The airship juddered and set down outside of Tzen, Memry cheerfully calling out instructions to the flight neophytes about how to brace for landing. Cabanela, already having discovered how to negotiate his long legs, steadied Alma, who shot him a brief smile. He left his arm around her shoulders as Memry finished her landing checks.
“Weeelcome to the Empire, baby,” Cabanela said, shooting a brief glance at the distant outskirts of the town. “Just a quick stop in Tzen, here, and then we can be ooon our way.”
Alma drew herself up, letting the brief moment of familiarity fade as she shrugged his arm away from her shoulders. “I don’t want to spend much time here, Cabanela. Maybe it would be better to send Lynne in to get whatever information it is you need and let her catch up to us.”
Cabanela shook his head. “My baby doesn’t know where to go or whooo to talk to. These people know me here; old friends, nothing like ‘em.”
Alma shrugged. “All right, then, but you’re not going alone. If you go, we go.”
“I tooold you before, baby, I’m not going to run off again.” He bristled, shoulders stiffening at her tone.
She frowned at him. “I know what you told me, but here’s what I’m telling you: until we see Jowd safe, I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
He drew in a long, incensed breath, ready to argue, but Lynne joined the discussion, possibly to defuse the burgeoning quarrel. “We should probably go! We don’t want to draw any more attention than necessary, right?”
Memry joined in, “I think it would be better for the Ladybird and me to stay in the air, rather than hang around here. Have someone send up a signal when you’re ready—we’ll be looking for you.”
Lynne flourished a finger. “You mean like this?” She let a fireball build, then flung it away across the deck.
“Hey! You break it, you buy it!” protested Memry. “No fire on my airship! Just shoot it from the ground—hey! I said the ground!”
Lynne, laughing, juggled another fireball and tossed it to Missile, letting it dissipate as it flew.
Missile pranced, barking, making his breath cold so it puffed out clouds, just for the sheer joy of the noise and the sensation. Cabanela and Alma tried to continue their conversation over the barking, and Memry gesticulated at Lynne as she told her off, until all of them were silenced by a tentative voice.
“…Hello? Um, excuse me?”
Memry peered over the balustrade. “Uh, yes? Can we help you?”
The young woman standing below wrung her hands. “Um, we in town were just wondering if you were bringing provisions, or maybe news…? News of our boys?”
Lynne looked over as well. “Your boys? You mean, like soldiers?”
“Oh, yes, miss, they took all the men away almost a year ago and we haven’t heard anything since. H- have you come from the front? Maybe you know something about the men from Tzen?” She peered up at them, eyes pleading.
Cabanela joined them at the railing. “Iiii’m from Tzen originally, baby, but we don’t know anythin’ about the soldiers right now.”
Her head snapped up at his voice, the appeal in her eyes turning to abject fear. “General Cabanela! I-I didn’t realize this was your p-personal ship, sir. I’m so sorry, I n-never would have dared—” she backed away, bowing deeply, hand going to cover her face in delayed reaction. “P-please, sir, I hope I haven’t offended you. I won’t ask about them again, sir, just please, please…” She wound down into a mumble, face nearly pressed into the dirt as she groveled.
Cabanela straightened and locked eyes with Alma, who stared him grimly down as she stepped to the railing herself. “Don’t worry, we’re not here to harm you,” she said in her gentlest tones. “We have a scant bit of business in town and then we will be away.”
“Anything, anything for General Cabanela,” the girl choked out. “Just, p-please don’t hurt us. We’ll do anything, just please don’t destroy Tzen!”
Cabanela peered at the town, utterly lost. “Baby, I don’t knooow what you’re talking about. I just need to speak to some folks who live here.”
Confusion filled the girl’s voice. “M-my lord, there’s no one left here who knows you. Not. Not, um. After last time you, er, visited…” She looked up, paled, and quickly averted her eyes from Cabanela’s face, putting her hand over her own eyes again.
Alma’s eyes narrowed. “I think you’d better show us.”
She nodded to Memry, who hit the lever that let down the gangplank. Alma, Lynne, and Missile filed off, leaving only Memry and Cabanela, who hesitated at the top of the plank.
“Come on, Mr. Cabanela!” barked Missile. “Don’t be scared!”
Alma stared at him, then huffed out a breath, holding out a hand to him. “Come on. Let’s just get this over with and be on our way.”
He darted a glance at the cowering girl, then carefully walked down the plank, his usual flamboyance muted to near nothing as he put a hand in Alma’s, squeezed with a nearly imperceptible tug, then let go.
“All right, baby, you’re right. Leeeet’s do this.” He stepped out onto the grass, and Memry retracted the gangplank.
“Remember, send up a signal,” she called to Lynne, who nodded and let a brief spark jump off her fingertip, all mirth gone from her face. The airship rose into the air and quickly disappeared into the distance.
As they entered Tzen, the shock spread outward in ripples. A distant scream echoed, then was quickly hushed. The girl ran as soon as she saw an opening; no one chased after her. No one would look directly at Cabanela; they either turned away as he passed, a deliberate turning of backs as he paced through the streets, or they put their hands over their faces, holding them there as if to mask their identities. The soldiers that patrolled the streets in their Magitek armour made the same odd salute, then whispered amongst themselves as they passed by.
The little group hurried through the narrow walkways, avoiding contact as much as possible, past the shops and houses to a ruined building past the edge of town. Cabanela stared at it, his voice remote.
“I liiiived here once, they told me,” he said. “Don’t remember it, but I was booorn to be their servant.”
Alma nodded. He had told them this story, once, long ago when things were wholly different. The Empire had taken this area, destroying the royal family and disrupting centuries of tradition. Cabanela had been taken from the training school that had once stood here and given to the custody of the Empire.
“I always meant to buy this land back someday,” Cabanela continued, face distant. “Seeeems it would be pretty useless now. Got nothin’ here that looks like home.” He strolled onward, toward a small stand of thickly-clustered trees.
“I leeeft some things here in a hiding place a couple—no, you said it was a few years ago now,” he explained over a shoulder. “Hooope they’re still here. There was a man I knew who lived in the forest here, hiiiiding from the Empire. If he’s still here, maaaybe he kept them safe for me.”
Lynne cocked her head to the side, puzzled. “We’re so close to Vector here—why would he stay?”
Cabanela stared into the thicket. “He said he wasn’t sure he’d be welcome anywhere else. For, weeeeell… if he’s still here, you’ll see, baby.”
As they entered the densest part of the thicket, a man appeared to ooze from the shadows. “Cabanela. I knew you’d be back.” His blue skin seemed to disappear into the gloom. “Are you here for your things?”
Cabanela smiled at him, relief in his voice. “If they’re stiiiiill here, baby.” He reached out a hand to clasp the blue man’s shoulder. “Anyhoot, s’gooood to see you still safe. I thought maybe you’d gone loooong since.”
