of man, they entrusted me with much forbidden knowledge of man and beast. You can never curse me, Manuel, only bless me in disguise!”

“Are these your men, Oaf of the Islands? They are stringy and-“

I never heard the Castillen’s summation of my troops, as he was cut off by a blaze of light and thunder bursting from behind the tipped wagon. We spun our heads to see our men fall like the wheat at the threshing. They dropped without complaint or contemplation as they fell to a weapon I’ve never seen wielded outside of the magics of the north or the fury of the gods at the High Sea. It was accompanied by a smell that I last smelled at the funeral for that crazed old madman who gave me this world-saving curse. A smell that alchemists I’ve encountered have called ozone. I smell I will forever associate with machinations. All the guards were on their knees in the dirt except for one. One mad and extraordinary warrior. A devil in a very, very nice suit.

He sat pale as ice on his giant, ugly steed. His features were gaunt, like a man dead and dried for a week before burial. His eyes were sunken and red like a demon’s. He held in his hand the queerest blunderbuss I’ve ever beheld, still smoking from a recent discharge. It was made of mirrors etched with gold and jewels. He had a long dueling sword on his side, a narrow black cylinder strapped to his back, and was all the way ‘round ensconced in one hell of a fine leather suit!

“This gold is not yours, foolish children,” he condescended to us in hollow and evil tones. “It is meant for your betters. Run along, and I’ll let you continue your audacities another day.”

“Fool?” cried Manuel in a fit of unearned ego, “Who call you a fool, you devil? You shall face my sword!” With that cry, and sword held aloft, he lept from his hilly perch onto the threatening skeletal warrior.

While I respect bravery as much as any monarch, I find pragmatism to be a better route in all situations. Seeing that fool Manuel engage the barely-human thing-of-violence, I took it upon myself to serve His majesty’s estate as well I could. I ran to the shipment, loaded my strongest pouch with as much gold as I could fit, and ran as though death itself were on my heels.

I made it past my trapped ruts, and was in spotting distance to the merchant caravan coming the other direction, precise as… well… clockwork. I was readying my leap onto my planted merchant wagon, when I was toppled by a massive blow to the small of my back. I tumbled round, under, and inside out with a smoking lump that had just crashed into my back. I sprang back to my feet as a weary , smoking, and bloody Manuel rolled onto his heels in a fighter’s stance. I could smell the ozone all over him that came from that thing’s mirrored blaster. He held his sword in one hand, and somehow, the canister from the thing’s back in his other.

“You bastard, that gold is mine!” Manuel spat as he lashed the tube to the inside of his thigh.

“Nay, Manuel, all treasures belong to me and my people! You just don’t realize it yet! Join me as my vassal, and you’ll get your share,” I informed him as I slid the pouch of gold into my inner shirt pocket.

“Guards!” intoned that devil’s voice, “Take up your weapons and kill those two vagabonds!” At this, the previously capitulating guards regained their feet and took up their weapons in our pursuit.

“Tur’lokk… this seems a bad day for our people. Truce?”

“Truce, with the Lord of Lies? Not if the gates of hell were opening and-“ A guard’s musket rang out, causing the dirt to erupt at my feet. “A truce. For one hour.”

And we both leapt into the first wagon we saw. A dress-maker’s wagon as it turned out. We buried ourselves into the silks and linens of the wagon, finding only enough room to hide if we pressed against one another chest to chest. I found his parrying dagger against my throat, and he found my pistol lodged against his kidney. There are few places I could think of more shameful or exasperating than laying in a pile of dresses with a megalomaniacal swordsman’s blade to your throat as a score a guards stop a wagon train searching for you. I’ve been in worse spots, but not ones that I ever brag over.

~ ~ ~

For four hours we thus lay. Whispering curses into one another’s ears. Jabbing one another’s sides with our weapons. Feeling oh so very un-kingly each and every time the wagon wheel met a bump and his body jolted down upon mine. Very un-kingly.

This was interrupted unexpectedly as the sound of the wheels made a marked shift below us. We were now rolling over a steady and relatively flat series of wooden planks, and a rush of water could be heard below.

Sensing the bridge under us and the river below that, Manuel sprang from his hiding place, throwing dresses this way and that. He met my eyes and said “We will never speak of this again, barbarian. But I have no doubt that you will have found it memorable!” With that he flung himself over the edge of the wagon and dove into the rapids below.

I readjusted my body and waited for the blood to start circulating again, checking my body for wounds and felonies. I reached into my breast pocket and removed my pouch. Indignities aside, this will serve as an excellent bankroll for my new kingdom!

You must imagine my rage as I upturned the pouch into my hand and out spilled volcanic glass shards. The kind only found in Castile. That slimy, sneaky son of a bitch! I stole that gold from him honestly!

I considered this treachery as I uncapped the cylinder he had lifted from the skeletal warrior. Manuel never could tie a good knot, you see, and I had plenty of time to consider his thighs given the extraordinarily unfortunate positioning of my right hand during our confinement.

I upturned this tube and out spilled into my hand the most beautifully carved jewel ever seen by man! It’s intricacies and perfections were unlike any stone I’ve ever seen! More and more came out and each was the same, imperfect only in their perfection. They spilled out magnificently and greedily when I slowly realized that they were indeed too perfect. As a man who has stolen many a diamond and sapphire, I can tell you that these were no jewels. They were glass. Lenses perhaps, or something else. Something mechanical.

Well shit. This won’t bankroll anything! I’d need an artificer of no small talent to even tell me what these are intended for! Wait, wasn’t there a gear man in that last town with the mad count? A fellow geas brother. He can tell me how I can get rich off of these! And I might as well grab some dresses for the ladies as well…

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