“No sign of anything?”
“Not even a fingerprint.” The forensic investigator glared at the bagged note, as if intimidating it would force it to reveal unseen clues. “All I can tell you is that whoever made this has bad handwriting, but it could just be the unsub was in a hurry and didn’t bother with finesse. Graphology isn’t a police tool for various reasons, and even if it was, our guy used print for everything except the signature. We havebupkis.”
“Damn.” Officer Bennett groaned, dragging his hand across his face before turning back to me. “Sorry, but we lowly mortal detectives are just as stumped at the note as you are. We’re looking for the messenger and examining the crime scene, but given how our Inspector wannabe made an already unknown spaceman’s anatomy even more weird, plus how the former guy was able to sneak into a PRT zone and find a single person in the middle of a bunch of ambulances? Don’t count on anything.”
Huh, Nex had a fan club. I had to tell the doppleganger that when I saw him next. “Worth a shot. Thing’s nearly scentless to me.”
“I mean I can scent the obvious manipulative ploy here, but there’s not much more than the harmless static I get when someone’s preparing to ask a question.” I leaned back against a wall, sighing. “Apparently either I or the Medusas think of killing a monster that threatened the capes and expecting some amount of thanks for it is not a sin. Certainly not enough of one to start visualizing what happened.”
“And this is why witnesses are not nearly as good evidence as people think,” the CSI cut in. “We all have our biases, such as positively interpreting the motives of people who save your ass.”
I had to chuckle a little at that. Bennett just shrugged.
“I’d say they’re probably be a break in the case, but what’s the use?” He looked meaningfully at a Medusa. “Honestly, the only way we’re catching this guy at the moment is if we catch him doing something else and he decides to speak up.”
“And that’s where we come in.”
I jerked around.
In the doorway, looking as serious as possible, were two barbazus flanking a male erinyes, dressed in a medal-embossed uniform. The largest honor, a shield with the silhouette of a fortress on it, was displayed prominently over his heart.
“I’m Andel Krais. Officer of the Hunt, Second Class. You are aware of the recent treaty between the Expedition and the United States regarding the enforcement of interplanar crimes, correct?”
“Yes, it was all on the news, but-”
“I am here to inform you that treaty has been invoked.”
One of the barbazus loped up, swiping the bagged note directly from the CSI’s table.
The other officer’s eyes widened. “Hey, that’s police-!”
“You will be allowed full access to any unclassified information and that which is kept private to the police,” Krais began, apparently reciting it from memory. “Any inquiries or complaints will be addressed if formerly lodged, the native officers will be consulted before any formal decision-”
“Wait, what!?” Bennett stepped forward, waving his hands. “What does any of this have to do with our case?”
The uniformed baatezu groaned.“You apparently weren’t paying as much attention as you thought,” he began, irritation obvious. “This concerns an extraplanar race. It’s our case.”
“Look, I know it’s a pain, but-”
“Pain!? Mr. Mayor, are you familiar with the concept of jurisdiction at all?”
One of the many benefits of being a cape was the guarantee that, if you didn’t overdo it, you could file a complaint with the highest authority figure you could find, and at least expect a speedy response. When several older capes, among them the leader of the Protectorate, were on your side in an extraterritoriality dispute (although I suspected Armsmaster was more angry at the idea of one of his jobs being taken over if police had problems), you could even get an appointment.
Over videophone, but still, I don’t think a more normal Taylor would be in a talk with Roy Christner directly… in that I was sitting directly outside the whole discussion, to speak only when asked about what exactly happened.
“I am, but I’m not the person who made that treaty,” he said, in that consoling, friendly tone politicians use when they’re trying to minimize damage to their credibility. “I don’t have a great deal of input into what they can and can’t do.”
“They’re interfering in your city!” Hannah, in full costume, threw up her hands. “You have to have some input!”
The baatezu representative, a horned, human-like falxugon, held up a manicured finger. “Madam, he really doesn’t. As evinced in clause 4, section 2 of the treaty, the native government has, and I quote-”
“I have read that clause, and I can inform you that you are in violation.” The director leaned forward, growling. “Unless I am mistaken, that same treaty states that you must, and I quote, ‘ask permission of the Parahuman Response Team in any case where members of the entities known as the Protectorate or any subordinate organization thereof-’.”
“Which this did not involve, records state Ms. Hebert went to the BBPD first, and legally speaking it was their own responsibility-”
“That is an incredible loophole...”
On my shoulder, a bandaged Tybalt grunted in annoyance. “I know what she’s trying to do, and I can guarantee miss, It will not work,” he whispered in my ear. “Baatezu are masters of the deal that that avoids any stringent obligations on their part.”
“Really? Seems like this guy is trying to cover his ass,” I whispered back.
“I do not know any more polite way to say that, so yes, that is precisely what the Lord Mayor is doing. But this is a calculation on Sir...Iduduamna, I think? Iduduamna’s part. Watch.”
The falxugon listened intently, tapping his fingers anxiously. He looked like he would enjoy being absolutely anywhere else, looking from the mayor to the two representatives of the government’s dealings with superheroes anxiously, like a mouse being cornered.
...With the exception of any sweat at all on Sir Idududre..Idadua....screw it, that name deserved a shortening for the sake of my sanity, Ida’s body at all. Or really any sign he was actually nervous beyond a television actor being obvious for the folks at home. Quietly, being careful not to be seen, I let a Medusa slip its muzzle for a second.
Dear shadow this guy was a manipulative ponce. I would say he was the ideal con man, but I think real con men knew when to stop, so they didn’t lose track of their own life story. For Ida, I don’t think he had a life outside lying. There was so much stink here that it was actually hard to pick out individual actions,
The most recent one, however, was pretending to concede.
“He’s going to suggest a compromise that isn’t really hard for the Expedition to pull off, isn’t he?”
“And he knows the only person who would catch on is us, since we are the ones watching his physical language. We also have a conflict of interest, in that he is representing the motive to remove our own involvement in finding the writer. We could easily be lying” He grimaced. “And of course, you are a teenager and I am an extraterrestrial who Sir Iduaduadmna will likely point out, despises baatezu on principle. There’s little we can do to effect these events, and in fact we may result in our emissary gaining the Lord Mayor’s sympathy for his suggested plan.”
