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Authors: Michael R. Underwood

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Shield and Crocus

BOOK: Shield and Crocus
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SHIELD AND CROCUS
Michael R. Underwood
ALSO BY MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD

Ree Reyes novels

Geekomancy

Celebromancy

Attack the Geek
(novella)

Shield and Crocus

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2014 Michael R. Underwood all rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by 47north, Seattle

www.apub.com amazon, the amazon logo, and 47north are trademarks of amazon.com, inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781477823903

ISBN-10: 1477823905

Printed in the United States of America

For the instructors, students, and staff of Clarion West 2007, the original Shield-bearers.

CONTENTS
CHAPTER ONE
First Sentinel

Wonlar’s apartment was a carefully constructed ruse. The floor was spotted with yard-high stacks of books and carpeted by papers, schematics, and yet more papers. Delicate arrangements of spare parts and sealed bottles of reagents formed mounds outside lanes of traffic. Bookshelves filled the walls from floor to ceiling along three sides of the apartment, broken only by a closet, the hall to the bedrooms, and the opening to the kitchen.

Over the last twenty years, the apartment had settled into Wonlar’s image: scholarly, brilliant, and scattered. That was the intent.

His neighbors wouldn’t expect that Wonlar Gonyu Pacsa, absent-minded artificer and handyman, could also be First Sentinel, leader of the Shields of Audec-Hal, the only major force standing against the rule of the oligarchs. If they thought he was barely organized enough to keep track of whose oven he had to fix by Monday and mumbled incoherently when pressed with small talk, then they wouldn’t ask questions about why he was up at all hours and never seemed to be around for parties.

Wonlar stood above a table, squinting to focus on the job at hand. He was approaching his seventy-first birthday, but he looked no older than any other Ikanollo. He had the same square jaw, the same high forehead, sun-yellow skin, and dark brown hair. For other races, speech patterns, clothes, and personality were most of what set Ikanollo apart, since each man looked like every other, each woman a perfect copy of one another in features and build. Living side-by-side with the other races, Ikanollo had learned to differentiate themselves intentionally. For Wonlar, it became just another part of his cover.

Favoring his left leg, Wonlar stepped over a short pile of books about rare reagents. He’d cracked his hip a year ago in a skirmish with the Smiling King, and it still took three cups of
dounmo
tea to push back the pain. Wonlar sipped from his third cup of the day, taking a break from mixing the unguent that would refresh the enchantment on the Shields’ pendants.

The oligarchs had stepped up their patrols in preparation for the upcoming summit, especially in COBALT-3’s territory, and Sapphire had nearly been caught in Bluetown while on her way back home.
So how do I make them last longer?
Wonlar asked himself, holding the formula in his head. He’d been enchanting the pendants for fifty years, protecting the Shields from the Ikanollo birthright of reading threads.

Any Ikanollo could see the emotional threads that connected a person’s heart to the people and world around them; whether it was the stark yellow of fear, the brilliant emerald of compassion, or the blood-red of rage, each thread stood out to his people, thicker where the emotion was strong, thin where it was tenuous. Without the amulets to conceal their threads, any Ikanollo servant of the oligarchs could identify his or any Shield’s threads and bring the tyrant’s wrath. And Wonlar had no desire to see the oligarchs’ servants knocking down his door or setting his building ablaze. His amulets gave them all false threads, ready-made identities that would lead Ikanollo anywhere but to the truth.

The alarm bracer on his left arm whooped. He looked down at the six gems to see the ruby was pulsing with light.
That’s Blurred Fists’. Must be something on his patrol
, Wonlar thought. He looked at the amulets, then to the window, and sighed. He gulped down the rest of his tea and stomped over to his bedroom, crumpling papers as he went. Where the living room was shabby, his bedroom was spotless, everything in its place. Wonlar threw open the closet and pulled down his longcoat, one of the raiment suits, a pair of boots, and his belt.

As fast as he could, Wonlar donned the raiment that marked him as First Sentinel, leader of the Shields of Audec-Hal. He pulled on a black shirt emblazoned with a watchful yellow eye and a turret on the chest, the symbol he’d chosen not long after the tyrants had claimed his city. He slipped into his black linen pants, and then snapped on his belt. The product of decades of work, his belt contained smoke bombs, enspelled wands, throwing knives, and a handful of specialized artifacts for their most powerful foes.

