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Posts from the ‘KILTED DAVE’ Category

On Villainy

As you read this, I’m working toward being on the road again. We’re absconding for parts south, the littles and I. Just a few days, and eating turkey (I think we’ll be eating turkey. I’m not actually sure. I know I’ll be roasting brussels sprouts with bacon, and then mulling cranberries, for my contribution to The Meal.) So I’m writing yesterday, on some thoughts I had the night before, while listening to Matt Colville’s excellent Running The Game series of youtube videos on Dungeon Mastery. Specifically the video on playing evil player characters.
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It’s that time agai-

*checks watch* It was that time a few hours ago. Okay, so more than a few hours ago. Okay, so I’m late. Again. You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had.

As an aside, any day everybody in the house survives until bedtime is a GOOD day. I’m just putting that out there. I mean, it’s not like I was trying to write this post earlier with two toddlers demanding my undivided attention. Each, not together.


Anyway. To more writerly-important things: to the War of Art!

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Third Time’s the…   

No, it’s not a charm. It’s not even a fetish!

Hey, you! In the back. With the trap set. Yeah, you should take that thing on the road. No, really: get out.

To the meat: last time I finished talking about openings, which was all crafty, n’stuff. Two weeks back, I gave a bit of a precis on the War of Art concept of Resistance. Not the silliness related to a sitting president, but the impersonal, unidirectional force Steven Pressfield says is what prevents us from doing art.
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Twofer – Part 2

I’m still running with that gag. You may be able to catch me, but you can’t stop me.

Reading back through last week’s post, I realized I barely talked about openings, other than the War of Art. For a series called Noob Notes, that’s not terribly helpful, so I’m coming back around to it today.

Openings are easy. Every time you start a project, you craft an opening. Once Upon a Time is a classic, though seldom used in the current market. Dark and stormy nights notwithstanding, one can often get away with a touch of purple. Not full-on Roman royal, but maybe some pastel lavender.

The trick is-

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The Calm at the Eye

First up, a little state of the writist. Mrs. Dave, Wee Dave, and Wee-er Than Wee Dave Dave, and I are in the midst of a cross-continental PCS (permanent change of station) move to an undisclosed location on the left coast. It’s actually going to be in spitting distance of where I grew up, which should be interesting. I’ll be able to do locational research for more of the Edge of Faith books, which should help. Also attend my twentieth high school reunion this year. Which, again, could prove interesting.

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Of Magickanica and Machination, Part 2

Part, the Second

“Truly? Two ambushes?” Art demanded of the universe at large. “It defies reason!”

“To speak nothing of probability,” Nelline sounded as though she might swoon.

Heavy, clanking footsteps scraped across the stone floor toward them.

“Magae Comelissa will be returning with me to Mekeigos, there to answer to Annemnos Aesymnetes for her crimes. You will turn over to me the formulae, and then you and Trank will likely remain undiscovered until Master Namboro has occasion to check this warehouse for rats.” The clanking stopped just in front of Art, and the lights in front of them died, revealing a magichanical suit of armor more sophisticated than the Victus they’d left behind.

A suit with the face of a man.

A face time had not loved. Art knew the man to be a handful of years his junior, but a lifetime of harsh work and bitterness showed in the lines carved deep into his skin, in the taut stretch of skin over bone, and in the fanatic’s eyes blazing out of his skull.

His suit was an odd creation fashioned to imitate a cuirassier’s steel coat of centuries previous. If, perhaps, such a warrior were nearly seven feet tall with clawed hands and feet.
The metaphor needed work, perhaps.

Interestingly, the suit looked incomplete: Art could see his boots and the cuffs of his trousers through the shining rods and linkages. In the same way, his shirtsleeved arms thrust into a bizarre marriage of blacksmith gloves and the contents of a mechanist’s toolbox. Art was nearly certain he could see a drill bit in the mess. Vapor puffed quietly from a small, hooded tube jutting from the massive assembly on the man’s back.

At a word from the suited man, two more similarly attired men dropped from the shadows to land behind them. These two had more the look of thugs than zealots, and their suits weren’t nearly as sophisticated as the first man’s.

“Well-a-day,” Art said, keeping the fury and, yes, fear he felt, out of his voice. “Mallar, see you: it’s our old friend, Markos Antarkos, here to greet us. Unfortunate in that whole rhyming name thing, old boy,” Art slowed his usual speaking tone to a low drawl and was rewarded when his adversary ground his teeth. He sensed Mallar tightening in preparation for action. “By the by, Markos, what formulae? The lovely Nelline mentioned something of the sort earlier, but for the life of me I don’t have the first clue what you’re mouthing about.”

Tool ends folded back, leaving a bare – if armored – glove, as Markos took another hissing, heavy step forward. The glove shot out, and Art braced himself for the blow. Instead of impacting on his chest, the thing closed over the front of his coat and jerked him into the air.

“You stole revolutionary magical formulae from the office of Dottore Atrianni, unbeliever,” Markos grated out. Even at arm-length, Art could smell the remnants of the Mekeigan’s lunch, which had been heavy on garlic. “You then slunk away and stole Don Marrenti’s favorite-”

“He’s got others, he shouldn’t miss one.”