“No. We remain silent.”
Damnit. Well, I had to take these punches as they came. Maybe I could study the treaty, figure out some way to at least get my own input and view of the proceedings-
“Pardon an ol’ doctor for interrupting…”
All attendees to the impromptu conference suddenly turned to face the source of that familiar, rustic tone.
Interlocutor Hugh had somehow come up the door, armature adjusted so he could lean in.
“I, bein’ the effective boss for the kytons around here, was just wonderin’...is this based on general matters or security? We need to be prepared, given how we’re part of the ol’ Expedition too, and we’re probably the one’s analyzin’ what ya bring in…”
Ida looked taken aback, genuinely confused. “Er...both? It can easily be both.”
“Ah. So I was guessin’. Be seein’ you once all this be done…”
I could have sworn that general, easy-going smile usually on his face had a bit of a smirk creep into it as he left.
The rest of the negotiation continued as Tybalt predicted; a lot of hemming and hawing from Ida as his points about the treaty were refuted, occasionally turning to me to describe exactly how the baatezu had barged in, the context behind the note, and so on. Eventually, he “relented,” scare quotes entirely appropriate, and suggested a new deal; the Protectorate and the police would be given specialized terminals that would provide unmoderated access to the digital archives of the Falconer’s Lament, along with the ability to insert a representative into any investigation the Expedition initiated, which they would inform the human police of in advance.
It took me a couple minutes before I noticed the loophole in that.
“They have the most secret of their records in dead-tree form, don’t they.”
“You learn quite fast,” Tybalt whispered back, obviously pleased. “Paper and other physical mediums are easier to enchant to be unreadable, and it’s harder to hack by way of social engineering; you can gain access to the papers, but custodians may notice when they’re gone and it still doesn’t break the cipher spell.”
It was only after leaving the meeting that a potential loophole occurred to me. “What if you take a picture of the papers and don’t disturb them?”
“Hm? Oh, then they are still enchanted and unreadable,” he said, ruefully. “The spell is on the information, not the records themselves.”
Huh. Had to get Cordy to teach that trick.
After the Mayor signed off, my demi-boss, and the one-man alien delegation left, the next order of business in this anarchy was the official debrief.
“You are cursed,” Piggot started, nose being crushed into two dimensions by her massaging. “That is the only possible explanation. You invoked divine ire somewhere along the line, and now everything and everyone around you suffers for it.”
It was at this point that I officially comprehended what kind of job the director had. And I pitied her. I had enough chaos in my life, but a lot of it seemed to favor me. She had to deal with the fallout, all of it. Internally, I made a note to find some way of apologizing...and discovering if Piggot actually would be offended by an apology.
“In all truthfulness, that would not be a surprise, my liege.”
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Tybalt. “Should I expect discipline, ma’am?”
“No, no, it’s the baatezu to blame here,” she replied, rubbing her nose. “I really don’t have anything to say about trying to cover for your own weaknesses.”
“...Thanks?” I said, confused. That was...awfully nice of her. A little bit too nice for the director, but I could roll with it. “And the memo?”
“What do you think?” she deadpanned. “Walking into the lair of a nearly complete unknown with an unknown party backing it, and the only other people allowed are a pacifist and aliens who worship you and anyone else mutated by a mad Tinker as gods?” She looked up. “I desperately hope I don’t have to call an inspection of the training facility.”
“I thought as such.” I would have said I was disappointed, but really, solving this particular mystery was an exercise in stupid-
“Which is why I’m sending you with hidden backup.”
“Er, run that by me-”
“I said that if someone wants a meeting, we shall arrange it. Get this issue off our backs, at least.”
“We are doing what?”
“Avoiding spurious accusations, for one,” Tybalt replied, evenly. “We really do not want to ruin the director’s life over a misplaced fear.”
“Mis-misplaced fear!? She’s been Mastered!” I said, pointing to the general direction of her office, an expression not helped by the fact it wasn’t a particularly large janitor’s closet he and I were in.
“Correction, you believe she has been Mastered. That does not mean she is, and given how your state seems to treat PRT agents suspected of being Mastered, I would give her the benefit of the doubt.”
“And we walk into a trap for the sake of due process?” I gaped at the silvanshee. “Tybalt, I like the fact you have a conscience, but there’s a time and place for that, and the PRT being compromised is neither time nor place.”
“First, that strain of logic is exactly the kind baatezu use to lure people into their web of schemes,” he began, actually narrowing his eyes a little in frustration and anger. “Second, we have had one instance of Piggot being relatively loose with the leash, and you instantly assume she is under some enchantment? Forgive me for my skepticism, but you do understand how this sounds to an outside perspective?”
“Look, I...okay, look,” I said, realizing he had a point there. “I’m going to leave why you seem to hate baatezu out of this, I’m not part of that world. I don’t like bigots in general, but everything Cordy tells me says they’re militaristic, and you, Mr. Altruism-Is-My-Natural-State, may find that repulsive on a truly instinctual level and can’t help it.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“But,” I began, “You have to understand...Piggot’s a bigot herself, one maybe born out of her earlier career combined with the fact she sees the worst of parahumans every day. And now she has proof of an unknown parahuman or at least awnsheglien, aka Diet Parahuman, and she wants me to meet a different parahuman, with only a parahuman hybrid and aliens she doesn’t trust? This is...really out of character for her.”
Tybalt mulled this over. “...Cynical as it is, it’s understandable. I myself was a little flummoxed to her attitude. Which is why,” he began, starting to pace, “I did some of my own research. It is remarkable what kinship with the PRT apprentice’s familiars can help one find.”
He glanced over. “Did you know she was at the siege of Ellisberg?”
It took me a second to connect the dots. “Wait, you’re saying that Nilbog-”
“Is part of the reason she distrusts parahumans, yes. That Waste-led soul is at least partially the reason for her own knee-jerk reaction to the empowered. But that is not the whole of it.”
He slowed his pacing. “Were you also aware that, despite a demographically mixed team and Nilbog’s infamous competence, over ninety percent of the casualties were the unempowered?"
I caught on. “...The capes ran.”
