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Lunar Silver Stary Story

If Love Were Only Part of the Equation
By K'Arthur [ 04-01-03 ]
Chapter: Prologue 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15


Chapter 14

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -Arthur C. Clarke

Gregory and Darshak were the last two people Artie expected to find knocking at her door the morning following her less than graceful descent into Mia’s office. They both offered a respectful greeting that clearly showed neither of them had volunteered for this, but were there under orders. Artie gave a wane smile as the Captain of the Guard handed her a note that read:

Master Artemus:

Robin has informed me that you left the infirmary against her wishes early this morning. I hope you are feeling better and that your recovery is indeed a speedy one. I am hoping you can help me with a small matter. We will need to move the ceremony on Saturday outdoors to accommodate everyone. Could you please design and order the construction of a stage for the Plaza? Gregory will be able to provide you with information on the ceremony itself such that you will have a better idea of what is required. Since I know that you are still incapacitated, I am sending Darshak to assist you in anything that you might need. Also, I will be having a meeting this afternoon that I would like you to attend providing you are feeling well enough to do so. If not, please send Rouke in your place.

Thank you again for all that you do.

--Mia

She raised an eyebrow at the two of them and ushered them inside, somewhat glad that she now had something to do rather than just ‘rest.’ As incompetent as some of her workers were and as used as she sometimes felt, doing nothing was boring. She motioned for them to sit on the couch and then grabbed some of Robin’s healing bark, paper, and pencils off her desk.

Darshak coughed, “Would you like us to give you a moment to change out of your bedclothes?”

Artie shrugged, and looked down at the pants and shirt that had belonged to one of her brothers years ago. They were very comfortable; roomy and just perfect for sleeping in. “I’m fine. You got a problem with this?”

The guard just shook his head although the expression in his eyes showed he knew a no-win situation when he saw one.

She didn’t grace it with a response, but instead stuffed a strip of bark in her mouth and began chewing it as she turned to Gregory. “What do we need?”

“You need to be careful with that and not use too much,” the Illusionist said.

“Yeah, I know, Robin told me that too. But I’m still a hurting puppy. She said a little would ease the pain, but that too much would--come to think of it, she just said something about no one noticing the difference.”

Gregory sighed, “Just don’t overdo it with that stuff, and I’m sorry we have to bother you like this. I trust you’re doing better.”

Artie nodded. “I’m all right. A few bruises and a lot of aches but I’ll heal. Hell, I’ve had worse hangovers. Now, tell me about this ceremony.”

Gregory nodded and outlined how the entire thing worked. It was actually pretty simple: a procession, a swearing in and then a recession. The Faculty didn’t sit up on the stage, so it could be made small enough for just the Council, but would require stairs along the front. It seemed easy enough; she even thought her workers could handle it without her direction. Well, maybe I shouldn’t give them that much credit...

The work must have refreshed her (or the bark was working just a little too well) because in less than a half an hour, she and Gregory had a basic tentative design for the stage. She held the sketch out to him, “Sorry it’s kind of messy. I can do it on the board with the straightedge if you want, but this should give them a rough idea.”

Gregory looked it over, “As long as it’s got the dimensions on it, they should be all right, don’t you think?”

She snorted in disgust as she handed it to him. “I’ll do it anyway. We don’t have much time for screw-ups on this one. Plus I want to check the sightlines, so I’ll need to make it to scale. But either way, Mia should approve this before I order construction. Just in case she changes her mind—again.”

He smiled and tucked it into his robe. “I’ll deliver it to her right away.”

Artie stood and stretched. That bark was really working. She didn’t feel much of anything. “If you wouldn’t mind, but what about the furniture?”

“I’ll find some people to move it.” His face clouded, as he rose to his feet. “Your staff is already worn thin, and something tells me they’re going to have even more to do after this afternoon’s meeting.”

Artie raised an eyebrow, but before she could ask about what he knew, the Illusionist pressed his palms together and vanished, leaving behind only a thin wisp of black smoke.

She looked at the guard. “I hate it when he does that.”

Darshak gave a wide grin, but remained silent.

Artie now had a real project to complete, and she wanted to do it, but she wanted to do it alone. Drafting required a great deal of concentration, and she was quite particular about her work environment. Having someone constantly staring at her was unnerving; she wondered how Mia put up with it all the time. For a moment she toyed with just ordering him to leave, but unfortunately the members of the Magic Guild Guard were tied to their duty with such tight bonds that she knew it was pointless to even ask.

Trying to ignore his presence was difficult, but she still had work to do. She took a seat at her desk and moved the crossbow she had recently named her best friend to the side. The guard raised a curious brow, but knew it wasn’t his duty to question and again stood at attention. She took out her drawing equipment from the desk’s drawer and attempted to start work. She felt his eyes on her but after only three minutes, she just couldn’t take it anymore. She asked him to leave, but he said his orders were explicit: He was to take care of anything she might need and he wasn’t backing down. Artie cursed under her breath.

She tolerated him for another few minutes, until an idea came to her. Feigning frustration at her drawing, she shook her head and then sighed. Then, with a calculated smile, she turned to him as she said; “I need you to go get the exact measurements of whatever chairs Gregory plans on using for the stage. All dimensions. Find one of my guys if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about.”

Darshak looked at her doubtfully, but still gave a bow and left. As the door closed, Artie grinned to herself and put a new piece of bark in her mouth. That should take him…oh at least a few hours! She drew a line against the straightedge and then blew the extra graphite off. Finally. Peace and quiet.

She sighed as a glance to her left showed that her crossbow was still just inside her reach. Perhaps sending Darshak away wasn’t the smartest thing to do, especially in these times. Oh, she was used to people not understanding her or (in many cases) just plain not liking her, but that someone would want to kill her was unbelievable. Well, perhaps not unbelievable, but just not likely. She did have enemies, but they were social ‘nose stuck in the air’ or political ‘you have no business being here’ types and certainly nothing that justified murder. Most of that animosity came from people who had been against her appointment to the rank of Master, and Mia had silenced them years ago. So then, who was out to get her, and why?

Trying not to think about it was worse than trying to think about it, so she bounced the pencil in her hand as she started to dissect yet another possibility. The pencil jumped from her grasp and rolled onto the floor under the chair. Even under the influence of the bark, she wasn’t going to try and twist herself down to get it. Cursing again, she pulled the straightedge off the drawing and pushed it within her reach. Just as her fingers curled around it, someone knocked on the door.

She knew it was probably just another one of her workers looking for his day’s assignment or wanting to report that so-and-so hadn’t shown up for his shift. So, without a thought of regret, she bellowed: “Unless you’re inviting a painful death or just want to be castrated, go away!”

“Artie,” a familiar, near-pleading male voice called. “Please open the door.”

She knew who it was, so with a grin, she gave the response and instructions as if she were talking to a child. “Nash, you have a key to every lock in the building. Take it out of your pocket, insert it in the lock, turn the key, lift the latch, and let yourself in!” Unable to resist the temptation to mock him, she added: “Unless such a process is too complicated for you!”