The man slipped backward. “Where’s your friend? I was hoping to see him again.”
Cabanela cocked his head, puzzlement on his face. “Whooo are you talking about, baby?”
The man drew himself up, a scowl appearing. “The masked man. I owe him one. Left me some scars I’d love to repay.” He sneered, formerly affable face twisted in rage. “No more than I owe you though, traitor. Led them right to me, you did. Thought I was gone, huh? Bet you thought I’d died.” A knife appeared in his hand, wickedly sharp edge glinting with an oily gleam. “I’m happy to return the favor.”
Cabanela jumped back, a swipe narrowly missing his chest. “Heeey, man, I haven’t seen you in years! Last I knew, I’d gotten you out of Vector and away from the Doc’s experiments.” He pulled his sword, parrying the man’s mad swings. “Gratitude, nothin’ like it.”
“I don’t owe gratitude to someone who turned around and tried to have me conscripted,” spat the man. “And we all know what happens to your soldiers. Your help might as well have been a death sentence.”
He leapt forward, intent on the attack. “I should have known no tool of the Empire could be trusted.”
Alma stepped in front of Cabanela, knocking the man’s knife away with one well-timed swing of her sword. “Whatever your grievance with this man, I’m afraid we have no time to waste. We don’t want to hurt you. Give him his things and we’ll go our separate ways.” She effortlessly knocked away his continued struggles to reach Cabanela or his knife. Missile dashed in, growling, and Lynne slipped around to flank him, until the man finally stilled and stepped away, evidently giving up the plan.
He chuckled, a black and humorless huff of breath. “I’m only here to protect Tzen, as best as I can. After you took away all their men to play soldier, they needed someone. All they’ve got is me. Everyone else is dead, I hear.” He paced backward. “This isn’t over, Cabanela. I’ll find you again. I only kept your things safe in the hopes that I’d get mine back, and now I know I will.” He gave them the odd salute, hand over his face, and disappeared back into the foliage. “Don’t come back. And if you do, don’t ever be alone.”
Lynne rounded on Cabanela. “What was that all about?”
“I don’t know, baby. I saved him years ago from the magic infusion experiments. I thought we were friends, of a sooort.”
Missile snorted, then sneezed. “He was scared of you, Mr. Cabanela! That’s no way for a friend to be! I’m not scared of my friends!”
Alma looked down at him. “And are you scared of Mr. Cabanela?” she asked, smiling a little sadly.
Missile barked and ran in a circle, tail wagging madly, “Not at all!”
Cabanela grinned fondly down at him. “Thaaanks, kid. A vote of confidence, nothin’ like that either!”
He led them through the forest to a tree that appeared to have been blasted with lightning. Reaching into a hole in the trunk, he retrieved a small metal lockbox, from which he removed a key and a small greenish stone.
“This should get us into the Professor’s laaabs,” he said, brandishing the key with a flourish. “And I found this befoooore when I was snooping around the Doctor’s research suite. I tooook it, hoping it might give me some sort of clue; I don’t think the Doctor had even seeeen it yet.” He handed the stone to Alma. “Look familiar, baby?”
“Magicite!” squeaked Lynne, surprised. “How…?”
“The Doc’s in charge of magic experiments, baby. He must have just finished with this one.” His face went grim. “I’d maaade a distraction so I could sneak into those labs; I can only hope he hasn’t figured out the significance of these stones yet.”
Alma held the stone in her cupped hands, level with her eyes. “Excuse us,” she said to the Esper inside. “Our need is great. We can only ask you to help us, but we won’t force you if you would prefer to rest.”
The Esper’s spectral voice echoed through the clearing, faint at first but growing stronger. “H-help you? With what? More war, more fighting? I won’t help you kill. I’ve seen the magic of too many of my friends used for such terrible things.”
Cabanela put a hand on the magicite; the ensuing scream pierced the clearing. “No! Not him! I won’t be used by someone who killed so many!”
He dropped his hand, his face locked into blank dismay. “I don’t know anything about that, baby, but I wooon’t touch you again.”
Lynne spoke gently, her normal boisterous energy tamped down to unusual gentleness, “We’ll leave you here if you like, but we’re going to rescue your friends in Vector. We have a few here with us, too, and I promised them you’d all be safe. Maduin, Siren, Kirin, and Ifrit. Do you know them?”
The magicite stones floated free from their hiding places, circling the magicite cradled in Alma’s hands. They all gleamed green for a few moments, some incorporeal communication intangible to the rest taking place.
“My name is Seraph,” the esper in the stone finally said. “I will go with you and lend my powers to yours, but—”
“Anyhoot, I said I won’t come near you, baby,” Cabanela cut in smoothly. “I wooon’t ask that of any of your friends.”
“I only add my plea to the others: I beg of you, rescue my friends,” she said sharply. “The others have assured me that you mean us no harm, and indeed, I remember that you were kind, even gentle with me before, even though you didn’t know what I was. For that memory alone, I will withhold judgment. Use our powers if you must, but if I ever deem you unworthy know that I will do my best to strike you down where you stand.”
Cabanela nodded. “It’s a deeeeal.”
He looked around, peering through the foliage for the other denizen of the forest. “If youuu can hear me, thaaanks for protecting Tzen, maaan. We’ll be leaving now. I won’t be back, that I proooomise you.”
He led the way out of the forest, back straight and unbending. Alma, watching the back of his head as she walked, might have been the only one to hear the tiny tremor in his voice as he walked away from the place that had once been home.
Lynne and Missile slipped ahead to scout as Alma and Cabanela made their way out of the small forest into which Tzen was nestled. Without discussion, they all made the mutual decision to avoid going back through the town; the townsfolk were already in enough of an uproar.
Tzen fell behind them quickly, Cabanela setting a quick marching pace and, unusually, moving along without conversation, not even an attempt at a hum or a jaunty whistle to break the silence. Even his usual chaotic energy seemed turned inward, his face drawn and sad. Alma was left with her own thoughts, a loneliness which, she was surprised to find, was unwelcome. Her own thoughts were likely no happier than his. At least misery could be lessened if it was shared. As it was, the long march only made it seem to grow.
She supposed she was the one who should begin the conversation, but all in all, she wasn’t sure what to say. No one in his homeland appeared to want to stand face-to-face with the man, to look him in the eye. She more than understood the feeling. How many times had she gazed at him with searching eyes since the aftermath of the battle at Narshe, only to turn away when his eyes met hers? She saw the man she had always seen, but there had been the embers of madness in his eyes there in Figaro. Repeatedly, without respite or mercy in the course of the last five years, he had come to her, wheedling, promising, begging, threatening, and he had acted on his promises. He had attempted to set her home—no. It was the place she had once thought of as their home that he had desecrated, where the embers of madness had burst into full blaze. The sands of Figaro had extinguished those flames. Had they extinguished his too, by some miracle? Was it some sort of temporary madness, then, brought on by the infusions? But how, then, to explain this amnesia? Was it feigned? A lie? Yet, when he gazed at her with his haunted eyes, she saw nothing but sorrowing honesty and naked confusion in them.