“Precisely. It is parahuman cowardice that truly angers the director. I have no doubt the loss of her countrymen due to the actions of the gifted, combined with the fleshwarped horror of the tyrant of Ellisberg, has bled into all aspects of her opinion on parahumans, but it is abandoning the mundane and the strong refusing the defend the weak that riles her-hence why she both tolerates heroes enough to serve as a liaison, and why she sends the Wards on full patrol missions.”
“That still doesn’t support why-”
“What I am getting at is that this may be simply an oddball decision in her case due to her biases.”
I looked intently at my familiar. “And your support for this position is…?”
“For one, she may be, to use the colloquial expression, playing chicken with a parahuman, seeing if the enigmatic M is as cowardly as she believes parahumans to be,” he said, returning to his quick pacing. “It could be that she is as desperate for some degree of information with the situation as we are, given how she distrusts the Expedition and how they have recently demonstrated a rather extreme grasp of control over something directly pertinent to her. Finally, she could have a lot more faith in her snipers than you give her credit for, and she trusts you and Panacea would be able to escape. Or may just not care overmuch, given her prejudice.”
He stopped. “The point is, caution is all well and good, but we should be careful of that avoiding becoming paranoia instead. Paranoia is quite possibly the most counterproductive emotion in the cosmos, and will get us nowhere except higher blood pressure and lack of sleep. So I would advise us to hold back-for the moment.”
I mulled it over. On the one hand, I knew the horror stories; Piggot herself had beaten in the idea from Day One that it was never too early to invoke the Master/Stranger protocols.
On the other...my familiar was a lot more world-wise than I was, and I didn’t really have faith in my own ability to pay attention to politics after Krais snuck that treaty on us. Who was I to say that, should there be a false positive, Piggot wouldn’t just go back to her old life, none the worse? Would she always have that spectre of doubt over her, for no good reason?
That, and after learning a little of her past...I kind of felt bad for her. She was just doing what she thought was right, forcing who she viewed as untrustworthy jerks to keep to their jobs of saving lives, defending the innocent, and actually being heroes. Yeah, she was biased as all hell, and likely didn’t have the best idea, but...she was human.
That last feeling was what did the trick-it didn’t feel right, a pseudo-parahuman shoveling more crap on her.
I sighed, reluctantly. “I still don’t like following orders I don’t trust.”
“I understand. Such is the absurdity of life.” Tybalt floated over to face me directly. “But I don’t blame you for your feelings, given the most pressing issue.”
“The obvious trap,” I continued, eager to get my mind off that revelation. “If we go, we walk into a completely unknown situation with only Panacea, aliens we can’t trust, and snipers out of their depth for backup.”
“And if we do not, it is a certainty we do not receive whatever knowledge was promised, and find ourselves either censured for insubordination, or we both face censure and alert whatever malefactor in control of the director to the plan going awry, who will then take measures to undo whatever leads we have.” He sighed. “I despise these kinds of conundrum.”
I rubbed my head, feeling the slight tinge of acidic tear. “With the best plan involving walking into a trap. I don’t want to know what a panicked Master would do for a cover up.”
“...Feeling like we are being forced to be stupid by circumstance is not copacetic at all, is it?”
“Especially not when we helped the prime suspect for the Master ‘test his minions’,” I finished. “Time to see if other people can follow Panacea through her portal.”
“You’ve been ordered to what?”
Amy, at least, was still sane enough to realize how insane everything was.
“Follow the instructions of a note, given to me by a PRT agent who doesn’t exist, with only you, a few aliens who worship us, and snipers for backup,” I said, dully. “Apparently I was so great at being a prison escapee I was typecast.”
“...And Piggot’s okay with this?”
“She’s the one that ordered it!” I threw up my arms and wings to truly get in the effect of the exasperation I was trying to convey, with the Medusas helping out. “I mean, I’m going to do my job without complaint (omission), but seriously, this isn’t a smart move at all!”
My brow knitted in confusion as the sin-scent passed by. I didn’t see anyone-
It took me a second to remember why I normally muzzled my Medusas. I quickly shoved them back into my helmet before any more sudden wafting made me screw up this conversation.
Thankfully, Amy was forgiving of minor, implied embarrassments. She put down her clipboard, fully putting her attention on me and not her latest list of patients. “Um, did you alert Master/Stranger-”
“Parahuman enchantment makes this world lose all sanity, doesn’t it?” Tybalt glided in, looking somewhat frustrated. “She considered it. I advised against it. She listened to advice.”
“This world,” Amy began, drawling sarcastically, “Is a bit experienced with evil Masters, yes. Has anyone told you about Heartbreaker, by any-”
“Please do not mention that satyr,” Tybalt said, wincing. “I do not wish to consider him until he is very dead.”
Huh, you learn new slang every day. Had to ask him if “satyr” meant “bastard who uses enchantment to seduce and control women” or “bastard in general” though. But the specific gradation of utter bastards was not a priority. “Suffice to say I’m here not just to ask you to come with, but to see if those portals of yours have room for two.”
Comprehension dawned on Amy’s face. Followed shortly by trepidation. “The Shadow World...really isn’t an escape route. I’ve been working on it, but I can tell you; there are things in that place.” She shivered. “Things I can only avoid because I can look like them. I’ve learned how to use that to port around and treat people, but...let’s just say I’ve never tried with Vic, because I’m not sure if her aura can affect them.”
“...I know this seems random, but how is she doing?” I asked. “She was recovering, as far as I know, but-”
“Why?” The healer’s brow deepened.
I chewed on the inside of my mouth for a second. “...Because I was just thinking of dragging her along for extra backup,” I admitted. “I’m okay with the possible reprimand if we have an extra parahuman fighter if the mysterious Garril on the note-”
Amy’s expression had changed immediately. She still looked disbelieving, but rather than confused, she appeared hopeful and cautiously optimistic.
“Well, why didn’t you say that?” The change from “worried” to “overjoyed” was staggering. Not the least because I didn’t expect Amy to be capable of looking that happy.
Tybalt was a little more on the ball. “...Would Garril happen to be the individual you met who wished to remain anonymous after you gained Chimaera’s power?” he asked, a strange tone creeping in.
