“By that,” Toby said slowly, “do you mean its enchantments are still active?”
Fross chimed in annoyance. “They are, but no, if I had meant that I would have said that. I always try to be precise! What I mean is, I think this object is both artificially constructed and a living organism.”
“Okay,” he said. “Sorry, no offense meant.”
The pixie zoomed over to buzz affectionately around his head once. “I know, Toby, I’m sorry for getting irked. I’m in analytical mode, it makes me impatient.”
“Now, hang on!” Juniper exclaimed. “Something cannot be artificially made and still a living thing!”
“That is a fallacy,” Ariel’s voice interjected. “Such beings do not occur in nature, but there are ample specimens from the annals of magical history.”
“What the hell was that?” Merry exclaimed in alarm.
“Ariel.” Gabriel drew the black sword and held her up; her runes flickered a dull blue in the light. “She’s very particular about magical matters. Helpful, too, most of the time.”
“Young man,” Nandi said very evenly, “do you know where talking swords come from?”
He sighed and sheathed Ariel again. “Yes, I do, and nobody here had a hand in making her. We found her in the Crawl. Fross, you were telling us about that arm?”
“Yes, thank you!” the pixie exclaimed. “If everyone’s listening now? Okay, so I’ve analyzed this thing as carefully as possible in this timeframe and with this equipment and what I’ve discovered is that it is clearly a machine, it was not built by anybody who thinks the way any modern enchanter or engineer does, and as I said, its nature is more organic than mechanical despite being mechanical and made of minerals.”
“Yeah, can we focus on that part first?” Juniper suggested. “Because that doesn’t make a lick of sense to—”
Fross rose two feet toward the ceiling, her glow brightening significantly on the way, and emitted a wordless arpeggio of sheer irritation.
“Uh…” Juniper actually took a step back from the examining table. “Actually…why don’t you just go over it in…y’know, whatever order makes sense to you.”
“Thank you, Juniper,” Fross replied, drifting back down toward the subject of her research. “Anyway. First of all, the device itself is not enchanted, exactly. Its interior structure is a series of pretty simple cables and pulleys which stand in for muscles, ligaments, all that stuff. There are no inner bones, since of course the outer structure is rigid metal, so it’s organized differently. The enchantments are contained in tiny crystals affixed to each joint.”
“Forgive me for interrupting,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “But does that mean there’s no central enchantment at all?”
“Exactly!” Fross said, clearly growing excited again. “That’s the beauty of it! See, Juniper tore this one off at the elbow, which is probably why I can’t find an enchantment that makes it interface with the human body. The little crystals only govern each mechanism individually; that interface charm was probably on the piece attached right to the human. But! These enchantments are incredibly efficient compared to ours because they have no power component! They only carry instructions for the machine parts; the energy is conducted through a series of metal filaments encased in a rubber-like non-conductive medium. It runs on electricity, not magic!”
“I thought electricity was pretty much only good for weapons,” Casey said, leaning forward on her chair.
“It is good for weapons,” Farah replied, “but actually, the nervous systems of all living things run on tiny electrical charges. That’s why lightning wands tend to cause nerve damage and sometimes even brain disorders.”
“Exactly!” Fross said eagerly, swooping around the table in erratic circles. “These appear to draw their power directly from the body! Except it takes more energy to move metal than flesh simply because of its weight, so that wouldn’t exactly work, which makes me think there must be a power source of some kind with some much more sophisticated enchantments connected to the host body. But! In addition to being very alien in design, this thing is made of components that aren’t like anything I’ve ever seen. The different alloys used for the casing, the moving parts, the metal wires… I can’t even identify any of them. Likewise the insulating material; it’s like rubber, but obviously synthetic. And these enchantment crystals most of all! It’s like… This kind of enchantment does exist now, but modern data crystals are new and pretty rare, and also not nearly as efficient. These ones aren’t much bigger than grains of sand and anything I could make to do their job would be about the size of an average lightning wand’s power crystal.”