By the goddesses, she was tired of turning this puzzle around and around in her head. She wanted to be able to say that he was one or the other, evil madman or honorable friend. Failing that, she wanted to know that he wouldn’t slip into some fugue yet again. She wanted to be free of the nagging doubt, the fear that she would be forced to kill the man she had counted as family if he fell into that madness again.
“Alma? Hey, baby. Yooou all right?” Cabanela had turned to her, waiting. Alma realized her steps had slowed to almost nothing; she lagged behind him by quite a distance. He had just dispatched a few roaming monsters, entirely without her notice or help. He walked back to her, peering at her. The worry in his eyes was unbearable. How dare he worry about her? Automatically, her gaze slid away from his.
“I’m perfectly well. Just hungry, I suppose.” She glanced around vaguely. “This isn’t a good place to stop; it’s too out in the open. Let’s try to find a little more cover and stop for a rest, shall we?” She knew she sounded unconvincing but it wasn’t exactly a lie. She was hungry, a soul-deep longing for what she had lost. She wanted her home back, but not the empty castle she had left. Home was Jowd, laughing his big booming laugh, all unfettered joy. Home was Kamila, shyly presenting her first attempt at a new machine. Lynne, eyes squeezed in concentration as she practiced picking locks, Missile curled by her feet. And once, Cabanela, lit only by moon and starshine and singing his heart out on the parapets, a serenade for Jowd and her alone.
She shook herself free of the memory. She would see her family home again. She swore it. Jowd, Kamila, Lynne, Missile, and— She tapped her fingers one by one into her palm but stopped before counting all five. She squeezed her fist closed. Save four. Let events decide what fate held for the fifth, and for herself.
The sky slid into twilight, the light breeze that had been pleasant in the sunlight now chilly and insistent. Alma shivered and picked up the pace. Lynne and Missile would be finding their way back to them soon and they would need to make camp for the night.
That evening, as they sat around the campfire, making plans for their entrance to the city, Lynne and Missile seemed oblivious to the tension; Alma would have bet her last gil that neither were. Missile even curled by Cabanela’s side that night, as if to proclaim that he, at least, held no qualms regarding Cabanela’s fidelity. Nevertheless, Lynne’s banter with Missile and Cabanela as they spent the next day and a half crossing the last of the plains to the city seemed more frenetic somehow, as if to make up for the silence between Alma and Cabanela. Alma knew the same doubts that plagued her mind were in Lynne’s. Only Jowd’s rescue could ease the seething anxiety.
As the lights of the city hove into sight, late in the evening two days later, Alma breathed out, a different kind of tension and anticipation filling her body. Jowd was here; answers were here. The machines of Vector were nothing like home, but somewhere in this city, the twisted mirror of Figaro, the beginning of the long road back waited.
Cidgeon took a large gulp of tea and made a face in disgust as he realized it was cold. He had been sitting too long, hunched over the latest specs for the new magitek armor prototypes. The Emperor had specified that he wanted armor that could resist magic used against it. Cidgeon’s brow furrowed as he read that stipulation yet again. Who was the Emperor thinking of attacking? Surely not Thamasa. The existence of magic was a closely guarded secret amongst the village residents. It had to be a more obvious target; given the recent construction of an Imperial base to the East, Cidgeon thought he knew where.
It was time to leave. The Empire had been his base for many years, but the Emperor’s aims were clear. He wouldn’t stop until all was his; Cidgeon’s first duty was to protect his home.
“And what of the boy?” That nagging thought, yet again; Cidgeon’s erstwhile foster project was still much on his mind. He had tried to rationalize: the Emperor and his colleague had dumped that boy on him. Cidgeon had no duty to him beyond raising him. Cabanela was grown, had made his choices. Yet, Cidgeon was fond of him, even through his newest behavioral vagaries. He felt almost like family. His presence had made these cold labs seem almost friendly.
Cidgeon resolved that he would talk to Cabanela once more. Of late, their interactions were strained, almost painfully terse. Cidgeon would make a final effort to talk him from this path; the infusions had clearly taken their toll. Cabanela needed to leave Vector, go somewhere that would remind him of finer, warmer things. Cidgeon was aware of the irony; he had never been a particularly warm human being, “or father,” his traitorous thoughts supplied, but for Cabanela’s own sake, and Cidgeon’s, they needed to go where humanity was the dominant presence, not the cold and metal of machinery.
Cidgeon hopped from his stool and stretched his back with a grunt and a few small cracks. He would take a stroll to Cabanela’s current favorite haunt, the great sparring grounds that stretched behind the castle. He was sure to find him there. Since Cabanela had become a general, leaving his former title of ambassador behind, he had been overseeing the training of the troops night and day. His former diplomacy seemed subsumed in warlike zeal, but they would speak, and Cidgeon would find the words, somewhere within himself, to convince the boy to leave. They would rescue the King of Figaro together and get out, leaving the Empire to implode under its own greed.
He hurried through the halls, nodding at the various lab assistants and court flunkies he knew in only the vaguest of terms, mostly through Cabanela’s connections. He had to admit, Cabanela’s charm had certainly made things easier for the both of them over the years. There was nowhere in Vector Cabanela couldn’t go, it seemed, and that leniency extended to his Imperial custodian.
As Cidgeon climbed the endless stairs leading to the dizzy heights Cabanela favored, he could hear the clamor from the sparring grounds. They must be having some kind of battle royale down there. He sniffed. Was there to be a feast afterward? It smelled odd; roasting meat, the stench of the charnel house, and a metallic, burning scent of ozone mixed in with it.
Some premonition hurried Cidgeon’s feet up the stairs ever more quickly. This was wrong. He could feel the magic in the air, getting stronger with every moment. Cabanela wouldn’t, couldn’t use his magic against his fellows, surely. As he came up the last stairs, he could see the tall, lanky form of Cabanela dancing on the parapets, twirling, arms raised as he exhorted someone below to greater efforts. Cidgeon jumped back as a bolt blasted from the sky, but it earthed itself somewhere lower. Cabanela began to laugh. At first it was a chuckle, then a guffaw, then full-throated, unrestrained laughter, high and wild with almost childlike delight.
“Yeeees, puppet, good! More, moooore!” He called down. Cidgeon edged to the top of the stairs on soundless feet so he could see down into the dueling ground. He couldn’t comprehend the sight at first, but there could be no mistake. Broken bodies littered the earth, mostly charred to a crisp, completely unidentifiable one from the other. A few lone soldiers stood bravely or scattered in some frenzied impulse of survival to the corners, but bolts struck them down with unrelenting ferocity and complete precision.