“Yes! Yes he is!” Now actively exited. This was not normal joy, this was schoolgirl squealing glee. At least she seemed happy, but-
“Er, I don’t know who he or she is, but if they work for M-”
“No, no he’s nice! He’s really nice! He’s an…awn…”
It appeared Amy suddenly realized she was revealing information not released to the public mid-bounce. In the middle of a hospital. At least one nurse was now staring at the sudden nova of happiness also known as Panacea.
“Ahem. Look, I can get why you’re scared, but I’m telling you, there’s nothing to be scared of. He’s a good guy, although he’s a bit secretive, because-” She squinted at a wall clock. “Oh God look at the time sorry I’ll explain later I’ll take you there at 9:30 gotta go-”
And with that, Amy sped off into a patient room.
“...Well. That happened,” I said, staring at the door. “...You think he’s her boyfriend, Tybalt?”
He didn’t answer. “Tybalt?”
“Oh? Sorry, I was just thinking it over.” The silvanshee’s same odd tone continued to creep in. “...I don’t particularly enjoy what I theorize.”
My mind leapt to the worst and most obvious conclusion. “You think he’s a...satyr, you called him?”
“What? No, no, that was not the effect of a charm spell, thank all that is holy in the world. Charmed are generally incapable of explaining why they like their enchanter so much, and Ms. Dallon only stopped because of time and privacy constraints.” His brow furrowed. “I believe she genuinely enjoys his company and is emboldened by the chance to introduce her friends to each other. It’s just that…” he trailed off.
I motioned silently.
“It’s just that I hope that her attitude is indeed born of romantic affection, and she is simply excitable about her lover. Otherwise…” He inhaled. “I believe that Amy hasn’t been seeing Dr. Yamada. Or anyone else capable of lending a shoulder.”
He suddenly turned towards me, narrowing his eyes.
“...I never asked,” I admitted.
“If you will excuse my sense of superiority here; this is a place where agathions are superior to humans,” he said, strutting back to his normal place at my side. “We actually find out these things.”
What was I supposed to say to that?
Actually, I already knew the answer; nothing at all.
“...Let’s go,” I said, awkwardly.
As Tybalt and I walked out, silently, I started to plan on how to help Amy. First, I would have to ask around, find out her major issues…
(“Made you all natural politicians”, Nex’s voice echoed from my memory. I tried to believe that was a good thing.)
Much to my own frustration, the person I had originally pegged as the only other voice of sanity was now all on board acquiescing to all implied demands. Which meant goblins, which meant unwanted sycophants.
Which meant the two people on our boat who knew how to drive an outboard motorboat (or one-and-a-half, since my one item of experience several years ago was starting the engine) had their knowledge of it “unbecoming” given how “the masters should not chauffeur the servants.”
Instead, I made a discovery; apparently, outboard motors were never invented on Aebrynis.
“...How does the air bladder mix the fuel?”
“No, no, it sucks the fuel into the tank-”
“But the tank has fuel already-”
“Not suction, though.” Amy started to massage her nose. “Look, if you’re not going to let either of us start it, can you not interrupt the instructions, please?”
“...Would that be an affirmation of ability to do so or-”
“Sorry, may, now will you please let me finish?”
On the other side of the boat, I took a guilty pleasure in the fact my friend volunteered before I had a chance. Not that I would have been any better at it, I guessed.
“Be glad we are familiar with internal combustion,” Kozd Hears-All muttered from his own seat, the only hobgoblin on this voyage due to said boat’s size. “I have had to explain that to comrades from primitive areas, and given the natural curiosity of my smaller brethren? I made a habit of arriving an hour earlier to keep things vaguely resembling non-delayed scheduling.”
“Well, at least we can go over what you know,” I began, turning to the self-proclaimed minion. “Amy mentioned Garril has a cape name, Seadrake, at least before your guys aggressively volunteered.”
He shrugged. “It can disrupt efficiency, but that’s the way things are. The blooded of the Great Master lead, the Kindred implement. Simple as that.”
Tybalt opened his mouth for a second, then apparently thought better of it, simply parking a paw next to his mouth and looking perturbed.
“...Seadrake, if you will?”
“Oh yes, heard of him. Anecdotally, you will understand, but still; I am given to understand he’s a privateer and collector.”
Okay, I guessed the latter was a subset of the former, but; “Privateer? Who does he work for, generally?”
“No one, actually,” he said, leaning back. “Last I heard, he was guarding a strait from pirates and mindless sea beasts in return for a regular tithe from passing vessels.”
The term protection racket immediately sprang to mind. I suppressed a grimace. “...I also heard he can’t shapeshift like Amy can. She said he was pretty sensitive about that.”
“I do know that story. The bards say he’s made his peace with it, though; he was still the stronger in the end, even if the Great Master’s crucible burned away his old life as part of his ascension. Not unlike you, Mistress.”
Kozd’s eyes unfocused, as he concentrated on the story rather than me; while I didn’t like him as an author anymore, C.S. Lewis described a particular state and voice a storyteller would use when spinning a yarn, and that’s pretty much the only way Kozd’s expression could be described right now. Not quite grandiose, but definitely taking the Saga of His Personal Life And Rumors He Has Heard with a professional seriousness.
“He was a merchant, so they say. Mostly his business consisted of freight, but he was not above a paying passenger. Eventually, the latter eventually led him to transport an awnsheghlien, which the records call the Iron Hided One, across the waters he plied, though he did not know of the One’s divinity at the time. At some point in the journey, the zephyrs resumed their vendetta and a great windy storm came upon Garril’s ship. While Garril’s crew had weathered storms before, and this was not even a particularly ruthless storm, it did blow the Iron Hided’s disguise away, and in a panic he set on the crew. Garril possessed strength of the mind, however, and in a mighty and cunning blow, ambushed the One with a harpoon. So did Garril prove himself in the eyes of the Great Master and gain the divinity of the unworthy.”
I briefly wondered how a being who, by all “blood memory dreams”, had died as a function of creating said “divinity” could judge anyone, but neither time nor place. Besides, this was an interesting insight into a foreign culture.