The over-powered agent shook Art, rattling his teeth.

“-favorite auto-carriage, created great mayhem in the Doge’s city, and finally conspired with an Enemy of Mekeigos-”

“I am not!” Indignation flared in Nelline’s voice.

“You are now, Serra!” Markos glared at her past Art’s shoulder.

“It’s not what it looks like?” Insouciance dripped from Art’s words, and he was gratified at the fury burning in the Mekeigan’s dark eyes. “Besides, dear fellow, you still haven’t told me what I’m supposed to have stolen. Mallar and I simply had a bit of a chat with the Dottore – old friends: you know how it is – and then departed. The only thing taken, the tea in our bellies.”
“I took a pastry for later,” Mallar confessed.

“And you will be beaten for it, foul villein, within an inch of your life,” Art retorted, “but later, as these fine gentlemen are of delicate constitution, and the blood might well send them earth-ward in a faint.”

“Blood!” Nelline’s blurted word drew all eyes.

“That’s hardly the sort of language a lady should be using, don’t you think?” Art quipped. “Despite our rather desperate straits.”

Ignoring him, she pointed at a device on Markos’ left gauntlet. An inward curving blade rode alongside the Mekeigan’s forearm, mounted to his suit by a set of curving rails and shining rods. It reminded Art of nothing so much as a claw from some monstrous, steel cat. It was also smeared with dried blood. Markos’ eyes flicked a glance at the cruelly sharp weapon.
“The Dottore had to be persuaded to recant his lies that he’d freely given this filthy-”

“I bathe,” Art protested, and was shaken for his pains.

“-thief a lockbox containing the formulae. This filth-”

“You’re repeating yourself,” Art interjected. Mallar grunted a laugh, and Art was shaken. Again.

“-does murder and worse and thinks he can get away with it because he’s clever. I will not have it!”

At such a close vantage, Art saw the veins pounding in Markos’ temples. Flecks of foam dotted his fury-reddened face around his generous lips, and Art smiled inwardly.

“Not just because I’m clever, old man,” he said in his most urbane tone, relishing the moment. “I’m also quite charming, you know.”

For an instant, he though he’d gone too far. Markos’ left eye twitched in a manner most disturbing, and the wicked claw on his free hand slid in and out of its cage seemingly independent of conscious control. Art wondered distantly if his blood was to shortly join the Dottore’s.

“But- but you couldn’t have been there! I watched them leave the Dottore’s apartments, and nobody went in until I did.”

At Nelline’s confused interjection the berserker madness faded from Markos’ eyes. Art thanked the gods as a few of the knots in his gut untied themselves.

“Magae,” scorn weighted Markos’ rough voice, “you of all people should know of what magichanica is capable. Ascending the wall to Atrianni’s window is simple when you rely not upon your own strength, but upon that of forged steel and magical formulae.” He drove his free hand into the side of the crate next to him with the sound of rending wood and a shower of splinters. He withdrew it with another crack and held it up before him. Slivers clung to the congealing blood along the claw and caught the light.

“You, you killed the Dottore? Because he gave formulae to Captain Caelish?”

A note in Nelline’s voice set alarm bells ringing in Art’s mind. Whomever the good Dottore had been to Markos, he’d obviously been someone else entirely to Nelline Comelissa, Magae of Mekeigos. The skin between Art’s shoulder-blades crawled, and he wished he could see the petite woman’s face. Unfortunately, the grip Markos maintained on his coat prevented him from turning his head that far.

Markos turned a surprised expression on Nelline.

“Why, no, Magae. The Dottore killed himself. When he chose to betray the will of Annemnos Aesymnetes, Atrianni proclaimed the necessity of his death to the universe.” The Mekeigan agent sounded genuinely perplexed by Nelline’s surprise. “That I was chosen to be the instrument of that will is an accident of circumstances, though I’d never shirk my duty.” He glared at Art, who assayed an insolent shrug.

Inwardly, Art was stunned. When they’d left Atrianni, the man had been calm, even relaxed. When Nelline informed them of his death, he’d been shocked. When Markos had admitted to wielding the knife, and then in the same breath absolved himself of any culpability in the gruesome death of a man not even a citizen of his own city, Art’s slow temper had started to burn. Even now he found himself looking over his enemy for a weakness to exploit.

It was truly a pity the magichanical suit came with a steel codpiece.

“You killed Dottore Atrianni because he sold formulae to the Republic.” Nelline’s calm – almost serene – tone set Art’s guts to knotting in a way Markos’ threats never could. A soft scuff of a shoe told him Mallar was trying to put as much distance between himself and the rest of them as he could.

Markos blinked.

“Magae,” he explained slowly, as though to a child, “the man killed himself when he chose against Mekeigos. Much like this fool. That it is my duty to be the tool in both their deaths is not my doing, but neither will I go against the requirements laid upon me. In the same way, you will return to face the punishment for your crimes.”

“Menigarius was still a young man,” Nelline’s voice sank nearly to a whisper, and every instinct honed over years of reading marks told Art he needed to be far away. “There was every reason to expect great advances from him for years to come. There were even noises he’d been invited to study at Kortas Ruhk.”