“So, it’s magic more sophisticated than anything known,” Anjal said, frowning. “With every new revelation I get more nervous about this Elder God business. Naphthene’s tits, these bastards are all over the city!”
“Well, it’s hard to compare that kind of sophistication directly,” Fross cautioned. “Compared to the state of modern industrial enchantment, yes. But that itself is very new; individual archmages throughout history were known to make stuff like this. Well, I mean, not like this necessarily, but things so amazing modern enchanters still don’t understand how they work. Magic mirrors, for instance. We even understand those, but they’re fiendishly hard and we haven’t yet cracked mass-production of them.”
“Or talking swords, for example,” Nandi said.
Gabriel turned to give her a flat look. “Is this going to become a problem?”
“I dearly hope not,” she replied, expressionless.
“Anyway!” Fross continued more loudly. “The really, really interesting part is the organic part! Yes, Juniper, I’m coming to it. Okay, so, one thing that jumped out at me is there’s nothing in there except the devices that make it move. The thing about anything with moving parts is that moving them wears them down; they require repair and maintenance. With engineered machines, you have to get into ’em and do it manually; biological organisms have built-in systems for maintenance, which is obviously more efficient and exactly why those organisms are so much more complex than any machine. So! What’s interesting here is that this device is clearly not designed to be dismantled! The pieces are solid, and even the ones that move connect firmly in a way that clearly isn’t meant to be disconnected. Therefore, since it has no way to access it internally to perform repairs, there has to be a built-in mechanism for that!”
“What if they don’t repair them?” Casey suggested. “Just…take ’em off and throw ’em away when they wear out.”
Fross shot upward in indignation. “Excuse me, but I refuse to believe any intelligence capable of creating a machine like this would make a design choice so inefficient, wasteful, and catastrophically stupid.”
“Sorry,” Casey said, holding up her hands in surrender. “You’re the boss.”
“It’s pronounced Fross, actually,” Ruda said with a grin.
“So,” the pixie continued, “I went looking for traces of this mechanism and guess what I found!”
“Or,” Toby said quickly when several people opened their mouths, “just tell us? For efficiency’s sake, if nothing else.”
Fross appeared not to hear him, carrying on at a rapid clip while bouncing up and down in midair. “While I was doing exploratory divinations, I actually caught the damaged edges of the metal casing rebuilding itself, filling in scratches and trying to extend toward the part that’s broken off! And, and! That prompted me to take a closer structural look at the metal itself, and it was clearly not molded, cast, or worked using any known means. It was built up one atom at a time, like the way mollusks grow shells, but on an even smaller scale somehow adding up to a finished product on a much greater scale than any clam! Isn’t that amazing?”
Everyone stared at the apparently inert metal arm for a moment of silence, Merry and Casey standing up to see better.
“Amazing is a word,” Ruda said at last. “The one that springs to my mind is ‘creepy.’ With some adjectives. You all know my favorite ones, I think.”
“But…you couldn’t find any standing enchantment that’s doing that?” Gabriel asked.
“No, I couldn’t!”
“So,” Teal said, “we still don’t understand what force animates this thing, but now we know it’s still active and doing so right now.”
“If I may make a recommendation,” said Ariel, “it may be too late in this case but for future reference, it would be wise to handle any such objects as if they presented a threat of contagion.”
“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered, “we’ve got the queen and the princess in this room… All right, everybody! We’re gonna do a thorough cleansing and general healing.”
“Do you really think that’s necessary, boy?” Anjal asked dryly, folding her arms.
“I have no idea,” he replied, “but none of us have any idea about anything, here, and I don’t think we can afford to take risks.”
“He’s right,” Toby said, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “About the risks and sensible countermeasures, not so much the part where he started barking orders at the aforementioned queen and princess.”