“In time, Garril obtained the same appearance as the Iron Hided, but rather than his ascended form being a walking lizard, it seemed as if the merchant was simply undergoing transfiguration after transfiguration. He grew fins. He found he could spit the ink of octopi. His legs became a great, thrashing tail. In time, the divinity drove him mad with despair, and he threw himself to the waves. There, though, he did not find the tears of Nesirie, goddess of morning and the sea-no, he found the greatest gift of a far older god.”
“...His awnshegh abilities have something to with salt water,” I guessed.
“Praise be to the Hand’s wisdom! Yes, the Seadrake draws power from the ocean, and it is upon the awakening of that ability did Garril’s ascension complete. He is a sea-dragon now; a vast and awesome serpent, strong in mind and body. And he has remained in his straits to this day.”
It took a second for Kozd to remember which planet he was on. “Well, not this day, but he is a divine sea-dragon now.”
Huh. I guessed Azrai must have been something of a herpetophile, if there were two snake-based awnsheghlien and one of those got power from a “walking lizard.” A more impish part of me wondered if the “vast and awesome” bit was the reason Amy liked him so much, but I quickly told my inner Dennis to shut up. Panacea was many things, but “shallow” was not one of them.
Speaking of whom, any further discussion was immediately cut off by the very loud success of Amy finally teaching the goblins how to operate the motor.
And with that, three boats (two carrying sniper backup) went out to meet a sea dragon.
As if I wasn’t nervous enough, it appeared Seadrake liked his home isolated and creepy.
It wasn’t an obvious place, which I suppose made sense; in fact, the entrance facing away from Brockton Bay altogether, built into an outcrop of rock. I guessed it wouldn’t be unseen to any ships coming in...but given Leviathan, I doubt he needed to care. I would choose somewhere else that could be equally hidden and private for that very reason, but I digress. Maybe his leg-tail really didn’t lend itself to land exploration.
But once you did notice it, it was hard to not notice how creepy the cove was up close. The outcrop it was on looked out of place, as though someone had actually built it there, in the middle of the sea. To put it bluntly, it looked almost like the movie set of a cove in the middle of the sea, straight from a pirate movie. Too generic, to put it bluntly. Maybe Seadrake had a terrakinesis power Kozd didn’t know, perhaps shaping of coral. Mine were certainly varied enough compared to normal parahumans. It still put me even more on edge, especially given the middle of the sea bit.
The snipers had long since motored off to somewhat stealthy positions, Amy having whispered something to the three respective sniper/spotter teams (why she didn’t use telepathy was beyond me). The goblins, who had picked up the mechanics of the boat surprisingly fast (though we did stall a couple times) slowly puttered towards the strangely mouth-like opening. Tybalt had dug himself in to the boat’s wood, raw dread obvious on his face and over what leaked through the closed emotion circuit. Kozd seemed abnormally interested in adjusting his body armor, and catching quick glances at the surrounding area.
In fact, the only one who didn’t seem nervous at all was, fittingly, Amy. If anything, she seemed a bit impatient, perching on the front of the boat and drumming her fingers against the prow excitedly.
I prayed Seadrake was in fact, just her boyfriend. And this wasn’t a symptom of more mundane mind control. By the story, he already seemed significantly older than her, that didn’t sound like a herald of good things.
Eventually, she motioned to stop, just at the edge of the cove. She turned to face us. “First; I’m going to have to say once again; please don’t freak out. He’s nice but...”
She shrugged. “It’s better if he shows you.”
With that, she turned back to the cove. A second, then; Garril? You in there?
A few more seconds.
“Amy? It be nearly twenty-two hundred by the moon. Why ye calling on me at this hour?”
Huh. He sounded...normal. Deep, but within human ranges. Truth was, I was expecting more of a croak or rumble to go with his rumored appearance.
“You wanted to meet Taylor?”
Huh. Must have used telepathy to guarantee he heard her.
A few more seconds.
“Ye told her about me looks?”
Amy licked her lips a little nervously. “Not...quite. I thought it would be...rude…”
A very long pause. A deep sigh echoed from the chamber. A deep sigh that could have easily been a hissing snake.
A very loud splash followed. The splash of something very large.
A couple seconds later, the water exploded.
As the rain of seawater came down from the column of green, I had another insight to foreign cultures; “sea-dragon” was not a figure of speech.
“Yeah. Bit of a shocker, eh?” A shark-like set of teeth, the suggestion of at least one more layer behind the monster’s two, twisted into a bitter, all too human grin.
I desperately wanted to say something in response. What happened was that I squeaked.
Seadrake’s head had to be as big as the boat, at least. Dark scales rippled and glimmered in the relatively dim light of the lamp, a fractal mesh of borderline reptilian armor. A giant fin, twitching so that it almost looked like a shadowy, organic sail in the light ran from the top of his head to under the waves, and to, presumably, his tail. I couldn’t see all of his head in the light, but enough to see his face as he leaned down, and the general shape. I couldn’t tell what was more disturbing; his teeth, the crimson-colored nictitating membranes, or the distended jaw.
What was most disturbing was the overall shape of his head. Apparently, whatever mechanics of the Azrai neurons that allowed them to modify biology worked off what was already there. Quite simply; apart from the snout his jaw gave him? His head was shaped like a human skull.
Thankfully, his eyes, however huge and bloodshot, were human enough. I could focus on the eyes instead of the everything else.
“I be takin’ that as a yes, then?”
Vocal chords. His vocal cords must not have grown with him. Or something.
I tried to say something again.
“Oi. This be why I warn people about me looks.” He turned his gaze ruefully to Amy.
“...I thought it’d be...invasive,” she sheepishly replied.
Where did he get the metabolic fuel for that growth? I started to wonder if he tried to drown himself just because he looked weird-
Tybalt snapped out of his own paralysis. “Miss Taylor? Are you feeling well?”
I tried to murmur the most intelligent thing I could at the moment.
“...I ken the young lass’ thoughts capsized.”
Heh. Nautical version of a derail. Ha-ha-haaa…
...My week was having worse effects on me than I thought, if I was having this reaction. I cleared my throat, and rubbed the butterfly pin pin.
Trying to cover for my brief hysterics, I awkwardly curtseyed. “I am...er, Dame Taylor Hebert, Kin to Sha-”
“Be at ease. miss. I never cared for the whole damn dance of sayin’ hello to people.” He gave a quick bow of his head, showing the boat in seawater. “Garrlien Suliere, also known as the Seadrake.”