After a moment of scratching and fumbling, the door swung open. As he stepped through it she decided that he looked even worse than she felt. His hair was matted, his clothes rumpled—this was certainly not the Nash that paraded himself through the halls of the Guild. He looked as though he hadn’t slept in days, and she noticed that he was carrying some kind of large object under his robe. Before she could say anything, he gave a final and very suspicious glance out into the hall before closing the door.

She still just stared at him, still in shock at his appearance. She stood up and took a few steps to the couch. “Nash, what’s going on? Have a seat. You look like you just saw death itself.”

He nodded, sat down, and then he looked at her, his dark eyes gaunt and haunted. “I’m starting to wonder.” Then, after a brief hesitation, he continued; “I know you’re off duty, and I know you’re hurt, but I need your help, Artie. I really do.”

She sat next to him and smiled, her voice gentle, “Hey, we’ve been friends for awhile, so you’ll just have to owe me another one… add it to the pile, I guess. Besides, I need an excuse to move around.”

“I heard what happened. Gregory said you had a nasty fall, but that Robin says you’ll be fine, though she was pretty upset at the way you checked yourself out of the clinic.”

“Yeah, if she leaves me alone, I’ll be fine, and if I find the nut who’s trying to kill me, I’ll be great.”

“What?!” He asked, the shock in his voice almost bringing the life back to his eyes.

“Someone cut the rope. I don’t know why anyone would want me dead, but it’s got me a little nervous, y’know?” She glanced over at her crossbow on the desk. “I’m not taking any chances.”

He nodded, his eyes distant again.

She raised an eyebrow, “But that’s not why you’re here. What has got you so spooked that you suddenly look like you’re fifty?”

With a sigh, he reached into the inner pocket of his robe and pulled out a slender cylindrical canister about a foot and a half long and handed it to her. “This. I need you to tell me what it is. I think we are in big trouble, Artie. If I’m right, then Mia may be about to get us all killed.”

A tinge of fear leapt into her at both his words and just the feel of the object. Artie began examining it; the material was silver in color, though with an odd bluish tint. She flicked it with a finger and determined it to be hollow; although the object was light; she wasn’t familiar with a material that could be madethis light. She turned it upside down and discovered a bizarre pattern of small holes, set slightly offset from each other in a waving pattern around the base. The array was strange, but symmetrical. Her fingertips traced the smooth, rune-engraved sides up to a tightly sealed lid, its almost invisible seam running around the rim of the canister.

She frowned, “Where did you get this? I’ve never seen a material like it before, and I don’t recognize the writing either. Granted, I slept through more of my ancient language courses than I should have, but I’m sure they never taught this language when I was a student here.”

“A man who calls himself Gravitt has them—a whole bunch of them. There’s something else, too. He gave Mia a necklace that was made of the same metal, or at least it looks that way. Gregory told me that there is something wrong with it, though.”

“Did he know what was ‘wrong’ with it?”

Nash shook his head. “He didn’t say—I don’t know if he doesn’t know or just doesn’t want to tell me. Anyway, I’m more worried about these canisters.”

“Gotcha. On a side note, I don’t like this Gravitt creep, personally,” she said as she unscrewed the small cap and looked inside, a soft emerald glow emanating from green crystalline stones within. “He gives me the crawlies. I ran into him in the stables, or rather, he ran into me and tried to schmooze me. Did you see his eyes? They’re silver—a pure, soulless, silver.” She looked back down to the strange cylinder. “And what does he want to do with these? They seem harmless enough, unless they’re magic.” She paused and glared at him, irritated she had to remind him of the obvious. “You know that’s my weak point.”

Nash was preoccupied with the discussion of magic. “There’s magic involved, but it’s not just magic. It feels different. It feels like the Old Magic—magic I last felt when I was…well, a long time ago.”

She glared at him, “Finish your sentence.”

It was a pitiful reply that came from his lips, one filled with self-reproach. “When I was working for Ghaleon, and he introduced me to that Taben man.”

“The guy who built the Grindery?”

It wasn’t even a syllable, but more of a mournful grunt in response, “Yes.”

She put a hand on his shoulder, “Hey, we all know why you did what you did. We’re all allowed to do one stupid thing in our lives. That was yours. As opposed to acting like a jerk, which you’re allowed to do all the time, it seems. Love is always a noble cause, even if its actions are all screwed up.” She paused for a moment, surprised to hear something so nearly philosophical coming from herself.

He gave weak, hesitant smile towards her. “Thanks, Artie. I think.”

“Hey, no problem. You know me, I’m always glad to point out your flaws for you.” A grin and wink took the edge off her words, but he still looked hurt. She turned back to the business at hand. “What’s with this ‘Old Magic’ crap? I though Magic was Magic?”

Nash shook his head. “No…and it’s not something that we really study here, even in the post-graduate classes. It’s what it sounds like, old… very old. It was the magic of the First Ones--the magic that created Vane and maybe even Lunar itself. Until I met Ghaleon, Taben, and the rest of the Vile Tribe I thought it was just part of the old myths. No one knows much about it, or how to control it. The only other person I’ve ever heard mention it was Gregory, and that was just in passing. It was like he didn’t even want to talk about it. From what I saw of it, it certainly doesn’t follow the same rules as our magic of today. I’m not even sure it had rules. All I know for sure is that it’s powerful—horribly, horribly powerful.”

“What did Gregory say about it?”

“It was a long time ago, when I was up for my apprenticeship. I had already accepted Gregory’s offer, and then to my surprise, Ghaleon asked me. I told Gregory—I thought he’d be proud of me—but he was more shocked than anything. Possibly even hurt--”

Artie cut him off, her voice more sarcastic than bitter. “Yeah, a lot of people were suddenly not good enough to be your friends when you started paling around with Ghaleon.”

He’d said it to her many times before, but must have figured once more couldn’t hurt. “I’m sorry, Artie.”

She smiled, “I know. Fortunately most of us forgive and forget.” Then with a wink she gave him a playful punch in the arm, “But I still think you’re a schmuck.”

He winced at the comment more than the punch as he replied wryly, “Thanks.”

“Anytime. Now, you were telling me about Old Magic?”

Nash rubbed his face as he spoke, not once meeting her eyes. “I remember Gregory warning me about it. I’ll never forgot what he said because it was so eerie ‘Don’t get caught in something you can’t get out, boy. The magic that man practices isn’t always natural, and certainly isn’t fit for a human to try. Even if you do survive, you’ll lose your soul to it.’ Needless to say, I didn’t listen, but when I saw some of those spells, I knew what Gregory had been talking about.”

“Such as?” Artie asked as she replaced the cap on the canister.

He hesitated, but the words wrenched themselves from him. “Well the Grindery for starters. It was powered by Dragon Magic, and had enough power to blast us out of the sky. How they managed to capture the dragons to begin with was unreal. It was a spell that pulled them and their souls into hand held prisons. Then they were released and wired to the machinery by Taben, and their magic used to move the Grindery and fire its cannons. It consumed them in the process.”

“That’s…that’s just…wrong.”

“I know. And that’s not all of it. Ghaleon had many spells—“

“Like the one he used on Lemia?”

Nash nodded. “That, but also I saw him practice one on a Tribesman.”

Artie looked at her friend—he nearly shivered. “What was it, Nash? I can’t help you unless you explain all of this.”