“Oh.” Gabriel’s cheeks colored. “I, uh…sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“It’s all right, Arquin, we’re used to you,” Ruda said, slugging his other shoulder and grinning. “Future reference, don’t get pushy with Punaji women unless you’re lookin’ to get your ass married and/or stabbed.”
“And/or?” Ephanie muttered.
“Seriously, though, let’s please just do this,” Gabriel said a little nervously. “Uh… Juniper’s the tricky one. Either divine healing or the cleansing charms I can do will hurt her.”
“I’m not sure I need it,” the dryad said, folding her arms. “I’m pretty impervious in the first place, and anyway, I have my own means.”
“Okay, but…wouldja humor me, Juno? Whatever you’ve got to check for and cleanse any kind of corruption… I know you’re a dryad, but remember you don’t have Naiya to rely on now and there’s no telling what these guys are capable of…”
“Yeah, I see your point,” she said with a sigh. “Okay, I’m just gonna go to that corner over there and concentrate. Can you try to keep your divine magic in the other side of the room?”
“Can do!” Gabriel said, saluting. “Now, uh… Toby, you’re much better at healing than I am. I think you’d better take point, here.”
“Sure,” Toby said, peering at him. “Did I hear you say you can do cleansing charms? That’s impressive stuff, Gabe, I had no idea you were that advanced.”
“Gabriel is very good at enchanting!” Fross chimed. “I’m a much more general-purpose arcanist, and I frequently ask his help with passive enchantment work! And we worked hard on getting those cleansing charms right for our semester project. See, the trick is including the right modifiers so they only identify and purge hostile elements from the body and not the symbiotic bacteria that aid digestion! We made a lot of poor rats very sick…”
“You keep your fuckin’ finger wiggling away from me,” Ruda ordered Gabriel, taking a step back.
Nandi cleared her throat, stepping forward. “I am a priestess. Less innately powerful than Mr. Caine, obviously, but with five centuries of experience in several fields of healing. I would be glad to help.”
“You would be very welcome,” Toby said emphatically. “My thanks, Corporal Shahai. Now, let’s please organize everybody into a line over here, we’ll want to give everybody our full attention, not just fling magic around. Corporal, would you walk us through the recommended procedure, please?”
While Nandi began instructing the students, Merry glanced sidelong at Juniper, who had just passed them and was now sitting in the corner with her eyes closed, then leaned forward and lowered her voice to a bare whisper, nodding in Teal’s direction. “So, uh… What’s the deal with that one?”
“She’s possessed,” Principia replied in the same quiet tone. “Bonded with the archdemon Vadrieny.” Farah swallowed loudly, staring at Teal with wide eyes.
“You’ve…heard of that particular demon?” Merry asked her.
“Archdemon,” Farah whispered. “Daughter of Elilial. Demonic demigoddess, technically. Vadrieny has killed…well, a lot.”
“We always make the neatest friends,” Casey murmured. Everyone shifted to stare at her; neither her expression nor tone revealed whether she was being sarcastic.
“And you,” Merry finally said, prodding Principia in the shoulder, “drugged her to get her out of your way. Some balls on you, woman. Not an iota of sense, but still.”
“It seemed worthwhile at the time,” Principia said with a sigh. “Okay, Lang, that’s as good as an opening as you’re likely to get. Planning to make with the barrage of screeching and questions, now? Quite frankly, the anticipation has been worse than what your voice does to my ears when you get in one of your episodes.”
“I do not have ‘episodes,’” Merry said sullenly. “Anyhow…no. Oh, I was gonna, but I spent the awkward silence while we were getting frog-marched here thinking—shut your mouth, Elwick!—and it actually makes perfect sense, like the princess said. Obviously, if Rouvad was gonna let you in the Legions, it would be with a huge list of stipulations about what you can’t say to whom. So, no, LT, I don’t take being kept in the dark personally, this one time.”
“I can’t tell you what a load off my mind that is,” Principia said sweetly.
Merry grinned right back. “Yeah, well. After the way she lit into you, I figured you two have enough issues without me picking at it.”