“Serra,” Impatience rippled through Markos’ tone. “When an individual acts against the demands of Mekeigos as the epitome of true governance, that individual must be held up as an example. We do not belong to ourselves, but exist for the furtherance of all. You don’t seem to understand-”

“No! You don’t understand!”

The actinic flash gave Markos no time to prepare; Nelline’s Power cracked, sending the Mekeigan fanatic flying backward to crash into and through one of the pillars holding up the ceiling, despite his massive suit. Fortunately for Art, the magae’s tame lightning jolted Markos hands open, dropping the Welfraian to the floor with no more injury than some distressing tears in his favorite coat.

Art blinked to focus his much-abused eyes and snaked his hand inside his coat for his repeater. As he spun, he heard a grunt from Mallar, and a more muted crack of Power from Nelline, accompanied by a slightly less-blinding flash of light.

As his vision cleared, Art took in the chaos before him. One suited thug lay crumpled in the shattered wreckage of yet another crate. The foot-long splinter standing out of one eye suggested he wasn’t likely to be interfering further. Nelline stared at him in horror, oblivious to the rest of the world.

Mallar knelt on hands and knees, blood dripping from his face matching that on the gauntlet of the remaining henchman. The henchman, face a mask of battle-rage and fear, swung one claw-suited foot back and aimed a kick at the kneeling man’s head.

Art’s arm swung up without conscious volition, and his repeater bucked in his grip without him registering the bark as it fired. Sparks flew as his bullet spanged off the thug’s steel hat, snapping his head to one side and replacing his furious expression with one of shock. The inches-long claws on his suited foot whistled as they whipped just past Mallar’s groggy face.
“Hah,” Art crowed.

The suited thug crouched and extended one arm in front of him. Steam hissed, gears whined and metal slats fanned out to snap into a circular shield of overlapping blades, which he held in front of his head. Art snapped off another pair of shots, and his heart sank as the heavy slugs ricocheted off the barrier.

The thug, emboldened by Art’s impotence, rose to his feet and extended a blade from his other arm nearly identical to the one Markos had used on Atrianni. He advanced again on Mallar, blade cocked back to strike, shield interposed between himself and Art.

A vision of the immediate future flashed in front of Art’s eyes. With Trank dead and unable to provide timely antidote, the quiet poison flowing through Art’s veins would awaken, and life would become truly hellish. He had no desire to experience that again.

Art cursed and dropped his trusty pistol. A quick stride and a lunge sent him careening into Trank. He wrapped his arms around his still-dazed partner and rolled, pulling the two of them out of range of the cruel blade, albeit momentarily.

An inconveniently placed crate met Art’s skull with a sound impressively like a leather-wrapped stone hitting a hollow log. The sound carried on for a goodly while somewhere between Art’s ears as he disinterestedly watched Markos’ remaining associate move toward them.

The man’s clanking steps echoed mutedly somewhere in the distance as Art tried with detached desperation to flog his thoughts into a semblance of coherence. The Mekeigan agent’s eyes assumed a killer’s disinterest as he raised his bladed gauntlet and inspected the single claw.

Art’s stunned mind watched with absent horror as a fiery gleam limned the suited agent with an orange glow. The low hum of his suit’s compact boiler rose into a demon’s hellish shriek, and the calm detachment in the agent’s face turned to horror as he began to claw at his back.

A split-second later, the agent’s scream joined that of his suit in hideous dissonance. The suit’s howl rose until it was a barely audible whine that set Art’s teeth buzzing in his skull. The stink of hot metal mixed with burning wool and pork assaulted his nostrils, and Art had just enough presence of mind to turn his head away. A thunderous roar deafened him and he felt a hand of force push him against the floor.

When Art returned to himself, he looked up to see what was assuredly a portion of the Mekeigan thug’s suited foot embedded by the claws in the crate near his head. Impressed by the violence, and a little nauseated, he rolled over to see a scorched spot on the stone floor and no sign of Nelline.

Art rolled to hands and knees and heaved himself to his feet. After hauling Mallar up to join him, he looked around for the missing magae and his dropped pistol. The latter he discovered a few steps away. He sighed as he examined it; the fall had bent the front sight out of alignment. He growled in irritation, even as his hands went through the automatic routine of reloading and holstering the weapon.

A sharp oath and the smell of wood smoke jerked Art’s head up. Fragments of exploded magichanica sent flames licking over seasoned wood crates throughout the expansive warehouse. Art’s pulse pounded in time to the thudding pain in his head.

“Cap’n, we’ve got no more’n a few ticks before this whole place is a giant bonfire.”

“Inferno, Mallar,” Art corrected. “Or conflagration. But giant bonfire? What shall I do with you?”

“Survive more fights, I expect, sir.” No sign of the pain he must be feeling showed on Trank’s face. Art shrugged, unwilling to concede the point, despite the obvious truth of it.

“Where’s the magae,” he asked instead.

“Here,” came the thready reply from behind him.