“Don’t miiiiss even one, baby!” Cabanela pointed and another bolt flew, but not from his own fingers. Cidgeon squinted. A man mirrored him on the blasted earth down below, a man wearing a pure white mask and robes, riding white magitek armor that had clearly also once been pure white, but now ran red with blood. As Cidgeon watched, he struck down the last of the soldiers, then returned to attention, waiting for more orders.
“Whiiiite and red, nothing like it!” Cabanela flipped his own pristine white cloak and brilliant red scarf and twirled all the way to one side of the parapet, then the other. Cidgeon crouched, suddenly sure he did not want to be seen by this capering, laughing madman. This was not the boy he had raised. The Cabanela he knew was gone. This was the man they called the Emperor’s jester; he was a man cruel and cold, with no shred of humanity left within him. Cidgeon had heard the rumors. He had not been prepared for the reality.
“Briiiing in more!” the jester crowed. “Briiing in the boys from Tzen!”
Cidgeon fled. He could not watch that thing he had once considered his boy murder more soldiers. He would have to find another way, a way to knock him out and take him by force. It was clear he would need dedicated medical and mental care before he was lucid enough to face the consequences of these actions. He thought hard as he ran down the stairs. Jowd was here, and from all accounts of the man, might be strong enough to knock Cabanela out and then they could carry him out through the catacombs. They would get to Thamasa and Cidgeon would remand the jester to the care of his old friends, people who were better versed in healing magic. He would take Kamila and Jowd and get them back to their home, then go back to Thamasa and help with the research to return the boy, that fool, to lucidity.
It was a plan, a workable plan. All he needed was to find Jowd.
His breath hitched in something perilously close to a sob. He ran faster, closed his ears to the muffled screams and sobs coming from the sparring arena.
Cidgeon spent the next great while in fervent, feverish research, reconnaissance, and endless frustration. He had thought he could go anywhere in Vector, but had never pushed those boundaries. Now that he was, his limits were becoming all too painfully evident. He had asked for an audience with the Emperor. It had gone predictably. Sith had greeted him, all smiles and politicking, but had deflected the conversation away from his plans for Cabanela or the whereabouts of royal political prisoners.
“My good man,” he had said, “your business is magic, technology, and the merging of the two. And your monsters of course. Stick to that, won’t you? I believe that will suffice. Egads, man! You don’t need more on your plate, surely!” Sith’s magitek bodyguard and adjutant, one of Cidgeon’s own early creations that had been created as a show of possibility for the Emperor, had shown Cidgeon out with no signs of recognition or compunctions as to his own protests on the matter, and that had been the end of that. Sith had refused any further attempts at an audience; Cidgeon’s sources told him that the Emperor was on the verge of terminating Cidgeon’s research. Thus far, he had managed to eke out just enough new information to keep the Emperor intrigued, if not pleased. It was a dance he did not relish, and it took all too much time to stay ahead of the Emperor’s machinations. Dancing had been Cabanela’s forte. Cidgeon found it a clumsy and infuriating waste of mental resources.
He prided himself on his lack of guile, but he had attempted to channel the boy’s charisma and get some information from his colleagues. Dr. Asbolus rode high in the Azul Empire; he was the favored of the Emperor. His research suites were easily triple the size of Cidgeon’s own and his fingers were in pies ranging from ever-increasingly complicated magitek to the magical infusion experiments. Cidgeon had attempted to visit, as if casually, but had been expelled politely if firmly by a lab assistant. Asbolus himself sneered and treated him with open scorn if they happened to cross paths. It was clear his respect for Cidgeon, little as it had been, had waned. Asbolus was a man with no time for fringe research, Cidgeon had heard him explaining loftily to one of the lab assistants. That, at least, was going to plan. Cidgeon had always tried to keep Asbolus from too much interest in the deeper intricacies of monsters and magic, purposefully making magitek seem much the more profitable path. It seemed the doctor had taken the bait.
Cabanela himself visited Asbolus far too frequently for mere tests. He was avoiding Cidgeon, always fifteen or twenty long-legged steps ahead of him when Cidgeon happened to see him at all. His white-robed and masked subordinate always strode by his side, never showing any sign of perturbation or even personality. Cidgeon began to suspect that Asbolus was attempting something new—perhaps the masked man-thing was akin to Sith’s adjutant, a mere mechanical homunculus with only enough intelligence for following orders. But why would he need such a thing? Cabanela had magic and had attained reasonable prowess on the battlefield. He did not need a puppet, and yet he seemed to relish the thing’s presence.
At last, Cidgeon could bear it no longer. Cabanela’s malice grew ever more disturbing by the hour. He visited the doctor without fail every morning and evening; the feel of magic grew ever thicker around him. Cidgeon needed to get him out, now. He couldn’t wait any longer for his chance. He needed to get into Asbolus’s labs. Perhaps he could obtain some clue, if he could but find some kind of research. Any kind of documentation of the process Cabanela had gone through would be helpful. Asbolus’s notes could turn the tide, help Cidgeon turn the whole situation around, but how to get in there?
Something had to give. The days passed, tension mounting higher and higher. Cidgeon had completely changed his daily routine so that he could walk by Asbolus’s suites at times he thought the doctor might be coming or going, slowly putting together the patterns of Asbolus’s daily life. Subterfuge of this sort was not his specialty, but no one else was left to do it. Quietly, he began putting his Imperial affairs in order. He could not leave his experiments for exploitation—the break could happen at any time and he needed to be ready. Any monsters he had were quietly let go or disposed of as humanely as he could. His lab assistants were reassigned, as unobtrusively as possible; the Emperor’s displeasure with him made that seem all too plausible. Cidgeon put on the mask of harried, overworked Professor and bided his time.
He had gleaned some hurried, hushed rumors of a new experiment being run deep within the mining facility. Asbolus was going to attempt a different kind of magical fusion, he’d heard. Cidgeon didn’t know who the unlucky subject was, but he blessed them for the distraction even as he hoped they wouldn’t suffer too prolongedly. Every such experiment he’d tried with monsters and magic had been fatal. In any case, there would be a skeleton crew in the labs; Cidgeon, at last, had a chance to get a good look at Asbolus’s plans and research. He hadn’t seen Cabanela in days, either. Perhaps he was wherever the doctor was.
Once in the labs, a task Cidgeon managed by dint of a magically-fueled shower of pebbles here and a leaking pipe there, lore-powered distraction tactics along with his own shortness of stature, he made his careful way to Asbolus’s offices, a place he had once known well in the early days of magic research. They had been professionally cordial with each other, at that point, often meeting to guardedly share interesting tidbits of research. Fortuitously, Cidgeon managed to distract an assistant just as he was leaving the office, evidently-forgotten medical bag in tow. Cidgeon duly took advantage and slipped in just as the door was closing.