Ephanie sighed. “And still, you had to bring that up. You were almost considerate for a moment there, Lang.”
Merry just smiled. “I assume Shahai knew about this, too? She’s got Rouvad’s ear on everything.”
“I knew,” Casey said quietly, then shrugged when the others turned to stare at her again. “Locke pretty deliberately left the breadcrumbs. You just had to follow ’em.”
“Of course she did,” Ephanie said, turning to Principia in exasperation. “Locke, have you ever been given an order you didn’t feel an immediate need to weasel around?”
“No,” Prin said immediately, grinning. “Not once. But I have many times received orders I didn’t actually weasel around. If I just went and did everything I felt a need to, I’d have had a much more interesting sex life. And also would be dead by now.”
“I would prefer not to hear any more about either of those prospects, please,” said Merry.
Their conversation, and Nandi’s instruction of Toby, was interrupted by a rap at the door. A second later, it opened, revealing the royal seneschal.
“Bad news, Akhatrya!” Ruda said merrily. “You’re infected, now! Join the line!”
“Zari, my rules about you hassling the staff don’t change just because you’re halfway to college-educated,” Anjal snapped, whisking her hat off and swatting Ruda over the head with it. “What is it, Akhatrya?”
“Your pardon, Majesty, Princess, honored guests,” the tall, bearded man said, bowing deeply. “There is an unexpected visitor in the palace seeking an audience with both the Crown and with Lieutenant Locke.” He turned another, shallower bow specifically upon Principia. “A representative from the local Thieves’ Guild.”
Anjal narrowed her eyes. “I see. And this visitor is not meeting with the King because…?”
Akhatrya’s face betrayed no expression. “His Majesty the King feels that since you are both together, it is the most efficient course of action for you to meet Miss Lagrande.”
“Lagrande?” Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Quinn Lagrande? She’s still alive?”
“One hopes so, Lieutenant,” Akhatrya said placidly. “She was moments ago. If she is otherwise now, we shall have most interesting conversations with the Guild in the days to come.”
“Great,” Anjal muttered. “You win this time, husband, but there will be a reckoning. Oh, yes, there will. Well, Akhatrya, I’m afraid our little Zari wasn’t wrong. Join the line, please. This Quinn Lagrande will just have to wait a few minutes longer.”
Ox Whippoorwill stepped into the Ale & Wenches and paused just inside, exchanging nods with a couple of citizens. Most didn’t notice him, being too absorbed in their conversations. Everything about the scene was…off. It was far too crowded for the early afternoon, and almost all those present were Rockies, while the A&W primarily catered to out-of-towners. Its usual clientele were present in small numbers; they were identifiable as the few people sitting at tables by themselves, looking somewhat bemused by what was going on around them.
What was going on was just conversation, so far. They were intense conversations, though, and not all of them quiet. Ox stood for a handful of heartbeats, soaking it in—just long enough to hear a few key words. Then he moved out of the door and began making his way around the perimeter of the room toward the only man present aside from the bartender who wasn’t sitting.
“Deputy,” Fedora said, nodding at Ox’s approach. He was blatantly lurking, just beside the stairs, and just as blatantly watching the room. More than a few of those gathered kept casting pointed glances his direction. So far, at least, nobody was staring.
“Inspector,” Ox rumbled in reply. “An’ it’s just Ox. Titles are for when I gotta get official with somebody.”
“Very well, same goes,” Fedora said, momentary amusement cracking his pensive expression. He took a sip of the pint of beer in his hand. It was almost full, clearly being used as a prop to justify his presence to the proprietor.
“Oh? I figured Inspectors kept the right to the title even after they retired. Like military ranks, or professors.”
“I actually would have to look up the rules on that,” Fedora murmured, again staring across the bar. “Regardless, I’m not in with the Empire any longer. That was a good job and I’m glad to have held it, but it’s best not to dwell on the past, I find.”