“A truly magnificent display of magnanimity, oh great one,” Kozd began. “Far more kind than-”
“Oh, knock it off,” he said, a bit harshly. “Here’s somethin’ the stories don’t say about me; I ain’t a god, I’m a privateer who doesn’t need a crew. I’ll be happy to take what service I can, but please, stop the boot-lickin’.”
Kozd and the other goblins looked a little taken aback. “...Yes gre-yes, captain.”
Seadrake made a noise I guessed was supposed to be a groan for mutants as large as the average tanker. “Now, we were greetin’ each other?”
“...Taylor Hebert, aka Adrasteia.” I replied, warily.
He apparently caught on to said wariness. “Let’s not try to con Eloéle here; I ken you’re only here because of a note.”
Okay, cutting the bull. I could at least respect this guy’s honesty. “Forgive me if I’m a bit sceptical of what the hell is going on. All I have is Amy’s good word-”
“Hey! Stop talking to him like that!”
“...and my sense of caution has been honed to kind of an edge, particularly given how your guy snuck the note to me.” I finished. “It looks like a threat, in other words.”
The awnsheghlien bobbed his head. “Aye. That be Horos’ doing; he’s not a friendly sort, that modron, even for a machine. Especially for a machine,” he self-corrected.
Sin-scent was in the key of hiding suspicion about content written by someone else. That wasn’t what stood out.
“Modrons, inhabitants of the plane of Mechanus,” Tybalt cut in. “Artificially intelligent clockwork drones whose primary concern is maintaining their own affairs. I’m Ms. Hebert’s familiar, by the by; well met.”
“Oh, ye got a cat sith! Very good fortune,” Seadrake said, not even really looking at Tybalt. Prick. “Back to the old course, Horos be a rogue one, disconnected from the group mind or somethin’ they share. Really never set right with him, but he can’t go back in without dyin’, so here we are.”
Wow. I...felt kind of bad for him. I couldn’t imagine how lonely he would get. No wonder he seemed kind of strange and blunt; probably never could adapt to not having the ability to simply think what you needed to your co-workers.
Back on topic though. “Alien or not, that still looked an awful lot like a threat to me. So, give me one reason why I shouldn’t turn back around and get a PRT team to serve as your permanent house guests.”
“I know what the baatezu want, and how ye can stop em.”
No scent. Okay, good opener. But- “How do I know you didn’t come over with them, and are just trying to diffuse a potential risk before they really get into entrenching themselves.”
“Well, that be a longer story; one I really think needs solid ground to stand on.” He motioned to the cove. “Come on in, I’ll show ye my collection.”
“Um, did you not get the caution part? I’m not going for that, thank you-”
“If you be talking about keeping me in those escorts’ sights, it’s pointless,” he continued, bluntly.
Oh, crap. The goblins winced, Amy paled. and my wings tensed for immanent flight.
“Oh come now, I was guarding Arele for decades! I know what the water disturbance of multiple boats feel like. I guessed, and really, I’m more glad you ain’t a total moron who obeys the Mortal Incarnation of Haelyn’s every whim. Besides,” he said, suddenly very loudly, “I heal faster underwater, where I can still capsize them!”
...And this was why working from unknowns was never fun. Occasionally, you met someone who thought your best general preparation was cute.
Though really, you had to respect the snipers’ nerves. I would have shot as soon as he left the water.
“...Set a course,” I muttered to the goblins, slumping into the boat.
“Okay, there be no real hazards on the way in, but I’d tell you not to stay directly behind me, tail causes a nasty wake. So, Ms. Dallon, how goes life on the mainland?”
Seadrake, it seemed, either couldn’t see in the dark or expected company regularly. Someone had set up a fairly good lighting system, though I didn’t hear any generators for the lights. More magic, I guessed. Didn’t know what kind of effects running a power source with a link to an alien dimension would have, but given the dimness of the arranged spotlights, I suspected there wasn’t exactly a flood of electrons being drawn from the Shadow World.
Speaking of spotlights, the entire cavern was more like a museum of various naval salvage than a home. One wall was taken up almost entirely of neatly stacked shipping containers, facing inward. Each of the open boxes had a different assortment of items, grouped by category; one series of three had bits of engine and other engineering parts, two near the top had what looked like navigation computers, another four had waterlogged consumer goods. How many ships all the items came from, I didn’t want to hazard a guess.
The wall opposing it was more of a showroom; separated by what had to be over a hundred ship wheels (most of which were wood) were rows upon rows of sea-rotted items, arranged neatly on stone shelves. Shelves shaped out of the stone. That probably meant this wasn’t a natural cove after all; more reason to not piss off Seadrake, either he could collapse the ceiling on us or was friends with someone who could.
More than that, where did he get all this stuff? A bit had to be from Aebrynis, but unless there was some kind of dimensional secret smuggler group, I didn’t see how he could get all this junk here. Either that, or any awnsheghlien allies weren’t necessarily as ambivalent about goblins as he was.
Come to think of it, did any goblins arrive before the Baatorian Expedition?
In any case, the final wall was devoted to a small beach with minor amenities on it. Lots of pillows, arranged into what looked to be a bed crossed with a couch. A table was set a little to the side, with a couple of steel chairs and an unlit candle. As much as needed to avoid overexerting the power source, whatever it was.
Said beach also had no dock. No problem for me or Tybalt, but from the expressions on the goblins’ faces, a few of them realized they should have brought boots rather than foot wrapping. Amy didn’t seem to care, though she did have to wring out the hem of her cloak. Probably was used to it, if her excitement coming here was any indication. Or she flew too, now that I thought about it...though that wasn’t likely given how much she liked being a snake, or how far away this cove was.
“Look to be about time we be switchin’ to voice now.”
Not that it deterred her from telepathy, apparently. From the expressions on her and Seadrake’s faces, there was something in there that troubled both. Frustrating, not being able to at least listen to the out-of-context conversation.
“True enough. Let’s get to the...heavier matters,” Amy replied, gingerly speaking on the “heavier” bit. Had to ask her about that later. Not time or place here, and besides, sin-scenting her wasn’t what she needed from a more involved friend. Might push her away if she noticed.