Nelline tottered out from behind a large crate. Exhaustion etched deep lines in her too-pale face, adding years to her appearance. The fracas had completely disheveled her dark hair, and her hands shook as she approached them on unsteady feet.

“Serra Comelissa,” Mallar said, bowing deeply. When she looked at him in stunned surprise, he explained. “You saved all our lives with your Power.”

“Oh.” Surprise, horror and pride mingled in her countenance. “Thank you?”

“No, Nelline,” Art said. “Thank you. I doubt we could have overcome the Mekeigan agents on our own. Truly, we’re more simple messengers than stalwart warriors. Without your astonishing abilities, we’d undoubtedly have died here today.”

“Which we still might,” Mallar muttered.

“Oh,” Nelline repeated, responding to Art. “I, I suppose I’ve killed three men today. The hardest part was adapting the formulae to avoid scorching the flesh from my hands. I can see how there may be some changes in applied magichanical metallurgy in the days to come. I’m not certain whether I’m horrified by my actions, or by the thought that I’m glad such horrible people are dead.”

She patted her sides, as though looking for something. Her bright tone and absent expression concerned Art. “I really do need to write these changes down before I forget them.”

At the last word, Nelline’s green eyes rolled up in her head and she pitched forward in a faint. Art lunged forward to catch her before she could fall to the hard stone floor, and swept her small form up into his arms.

“Thought she’d never shut up,” Mallar’s concerned tone belied his harsh words. He looked about at the no-longer-minor flames chewing through the well-seasoned wood. “Time to go, Cap’n?”
“Time and long since, rapscallion.”

The two men headed back the way they’d entered, and arrived at the parked Victus in short order. Art nodded, and Mallar leaned in to hit the starter button on the magnificent contraption. The low hum of the boiler rose in a howl unpleasantly similar to the exploded suit’s, and the two Andrine agents jerked back in alarm. A muffled cough sounded under the Victus’ engine hood, and dark smoke rose from the vents.

Mallar swore.

“On foot, then, it seems,” Art wasn’t as nonplussed as he sounded. He admitted to himself he was having enormous fun.

The third of the doors leading from the room opened onto a lobby and then to the street. A few seconds with his set of tools, and Mallar had the door open. Art charged into the street, delighted to see a pair of the Doge’s guards walking along the other side of the road.

“Fire!” Art’s shout had the desired effect of drawing all eyes to himself. “Fire in the warehouse! Namboro and Sons promises a month’s wage to all who extinguish it!”

The lie, couched in fear with a touch of desperation and projected in an upper-class Altierestan accent, spread through the crowd much like the fire in the building behind them. Soon, a special chaos ruled the street, and Art was pleased to see the Doge’s men scamper off in search of reinforcements.

“And now, my dearly detested comrade,” he told Mallar, “we simply walk away.”

The two agents strolled down a convenient alley.

“What about the magae, Cap’n?” Mallar indicated the unconscious woman in Art’s arms. His tone left no doubt that he was concerned about Nelline’s fate. “Don’t seem right to leave her in the street.”

“And no more shall we. The safe-house should have an easily alterable cover identity for her. I imagine a Mekeigan magae deemed an Enemy of the State could find employment nearly anywhere else. We can make the offer when she wakes up. Until then, we go to the safe-house. We’ll pick up our new covers, a change of clothes, and airship tickets home. When we reach the aerodrome, we can purchase one for her, if she’s amenable.”

“And if she’s not?”

“Burn that bridge when we come to it, I expect.”

Mallar looked over his shoulder at the rising pall of smoke from the warehouse.

“Bit unfortunate turn of phrase, there, Cap’n. Namboro may not want to help us in the future.”

Art looked over his shoulder as a squad the Doge’s guards thundered past. He shrugged.

“Who knows? Perhaps they’ll manage to put out the fire.”

*I know I’m supposed to put links up. I don’t have time this morning, as Saturday mornings are actually pretty busy around the Dave household.*

Of Magicanicha and Machination, Part 1

*My apologies. I was finishing up a workout when I realized today was my day, and the WordPress mobile interface leaves much to be desired. This is the first half of the story I submitted for last year’s Baen adventure fantasy contest. It was apparently found lacking, but I hope you enjoy it, nonetheless.*

Part, the First

“What happened to me, Mallar?” Artringen Cailesh asked, snapping off a quick shot with his Talmon and Findersin repeating pistol.

Answering bullets from the Doge’s guards whanged off the ancient paving stones of the the Via Pandrenaea as the two men fled from the authorities in their commandeered Victus. The delightful machine was creating a new sensation on the Sea of Tears. Produced in the smoldering abyss of Milcarth’s premier manufactories, the self-powered conveyance handily outran the two-man horse-drawn carriages.

It wasn’t nearly so good at corners, he observed as the machine careened around just such a thing at not quite top speed. Sparks sprayed from underneath them as the squat man next to Art yanked hard at the lever between them. The rear of their magichanical steed shimmied back and forth as Mallar fought it for control.