“Mm.” Ox took a position next to him and folded his arms, feeling no need to bother getting a drink. He wanted his head clear, and since being officially deputized he had no need of an excuse to stand around in a public place.
For a few minutes, they stood in silence. Watching, and listening.
“Is it like this all over town?” Fedora asked finally, then took another tiny sip.
“A mite calmer,” Ox replied. “Folk meetin’ on the street, havin’ little chats. In shops an’ behind shops… Nothin’ else is as boisterous as this right here. ‘Swhy I came to keep an eye on this crowd. Even the Saloon’s not as packed, or as…intense. Jonas won’t stand for no funny business in his place, either.”
Fedora nodded very slowly. “Tell me…are you seeing the same thing wrong with this picture I am?”
“It’s too damn fast,” Ox said immediately, keeping his voice low. With the hubbub in the room, it wasn’t hard to be discreet. “Not that it’s a small thing, exactly, the University sponsorin’ some kinda demon-summonin’ project, but… I know this town. I know the rhythms an’ the balance of opinions. There ain’t enough folks suspicious of the school to create this kinda hubbub this quick. Even if there was… The announcement was just posted, after lunch. Normally, folks’d only just be hearin’ the first rumors. This is all over. An’ you can plainly see how tense it’s gettin’.”
Again, that very slow nod. Fedora let his eyes wander across the crowded tavern, having another sip that barely wet his lips. “The Sheriff know about this?”
“I came right here when this started up, ain’t talked with him yet. Sam’s got ears, though. He knows his job, an’ he knows this town.”
“Reminds me of a while back,” Ox continued after a pause. “We damn near had an honest-to-gods riot in this town, an’ it turns it there was a rogue Vidian priestess doin’ some kinda hoodoo, makin’ people more susceptible. You don’t suppose…”
This time, Fedora shook his head negatively, and with more energy. “I don’t know Last Rock as well as you, Ox, but I know people, and I know trouble. You’re right: this is too quick. Much too quick a result. And your instinct is equally right. I’m never willing to trust that out-of-the-ordinary behavior happens on this scale without being made to. But look at the pattern.” He gestured slowly around the room with his nearly-full glass. “Look at the different expressions. There are people nervous, people pissed off… But most uncertain, and just as many peacemakers as agitators. Folks speaking up on Tellwyrn’s behalf. If there was a magical effect in place to agitate people, like in your example, we wouldn’t see all these people standing back and listening, waiting to form their own opinions. If there was some kind of more aggressive control trying to turn people against Tellwyrn, same goes and she wouldn’t have this many defenders.” Again, he shook his head, and took a sip. “No need to assume some grandiose, cosmic effect in place. Just somebody stirring up shit. Someone skillful, well-connected in this town. Someone who knows the social landscape well enough to launch a very effective rumor campaign.”
“You’re sayin’ it’s one o’ my neighbors,” Ox growled.
“Maybe,” Fedora said noncommittally. “It would take more than one to do this so efficiently, but don’t jump to any conclusions. There are a lot of new faces in Last Rock lately, some who’ve been here long enough to have learned what they’d need to do this, assuming they had the right skills to begin with. This used to be a town where everybody knew everybody else; now, suddenly, it’s not anymore. You couldn’t ask for an easier target for infiltration.”
Ox heaved a deep sigh, his breath ruffling his mustache. “Omnu’s balls. You know who’s doin’ this, Fedora?”
“Not yet,” the erstwhile Inspector replied, a predatory glint rising in his eyes. “That…will take a little work. I’m going to have a long stroll around town, Ox. Chat with some people, listen in. You and the Sheriff have no objection, I trust?”
“Respect the law,” Ox rumbled, “respect the people, an’ don’t stir up no more trouble. Aside from that, ain’t my business or the Sheriff’s what you do.”
“Oh, I don’t intend to stir the pot, you can count on that,” Fedora said, straightening up and casting a weird little smile around the room. “But I am going to find out who’s got their hands on the spoon.”
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