He found the neat rows of leather-bound journals in the place they had always been kept, although they now had a large and imposing lock, a system that appeared to have been bolstered by magic. Cidgeon frowned at it. Asbolus’s skills with small and intricate magitek works were impressive and worrying. The lock was far beyond Cidgeon’s own magical abilities to crack. He thought for a moment. It was clear his time here was coming to an end. There was no further reason to try to be subtle about this, and Asbolus had fallen prey to a basic security error: he had enforced the lock with magic but had not made it difficult to damage. A well-aimed stone, a lore Cidgeon had previously and privately rather derided as useless but one that he was steadily coming to appreciate more as of today, damaged the lock casing and allowed Cidgeon to use a precisely targeted and very small-scale aqua rake to burst the internal pins. The lock broke open, damaged beyond repair.
Cidgeon shrugged. This had to work now; he had tipped his hand. He grabbed the last journal and made sure the door was locked, then sank down to read.
Month X, Day 2
P continues unchanged—the combination of relics appears to keep him perfectly docile, although I note he no longer follows any orders but S’s. A dangerous precedent, and one I have tried to discourage.
S’s obsession with the prisoner and with P continues to spiral to dangerous heights. Have managed to check it for now with regular distractions, but S needs encouragement to remember who his masters are. Perhaps punishment, rather than distraction, is in order. I will consider what can be done.
Month X, Day 4
P’s state unchanged.
S no longer sufficiently entertained by combat testing nor mollified with promises of greater magic. He wants to attempt interrogation of the captive Espers we currently hold, a possible strategy if he were to do it with my supervision. He refuses my presence, however. Yet another distraction is needed. I grow weary of coddling his whims.
Month X, Day 7
General Beauty, to my great surprise, has suggested a potential solution to the question of S’s continual insubordination. His toys are of too great an importance to him. His affections must be curbed. She suggests removing S’s sources of control for P. It is true I have yet to use the Crown on an Esper. I believe her suggestion to have merit. I have prepared to enact this plan in 3 days, following preparation of the Esper subject Sissel. The experiment will take place in Research Room 36A-2 as I deem it to have little chance of mortal harm to either the subject or myself.
P’s state unchanged.
Month X, Day 10
Initial testing of the crown on Sissel appears positive. He responds well to orders, although his magic is not of the flashy kind S favors. It will, however, be of far greater use to the Empire; his ability to speed or slow time on command will no doubt be quite useful to the troops he accompanies. The Emperor is delighted; he has already made plans to send a small contingent of soldiers to Narshe in order to capture the frozen Esper there. An excellent result.
S and P are, however, not as promising. Upon removal of the relics, P sank into a coma from which he has not recovered. He has been ensorcelled for so long that we may have done irreparable harm to his abilities to function. For now, he has been contained for further research and examination.
S is inconsolable at the loss of his so-called “puppet” although he appears to understand that until the crown can be duplicated, it must no longer be held by one subject. He also appears to harbor no further interest in P, turning his entire focus on D99.
Month X, Day 15
Disaster upon disaster today. Where to begin? P recovered enough to escape the cell and turned up wholly unexpectedly in the morgue while I was autopsying one of S’s broken toys. S managed to subdue him and demanded the crown back.
News also came today that the Esper Sissel somehow escaped the soldiers sent to escort him to Narshe. The crown is lost, and Sissel has fled. I am utterly appalled. What an atrocious waste of resources.
S is in a fury. He has decided to terminate P, saying his presence is no longer necessary. In fact, I concur. P has proven nothing but a liability and a distraction for every single person who has come in contact with him. Without him, perhaps S will be easier to control. In typical S fashion, he has decided to use P’s termination as a flashy show of power.
Month X, Day 22
S had P tortured to unrecognizability and sent to South Figaro, there to be executed as a traitor. Good riddance and one in the eye to that old fool as well. S is all but unbearable now, however. He has declared himself no longer Secundus but the only one of his name. For clarity, I shall continue to refer to him as S in these journals.
Primus experimental subject now defunct.
Month X, Day 25
It is time to turn my attention to S’s other obsession. The prisoner is a further distraction and has proved himself remarkably resilient. I have had enough. It is time to help the process along. I have finally found a use for C’s research—if an Esper can be drained of magic and the magic infused into a subject’s blood, what can a monster’s magic be made to do? A fascinating avenue of study. I have decided that prisoner D99 is an excellent test subject; no matter whether the experiment succeeds or fails it acts as a control to S. The experiment will take place in Research Room 19F-6. The room’s subterranean location provides better protection should the experiment go awry. I am prepared to begin tomorrow, I believe.
IF he survives, D99 shall henceforth be referred to in these journals as Tertius, or T.
Cidgeon looked up, aghast. The last entry had been written the day previous; suddenly the Doctor’s mysterious experiment had been made all too clear. Damn the man—the rest of his journal made little sense. Secundus was clearly Cabanela, and the doctor had some mysterious hold on him. Cidgeon gritted his teeth. That was his boy, and Asbolus had corrupted him for some unknowable Imperial whim. He would pay for that.
The late Primus, Cidgeon supposed, was some unfortunate who had survived the infusion experiments and been given to the controlled Cabanela for reasons likewise unclear. Cidgeon could only hope his death would be as quick and as painless as possible. He did some hurried calculations. Three days was barely enough to see that contingent out of Albrook on a regular ship. Cidgeon supposed it didn’t matter.
The most pressing part was this prisoner D99, clearly the mysterious King Jowd of Figaro judging from Cabanela’s interest in him. There wasn’t much time—the experiment could begin any moment. Cidgeon had no more time to wait or prepare. The rescue would have to happen right now.
As the group passed through Vector’s outskirts, spiraling down into the vast quarry that held the ever-sinking city, Alma found herself feeling more and more out of place. On the surface, she shouldn’t have. The whole city was an engineer’s dream and she’d spent enough time in Figaro to be more or less comfortable around machines, despite not having the kind of interest in the way they worked and were built that had been her daughter’s bailiwick. Figaro, however, was warm and inviting, the blue and gold of desert and sky repeated in the flag and representative colors of the place she’d come to call home.
Vector was all oil and iron, brown smog and bloody-red Imperial banners hanging in equal uneasy splendor. Even the air felt hostile. No one smiled at each other or made pleasant small talk. Everyone rushed everywhere. It took Alma some time to realize that the busy streets were a façade. Everyone looked busy so they wouldn’t be stopped by the Imperial soldiers patrolling every corner, but people were noticing the man who had walked into the city center and slowing to gawk before hurrying away.
Cabanela’s head appeared on a swivel as he turned his gaze over the city in which he’d spent much of his life. His face was the picture of bewilderment. Lynne, watching with fascination, finally succumbed to her curiosity.
“Cabanela, what’s wrong with you? Did you eat some bad chicken last night or something?”
Cabanela, watching a patrolling soldier harass a passing woman, absently shook his head, and then appeared to recall himself in the group.