“Not sure just what you mean, sir.” Mallar Trank crouched low over the Victus’ steering yoke as cracks from behind them gave warning the Doge’s best still sought to bring their wild ride to a screaming, rending halt. Art’s compatriot – of sorts – was a block of a man, nearly as wide as he was tall. Traces of a childhood misspent on the docks of Welfrai still graced his speech. Odds were good the two men had tried to beat each other into pulp as boys. Which lent their current circumstance a certain delicious irony.

“I mean, oh keeper of my hope of a future, that I used to be a thief in good standing.” The jouncing as the Victus’ stiff wheels jolted over the cobbled street shuddered its way up into Art’s spine, and roused once again in him serious thoughts of walking away from the whole nonsense.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Captain,” Mallar yanked the yoke to the left, sending Art’s next shot wide. “But you still are, and in even better standing that you was a year gone.”

“Careful, Mallar!” A note of command crackled in Art’s voice. “I don’t want to hit an innocent because you spoiled my aim.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” the shorter man said, phlegmatic as always. “Thought it might be a good thing to not hit the old lady crossing the street.”

“Also that, jackanapes,” Art grunted. He could feel the slight smile that was the only break in Mallar’s typically stoic demeanor.

The lead carriage jerked to the side as it, too, avoided the stooped grandmother in the middle of the street. Both woman and driver swore up a storm. Art grinned. He lined up the T&F’s sights on the driver’s helmet as buildings and people whipped through his peripheral vision. The silly hat was an old fashioned morion, with an upstanding comb. Could he hit that, the two might yet walk away from this unpleasantness.

“Hold her steady, Mallar,” he ordered out of the side of his mouth. “I’m going to try something slightly clever.” He ignored the snort from his companion. The man had almost no sense of panache. The jolting motion of the Victus smoothed – ever so slightly – and Art drew up the slack on the repeater’s trigger.
He let his conscious mind drift, the riotous colors, smells and sounds of their mad run through Altierestes’ commercial districts fading away, until only the fuzzy gleam of the late-afternoon sun on the guard’s helmet and the much sharper bead of the front sight of his T&F filled his vision. Breath slowed, finger tightened on the trigger, and –
No obliging ruckus ensued. Carriages, horses and men disobediently continued thundering along in their wake, instead of piling up in a mess on the cobbles.

“Care to try again, Cap’n?” Mallar didn’t have the courtesy to turn his head. Or even smirk as Art’s jaw hung in dismay.

“I shall have to improve the quality of the service around here, Ser Trank.” Art sighed and shifted to the left horse of the lead carriage. He hated to do it. Shooting an animal who had no choice but to be chasing him turned his stomach. Unfortunately for the beastie in question, the prospect of spending a short eternity in the Doge’s prison chilled his entire being. He took careful aim again, and let go of the world to focus on the target.

When a nudge from the side spoiled both his aim and his mood. He snarled at his cohort, who – typically – ignored his fit of pique and pointed with one finger of the hand still gripping the steering yoke.

Pointed at a heavy drover’s cart laden with barrels moving slowly down the street ahead of them.

Art’s eyes lit up and he spun in the seat to aim forward. He was doubly glad of the goggles strapped over his eyes as air rushed over his face, yanking his hair about and threatening to choke him with his own scarf. Frod’s Rapid Conveyances ought to put a pane of glass – suitably reinforced, of course – in front of the driver and passenger. Of course, had they done so already, he’d have had to lean out to get a shot, which would have made his life immeasurably more complicated right at that moment.

Art’s point of aim was the box containing the mechanism holding the rear gate closed. He’d commandeered a cart of the same make once in a job – before he was obliged to go to work for the legitimate authorities – and had discovered that a blow of sufficient force would not only cause the gate to release, but also drop the rear of the cart by a solid foot. Intended to assist stevedores in loading and unloading, it would do to discourage their pursuers, as well.

If he could hit it.

“What I wouldn’t give for Bramonten’s favorite rifle right about now.” Some enterprising mind in Frod’s design shop had the decency to set a box into the passenger side of the Victus on the board housing the instruments. In this one, which he’d opened completely by accident – and a handheld lock picking tool – Art had found a pair of rather expensive leather gloves. He used these as padding between his wrists and the hard metal frame of the Victus, and took careful aim at the rapidly approaching release mechanism.

The madness of their flight disappeared until the world consisted of Art, the T&F’s sight, and his target. The CRACK of the pistol surprised him, as it always did on a good shot, and the gate control box on cart ahead obliged him by exploding in sparks as the heavy flat-nosed bullet punched through the thin metal casing and shredded the mechanism inside. The gate swung out and the cart shuddered on its chassis as heavy barrels rolled off the end to fall to the cobbled street.

They roared past the cart just before the barrels rolled across their path. The drover screamed obscenities and called down imprecations upon their heads in their wake. The guard driving the lead carriage had a bare moment to gape before they ran headlong into the mess. And then the trailing carriage ran into them, leaving a twitching, heaving mass of horses, guardsmen, shattered carriages and equally shattered beer barrels. Art crowed and cocked a jaunty wave as they sped off through the city.

After several more sedate turns left the wreckage well out of sight, Art turned and clapped Mallar on the shoulder with a grin. The shorter man flicked a glance his way, and said, “Much better, that time, sir.”