“When we were in Tamur, he and Royce showed up and asked if I was ready to make sure Alex and the others didn’t make it to the Frontier. I told him yes, and he assured me again that in exchange for my help, Mia would be safe. Then Royce said that I wasn’t reporting as often as I should, and she suggested that he give me a ‘demonstration.’ Ghaleon grinned with this crazed look in his eyes. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never smiled, so I should have known something was wrong.

“He led me outside and we approached a man from one of the Prairie Tribes, who obviously had some degree of magical ability. Royce asked if the man had ever considered going to Vane. Of course the man shook his head—people from the Prairie weren’t welcome here at the time. Then Ghaleon told the stranger who he was, and promised that if he gave us his assistance, he would be initiated into the Guild. The Tribesman nodded and followed us out of the town and into the Prairie.

“Ghaleon had him stand a good eight or so feet from the rest of us, and then began a spell I’d never heard before. It was in a strange language, and took him a good minute to cast. When he unleashed it on his target, the man’s aura was ripped from his body—his life, his magic, everything! Then it came back and settled on Ghaleon, while the man’s body just dropped to the ground.” Nash took a breath and then said, “But that wasn’t all. He used the man’s powers right in front of me just to show what he could, and was perfectly willing to do.”

Artie stared at him blankly, “No one should have that kind of power.”

He nodded, “It was sick, and it scared me into keeping up my part of the bargain. I can’t believe he killed that man like that, but I knew it was a message for me.” He paused, “But you know, sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t planning on using that spell on Althena herself. If he had, he would have been invincible.”

“I don’t want to think about it.” She said quickly, and then looked down at the canister again. “Anyway, so what does Gravitt have this for? What does he want to do with it?”

He shook his head as he spoke, his tone again full of dread, “I think he is going to use them to make Vane fly again.”

She gave him a dubious look, “How much wine did you have last night, Nash? There is no way this small canister is going to raise the city of Vane. I doubt even the Spire can do that.”

“It’s not just one, Artie. He has a whole caravan of them—and this is just what he called ‘demonstration’ size. I liberated this one from his wagons, and I imagine the others are as large as buildings, just judging from the size of his carts. I wanted you to look at it, because his demonstration was so convincing that Mia and the rest of the Council are eating out of his hand.”

“Demonstration?”

He nodded. “The canisters are not self-activating. The stones inside need to absorb magic—magic being actively used.”

Standing up, she put it on the table in front of the sofa. “Here, cast a spell on it. Let me see how it works.”

Nash nodded and pulled her back with him a good six feet from the mysterious container. His eyes closed as he concentrated, whispering the chant under his breath and then crossed his fingers as he pointed them at the cylinder. His yellow aura flashed as the magic materialized and blazed towards its target but just as it was about to strike, it vanished—as though the strange object had swallowed it up.

Artie narrowed her eyes as the canister started to shake, the concealed stones creating a high-pitched wail within its confines. The thing trembled, then pushed itself off the ground to swiftly fly up near the ceiling. Suddenly, the table itself shook and followed, taking an orbit just under the cylinder. The objects hovered above Artie and Nash with a barely audible drone.

“Holy shit,” was all the engineer could say.

Nash turned his gaze from the softly glowing object back to her, “My thoughts exactly. Now, how does it work?”

“Thrust,” she said softly. “It’s a concept called thrust.” She gave him a wink, “Something I thought men were supposed to know more about.”

He rolled his eyes at her, the crude joke even forcing him to smile through his depression.

Artie didn’t miss a beat. “Anyway, the stones become agitated by the magic as they absorb it. I would guess they could only store so much before they become full and have to…” She looked at him before finishing. ”What spell did you use?”

“A shock spell, a rather strong one.”

“Right, so they filled out quickly. To shed the excess magic, the stones shake. The canister shakes, then the magic pushes against something—I don’t know what—and the excess is forced out the bottom through the holes, I guess.” She stepped under the hovering canister and, reaching around the table spinning below it, raised her hand to feel for any disturbance or breeze coming from either of them. “I’m not sure what it’s thrusting against though. Nothing seems to be coming out the bottom but it’s sure as hell pushing against something. Anyway, the result of this upward thrust action is the lift action.” She pointed to the table. “And it seems they exert this lift to whatever is under, or next, to them.”

He nodded. “Gravitt said the stones would need to absorb magic constantly to maintain the altitude of whatever it is we want to levitate. He also said that once activated they would just use the ambient magic of Vane—magic that would otherwise be wasted or lost to the environment. Does that make any sense?”

A frown crossed her face. “While it does make sense, I don’t trust it. I assume Mia just went along with everything he told her?”

Nash’s eyes were morose as he spoke, “Yes. You know this is her dream, Artie. Sometimes I think she is so blinded by it that she can’t see beyond it. Maybe we aren’t supposed to fly anymore; there isn’t a Goddess anymore, and there isn’t even a Goddess Tower to protect.”

Artie nodded but was still staring at the table and the thing that was floating above them. Strangely, the green glow from the canister had started to fade. “Are they supposed to lose light like that?”

He shook his head; “I don’t know what’s normal on these things. But last night I don’t remember that it did. Of course, spells were being cast left and right.”

“So it stayed charged. Interesting. Capacitance at its best.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Engineer talk that is literally above your head.” She grinned, “So where does Gravitt intend to place the large ones you said he has?”

“He said we could put them outside the wall and a few inside the city.”

Artie looked back up to the canister as it began to shiver, it’s whine descending back to an irregular and grating sound. The table began to slowly drop, as if invisible wires were lowering it from the ceiling, the silver object trailing with the same degree of grace. When the container was within his reach, Nash extended his hand towards it, possibly to help it land without damage.

It was too late for Artie to protest.

Just as his fingers folded around the silver tube, a faint band of green light struck out of it like a snake attacking an oblivious mouse. Artie heard her friend scream in shock and watched in horror as the distinct yellow color of his aura was forced to appear. He tried to let go, but somehow the canister wasn’t letting him.

The next shriek was clearly one of pain as Nash shook his arm violently, trying to force the threat off of him, but it was no use—the canister was not giving up. It was eating his life, magic, and perhaps even his soul.

In that moment Artie forgot the pain in her back, her legs, her chest, and every other part of her body that was black and blue. With a cry of defiance, she used all of her weight to knock the short mage to the ground. Lying over him, and daring not to touch the silver tube herself, she grabbed his hand that held it slammed it into the floor. Once. Twice. Three times! Finally, the canister jumped from Nash’s grasp and flew above their heads to the place where it had been just moments ago.

Artie’s breath was coming in short, gasping pants as she rolled off her friend. After making sure he was still breathing, she poked him in the side. “Get up. You’re not dead.”

“You saved my life,” he said simply, as he pushed himself up to his knees.

“Yeah, well, we all make mistakes.”

Sitting up he smiled weakly at her, “Thank you, Artie.”

She just nodded, trying to not get wrapped up formalities as she sat up. Her body was shaking more from the shock and horror of what she’d just seen than exhaustion and adrenaline. Staring again at Gravitt’s Gift, she said in trepidation: “It drained you, Nash. It didn’t just absorb your magic; it sucked it right out of you. Hell, it almost drained the life right out of you, like some sort of Vampire.”