“My head is spinnin’, baby. Nothin’ here is like I remember.” He pointed at the soldiers. “They never used to patrol in the city before. You could see the skyyy... and people could walk around without worryin’ that a soldier would drag them away…” He shook his head again. “Anyhoot, we need to figure out how to get to the Professor’s old place—there’s a passage underneath to the labs that he used to use to get to work. I’m hopin’ weee’ll find him there.”
Alma’s mouth tightened, just a little. She’d heard a great deal about the grumpy Professor who had raised Cabanela, but the idea of her daughter being raised by a man who lived, even part-time, in this cold city seemed far more fearsome now that she’d seen Vector for herself. She knew even less about Thamasa, this Professor’s supposedly real home, then she’d known about Vector, but she found herself hoping it was green and lovely, a place as far-removed from this as she could imagine.
As if divining the direction of her thoughts, Cabanela murmured to her and Lynne, “Don’t wooorry, baby, the Prof. kept Kamila far away from here. He didn’t want her to catch the Emperor’s eye.”
Alma nodded, a tension she’d only barely noticed slightly dispelling. At least this mysterious Cidgeon had that much sense. If only they could find him, she might finally get some answers as to what he had been doing here over the past five years, and what was happening with Cabanela. She dared to hope for just a moment that he might even have found Jowd or at least some news of him but firmly tamped down any impulse to rising optimism.
As they’d unwarily stopped to talk, they were beginning to draw more prolonged attention. Cabanela, never able to resist the allure of movement for long, was snapping his fingers to some unheard beat, a spark bouncing off his nails and sizzling out with each snap. A crowd had begun to gather, townspeople gossiping behind their hands. No one dared to catch any of the party’s eyes; anyone who inadvertently caught Cabanela’s gaze promptly put their hand over their face in the same salute they’d given in Tzen. A soldier hurrying over to break up the gathering gasped when he noticed Cabanela and stood to attention, saluting. Alma noticed yet more people edging away from the back of the crowd and hurrying away, no doubt to tell their employers who and what they’d seen. They needed to stop drawing attention and quickly.
Lynne appeared to have the same idea. “General Cabanela,” she said, drawing her hand over her face in imitation of the salute, “we must get you off the streets, sir. We should get back to the palace.”
The look of astonished loathing Cabanela gave her at her unexpected subservience and his sudden ominous stillness must have passed for the appropriate scorn to the soldiers and townspeople, who started sidling away, watching the sky and his fingers fearfully. Alma nudged him, infinitesimally, with her elbow, and gave him the hand sign when he slid his eyes to her. “Play along.”
She picked up Missile and whispered to him to keep quiet. His ears flattened and she put her hand on his tail to stop or at least partially disguise the wagging he couldn’t seem to control. This disguise hung on a thread. They needed to get off the streets.
Cabanela led them at a quick trot through the streets, avoiding the busiest ones and ducking those who attempted to stop him to curry favor with a seasoned air. Alma supposed that even before all this, he had been used to a certain degree of notoriety, but many of those who came to speak to him exuded an air of fear mixed with a kind of near-reverence. He was the face of magic in this city, a power the Emperor had wielded with laser accuracy for the last five years.
Alma found herself trembling. What if the proximity to the Emperor and to the place he’d held so much power for so long returned him to the laughing monster he’d been? Would she have to fight him, perhaps even kill him, in these dark and unfriendly streets? Missile looked up from his perch in her arms and licked her face.
“Don’t worry, Miss Alma! You don’t have to be scared! I’ll protect you!”
Alma squeezed him and put her face against his fur. “I know, Missile, and I’m counting on you...”
Missile let his tongue loll out in a doggie-smile as he panted, then he licked her again as his tail wagged regardless of her restraining hands.
“We can take on any bad guy together! You, me, Miss Lynne and Mister Cabanela!”
Cabanela turned his head at that and gave her a half-smile. He reached out to ruffle Missile’s ears as something caught his eye; a small, narrow house awaited on the next corner. His steps quickened and he said with an encouraging gesture,
“Hooome, sweet home, baby. Let’s go say hi to the Professor, shaaall we?” As Cabanela danced up the small set of steps to the door of the house, Alma felt a flash of foreboding and stepped back, just as the door opened and an old lady stepped out. She peered up at Cabanela with blurry-eyed incomprehension.
“Who are you?” she said, voice creaking like a rusty gate-hinge. “What brings you to my home?”
Cabanela blinked down at her, nonplussed. His voice, when he spoke, was unaccustomedly uncertain.
“Does… does Professor Cidgeon live here… baby?”
“The old woman’s eyes widened, then squeezed in amiable kindness.
“Oh, he moved back into his research suites long since, boy! When I retired from the castle kitchens, I moved in. Here, don’t I remember you?”
Cabanela smiled and seemed to relax a little. “You shooould! You saw me every day of my life until I left for my fiiirst job outside of Vector!”
The old lady nodded her head. “Won’t you come in? I think I have some cookies and lemonade, dears.”
Lynne peered into the dimness beyond doubtfully. “In there? Do you even have any rooms in there?”
“Come on in inside, love, and you’ll see how we all fit,” said the old woman with a little smile. “There’s plenty of room if I need it.”
Alma slid her eyes down to Missile, whose ears were pricked watchfully but he made no noise of dissent or warning. Shrugging, she put him down and he trotted in ahead of them, plumy tail waving as he disappeared through the doorway. One by one, they followed her, with the old woman herself bringing up the rear. Eyes scanning the street watchfully, she closed the door firmly behind them.
The inside of the house was no more prepossessing then the outside. They filed through a small and narrow hallway, the light flickering queasily overhead. As they reached the end of the hallway, with no doors or windows to the rest of the house making themselves seen, Alma’s unease only grew. She leaned forward to ask Cabanela why his old mentor’s house was such a strange piece of real estate, only to hear a nasty click behind her. It wasn’t really a surprise. Her hands slowly raised, she began to turn, knowing what she’d see. The woman held a large automatic crossbow, hands poised to release a flurry of bolts at one wrong move.
“Whaaat gives, baby?” said Cabanela, already slithering back to put himself in front of Alma. “I thought we were friends.”
She remained stone-faced. “Don’t move, General. Stay still, if that’s possible for you.” She nodded at his companions. “Friends. Is that what you told Tinctoria when you saw him in Tzen? Is that what you told these people? And, be honest… do you even know the meaning of the word?”
“Tinctoria didn’t give me any time to tell him anythin’, baby. Things got a liiittle sticky.”
“I’ll bet. Why don’t you tell him now?”
A cold draft blew in from seemingly nowhere, causing Alma to shiver in the sudden breeze as wood rumbled against wood and the back wall of the house slid away, leaving the man in question to arise from the darkness below, knives already drawn.
“You see, Cabanela? I told you I’d find you again.”