“You wound me, Mallar. Deep in the heart and soul of me,” Art said, sounding remarkably unwounded. He cracked open the repeater, a top-break model, and the extractor ejected all seven shells from the cylinder. He separated the two empty casings from the unfired ones. Those went into a hidden, inner pocket of his coat, and retrieved two more unfired shells from a row of loops sewn into the lining of another pocket. With all seven chambers filled with their own little bundles of mayhem, Art snapped the repeater closed and tucked it back in the holster under his right armpit. “Ah. What is this place?”

Mallar directed the Victus up a short ramp and into an opening in the side of a building. Art could see a small crowd pulling handcarts laden with fresh produce and handicrafts into the space in front of the door. Four burly gents dressed as farmers – but for the cleanliness of their skin and the lack of dung clinging to their rough shoes – lifted the ramp upright and then slid a door across the opening, plunging the still-humming Victus and its passengers into darkness.

“This, Captain, is where we get off.”

A light appeared in the darkness, illuminating a vulpine face topped with a dark bob haircut. Large, green eyes regarded them solemnly for a moment, the amber light shining off them bringing the fox-like cast of the woman’s features into striking relief. Eyes that narrowed as her fingers curled around the light in her hand. It was an odd, little device. He’d heard of galvanic torches made portable by a single person, but most of those created in manufactories still bulked large. Sorcerer artificers occasionally made smaller things, but such cost the proverbial arm and leg. Certainly too much for the Senator to authorize one for the use of a minor agent.

“Captain? I was told to expect a merchant and his manservant, not an officer and batman.” Her voice remained smooth, and clear of emotion despite the suspicion her features evinced.
“And no more are we,” Art lied. Instincts honed by a lifetime spent in distinct skepticism of authorities prompted him to betray as little information into untried hands as possible. “Ah, madame, Megarde and I used to work for the Afforala Combine. Flying airships. When we both left their service, he signed on with me, in a strictly, ah, civilian capacity.” He smiled, as much to get the emotion into his voice as because he thought she could see it. “He still calls me ‘Captain,’ though, out of habit.”

The woman stared at him through the darkness, inscrutable as she pondered his glib untruths. After a pause pregnant with deep currents, the light grew brighter, and she spoke.
“I am called Nelline, ‘Captain,’ and I will be your guide to the place of safety.”

Mallar tensed beside Art as she spoke. Something was wrong.

Nelline approached the Victus as her light increased, and part of the wrongness sent a chill down Art’s spine. The light shone from a small, luminescent ball hovering over her palm. A fairly common exercise of Power it might be, but that still meant they dealt with a sorceress.

And no sorceress should have been sent to lead them to the safe-house. No Power-wielder should have been: their abilities were held far too dear to send them into harm’s way like that. Moreover, a Senator’s agent should have known their true identities, rather than expecting their covers.

“Please, gentlemen,” she said, her sphere now luminescent enough to confine shadows in the far corners of the room. She stepped toward the still-humming Victus, her expression opaque. “It is important to get your burden safe.”

Her free hand twitched as though she was about to reach out toward them, and then stilled as though with conscious effort. Art wondered, in an academic manner, at her self-control. He presumed a Power-wielder would have to be rather disciplined, given the dangers inherent to the practice. Similar to his previous endeavors, really, thought of which brought an ambivalent roil of emotion to his gut.

“Burden, Serra?” Mallar said, as he opened the small door in the side of the vehicle. Art did likewise on his side, and they both stepped out. “Not sure just what you mean by that. Ser’s luggage ‘as already been removed to the aerodrome for the trip home to Afforala.”

Nelline’s shapely brows drew together, creating a fetching crinkle in the skin of her forehead as she absorbed this falsehood. Art wondered just how much she knew about them.
“That’s … I mean,” she started, when Mallar stumbled stepping out of the Victus.

The squat man lurched against the vehicle. Art slipped his hand inside his coat to grasp the butt of his repeater. Nelline reached out toward Mallar with her free hand. As though she meant to help him, Art thought.

Without warning, Trank lunged toward the slight woman. He was the best close-in fighter Art had ever met. The two sparred regularly as part of their partnership, and the shorter man took him four falls out of five. And Nelline couldn’t have weighed half what the former dockside ganger did.

The sorceress jerked back as he bore down on her, surprise writ large on her expressive face. A fat, blue spark leapt with a CRACK from her hand to contact Mallar’s hip, flinging him against the Victus hard enough to dent the engine cover. Art froze as she turned her eyes to him. Her huge, terrified, furious, green eyes.

The smell of lightning and the stench of singed wool hung heavy in the room as the two stared at each other, to the sound of Mallar Trank’s labored breathing.

“D-don’t move!” The sorceress’ voice matched the her emotional eyes. Art’s pulse rocketed, certain now she was some odd amateur, mixed up in actions that could get them both killed. A professional intelligencer such as his partner and him wouldn’t have wasted time ordering a motionless man to stop moving. Nor would such have been so shaken over dropping an attacker. There was no telling what the madwoman might do.

“I am, indeed,” Art forced the tension thrumming through him out of his voice, leaving it calm and measured, “not moving, Serra. I do hope you haven’t killed my man. Training a new one is always such an inconvenience, you see.”