They looked up at the now brightly glowing tube, now feeling more than hearing it’s high pitched cry. Nash got to his feet and tried to brush his hair back into place. “That thing—it could have killed me—but why didn’t it affect you?”

Artie shook her head. “Not enough magic in me to be worth the effort, I guess, and unlike someone I could name, I wasn’t dumb enough to try and touch it while it was still active. I don’t know, and to be frank, I don’t care. That man Gravitt is a liar! Now I’m sure he’s up to something--something terrible--and Mia’s apparently bought his story hook, line, and sinker. She’ll get us killed, if we’re lucky.”

Nash didn’t answer her.

The engineer glanced back up at the hovering container. “Look at that thing, even after draining so much out of you, it’s starting to lose power again. Putting those things everywhere and then letting them sap us will destroy all of the magic in Vane.”

“And kill every one of the mages before the city can even start to move,” he added.

Artie got to her feet and made her way back to her desk. The adrenaline and bark were wearing off now and the pain coming back in spades. She shuffled through the desk drawer for some more of Robin’s medicine. Her hand tripped across a silver light she kept for experimental purposes. As she shoved the bark in her mouth, she tossed the small silver orb to him. “This will make you feel better, I’m sure.”

Nash caught it and used it, smiling as his power returned. “Thanks.”

She didn’t even bother to nod. There were other things to be said, and she wasn’t one to hold back. “You’ve got to tell her, Nash. You’ve got to convince her what you and I both know is the truth! That this whole plan is a lie, and suicide for all of us.”

He immediately flopped onto the couch at her suggestion. “She doesn’t listen to me, Artie. We don’t even talk anymore. Maybe you should be the one to tell her.”

She walked back to the sofa and sat down next to him, giving a wide berth and a very wary look to the still floating tube and the table as they began their slow decent back to the floor. After another bite of the bark, and she spoke softly: “You two need to start talking.”

Nash didn’t respond.

“I’m sure you’ve heard this from a number of people, but let me tell you something as a friend, all right, Nash?”

Nash gave her a skeptical look as he slowly nodded his head. “All right, I guess. It’s not like I could stop you anyway.”

Artie sighed, “If you want to act like an asshole in private or mope to yourself about Althena-knows-what, that’s your affair, but--” She cut herself off as she saw him flinch as if struck and tried a softer approach. “Look, whatever happened between you and Mia is your business, and your business alone. I’m not about to get into that—although everyone around here knows what happened. Small town, lots of talk, all that. Anyway, it should not affect us, the citizens of Vane who look up to the two of you for leadership. And that’s just what its doing. And like it or not that’s just what it is doing every minute of every day. Everyone knows what the two of you did to save us all, and we also know it was the two of you who really rebuilt this city. We all know full well the two of you can handle the impossible, and that’s the reason we follow you both.

“But this idiotic nonsense that’s going on between the two of you makes no sense to me and even less to ‘them.’ Nash, you and Mia became the heart and soul of this place during the rebuilding, and right now the city hasn’t had a heartbeat in months, and it shows!”

Nash grimaced, “I’ve tried to keep everything on a professional level…”

“Don’t give me that shit! It might work on Gregory, or some of the others, but it doesn’t work on me! If you were acting professional, you’d be in her office right now telling her what trying to raise the city will cost her and us!”

“I tried that, Artie. I went to see her before I came here, and she refused to talk to me.”

“Why?”

“She wouldn’t say, but I caught a glimpse of Gravitt in her office.”

Artie sighed, “I like Mia, I really do, and I respect her talents as a leader and as a mage. But you know, and I know that her judge of character is far too generous sometimes. And I’m sure Gravitt—if that is his real name—is taking full advantage of that.”

Nash nodded, but his tone was still pitiful. “I’m sure he is, and since she was so angry at me this morning for heaven-knows-what I know she won’t listen to me. But you might have a chance.”

She whacked him on the arm. “Are you paying attention or do I need to smack you around some!? Of course she’ll listen to you. She didn’t give you the position of Premier because you look cute in the outfit! Because believe me, you don’t! She gave it to you because she knows she can trust you and in spite of all your faults you do give a damn about this place, and about what she wants for it!”

He actually seemed to let it sink in before replying: “I hope you’re right.”

She smirked as she rose from the sofa. “I know I am. It’s one of the gifts that go along with being female.”

He gave a slightly lop-sided smile to her, “Oh really?”

“Yup,” she said as she tossed the used bark into the wastebasket. “And now give me a few minutes to put on something more presentable and we’ll get to work.” She walked to her closet and took out a pair of workpants and a shirt then disappeared into the privy, but left the door cracked just enough such that she could talk to him.

“Are you sure you shouldn’t be in bed?”

“I’m fine, and we got a mission now, so I can’t let a few bruises get in my way. First off, we need to find out all we can about this Old Magic, those stones, and Gravitt. Once we have enough ammunition, we can give it to Mia. Then she’ll have to listen, even if she’s pissed at you for whatever reason.”

“All right. I’ll talk to Gregory.”

“And I’ll look in the library,” she said as she slid the clean shirt over her head. “I’ll also ask that Brinson guy about Gravitt. He said he works for him.”

“Ok.”

Her tone was teasing as she pulled the pants on, “Although from the rumors that were sliding around the infirmary, it seems you are more than just friendly with that crazy redhead that almost ran me over with that monster horse. I heard she’s part of his group too. Maybe you could umm…pump her for information?”

“Its nothing like that, Artie.”

“Yeah right,” she said as she emerged to find him holding an article of her clothing rather dubiously. It was a dress—bright red, brand new, and the first of its kind to ever have found its way into her room. “What, you want to try that on? It’ll probably look better on you than it does on me.”

He gave her a smirk and a small laugh. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”

She grabbed it from him. “I don’t, but I don’t really have a choice if I want to be at your ceremony and party on Saturday.”

He gave her a blank look. “I thought everyone was going to wear their black robes?”

As she shoved the red dress back in the closet, she snorted, “Yeah, well see that’s the problem. First Tamora said I shouldn’t be involved since I’m not really a member of the faculty. Mia supposedly straightened that one out. Then yesterday while I’m flat on my back in the infirmary, Robin told me she couldn’t find any robes that would fit my ‘boyish figure.’ Her words, not mine. So I say the hell with them! They don’t want me in Faculty Robes, fine! I’ll wear a dress and shock everyone.”

Nash didn’t look very happy. “That’s not right, Artie.”

“Yeah, well what am I going to do? Tell off two members of the Council? I’ve done that before and it’s gotten me nowhere fast.”

“No, but I am,” he said with a smirk. Then in a very fabricated businesslike voice he added: “So you need robes, Master Artemus? I think I have a solution to your problem. I certainly will not have any need for my own, as I have been instructed to wear something rather more ornate. Since we’re close to the same size, I imagine they’ll fit you without much problem. As such, I’ll see that they are delivered to you before Saturday.”

She grinned, “You know, this will make me the envy of all the women of Vane.”

“How’s that?”

She flicked at his bangs as she gave him a wink, “Because I’m going to get into your pants!”