He wasn’t as young as he used to be, but as the saying goes, old age and trickery beat out youth and speed every time.
At least, so far.
Wonlar threw on the longcoat, then opened his window and jumped up onto the railing. He produced his grapple gun and dove off of the balcony, firing. The hook caught on a worn gargoyle across the street and First Sentinel began swinging his way across the city.

Even taking the high road over roofs and towers, swinging whenever possible, it would take almost a half-hour to reach the district of Audec’s Bowels in the south-center of the city, where Blurred Fists was scheduled to patrol that morning.

We can’t be everywhere, not with so few of us and the city so large.
The Shields lived spread out between the five domains to minimize the delay in their response, but when a Spark-storm erupted, they were often too late. When the storms came and went before a Shield could respond, all they could do was clear the rubble and prevent the terrified citizens from lashing out at the new Spark-touched.

First Sentinel followed the red light in Blurred Fists’ gem, which glowed the brightest in the direction of Wonlar’s friend, like a magical compass leading First Sentinel to his fellow Shield’s location. As he swung down the refuse-filled alley between two ruined buildings to avoid a group of sentries, Wonlar heard Sarii’s voice in his mind, rehashing an old argument.

“Why do we even bother, Wonlar? We’ll never win, we’re always too late. How many people do we really help? More than you’ve gotten killed in your crusade?”

The memory of her words stung as he hurried through alleyways and streets, ran over buildings, dodged laundry lines, and avoided COBALT-3’s patrols.

The ribs rose above the horizon as he swung north, cross-hatching the sky to form a net of shadows.
I’ve been fighting for fifty years, Sarii; I’m not going to change my mind now. Getting old means I’ve earned the right to commit to my bad decisions.

Without Selweh, he might have lost hope. The boy was First Sentinel’s compass. In the cold of night, when his joints ached and the guilt from fifty years of failure snuck into his mind, his son’s optimism was more valuable than a legion of soldiers.
While he’s alive, while the Aegis continues to return to us, I have hope.

Soaring over the outskirts of The corner, the district to the south of Audec’s Bowels, he approached the boundary between COBALT-3’s domain and that of the Smiling King. Two blocks from the border, he swung down from a high office building toward a clock tower. COBALT-3 had posted two guards at a landing just below the clock, looking west and east, with two more level with the massive clock face, watching north and south.

The sentries were her basic model: no taller than First Sentinel and about as sturdy as a jury-rigged bicycle. They were piles of brass and copper riveted together and run on an electric battery, but they were skilled enough to hold a crossbow and hit people that don’t know how to dodge.

But First Sentinel had been dodging crossbow bolts since before COBALT-3 was built. He swung wide as the south-facing automaton opened fire. Then he hauled on the grapple line, pulling himself out of the way of the bolt. Using the boost in speed, he swung into the automata and kicked it through the clock face.

The sound of shattering glass echoed throughout the neighborhood, drawing the attention of every automaton for several blocks. Alarms rang out as metallic voices blared COBALT-3’s standard warning:

“Alert: dangerous insurrectionist activity reported. Please return to your homes and allow security forces to protect you. Reassurance: COBALT-3 is watching.”

She hasn’t bothered updating that recording in years.
COBALT-3 had more of a personal touch than her creator, but only just.

The alarm was all part of First Sentinel’s plan. Make a scene at the tower and draw attention there, maybe let some people sneak through the crowd.

First Sentinel gave the guards more to focus on as he dove back out of the tower. He fell a hundred feet before he caught his grapple line on a roof just inside the Smiling King’s territory. Several crossbow bolts cut through the sky in his wake, but none of them came close. First Sentinel smiled as he swung onward.
One hurdle crossed, now for the real threat.

This method of travel was dangerous, but with it came freedom of movement. Most of the populace of Audec-Hal couldn’t swing over the district walls or fight their way through the bone pathways. They had to present their papers, pay the toll, and pray that they weren’t selected randomly for additional inspection.

For fifty years, the people of Audec-Hal had been searched, detained, and taken as “volunteers” for the tyrants’ experiments. Everyone in Audec-Hal has lost someone in the tyrant’s reign.

The Shields had staged dozens of raids on the gates between the domains, trying to stop the abductions as they happened.

Even if all six of us did nothing but hassle the guards at the gates between the districts, it wouldn’t be enough
, he thought as he swung up toward the ribs.

First Sentinel swung up to a greystone apartment building, a tall warehouse, and finally an ostentatious gargoyle atop an office building.
City Mother be praised for roof gargoyles
.