Nelline’s eyes flared with their own inner light, and for a quick eternity, Art thought he’d just sentenced himself to painful death. The fingers of her off-hand actually began to glow with the same blue-white as the spark with had sent his partner sprawling. The petite sorceress’ nostrils flared and Art wondered what a lighting strike felt like. He debated pulling the repeater, but doubted he was fast enough. Marksman he might be, but he was no true quick-draw shootist, and knew it.

Mallar groaned in the stillness, and Art and Nelline both started at the noise. For a long moment, she stared down at the man she’d struck with her abilities. Art could see the conflict in her form; for a confidence artist of no small success, the tension and unease was practically shouted. It did not fill him with encouragement.

“Power for defense, and never attack,” Nelline muttered, in a slight sing-song that suggested rote memorization. “Poison is in the dose, and the Force which kills can also be the Force which heals. I will not attack, but only defend.” She took a shuddering breath and relaxed, if ever so slightly.

“The Berlammic Oath,” Mallar grunted from the other side of the Victus.

“You, you know the Oath?”

“Surely, Serra. First thing the Order of the Shining Light teaches its students. Along with making a glowball.” Mallar paused, not moving, that Art could hear. “Would you mind, terribly, if I got up?”

Nelline blinked, and the glow in her eyes doused. She stepped back with haste, keeping them both in sight.
“Slowly, Megarde; no more tricks.”

Art relaxed just a hair more. She’d regained some of her composure, confident she had them under control. Time to start undermining it.

“Tell me, Serra,” Art kept his voice light, “what is it you want with a somewhat well-to-do merchant and his manservant?”

She snorted.

“Merchant and his manservant,” she repeated. Her vision turned momentarily inward, her lips twisted, exposing small, even teeth in what could charitably be called a smile. “You are no more merchant than I am, Captain. Somewhat well-to-do merchants do not, as a rule, careen through cities in a brand new autocarriage, let alone a Victus!”

“Perhaps I did well in a business deal while visiting your lovely city.”

She raised an eyebrow, following it with a bark of laughter quickly silenced.

“Oh, truly. You did so well in your putative business – what is it, again, that you trade in, master merchant? – that you threw away all your profits-” her fiery gaze raked his just above average coat, “-and upset the Doge’s Guard with antics more often perpetrated by aristocratic scions than such sober businessmen as yourselves!”

“Ah, well, you know, Serra: trade has its ups and its downs. It is quite easy to lose one’s entire capital on a deal gone sour. Why, once – early on in my career, just after I parted ways with the Combine over the Galbarad Affair-” Though she quirked that eyebrow again, she didn’t otherwise react to his mention of the accidental death of an heir to the Carnelian Throne that had nearly enveloped the Sea of Tears in war. “-I invested-”

“Wagered,” Mallar muttered.

Art stared hard at the back of his partner’s head before rolling his eyes.

“Invested, I say, a sizable sum in a shipment of Talliver’s Jungle Snake furs from the Green Lands. The last word I heard from the convoy they’d just pushed off from their anchorage and were expecting fair winds through the Strait of Yultark heading to the great, cold north. It should have been easy money, but they got caught by the eruption of one of the Jade Isles near Mintanay. Which one was it, Megarde?”

Mallar’s shoulders artfully slumped.

“Dogache.” Art thought the disconsolate note in his voice quite well done; just the thing to suggest remembered pain.

“Dogache,” Art repeated, keeping his tone dismissive. Despite inserting a number of significant disasters into his brief soliloquy, natural as well as man-made, she’d reacted with nothing more than polite skepticism. “So you see, one can make or lose a fortune on what might seem like nothing to someone else. And when a fortune is made, spending on something, well, perhaps a bit extravagant could be in order.” He beamed at her, radiating nothing so much as honest good will.

“You’re a talented liar, Ser,” Nelline said, face closed but for a tightening of the delicate skin around her eyes. She backed into a corner, gesturing toward the closed door behind her with the illuminating hand. “Please, Sers, precede me from this place.”

“Cap’n?” Mallar turned his head just far enough to see Art out of the corner of his eye.

Art shrugged and pulled his empty hand out of his coat, then waved toward the wooden portal.

“Well, good Megarde, you heard the lady with the dangerous hand,” he winked at Nelline, who scowled in return.

Mallar stumped toward the door and jerked it open. Muttering what were no doubt curses couched in the dockside cant of his childhood, he swiveled his head around to bestow a truly cantankerous glare on Art. Warmed through, and delighted by the bizarre turn, he beamed back at his shorter companion.

“Liar, I may be, Serra. Most men are, I’ve noticed,” Art said as he sauntered around the Victus. He paused just on the other side, and reached inside the still-running vehicle. The kill switch cast a hush over the room. Art could hear the noise of the street outside muffled by the thick wooden door and masonry walls. At almost identical quizzical looks from Nelline and Mallar, he explained. “It just wouldn’t do to leave a magichanical device like this running. For one thing, it might explode. Rather unthinking way to treat the kind folk who provided such an excellent escape for us, no?”