******

After ridding herself of Nash’s presence by sending him to search for Gregory or Mia (whichever he could corner first) Artie debated whether or not she would need the crossbow to just go to the library. Strange things were going on, and she had the sinking feeling that more would be following. Still, she knew how the sight of her striding down the halls with a weapon would be seen and she reluctantly left it behind. If Gravitt or whoever was truly working with him felt they were being watched, they might get nervous and do something stupid, and if that happened, a crossbow would be of little use assuming that damn cylinder was any indication. So, with just a handful of the bark which had dulled out all of her pain (not to mention providing a touch of very out of place euphoria) she went out her door and down the hall, making her way to the library.

She had not gone far when she saw a familiar form step from the communal shower just ahead and turn to walk down the hall away from her. She fought an open laugh as she realized that he seemed to be wearing nothing more than a towel tossed carelessly over his shoulder and draping down his back. With a mischievous grin she called to him, “Hey Blondie!”

Brinson froze and jerked the towel from his shoulder frantically trying to cover himself, as if he just realized that he was exposed. With a face so red his glasses almost steamed, he turned and whispered, “Hi Artie.”

She wasn’t going to let the opportunity to give him a once over, or to rub it in a little, slip her by. So with a broad grin she exaggerated the way she let her eyes wander over him, obviously enjoying the sight. “Let me give you a tip; we don’t walk around here like that. Most people bring an old robe or something with them to the showers. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”

He just smiled; clearly embarrassed she had caught him nearly naked.

“What’s wrong? Trust me, you don’t have anything I haven’t seen before.”

“Nothing,” he said as he took a few large steps towards his room. Looking around warily, he answered her in a tight whisper: “I don’t think I should talk to you right now.”

“Who’s going to stop you?”

He tried to quiet her with a “Shh!” as he glanced at a nearby door that was propped open.

Now she was irritated. “Don’t you hush me! I’m not the one showing the world my goods!”

He shook his head at her, and mouthed ‘I’m sorry—please, not now.’

As he turned, she glanced at the door he’d been standing near, and stepped towards it. She heard him fumbling with the lock to his own room, as she saw what had apparently spooked him. In the room that he had nearly ran past was Gravitt, smirking like a twice-fed cat as he sat on the bed pulling on his shoes She looked at Brinson with a puzzled expression, but he avoided meeting her eyes as he pushed his door open. Before he disappeared within she caught a glimpse of something strange up high on his right shoulder—a tattoo in the shape of two intertwined serpents, set back to back.

******

Artie stood in front of the pedestal at the center of the library and concentrated on the subject she was researching. While she was wary of most magic, she held a profound respect the force that acted as a catalogue of Vane’s collection. Although one had to be careful of random thoughts, she had admitted on more than one occasion that there could not be a more efficient means of keeping track of the books. The thought of ‘old magic’ yielded no response, so she tried ‘rare metals.’ A moment later she felt guided towards some stacks in the far corner of the room.

After retrieving a book with just the title ‘Rare Metals and Magic,’ she found an empty table and got to work. The author had obviously been a talented mage, for on each page, there was not only a description of the materials, but an example of it that was projected up over the open book in column of light, one she could not only see but touch and weigh in her fingers. She skimmed each page for characteristics of metals that matched the cylinder Nash had brought her. Each of the ones she thought it could be just didn’t fit somehow. Tin was too soft. Silver wasn’t quite the right color. Nickel wasn’t strong enough. Zinc wasn’t shiny enough. And Platinum? It was close to platinum, but far too light, although it did have a similar bluish tint.

She clawed at the pages of the book, flipping them carelessly. And miraculously, one of those aggravated and near page tearing fits of frustration yielded some interesting information when her eye caught the word ‘technology.’ It was a tiny entry by comparison to the others, but her instincts told her this was what she needed:

Palladium: An extremely rare, silver-colored metal once found in the area around Althena’s Temple. What few sizeable samples that were discovered have long since been lost. This material had the ability to withstand immense magical attacks. Upon its discovery, it was thought to be the perfect material for the fabrication of armor. It also has the ability to allow selective permeation of magic as well as air. This metal is harder than platinum, but more malleable. To utilize Palladium to its fullest potential, a mage with a great knowledge of both magic and technology would be needed. The scarcity of this metal has made research impossible and it is now considered by many to be little more than rumor and myth.

She read it over and over. Yes, if Gravitt wanted to contain that magic inside those things, and release some if it at given times, this would be perfect. She was so engrossed in the book that she didn’t notice someone slide into the chair across from her until he spoke. “Hello Artie.”

Looking up, she gave a smirk at her blonde friend, “Hey, you’re no fun. You put your clothes back on! But I have to say, the blush still looks good on you.”

He gave her a tiny grin as he set the book he was carrying onto the table. “Uh, yeah.”

She wasn’t going to let him just get away with a lame response like that so she gave a wink and asked, "So, what’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?”

He shook his head ruefully at her, but clearly didn’t have an answer to match the obnoxious question other than: “Research.”

She couldn’t fight the sarcasm. “Wow, really? In here?” After another wink, “What are you looking for?”

“Oh, just something for a friend.”

Artie narrowed her eyes, “The nutcase on the horse that tried to kill me?”

Brinson laughed as he nodded slightly, “Sabre can be a bit…overzealous sometimes.”

“Overprotective, you mean.”

“Both.”

“You haven’t seen her hanging around any chimneys lately, have you?”

“No, she’s afraid of heights. Why?”

“Never mind. It’s not really important, I guess.”

He paused, and gave a glance to the book that she had open in front of her. “Interesting topic you have there.”

“Yeah. Actually, I was going to ask you—anything about your friend Gravitt there that you want to tell me? I don’t exactly trust his ‘gifts.’”

He looked around suspiciously and then leaned over to whisper in her ear. “You shouldn’t, but I can’t tell you why.”

She pulled herself across the table, so they were nose to nose. “Why not? One of those things almost killed Nash this morning.”

“Because I don’t know anything about them. Honestly. He doesn’t tell us anything.”

“Us?”

“Sabre and I.”

“So you do work for him?”

He pushed himself back from the table and stood up, but kept his voice low. “In a manner of speaking, yes. But we never had this conversation.”

Artie was perplexed. “You work for him, but you don’t. You don’t want me to know this, yet you warned me about him. You are part of his delegation, yet he doesn’t tell you anything? That’s the screwiest relationship I’ve ever heard of!”

“I know.”

“What are you afraid of?”

He was clearly terrified as he said: “Everything.”

Before she could question him, he backed away and then turned around, striding out of the library without so much as a glance back at her. As she watched him depart, she recalled the odd mark on his shoulder and remembered where she had seen it before. It was a fleeting memory, but one that stayed with her because of the mystery surrounding it. She had seen it only once before, burned into the back of her father’s best friend. Although that had been when she was a child, the hesitation in her father’s voice and the chilling fact that he had called her by her full name when she had asked about it, told her it was not something to ever be mentioned.