At the apex of his swing, he kicked out and released the grapple, sailing just barely into range of one of the ribs.

He shot out his grapple line, which embedded into the bleached bone of a huge rib. First Sentinel pressed the switch to scale up to the ribs. Audec’s skeleton was massive, fifty miles long from head to toes. From this spot, walking along the ribcage, he could walk nearly a third of the way across the city as long as he kept his footing and avoided the aerial patrols.

Beneath him, the city of Audec-Hal stretched out in every direction. Today only Audec’s bones remained, but when he first fell to the earth, the titan’s body had carved out a deep valley in his shape. First Sentinel’s ancestors built their city in and around the titan’s remains, towers with bone foundations, the streets like his long-atrophied veins, and thousands of homes standing in the shadow of the titan’s immense skeleton.

Back toward Hook’s Hole and the south of the city, Audec’s Hips crested high, pointing down to the legs, where countless thousands huddled in honeycombed tenements. Directly below First Sentinel, the districts in Audec’s Trunk were home to trade and industry, keeping the money flowing, materials and food coming in, weapons, textiles, and machines going out through the river that flowed into the left shoulder, wound through the city, and then flowed underground from Audec’s Foot.

Past the ribs stood Heartstown, a bustling city-in-a-city that was the home to the city’s upper class—people who’d made their bed working with the tyrants but weren’t yet rich enough to live in the head. Only the wealthiest collaborators could afford the mansions and villas inside and atop Audec’s Skull.

First Sentinel saw millions of faint threads connecting the people of the city, his Ikanollo birthright revealing the emotional ties that bound heart to heart. Burgundy domination and yellow fear were the most common, arcing out from the tower of the City Mother. She used to protect the people, bring them together. Now she was the tyrants’ greatest weapon against the people.

Amid the threads, First Sentinel saw the source of Blurred Fists’ alarm: a Spark-storm in full fury, warping the edge of the neighborhood. Impossible colors stood out from the drab greys and browns of the streets and buildings. The storm didn’t seem to be moving, but regardless, the streets at the edge were filled with waves of thousands, desperate to escape. This was the seventh storm this year by First Sentinel’s count, and it wasn’t even the middle of spring. They used to strike just two to four times a year.
Why so many, and why now?

Scanning the buildings and feeling the wind, First Sentinel plotted out a path back down into the city toward the storm. He could head directly into the storm, try to start pulling people out of danger. But the crowd was on the verge of breaking into a stampede.

Sometimes, on long nights when sleep refused to come, he didn’t see the city as home anymore, just an unending series of fires to fight. First things first. If he couldn’t clear the crowd at the edge, there’d be nowhere to send people trapped in the middle.

The wind tore at his face as he dropped, and the shock of his line going taut set his shoulder on fire, igniting another old injury. First Sentinel grit his teeth as he landed on a low roof.

He cupped his hands, calling to the volatile crowd.

“Please be calm! You are already outside the storm’s range. Keep moving and you will be fine.”

His words broke on the crowd and dissolved in the sea of yellow threads. And yet, dozens turned to face him, scrambling for any chance of help. If he just left them, someone would likely get trampled to death. But hundreds could be dying inside the storm.

Some days First Sentinel longed for the time when his idea of a hard decision was which artificer’s academy to attend or what flowers to buy his beloved aria for the equinox.
The privileges of youth,
he thought, a wave of nostalgia breaking over the beach of his worry.

“First Sentinel, save me!” called a Pronai woman, her red form a blur as she rushed over to the base of the building where First Sentinel stood. With her birthright of speed, she could run out of the neighborhood—dodge around the crowd without trouble—if she’d just calm down.

An Ikanollo woman raised a screaming toddler, “Take my daughter!”
If I took the child, then I’d have to spend another half-hour finding the mother again to return her safely.

“Don’t let me become a monster!” cried a man, another Ikanollo. First Sentinel pursed his lips, torn between the people’s needs.
Keep yourself together, old man. They need you to be strong, patient, kind.

On another day, these people might have thrown rocks at him or tipped off one of the Smiling King’s guards to get an extra loaf of bread. He didn’t blame them. The City Mother’s power—twisted by the tyrants—kept them cowed, so only the most passionate could tame the fear and rebel. Afraid and desperate, they did what they had to do to survive.
And today, I’m their best hope.

BOOK: Shield and Crocus
13.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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