Growling, Missile darted forward, already barking, and launched himself at the man’s knees. He yelped and stumbled backward, a knife clattering downward. Lynne, with lightning reflexes, flung a hand out and Slowed the knife and Tinctoria at the same time, then knocked the knife away from her dog. Blinking, the man fell back down the stairs in slow-motion, but Cabanela reached a long arm past Lynne and grabbed him by his shirt, stopping his fall and setting the man back on the top step.
“Now, look,” Alma said, exasperated, to their antagonists, “This is Cabanela’s homeland. In fact, this was even his home. I was hoping someone would be able to tell me what’s been happening here since he doesn’t seem to know.”
Lynne chimed in, “Can we stop with the surprise attacks and try some negotiation please?” She picked up Missile, still growling at the man on the stairs. “Calm down, buddy, we’re gonna work this out…”
“Stop trying to attack Mister Cabanela! If you try it I’ll… well, I won’t say, “Welcome” to you for sure!”
Alma essayed a tentative smile at the old woman. “You said you used to work at the castle? What’s your name?”
The woman scowled. “I’m not telling you that just so you can turn around and tell the Emperor we attacked his Jester. Do you think we’re idiots?”
Cabanela made a noise that could have been a chuckle. “Jester, baby? Meee?”
She snorted. “You’re certainly no joke to us. You dare to come back here and treat me as though you give a damn about the people you knew when you were a boy? To pretend that you didn’t turn around and betray us all to the Emperor as soon as it was—” she paused, and said the next words as though they were something slimy, “Politically expedient? I suppose someone might laugh it that, but it certainly wouldn’t be me.” She gestured with the crossbow at Alma and Lynne. “And now you have, what, magical floozies at your beck and call too? Managed to get some magic swordswoman and a random thief under your bloody thumb too, somehow? And how much did the Empire pay them for their cooperation, I wonder?”
Lynne, incensed, opened her mouth to say something probably better left unsaid, but Cabanela, who had been staring at the old woman while she ranted, suddenly snapped and pointed at her. Despite herself, she flinched, then glared at him.
“Acacia! Riiiight, baby? From the castle kitchens; nice to see you didn’t misleeead me on that one. Best seed cakes in the palace, I remember.”
Tinctoria, having recovered from the Slow spell, muttered, “Oh, great, and now her cover’s blown too.” He looked ruefully at Acacia. “What should we do?”
She squinted at the group but said nothing for a long, tense moment. Lynne said, “I suppose we should have known there would be counterspies here, but you’re a little behind on the news! I feel now would be a great time to mention that we’re not with the Empire… and by the way, that’s treasure hunter to you! Not thief!”
Tinctoria scowled. “There’s no way we’d believe that—any of that. The most feared General in the Empire swanning around the commoner’s quarters of Vector—don’t know what you’re planning, but there’s no way you’re getting out of this.”
“No, really,” Lynne said, with a small smile. “We’re with the Returners, and I can prove it.” She flipped open her coat and took a small pouch off her belt. “This first.” She pulled out a small badge. “See? I got this when I joined.”
Acacia stared at it, then her. “That means nothing,” she finally said, her voice tight. “Looks fake. Like a child’s toy.”
Lynne rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said, “then here’s this. See the seal? This is a letter from the leader of the Returners. Emma? Huge hair? Loud voice? Likes purple. Ring a bell?”
Tinctoria reached out a hand, “Let me see that.” He read it, then handed it to Acacia. “It could be forged but… that looks like her handwriting…”
Alma growled. “Look, Figaro has been working with the Returners for years now to get our King back. Are you really telling me you didn’t know that? If Emma is your contact, she would have told you about all of this.”
Acacia’s gaze caught on Cabanela’s and held it. “He changed when magic came back in the world. You might have too, especially since you now wield it. This letter says you’re the Queen of Figaro? Well, your Majesty, we’ve learned to our cost that politics and magic shouldn’t mix. And there are some fearsome rumors about what he can do with that magic of his...and… we haven’t heard from Emma directly in weeks. Not since the General went to Narshe… not that we’ve heard anything from him either until now…” She sighed as she wound down. “But this letter… I guess you’ve earned the right to tell your story. Come downstairs, and let’s… negotiate, as you put it.”
They filed down the narrow, dark stairway to a room far below ground level, lit only by small luminaires at the corners. Acacia reengaged the safety lock and set the crossbow carefully into a corner before turning to Cabanela.
“Alright, General. Talk.”
The small, dim room seemed to get many degrees colder as Cabanela did his best to explain the tangled mess of magic, international politics, courtly intrigue, and his own involvement in the same, with a few pointed interjections from Alma and Lynne. The explanation went so long that Missile fell asleep on Lynne’s feet. Acacia and Tinctoria listened with silent skepticism tinged with fear at the tales of the Empire’s depredations.
“This is unbelievable,” Tinctoria said, slumped in his chair, hands to his face. “How deep does this go?”
“Alll the way down, I imagine, baby,” said Cabanela. “How much mooore did they dig? I don’t remember the city being sunk quite this much.”
Acacia snorted. “Every day a little more. No one knows what they’re digging for, exactly, but the rumors are there’s a completely new city under there. If you’re looking for the King of Figaro or captured magical beings there’s your best bet.”
“Well, then that’s where we have to go!” said Lynne, bouncing up and striking a pose. “King Jowd and the espers might be near each other! That will make this easy!”
Alma and Cabanela side-eyed each other. Both knew that “easy” was not the word, but what else were they to do, in the end? If their mission lay deep in the pits under Vector, into hell they would go, for Jowd’s sake.
“Well, anyhoot… What about the Prof?” said Cabanela. “Did he really move back into the research suites? We need to find him too.”
Acacia frowned. “No one around here’s seen Professor Cidgeon in a while. He might be at the palace; he might be underground. It’s hard to say.”
Alma tried to hide her impatience. Another diversion, now? It was so hard to be patient, knowing Jowd was close and waiting for her. An old scientist, no matter his connection to Cabanela, was not her priority.
“The old man’s a tough old bird, baby, and vital to this whole plan,” said Cabanela. “He might have crucial info on Jowd’s whereabouts, and we’ll neeed him to get to—“ he stopped abruptly and eyed the Returners. “To his home, so we can pick up Kamila.”
Alma nodded. It was frustrating but she couldn’t deny the logic. “Where should we start?”
Cabanela thought for a moment. “I think the palace miiight be our best bet first. The Emperor used to have him come check on the palace magitek pretty frequently. There was this bodyguard, a reeeal marvel…”
Tinctoria coughed. “A real piece of work, you mean. I’d be careful, Cabanela. Things aren’t the way you remember.”
“I’m assuming you can’t go back to the palace yourself at this point,” said Alma, nodding at Tinctoria. “Acacia, you know Vector the best at this point. What do you suggest?”
“I still have a few friends in the castle,” she said reluctantly. “I suppose we could make a visit… but I can’t be seen in company with him. If the General has been declared a traitor there’s no way he can waltz into the palace.”