Larkes and her father were such good friends that Artie her and her brothers had called him Uncle. The day she saw his mark, she had been only five years old and was ‘helping’ her father and brothers work on a ship. She was watching from the dock as they sealed the hull of an old fishing boat with tar and caulk when her oldest brother knocked over a bucket of hot tar on an overhead platform. Larkes had been working on scaffolding underneath it, and the boiling tar poured down onto him, covering the back of his shirt. Her uncle had responded almost instantly, tearing the shirt from his back before he could be seriously burned. At first nothing seemed out of the ordinary; men did this all the time. But something on him caught her inquisitive eye—a navy blue tattoo high on his shoulder depicting two tangled serpentines.

Later, after they had quit for the day, she had asked Larkes what it meant, since many of her brothers wore tattoos and each held some significance to something. He just shook his head and walked away. So she asked her brothers but despite her incessant queries, none of them would answer her. Finally, her father took her aside and whispered, “Artemus, you must respect anyone with that mark, and not ask of it. Just accept that any you see that wear it have survived a great trial, and triumphed over it.”

Artie never did learn what the secret behind the tattoo was, but now she was beginning to suspect that the relationship between Brinson and Gravitt was not one of equals. She looked at the book he had left behind, and picked it up. It would make a perfect excuse to go ask him about the tattoo and other things—including Sabre.

As she stood up, a piece of paper sticking out of his book caught her attention. She pulled it out and assumed he had left the note that simply read: “He visited ‘The Ruins’”

She didn’t have to ask who ‘he’ was, and the mentions of The Ruins made the effects of the bark all but vanish as a cold chill ran through her and hit the very bones that were bruised.

******

A quick lunch and some three pieces of bark later landed Artie in the doorway of Mia’s private dining room. She was feeling a little too good, but her smile vanished as Robin’s sharp voice rung out with all the subtlety and compassion of a meat axe. “I thought I told you to stay in bed.”

The engineer fought off the dizziness and shrugged as she took the last available seat that put her right between Nash and Darshak. She was determined not to give Robin even the smallest bit of triumph. Artie looked around the table at the other invited guests and the Council who were gathered for the meeting. Although the table was round, it was clear who was in charge—and even clearer what she wanted. She counted heads—nine people. Nine people were going to decide the fate of Vane. It didn’t seem right, especially given the nature of some of those nine. Of course only one opinion in Vane really matters…

“I again renew my objection and suggest we move to a closed door meeting of council members only, as tradition demands!” Robin’s voice was clipped and direct as she gave a harsh, sweeping glare between Nash, Artie, Darshak and Gravitt.

“Objection has been noted, given its due consideration, and overruled,” was Mia’s only response.

The Guildmaster sat facing the door, flanked by Alastair and Tamora on her left and Robin and Gregory on her right. Something was odd about her. It seemed her violet eyes were trained off in some dream. “I’m sorry if I interrupted anyone’s day, but I’m sure you all know why we’re here,” she said.

Everyone nodded, and she continued, “First of all, we all owe Gravitt a sincere debt of gratitude for his kindness in helping us rebuild our city. Some of you may not yet know this, but he has been our most generous donor. But for this, his most amazing gift, I have no way of giving proper thanks.” Excitement built in her voice as she continued, “Gravitt has found a way to make my greatest dream come true--to give us the means to make Vane fly again. Still, with your help, we may find some way of thanking him for what he has done. That is of course why we are here. We need to set together a plan for action to prepare the city for flight.”

Gravitt grinned as he glanced at Artie. It was a sinister smirk that seemed to cause his silver eyes to cut through her skin. She shivered, and turned back to Mia.

“I spoke with Gravitt at length this morning. He believes the large canisters will charge in a week to ten days. That means we have only that long to set them up and be prepared to raise the city. I don’t believe this is a job for just Artie’s group, nor the Faculty, nor even the guards. I think this is something we all, every citizen and student of Vane, will have to work together to complete.” She gestured gracefully to the far end of the table, as if a string was guiding her arm. “Which is why I asked Artie, Nash and Darshak to join us.”

Alastair asked, “Might I ask why we are rushing into this? It’s quite unlike you, Majesty.”

Mia’s voice was touched with frost as she replied. “Thank you for your concern, Master Alastair, but I assure you that we are not rushing into anything. Gravitt explained that he is afraid that with all the magic we use here, the canisters might be accidentally activated before they are properly placed. If this happened, we would not only lose the canister but that it may even cause serious damage since they may levitate something we did not intend to levitate, or had failed to secure properly. In fact, if triggered out of sequence, they could even tear the city itself apart. As a result, I have asked him to leave them outside the city gates for the time being. I have also placed them under heavy guard until we can begin setting them up, which I hope will be this afternoon.”

Darshak pushed his blond bangs off his brow and frowned. “We will need more help. My men are already working double—and in some cases—triple shifts. Honestly, Majesty, what with the Festival, that horde of visitors, and Master Nash’s Inauguration we are spread incredibly thin. Is there any possible way this could be delayed at least until after Saturday?”

“I understand your concern, Darshak and I am thankful for both your frankness and most especially the dedication you and your people have demonstrated this past week. However, I believe if we get them installed quickly, it will be one less thing the guards have to deal with.”

The Captain of the Guard sighed; Artie could see the defeat in his eyes as well as the frustration of having more work thrown at him and his already abused staff. She had to sympathize, because she knew she was going to be facing the same thing in a few moments herself. She looked back to the Guildmaster, and for the first time noticed a large and softly glowing sapphire stone hanging from her neck, suspended by and set into what appeared (from the distance anyway) to be the same metal as the one used to make the canisters. Nash’s earlier comment came to mind and she was about to ponder the significance of it when a flat, cynical voice broke into her thoughts.

“I assume since details are being discussed that there is not point in arguing whether or not we should even use these things?” The tone from the Healer was aggravated, and for the first time Artie realized they had actually agreed on something.

“I don’t know why we wouldn’t, Master Robin. They are a viable means to raise the city.”

“Are we sure they will work as expected? I don’t suppose they’ve been tested on this scale anywhere else before? Frankly, Majesty, I was not all that impressed by last night’s demonstration. As Tamora pointed out then, the most junior mage on the staff could have floated that table. If it’s not tested, it can’t be trusted.”

Gravitt’s voice was even as he quietly responded, “I don’t believe anyone else has had a need for them as you do.”

Mia’s eyes dashed across the room and stared down her critics before an almost desperate look crept behind her detached eyes. “Can’t we take a chance? What do we have to lose?”

“Lose, Majesty? We have everything to lose! Need I remind you that we’ve taken chances in the past and paid the consequences for them many times over?! I believe these devices should be further investigated on the medical, technical and magical planes before we even attempt to raise our city with them.”

Gregory sighed, every small wisdom line of his face purporting into a grimace. “As surprising as it seems, I agree with Robin.” He stood up and gave a bow, addressing Mia more than anyone else. “Majesty, pardon my interruption and my brusqueness, but I feel I must say this.”

A hesitant smile was his cue to continue.

“Majesty, while I am grateful to Gravitt for these canisters, and their unusual contents, I do not feel we should pursue this venture without further research. There are too many answers we must ascertain before we just cast our bets, and our lives, on them. Therefore I must support Master Robin’s position and move that our own experts should examine them, just to err on the side of caution.”

