Authors: J.S. Morin
“How would you know?” Jamile asked. “You barely know her.”
“Because I recognize me own kind.”
Cadmus sneered at the sorcerer. “You’ve got nothing in common with my daughter.”
Anzik held the Mad Tinker’s gaze for a moment, then turned back to watch the viewframe.
Jamile slunk out of the room in a series of low, shallow bounds. “That’s it. I’m bringing some humans up here,” she muttered under her breath. “I’ll go bonkers alone with those two.”
Madlin walked through a procession of oxen pulling huge timbers, freshly cut from nearby forests. The smell of pitch was strong in the air, even contending with sweating oxen and the ineffable stench coming from the makeshift latrines. The ox drivers, or oxherds, or whatever the goblins deemed the one leading the beasts, seemed to steer them around her in such a way that crossing their path felt safe, despite the oxen being ten times her size. K’k’rt followed in her wake, allowing her to explore the construction site as she saw fit. He answered all her questions, introduced her to a number of important goblins, none of whom she could name a minute after meeting them, and generally provided her the only source of sanity among the well-organized chaos swirling around her for half a mile in any direction.
“Is that poured-stone?” Madlin asked, pointing to a new foundation.
“For the foundry,” K’k’rt replied. “It seemed prudent.”
“But I thought you said last night that your people didn’t know how to make it.”
K’k’rt chuckled. “Last night, we didn’t. You described the ratios, and I relayed them. Clever idea, but no trick to make once you know it.”
“You’re telling me that your people invented poured-stone overnight?”
“Of course not,” K’k’rt replied. “Your people invented it. Mine just copied. Our test batch from last night still isn’t cured, but the theory is sound, so they went ahead with it for the foundation.”
“But what if they got it wrong?” Madlin said, “It’ll cure wrong or not at all.”
“That’s the beauty of our way,” K’k’rt said. “By the time a bunch of humans were done testing it to see if it worked in a little bucket, we’ve poured a whole foundation. By the time we’re both convinced it works, we’re done, and the humans have a whole foundation to make. If it doesn’t work, then both of us would still have foundations to make.”
“But what about wasted time, labor, planning?”
K’k’rt chuckled. “You should try worshiping a dragon. Fr’n’ta’gur would have you, I think. So many small details go away when Fr’n’ta’gur says to do something.”
“So … fear. You’re so afraid of your dragon that you’ll rush headlong into a project on his whim.”
“Yes,” K’k’rt replied, grinning and nodding. “I tell you this because I think I have taken a liking to you: do not anger Fr’n’ta’gur. As much as he covets your invention, as much as he might tell himself he has a new pet human to make him weapons, if he catches you in a lie or trying to double-cross him, he will incinerate you.”
Madlin sighed. “I spent years at a job once, knowing that if my nightly activities became public knowledge, they’d drag me out and hang me. I guess hanged or incinerated, it’s just another job with death looking over my shoulder.
“Come on. We’ve got more of this place to get sorted out. I think the warehouse should be closer to the new road.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy, nothing more.” –Rashan Solaran
Danilaesis ran a hand over the steel of the inner hull, feeling the rough edges of the runes, etched a hair's width into the metal. The insides of the
smelled of oil and polish. The shipwrights had taken the grounded airship into their care and had kept it well. It had not been aloft in years, for there was no one in the empire who could replenish the vast, interconnected web of runes that it took to operate the airship. Every surface bore runes of one sort or another. Runes for levitation, runes to push to the left or right, runes to strengthen the hull, runes for light within, and runes to carry the captain’s orders to the hold. Too many runes. All of them linked together in a maze of connected sub-patterns, meeting at the ship’s wheel. Despite having no rudder, the
had a wheel fixed in place at the helm, each bearing runes that would respond to the captain’s touch.
“So this is what all the fuss was about?” Axterion asked, ducking as he came down the narrow stairwell from the main deck.
“Don’t tell me you never got curious and came to see it,” Danilaesis said. “All the years it’s sat here, and you’ve managed to ignore it?”
“Perhaps you may be forgetting just how much of a creaking old relic I’d become. Down the stairs to breakfast and back up again was a day’s exercise … left me winded. I wasn’t in the habit of strolling the docks, gawking at derelicts.”
“It’s not a derelict,” said Danilaesis, placing a hand against the smooth metal. He could feel the mild tingle of the runes leeching whiffs of aether from his Source. All runes would gather aether themselves to some degree; some cleverly carved wards replenished themselves indefinitely. The
was a dry creek bed. It would take more than a passing shower to fill it. “Brannis just had his head in his arse when he made it. Never stopped to think how anyone else would use it when he wasn’t around.”