“So…” Seadrake turned to me. “I’d swear to Eloele that you be wonderin’ who sent ya that note, lass?”
“Call me Adrasteia, and whoever Eloele is, I think she might be a little offended by invoking the patently obvious,” I replied, briskly.
“If you knew who the goddess of thieves be, you’d ken the joke.” He bobbed his head in what I assumed was his version of shrugging his soldiers. “But I digress.”
“I ken your brain-box have more than one tool in it, so I’ll confirm what you already guessed; the inker you’re anglin’ for is an old friend o’ mine, and an elder cousin to both of us.”
“Another awnshegh?” I guessed. Really think that realization should have been more shocking, but given how I just discovered an exiled robot was a minion of his...
“Well, it’s a semantic thing if ye ask Horos, but literally nobody else cares, including said elder cousin himself.” He bobbed his head again. “Lad calls himself the Magian, don’t ken his birth name. One of the Lost, if you believe him; first awnsheglien to exist, actually knew Grandpa himself.”
I rose an eyebrow. “.,.And how old is he?”
“That’s the thing; I don’t think even he knows.” Seadrake looked off into space. “I do know he was stuck in the Shadow World for subjective years, and time tends to go funny in the places berks get stuck in.” He shook his head, swishing the water about. “It not be fun.”
Amy shivered. “I can vouch for that.”
I suddenly understood the practical reason Amy didn’t really use her new power. “...Leaving aside the question of your friend’s sanity,” I interjected, “What does he want with me? He wrote something about a token of respect, but you don’t just vow to extract an entire sapient species because of courtesy.”
“Ye aren’t far off. Ol’ Mag’s dealt with derro before, and he says the best place for them is in an asylum. Having met them, I tend to agree with me mate. Cytillesh is nasty stuff. But it’s not only that.”
“Lass?,” he suddenly said to Panacea. “Do ye know the name Haagenti?”
“Ah, Waste,” Tybalt muttered, mimicking my own expression.
“No?” she replied. “Is he the big bad evil guy behind them or-”
“He is a great prince among the tanar’ri,” Kozd suddenly interjected. “A brilliant and twisted alchemist and scientist, he who whispers of his infinite knowledge, and for whom but a taste-”
“We know, thanks,” I replied. “To put it simply Amy, some kind of robot-”
“Retriever with his coat of arms on it was poking around the Shadow World when Dragon was initially exploring it. We think it was trying to hack her own database from there, likely in preparation for its creator sending a force to pursue his racial enemies on Earth. We didn’t want to alert the baatezu or cause panic, so Piggot ordered us to keep mum.” I sighed. “We’re sorry.”
Amy’s face paled. “...There’s an alien prince coming here!?”
Seadrake cleared his throat. “Eh…I hate to be the sudden squall, but, in a sense, he already be here.”
I slowly turned to face the sea-dragon directly. “...Would he happen to be a Change-sorry, shapeshifter with an affinity for tentacles? And derro?”
“Straight to the heart. Mag kenned that workin’ anonymously when his Aspect is firin’ flares just isn’t a seaworthy idea.”
A couple seconds.
I think the sound Amy made was what you tuned dog whistles to. I also assumed the small ripping noise was her briefly losing control over her form. Are you- “Are you serious?”
Before anyone could answer, a healer somewhere between terrified and enraged flew into the middle of the conversation space. “Did I hear that right? There’s a fucking warlord who is a member of a speciesengaged in a century-long war you knew about!? And now he’s already here!?”
Tybalt cleared his throat. “Technically, an Aspect-”
“No, no, she doesn’t let me protect Vic, and idiot though she apparently is, Taylor isn’t a hypocrite.” Amy quickly turned back to me, a small scale patch growing over a narrowed eye. “You’re a stickler for orders,I get that. But New Wave isn’t a bunch of civilians. We can be trusted with this kind of intel, and in fact, actually telling me could have, I don’t know, prevented this whole fiasco in the first place?”
Okay, that just wasn’t fair. “We had no idea what Haagenti’s powers are apart from the fact he’s a professional weapons designer-”
“Like that makes it better-”
“Which means you probably couldn’t help to begin with-”
“At least we would know what we were facing-”
“Which is my point, you still wouldn’t-”
“Lasses, please! Can we delay the recriminations until after everything’s explained, aye?”
“Can we not?” Now Amy’s fury was focused on Seadrake. “We don’t hide in caves, unlike some people-”
“Oi, and here we go-”
“I’m not bringing that up, I’m saying that it would be nice if someone told us-”
“Will my lords PLEASE STOP TALKING!”
And we did.
Apparently the source of Kozd Hears-All’s nickname was not harmed by his own voice at maximum volume.
“I mean, it didn’t seem you were getting anywhere. I apologize if I seemed untoward-”
“You’re fine,” I interrupted. “More than fine.”
I mouthed thank you at the hobgoblin before turning back to the two others involved in the conversation. “As it may, I don’t know exactly what you two talk about when you meet with each other, but as it is, I’m sorry about not telling you, but I honestly don’t see how it would have helped. This probably sounds like a really poor apology, because it is, but right now, I just want to know what the hell is going on. Can we please discuss this a little later?”
The scales were reabsorbed back into Amy’s normal skin, but the glare remained. “...On the boat back, and I’ll be quiet for now.“
“Deal.” And with that, my fellow cape stepped out of the way.
Seadrake, for his part, looked rather taken aback by Kozd’s outburst. Maybe even a little...impressed?
“What was she yelling at you for?” I asked in a moment of hypocritical curiosity.
“Eh? Oh, the lass wants me to sign up for her own crew-she says I’d probably fit right into New Wave.” A slight sardonic grin broke over his face. “I say I don’t think the Bay has that much water (omission).”
“Ah. I...can imagine,” I said, very carefully avoiding the implied issue picked up by the Medusas.
“But, back to the main bearin’-like I said, it’s Haagenti’s Aspect that’s out and about. The demon himself is still coolin’ his heels in the Abyss, small comfort that is.”