Mia’s voice dropped in a slight amount of aggravation. “What for instance, Master Gregory, do we need to know that hasn’t already been told to us?”

The old man didn’t hesitate as he replied, looking directly at her and listed four questions, counting them out on his fingers for effect. “One; how do they work? Two; why do they work? Three; can they be relied upon to not just raise the city but to keep it aloft permanently? Four--and most importantly--are there any side effects?”

Mia seemed frustrated, but she still decided to appease him. Turning to look directly at the engineer, she asked, “Have you heard of these devices, Master Artemus?”

Artie felt all the eyes fall on her. “Slightly. I examined one this morning.”

Gravitt gave a surprised glare at her statement, one, Artie noted, he quickly covered up as he pretended to listen to her with interest.

“Could you satisfy Master Gregory’s curiosity?”

Artie nodded, and felt her palms begin to sweat. Talking in front of people—especially such distinguished company--was unnerving. So with a deep breath, she tried to clear her mind and dissected the questions one by one. “First of all, they appear to work on basic principles of thrust and capacitance.

“Pardon my ignorance, but would you explain those terms?” Tamora inquired with an air of haughtiness.

She felt like a textbook as she replied, “Capacitance is the ability to store up energy and then release it. I guess you could compare it to a sponge. You fill it up with water until it can’t hold any more, and then you wring it out. It’s kind of the same thing here. The stones absorb magic, and then when they become saturated, you know; so full of water they can’t hold anymore, they have to shed some of it. That’s what produces the thrust, which is just the upward lifting motion.”

They nodded in understanding at her example, and she continued. “As to why they work, I can’t answer that. That’s magic. I don’t do magic.”

Both Tamora and Robin rolled their eyes as Artie said, “I did notice some rather peculiar things about them though.”

“Such as?” Mia asked.

“Such as the fact that they are made out of Palladium, near as I can guess.”

Gravitt played dumb; she knew he would. “What’s Palladium?”

Artie scowled at him, “The metal you used to make those canisters. How can you not know what it is? It’s extremely rare, virtually nonexistent in fact. So where did you get it?”

The reply was again insincere innocence. “I’m not sure. The people I hired to harness the power of the stones had it, or knew where to find it.

Nash spoke up this time, his voice pointed and nervous at the same time. “And who might they be?”

Gravitt gave a warm smile to Nash, as if almost tempting the mage to remove it from his lips. “I’d like to tell you, but one of the conditions they worked under was that they remain anonymous. Prairie mages tend to not like their names released, especially when working for hire. But I assure you I paid for the best, and I always get what I pay for, always.”

Artie gave a timid nod to her audience and then went on. “I also discovered that they have an interesting side effect. They don’t hold the magic so well—they drain out quickly. And they don’t seem particularly choosy about where they get their magic, or how. I guess you could consider that they can kill an interesting side effect.”

She paused as the others stared at her in surprise, though in Mia’s case it seemed mixed with anger—or something. Those violet eyes still didn’t seem right, but with an audible sigh she continued. “Nash had energized the test cylinder with a very strong spell; it should have stayed up in the air for hours. It didn’t, in fact it only lasted a few minutes before it started to lose power. As it started to fall Nash tried to catch it so it wouldn’t be damaged. The second he touched it, the thing latched onto him like a starved leech and just took what it wanted from him! It wasn’t just drawing power; it was sucking it out of him, almost as if it was attacking him! Once he let go, it returned to its path of flight fully recharged, but again lost altitude after another few minutes. So aside from the safety issue, I don’t think even Vane could supply the amount of magic these things require to operate.”

Mia glared at Nash, icicles nearly shooting from her eyes at him. “Did you touch the canister?”

“Yes,” was the abrasive response.

“Were you not at the reception last night?”

“I was.”

“Did you not hear Gravitt’s warning not to touch them once they were activated?”

“I did. And I don’t remember him saying that the damn things were deadly!”

Mia brushed his excuse aside. “Then it was your own fault.”

Nash wasn’t just angry at Mia’s lack of compassion for his brush with death; he was downright frustrated. Artie could tell that just by the way he wrung his hands together under the table. She saw him wipe his palms on his slacks; they were covered in sweat. She knew he had become used to some of the elder mages ignoring or insulting him, because she went through the same thing. But not Mia. Even in the heat of a disagreement, the Guildmaster would always listen to those around her; it was one of the things that Artie respected so much about the woman.

She looked at her friend again and saw him gritting his teeth. This had clearly struck him deeper than anything else—here they were explaining how deadly those devices were and Mia didn’t even show an iota of worry, and then had the gall to turn it around so he looked like an idiot!

And that was just the beginning.

Artie couldn’t believe how quickly Mia shot down every single concern, but her coldness towards Nash was unmatched. She took another bite of the bark, as she realized maybe Nash was right—maybe Mia wouldn’t listen to him or anyone else for that matter. She fought through the fuzziness that the medicine had induced in her and tuned back into the banter of the advisors. Alastair finally asked an intelligent question: “I wonder if we can use these devices as a means of defense? Could we store magic in them and release it when threatened? Or perhaps use them to absorb magical attacks, such as the one that brought Vane down in the first place?”

It was Tamora who replied first. “Interesting idea, Alastair. I might be able to work a spell on them that would make them act as a first line of defense. While I’m not anticipating another attack, I believe we’ve all learned that anything is possible.”

Artie narrowed her eyes. She tried to think of a way that might bring some reason to the table, now that Alastair and Tamora were starting to side with Mia. Was it exhaustion over arguing or were they really seeing something beneficial in Gravitt and his stones?

At least Gregory was still skeptical. “I’m still concerned about how we are going to control these things. What if there is a problem with them, once they are activated? What can we do about it? Can they be overridden or disabled? At best, flight is difficult to achieve, and harder to maintain.”

Is it me, or did that have the sound of personal experience?

Mia beamed—she was winning. “I’m sure once they are in place the four of you could come up with something. In the meantime we need to get them set up. Master Artemus, although I realize you are hurt I must still ask this of you, please have your workers begin placing the largest of the canisters outside the city. Perhaps Rouke can oversee the work for you.”

Artie nodded reluctantly, she would have to give in for now, but only for now. “I guess you want them equidistant apart?”

Mia looked to Gravitt.

Gravitt just grinned. “But of course. That would make the most structural sense, right?”

Robin sighed and the words dripped off her tongue, “I still feel that this is entirely premature. Again, here we are, trusting another outsider to solve Vane’s problems. Have we forgotten what happened to us the last time we did that?”

Artie couldn’t believe she said what she said next. Maybe it was the bark she had been chewing earlier in the day, or maybe she had just had it with Robin and her contempt for the general population. “If you’re going to insult me ‘Master Robin,’ just do it. Don’t use fancy words or dance around it.”

Mia all but snarled at the Healer. “I am sure Master Robin was not intending to imply that for anyone in this room. Are there any other logistical concerns?”

Robin glared at Artie, clearly annoyed at her retort. “Actually, child, I had quite another in mind. You would be well advised to heed your doctor’s advice and stay in bed when you’re using the Fellis bark.”

Nash ignored the exchange between the others and met Mia’s icy glare, and this time he wasn’t backing down. “Yes. What about the strange markings on the canisters? What are they?”