Of course, Danilaesis knew now that his cousin Brannis had not been Brannis at all, but rather his twin, Kyrus. The Telluraki twin had been the one with magic, a Source so powerful he could be seen from halfway across Kadris, the largest city in the world. The magical accident that had switched the two of them had set off a chain of events that had rocked the Kadrin Empire to its core—and left Danilaesis with the best airship in the fleet, completely unable to fly it.
“The carvings are sound, at least,” Axterion said, squinting at some of the smaller runes. “Going to take a while to get my head wrapped around this mess though. It’s as if some poor fellow who’d studied a bunch of rune patterns decided to see how many he could squeeze into one ward, then kept trying to top himself. I can already see a few forced joinings, where wards at cross purposes are linked together just to share aether. Your bloody cousin was the most brilliant idiot I’ve ever known. Looks like he decided to make it easy to replenish by making the whole confounded ship into a single ward with a dozen functions.”
“Hasn’t exactly worked out that way,” Danilaesis grumbled.
“Not for us,” said Axterion. “But he wasn’t making it for us. He made it for himself. He could manage it, and he never stopped to think that no one else would be able to force runes through this whole tangle of insanity.”
“I thought he made it for Juliana,” said Danilaesis. “That’s why he made the
, so she’d have one she could replenish herself.”
Axterion harrumphed. Growing younger had not robbed him of the capacity for proper old-mannerisms. “Lot of good that did us. Girl’s probably off in Elok with it.”
Danilaesis waited. His grandfather pored over the runes, walking around the interior of the ship with his face practically pressed against the steel walls. Once in a while he would grunt, or mutter something to himself, but otherwise silence reigned within the ship. Eventually, the waiting became too much for him. “Well?”
“Well, what?” Axterion replied, not taking his attention from the runes.
“Can you make it fly again?”
“You mean can I refill the runes,” Axterion corrected. “I could levitate this thing around the harbor under my own control. Could I get it to fly like a proper airship? … Perhaps.”
Danilaesis spread his arms. “Well. Then do it. You’re the mighty old wizard returned, right? Prove it.”
Axterion turned and raised a single eyebrow. It was neither as bushy nor as grey as it had once been, so the effect was not nearly as challenging as Danilaesis had once found it. “Do not goad
, boy. You’re out of your circle on this one. For over seventy summers I was High Sorcerer, and I sat in that maddening Inner Sanctum with those persnickety old rascals, engaged in debates set off by a misplaced connotation or a poor choice of wording. I kept the peace by goading and not being goaded. I was the rock in the sea, the kind that you put a lighthouse on because you know that short of the gods’ return, it’s not going to budge a finger's breadth over the next hundred winters.”
“Can you do it or not?”
“I’ll try,” said Axterion. “But I’m going to need your help.”
Danilaesis perked up. He gave the nod of an officer receiving the order to take command. “I’m ready.”
“Good,” said Axterion. “Because this is going to be perhaps the most difficult task you have ever faced.” He let a gravelly undertone slip into his voice. “This may be beyond you. If you fail, it could be your doom.”
“I’m not afraid,” said Danilaesis. “What do you need me to do? Where should I be?” He looked all around for a likely place his grandfather might station him, trying to guess by the layout of the runes.
“Listen carefully, because I don’t want to repeat it.”
“I am going to need you to … leave me the dead blessed gods alone for an afternoon,” Axterion snapped. “Brannis did this by brute force, but I’m going to have to wheedle my way through these wards. I’m going to be juggling forces that could snap back and crush me like a walnut shell. If I don’t lose my concentration, I think the worst that might happen is I destroy the ship. I get some precocious whelp yammering in my ear, I might just kill us both.”
Danilaesis glared at Axterion, hopes of a glorious partnership dashed. “Have it your way.” He stormed out of the ship, stomping across the deck to make sure his grandfather heard every footstep.
In a tree-shrouded glade, surrounding a pond, a small community of tiny homes basked in the midday sun. A sweet breeze carried the scent of fresh blossoms across the pond’s surface, sending ripples across the shining water. No smoke poured from chimneys, though a few of the houses bore them; they were there for architectural sake, not for function. The inhabitants needed no food, felt no chill. Not that there was any threat of chill on a pleasant spring morning. Those who dwelt in the glade at the heart of Podawei Wood were immortals—demons, in the common parlance.