His partner sighed and shrugged, turning back toward the dark doorway. Nelline looked slightly confused, but gestured toward the door.

Art stepped through into momentary darkness. When their diminutive captor followed, the light from her still-glowing hand showed him a nondescript corridor, off of which doors opened every half-dozen paces.

“Offices, I shouldn’t wonder. M- my man,” he covered, quickly, “do you suppose they have anything interesting inside?”

“This is the building of Namboro and Sons, Factors, Ser,” Nelline said before Mallar could respond, a touch of asperity making her voice curt. “No doubt these offices are full of papers, ledgers, records and all the various and sundry implements of trade. Interesting, no doubt, to a man such as yourself, but not to us in our current endeavors. Now, if you please, through the doorway at the end of the hall, and into the warehouse, Sers.”

“Ahh,” Art leapt on the opening as they filed through the doorway, “and what are those endeavors, Serra Nelline? What exactly is it you want from me? I am, as mentioned somewhere previously, a simple merchant.”

Nelline’s light-sphere, which had illuminated the narrow corridor, lit only a small bubble in the cavernous interior of the enormous room. Wooden crates upon wooden crates faded into the darkness.

“Why, the magitechnical formulae you wheedled from Dottore Atrianni suggest otherwise, Ser Captain,” Nelline retorted. “What I don’t understand is why you killed him afterward. And in such an atrocious manner.”

Remembered horror choked her voice to a rough whisper. Art, surprised at his concern, turned his head enough to catch her out of the corner of his eye, and indeed: her green eyes were dark wounds in pale blaze of her face.

“What?” Mallar choked, surprising Nelline and Art both, though Art’s professional vanity made him hope he controlled his face better than she. The squat man turned around, his face a twisted mask of rage. His half-raised hands flexed in rigid claws. “Menigarius Atrianni dead, foully murdered?”

“But, but of course, Megarde,” Bewilderment – with no small admixture of fear at his furious outburst – muddled her fine features. Her high emotion fanned the flame of her Power, sending brilliant blue-white arcs crackling through her fingers. Art pressed himself against a nearby crate, his desire for self-preservation warring with his hope of eventual freedom from the dictates of the Republic’s spymaster. Incongruously, the scents of drifting dust and packing straw tickled at the back of Art’s nose, an incipient sneeze threatening to explode.

“How could you not know? You were the last ones to leave his rooms this morning!” Anger, righteous or not, lent Nelline’s voice the strength it had lacked just a moment earlier. “The poor man was rent limb from limb, his tongue and eyes plucked out. His blood sprayed across the walls and the very ceiling of his apartment!” Shudders of reaction gripped her slight frame, though her Power-filled hands remained steady in front of her.

“We-?” Thoughts whirled through Art’s head. “Well, bollocks and botheration. Serra, just who are you, out of professional curiosity? You’re no agent, that’s for damned certain. You have the trade-craft of a gifted amateur, which, in this field is just enough to get you killed. Quickly.”

Mallar froze, a thick ribbon of surprise and curiosity clear on his face, pulling him from the brink of – likely suicidal – violence.

“I, I’m-” Nelline shrank back, her brilliant eyes and the svelte lines of her form proclaiming her uncertainty for the world to see. All of it in the darkened warehouse, at the least. Her gaze turned inward, then outward, shifting rapidly from Art to Mallar and back again. “Who are you, Sers, that you speak of agents and trade-craft and visit a brilliant magical theorist immediately prior to his murder?”

Art and his partner exchanged a long look. Mallar, now seeming completely relaxed, shrugged, a simple abnegation of responsibility made eloquent by his customary economy of effort.

Art swung his head back to face Nelline, putting on a charming grin with just a touch of predatory anticipation. Her gaze locked on his face, her shoulders growing tense and mouth pinched as his expression registered.

“Well met, Serra Nelline of no place in particular. I am Captain Artringen Cailesh, agent-under-duress of many faces, and my companion-of-necessity is Ser Mallar Trank, leash-holder, general ne’er-do-well and dog robber for the Andrine Republic.” He swept a Phelgen court bow full of flourishes, waggles and gestures, ending with his head nearly touching his left knee. Instead of the customary bowed head, however, he canted his to see Nelline’s reaction. He was stunned when she spun her hands out and around in the Phelgen hand-sign to indicate he’d shown her inappropriate respect. A very honor-conscious people, the Phelgen.

More impressive yet, that she’d managed it without losing her grip on her Power.

“Captain Cailesh, Ser Trank – if, indeed, those are your real names -” she said with a taut smile and a short curtsy, “why in the names of the Nine of the Phelgen pantheon would I tell you who I am, let alone my goals?”

Art bobbed straight, manfully converting a guffaw into a warm chuckle.

“Mallar, I like Serra Nelline. May I take her home, do you think?”

Steam hissed and lumber splintered as a huge something dropped from the darkness above them to land on the stone floor of the warehouse with grating shrieks.

“Not on your life, Cailesh,” a hard, hated voice cracked out of the darkness. A darkness that vanished as galvanic lamps burst into light, forcing all three of them to squint against the sudden brilliance all around them.