“I agree they are unusual,” said Gregory. “ Again, something that requires a bit more research.”

Alastair sat on the fence, again. “They looked like simple decorations to me, but you know more languages than I’ve forgotten.”

“I didn’t recognize it, but it might be a derivative or dialect of one of the more obscure tongues.”

“Its worth investigating, Majesty,” Tamora added tiredly.

Mia conceded that fact. “Fine. Master Gregory, as the columns are being erected, feel free to try and translate what you think is written on the sides.”

Robin rolled her eyes at the Guildmaster’s obvious naiveté. “Wouldn’t it be smarter to do that before we get them out and up?”

Mia gave a perfect smile to the trying woman, “How is he going to read them if they are covered by tarps in carts, Master Robin?”

“Knowing Gregory, I suspect he’ll think of something.”

The Guildmaster had obviously had enough. She leaned back in her seat, waiving one hand in dismissal and retorting in a bored and very unladylike tone: “Fine, whatever he wants to do. Now, before we all run out of patience, is there anything else?”

Artie frowned at the tone from the black haired woman. She had never seen her this rash nor rude before. Sure, Mia could be businesslike and had told people off, but never in such a way that would alienate someone even for a second. It might put them in their place (like Orinth at the last Faculty meeting) but she had never been quite so malicious. Gregory raised an eyebrow at it too; perhaps he was having similar thoughts.

“I think we’re forgetting one minor detail,” Tamora said quietly. “The Transmission Spring--it will need to be reactivated unless we wish to completely isolate ourselves.”

“Once we are ready to float the city you and I will take care of that,” Mia said flatly.

Artie laughed out loud. She couldn’t hold it back—the bark was really kicking in. When they all looked at her, she grinned, “Yeah, float the city. Anyone else realize we’re stuck in the ground or am I the only one to have noticed that fact lately?”

Nash smiled at her. So did Gregory. And even Robin. Mia’s plan had a fatal flaw they hadn’t realized. Even if they could levitate the buildings, and their foundations, what about the ground under them? The city was still an island, but an island washed ashore! Surely those canisters didn’t have enough pull to take the earth with them!

She thought they had won, and the look on the Guildmaster’s face—one that spoke of a hope destroyed with one touch of cold reality—confirmed it.

Until Gravitt spoke.

His lips curled, showing his teeth as he said, “I can assure you that won’t be a problem, Artemus.”

“How?” Nash asked the single word coated in such sarcasm it surprised Artie.

The merchant raised a hand, and Artie waited for a serpent’s tongue to jump from Gravitt’s mouth, since he was laying it on so thick. “Allow me a moment to explain, please.”

Mia was smiling again—faith reflecting in her still vacant violet eyes as she looked at the man.

“I would have offered this information earlier, but I had assumed that Vane was familiar with the concept and existence of Wild Magic.”

The Council—except Gregory—looked from one to another, muttering and shaking their heads. The Illusionist’s glare was set firmly on Gravitt, as though reading his soul and not liking what he found there.

“I am not familiar with the concept. Please explain it, if you don’t mind,” Mia said.

Artie glanced at Nash. For some reason he looked terrified.

Gravitt nodded and gave a smile. “Wild Magic is a term used to describe the extraordinarily potent, yet untrained, natural magic found amongst some members of the Prairie Tribes. In my delegation, I am honored to have the person known as The Quake Child of the Prairie. His name is Brinson Tramonto, and while his control over his power is poor at best, I am quite confident that with the help of some of your finest mages, Majesty, it could be focused enough to sever Vane’s ties to the ground.”

“We probably have mages here more powerful than your friend, and I doubt they could do what you are suggesting. If such a thing is even possible.” Tamora supplied.

Gravitt nearly licked his lips as he held them in anticipation. “I realize it is hard to fathom, but I have seen Brinson level a town without even using a spell—he was driven to anger or something along those lines. Anyway, it was as if he was controlling the ground with just his body or that the planet itself had become an extension of his own arm. I’m not sure how he does it, as with your most capable engineer, I am not qualified to speak of the subject of ‘magic.’ However, I am sure that with some help he could shake Vane free of its prison. Though he will require constant guidance.”

Artie didn’t even have to look up to know that Mia was shining that immaculate smile again. A glance to her left revealed Nash just shaking his head ever so slightly, as if he was being tortured.

“And what makes you so sure of that?” Gregory snapped.

Gravitt smirked, and attempted to stare the old man down. “Because Tribesmen who are Gifted are more forces of nature than they are truly human.” He actually smiled at Gregory’s brief glare of rage and spoke before the other could object. “Don’t misunderstand. Brinson and those like him are quite pleasant individuals, intelligent even considering their limited backgrounds. But when they begin to give in to their Talents, they lose all control. They truly become an extension of whatever it is they are able to control--one utterly without mind, conscience, or soul. So untrained are many of them, that they are no more able to stop their power any more than one can stop a flood or a forest fire. They are just as powerful, and just as dangerous.”

If Gravitt wanted a captive audience, he had it, and he relished it. He was ignoring Nash’s sudden interest in the floor and Gregory’s hate filled stares as that grin on his face grew. Artie wanted to jump on the table and kick him in the mouth, but she contained herself as he finished his seemingly well-rehearsed speech.

“You see, good people, Brinson has been my personal friend for most of our shared lives. Since we were children together, in fact. Though without magic myself I have done all I could to help control his talent, and I’m sad to say that I wasn’t much help at all. Trust me, he has more than enough power to free your city from the ground’s tight embrace…or to destroy it completely. That is why it is best that you have your strongest and most capable mages on hand when we begin.”

Mia was back to her optimistic self, “I am so glad your friend is willing to help us. In return, perhaps we can teach him to control his talent beyond just controlling his temper.” She turned to Tamora and Alastair, “Please meet with this Brinson person and see how he can help us.”

They both nodded; they were back on Mia’s side, along with Gravitt, of course. The engineer took stock of whom she had: Gregory, Robin, and Nash. Darshak, maybe, but only for convenience. She didn’t know what to do, but fortunately Nash did something.

Her friend was beyond furious and frustrated—and he wasn’t bothering to hide it anymore. He stood up and gave fixed stare right into Mia’s eyes as he delivered quite a direct dose of reality in a razor-sharp voice. “You’re just going to use him? Just like that? Don’t you think this could kill him if his power is so uncontrolled? What’s wrong with you Mia? This isn’t like you at all! I don’t understand it!”

Artie stared at the Guildmaster. She didn’t even so much as look in his direction, let alone give him a response; it was as if she hadn’t heard him at all! She beamed at everyone gathered, then stood up, and simply said, “Meeting adjourned.”

Nash threw himself back into his chair, defeated, and people began to file out. He appeared to be tormented by a sort of hopelessness beyond anything she had ever seen before, in anyone. It scared her, so she did the only thing that came to mind. She gave him a sharp punch in the shoulder and then held a piece of bark out to him, jokingly offering the painkiller. But he didn’t even crack a smile at her. He just looked at her, this whole nightmare reflecting in his dark eyes. There was no question now. They were all in big trouble.




Chapter: Prologue 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15



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