Philosophy and idle study were the prevalent forms of entertainment. For beings with no bodily needs to attend, entertainment was the only activity that mattered. Not every immortal lived in the isolated community, cut off by choice from mortal struggles. Some few snuck among the mortals, lived among them, amused themselves by pretending to be mortal themselves. One was an outlier. While all the others eschewed ties to the mortal lands, one among their number had staked his claim and ruled a continent. Far from distraught at the constant upheaval in mortal society, he took his mortal subjects under his protection, giving stability and permanence to their civilization.
His name was Xizix. The others regarded him as a madman.
Acceptable behavior among the immortals was never codified; it was just understood. Wherever the immortals—sensitive creatures when it came to aether—felt a strange tingle that foretold the imminent arrival of Xizix, they knew those mores were about to be stretched to breaking.
He arrived with a crash like a thunderclap, appearing in the air above the shores of the pond, his dread wings spread, casting a grotesque shadow on the pristine grass. “What are we going to do about
?” Xizix asked. In one clawed hand he clutched the shattered hulk of a Korrish steam tank. “The incursions grow. My own lands have suffered the outworlders' trespasses. I have felt them in the dragonlands and among the daruu as well.”
For all the faults his fellows found with him, Xizix was always a source of great interest. In seconds, a crowd had gathered around him. Creatures of all shapes and origins—mostly humanoid—popped in via magics that prudent mortals feared to work. Others walked from their studies, be they in their homes or the surrounding forest. One boiled up from the ground like a geyser, forming into a squat, marble-skinned creature with gemstone eyes.
“We have felt the portals,” said Illiardra, one of the most respected of the immortals, who often spoke as de facto leader of the anarchic colony. She was willow slender, with light brown skin and a mop of tangled green curls. Through those curls poked two ears—human-like but grown so long that they drooped over—and a pair of delicate horns that twisted around and framed her face. She had eyes so large they made her look innocent and naïve, but she was neither. “Some of us are old enough to remember when they were not unheard of.”
Xizix growled. Most of the immortals knew him well enough to ignore the theatrics. He was no threat with all of them gathered together though he was among the strongest of their number. “We should put a stop to it,” he said. He dropped the steam tank on the shore with a crash of metalwork. The broken heap looked profane amid the idyllic beauty of the glade. “No good can come of allowing this to continue.”
“No good?” Illiardra asked. “You lack imagination. I can see many forms of good that we might enjoy. Think, if the other worlds open up to us once more. The places. The peoples. How long has it been since any of us set foot in another world, except one trip through our own gate.”
rule, Illiardra,” said Xizix.
Another of the immortals stood forward to speak. Bvatrain was the eldest among them; no other could remember his origin. With coal-black skin and a body like a martial statue, he showed no sign that Xizix intimidated him. “We limited the gate because it was the only way between worlds. It was precious, last of its kind. If the mortals of the other worlds have discovered how to link them once more, perhaps it is time to lift those restrictions.”
“Bah,” replied Xizix. “You think to play at travelers’ games. Trips to our own mortal kingdoms no longer amuse you, so you look to sneak off to the other worlds? Or worse, you might let them sully the world we have with filth like this.” He kicked the wreck of the steam tank. “I say we put an end to the incursions.”
“And how would you do that?” Illiardra asked. “There are at least eight different origins of these portals.”
Xizix furrowed his brow, a jarringly human mannerism for a creature twice the height of a man, with glowing red eyes and leathery, ashen skin. Illiardra was sensitive beyond reason, her perception of the aether transcendent. Xizix grinned. “I have it. Some of you must be raving in those vacant skulls of yours, looking for a release from this prison of boredom. Go. Volunteer. Become rulers of these worlds, and keep the separation between them in place.”
Immortals turned in unison toward the speaker. He appeared at the back of the assembly, a normal human, though tall for his kind. He wore outlandish clothing in the literal sense; his attire originated in Korr.
“So, you found what you were looking for, Kyrus?” Illiardra asked.
Kyrus strode through the immortals’ ranks, a path opening up before him as he approached Xizix. “There will be no conquering mortal worlds, no demon overlords. I won’t allow it.”
“I thought you had learned the lesson of Tallax, Kyrus,” said Illiardra.
Xizix bellowed a deep, throaty laugh. “Power is power. You couldn’t imagine a babe like this one could resist it. So what now, Tallax the Second? What fealty do you demand of us?”
“Do as you will,” Kyrus replied. “Look in on the worlds, travel there, mix among the mortals. Just do not rule them. Do not close them off from one another again.”
“A half measure of kingship,” Xizix replied. “As soon as you make laws for us, you have stepped off the cliff.”
“I can fly,” Kyrus replied. “And my offer stands. Something vast is happening among these three worlds, something the mortals ought to work out amongst themselves. Let them be. Xizix, you are an exception. If the mortals threaten your lands again, by all means, repel them.”