“An Aspect is an old magical trick for very powerful beings,” Tybalt cut in. “Some of the most powerful creatures in the planes can’t easily leave their native ones-a foreign environment would disrupt their own massive store of mystical energy and cause severe health problems without preparing the foreign plane, so they splice off a bit of it to create a lesser mental clone. Think of one as a living sketch of oneself-one that’s not quite as powerful or as learned as the original, but with the same personality and powers, and perfectly loyal to the whole until death or reabsorption.”
“...And if the Aspect dies before reabsorption?” I wondered.
“Then the magic infused into it is lost, but it carries much less of a risk, because beings capable of making Aspects usually have a lot of spare magic lying around to begin with.”
“Ah. So I guess Haagenti knows enough to send an Aspect here but doesn’t want to risk himself or his own race yet?”
“And that be why Mag told you to talk to me.” Seadrake dipped over to his collection, and placed a strange-looking polyhedron on the beach. Nine sides. “Recognize the markings on this, la-Adresteia?”
“...The ship beacon,” I said, remembering the day the Lament first landed. “Or...a stone model?”
“Guess again,” he said, turning it over. On its backside was placed a fractal knot of patterns and runes, all arranged in a tight spiral. “This be the low-tech, high-magic version of that lighthouse-it can’t lead a star-sailor, but it can certainly open a link to somewhere already keyed to it.”
I began to feel a pit at the bottom of my stomach. “...keyed to army barracks?”
“Nope, the baatezu be too subtle for that. Any army they garrison is made with the approval of the poor berks already livin’ there. No, this be keyed to a monster zoo-another cousin has seen one.”
It took a second for that to sink in. “..monster...zoo?”
“Aye, and not any fleshwarper’s work, either-there be a lot of angry wildlife in the planes, much of it be sapient. And much of those look like tanar’ri.” Seadrake looked up. “Ye ken where me point is?”
“...False flag,” I murmured.
“Yep. An Aspect of a soddin’ prince gives a nice cover story. Thing is, when the prince is Haagenti, things...get uncertain. You know his favorite nickname, the one he goes by when he’s tryin’ to work behind the scenes?”
“The Whispers...Within, I think you called him?”
“Well, he didn’t get that by being a screamin’ berserk. He’s nowhere close to the patience of most baatezu nobles, but he isn’t someone who does things without thinkin’ them over. I doubt if his mental clone’s any different”
I rolled the idea around in my head. “...So why did he show himself?”
“My kenning (half-truth)? He wants the baatezu to build up-it’s an old game of theirs. They make any clients of theirs wet themselves, and then offer to clean up. With a great deal of extra mates on deck.”
And with that, I suddenly understood the mindset of baatezu a lot more.
I also vowed to keep the Dissian Dinar at home from now on.
Still; “What’s he got to gain from the Expedition knowing he’s here?”
“The thing is, they may not know it’s him.”
Eh? “Sorry, but I don’t think-”
“Thing about tanar’ri? If you’re an infinitely varied species, a lot of ya have similar traits. Haagenti’s gamblin’ on the idea they mistake him for a subspecies, and they probably will. They don’t ken that a prince is goin’ to be interested in a just-discovered backwater planet, parahumans or no parahumans. He isn’t omniscient; the only reason he’d know is if he’d already had knowledge of the planet.”
Huh, that was actually rather...clever…
“If they don’t know...how did you know?”
If Seadrake’s head had normal color, I’m pretty sure it would have drained out of his face. “Eh...well…”
He looked at Amy. “Remember how I’d say I know things you’d get mad at me for, and that the reason I didn’t tell you is because they be sensitive?”
Panacea’s expression turned blank. “...What is it.”
“Well...Adrasteia, ye know how you had musical help with that goblin speech?”
The answer was already obvious. “...One of yours?”
“Real name Jersha, we call her Jeru. Also the Siren.”
I no longer had the capacity to be shocked by these revelations. Particularly given it wasn’t that shocking.
Amy did, however, which is why she was the one to speak next. “Start explaining. Now.”
Mini-Interlude: The Proclaimer, Anointed
There were several things that, if one knew Emily Piggot well, would strike one as odd over the recent months. First, one would notice the temperature of her office was constantly cranked up when she wasn’t keeping a scheduled appointment. This was not so strange in winter, but Piggot would keep the thermostat at the highest possible setting as long as she could, and brought out humidifiers to make it even more hot. The fact that she did all this discreetly would not be so strange, because this was still Emily Piggot, and a parahuman might catch on to some thread they might be able to pull.
That same paranoia would be why the hypothetical person would grow increasingly alarmed that, despite having been clued into a certain functionally mute awnshegh infiltrator, she had not signed the needed paperwork to call in Internal Affairs or even inform her superiors. Yes, she had informed her own branch of the PRT of said infiltrator, but no sightings or even searches for recently hired dark-haired mutes with distinctive text-to-speech devices were ever made.
The final, and perhaps most alarming bit, was her...well, not sleepwalking, as she would seem perfectly awake in her little home. She’d even talk normally, act normally-she’d certainly be very cross with any sudden visitors for disturbing her privacy at this hour (unless you had brought news of a crisis, in which case she’d be all business). But she wouldn’t really recall these episodes, only hazy, dreamlike activity. She certainly wouldn’t recall being cross with a dark-haired mute with a distinctive text-to-speech device for disturbing her privacy at this hour when there was no crisis to manage (no, introducing Adrasteia to her cousin and teammate was not a crisis, no matter how important his information was!).
But nobody was that close to Piggot. Her paranoia about parahumans had led to obsession with her job to the exclusion of, well, Piggot; the closest thing the Director had to friends was the guards posted outside her door even before the Expedition business had really driven her up a wall with managing crises. A truly effective leader, in her mind, made nothing whatsoever personal-something her highest superior in the PRT approved of. Which meant no close friends that might bias her decisions.
So of course, nobody would be in a position to notice any of this. They would not notice the small coating of frost that would occasionally coat her own personal computer’s keyboard, or the fact that whenever this happened, a .txt file hidden in the deeper reaches of said computer’s directory grew a little larger.
It wasn’t nearly complete yet, but if someone knew her starting dream, when she started with this behaviors, it wouldn’t take a Thinker power to guess what the completed file would look like from the starting line;
As Was Once Before, So Shall Be Again….