“I have to go, baby,” said Cabanela, straightening in alarm. “The Prof wouldn’t trust anyone but me.”
Tinctoria gave a derisive snort. “You sure? No one trusts you at this point.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Alma sighed after a moment and said, “Look, we’re not splitting again. It’s more dangerous to have him out of our sight than to stay together.”
Cabanela’s face twisted but he said nothing, only spreading out a long-fingered hand in a silent invitation for her to continue.
“It will have to be a disguise,” said Alma, looking him up and down. “Lynne, can you get hold of some clothes? Maybe a merchant, or a soldier?”
Lynne chuckled. “I think I can manage that. They may not be exactly the right size…”
Cabanela shrugged. “I won’t like them, no matter what, baby, so just maaake the best of a bad situation.”
“Give me an hour, then,” said Lynne. “Missile? You with me, boy?”
Missile rolled over and opened a sleepy eye. “You go, Miss Lynne! I’ll stay here!” He sidled up to her and said, in what he probably thought was a whisper, “I’m going to protect Miss Alma and Mister Cabanela from these other people while you’re gone!”
Lynne raised an eyebrow at Cabanela and grinned. “Well, one for you anyway. OK, folks, be back as quick as I can!”
It was not quite an hour before she got back, bearing a bundle in triumph. “This should be pretty good; that guy at the inn seemed like a creep anyway so he can just deal with it. But, um. Cabanela?”
He looked up from unknowable thoughts, his scarf running though his fingers as he fidgeted, face blank. “Yeees, baby?”
“Security at the palace is really tight. We can try a disguise but I’m not really sure we’ll get in anyway. I don’t think you should get your hopes up… but I thought of an idea. The innkeeper had a prisoner’s outfit, for some reason? I kind of think he might be an escapee but we have other problems right now. Anyway, I thought maybe we might try bringing you as a prisoner.” She turned to Alma. “I managed to, um, liberate a couple of soldier’s outfits for us. And a set of dog armor for Missile.”
Cabanela recoiled. Alma put a hand on his shoulder, as though she was calming a shying chocobo. “It’s worth a try, Cabanela. I know it’s not ideal, but if you really think we should go to the palace, I think we have to make this work.”
He leaned into her touch and was quiet for a moment, a bare instant of stillness, but then jumped up. “You’re right, of course, baby, and at least it’s not sittin’ around here.” He retreated to a corner and threw on the disguise while the others did similar. The smock was far too large and had a few suspicious stains, but he ignored the discomfort as he hitched up the pants, miraculously long enough, and tied them with a rope. The shoes didn’t remotely fit so he kept his own. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
Alma looked him over uneasily. He didn’t look like a prisoner. He stood straight and proud, face unbruised and his hair perfectly coiffed. She reached up and rumpled it for him as she considered suggesting they rough him up a little, but rejected the notion out of hand. Even for expediency’s sake, she couldn’t do that to him.
“You’re going to have put some of those acting skills I saw at the Opera House to use,” she said. “Put yourself in… in Jowd’s shoes for a moment.”
His face sobered. “Every moment since I left Figaro, baby.”
She twitched, but left her thoughts unsaid, merely contenting herself with, “Are we ready to go?”
Acacia said, “We’ve been slowly building a network of tunnels, but it’s slow going. Of course, the palace is up some levels so we don’t have any underground paths there but we can go over the ducts and get you pretty close to the entrance plaza. It will be up to you from there. Do any of you need anything? Are you all feeling healthy and ready? I have potions if you need them.”
Tinctoria added, “I’ll guide you through the tunnels when you’re ready to go.”
“I think we’re all dressed, and we’ve checked our supplies and equipment,” said Lynne. “Let’s just leave already!”
The trip through the tunnel to the ductwork labyrinth surrounding the pit of the city seemed to fly by, all of them walking quickly, excitement lingering in the air. Action at last; a plan at last. Cidgeon awaited somewhere above; Jowd likewise below. Even a dangerous and breathtaking path over the depths, the group edging carefully over the ductwork, was accomplished without too much fuss, although there was a scare when Lynne put a foot wrong and nearly tripped.
“I wonder if any of the Espers have magic that can make you fly,” Lynne mused aloud. “That would be really useful, don’t you think?”
Alma shrugged. “We can ask if we meet any.”
They arrived at the ladder up to the creaking metal flooring of the entryway to the palace. Cabanela stared up at the ziggurat, looming far above, the Imperial banners billowing in the foul-smelling and fitful wind that blew from the polluted city.
“No time like the present,” said Alma, “and little enough of that. Where do we go from here?”
“I managed to get to the other side of the platform before the soldiers caught me and kicked me out before,” said Lynne. “Don’t worry!” she said in response to the identical frowns of worry Alma and Cabanela shot her way. “I kept it sneaky and just let myself be herded like a good Imperial citizen who had lost her way.” She plucked at her soldier’s outfit. “And now we look like we have a reason to be here, at least. So it should be fine this time!”
Lynne climbed up first, then Alma, who stood watch while Cabanela handed up Missile and then climbed up last. A quick, cursory knotting of rope around his wrists and the prisoner complete with escort stood ready to begin the short march.
“We still don’t want to run into any more people than necessary,” said Alma. “Let’s do our best to avoid the patrols.”
Cabanela squinted at the stairs, which led up to massive doors, the entrance to the inner sanctum of the palace and the Emperor’s throne room. A monstrous figure blocked the way.
“Is thaaat the Emperor’s Guardian up there? What’s it doing here?”
Tinctoria, standing below on the ducts and looking up at them, shuddered. “I told you things were different. That thing has had so many upgrades and changes that no one even knows what all it can do anymore, but everyone knows it’s more than just a little off, it’s absolutely dangerous.”
“Why isn’t it with the Emperor then?” said Lynne, peering up in fascination.
Tinctoria shrugged. “It’s a magitek thing that’s gained some kind of free will. Who knows why it does what it does?”
“Well, anyway, we have to get past it if we want into the palace,” said Alma. “We have a plan; let’s stick to it.”
Tinctoria nodded. “I’m headed back to the hideout. We’ll try to support you if necessary.” He swung a hard glare Cabanela’s way. “I still don’t trust you, General, but they need you for now. Betray my fellow Returners and I will see you dead.”
Cabanela raised an eyebrow. “Not much more to say then, is there, baby? You’d never listen anyway.”
They parted ways, Tinctoria taking his careful footing back across the ducts and Alma, Lynne, and Missile falling into a loose escort formation for the prisoner. They marched up the steps and Lynne and Alma saluted the huge man with a hand splayed across their faces in the gesture they’d seen before.
“We’ve come with the traitor, General Cabanela,” Alma said, making her voice as arrogant and regal as she could, but thankful for the helmet that hid her eyes. “The Emperor will want to see us right away.”
The Guardian sneered down at them. “The General is no traitor, miss. I believe you are all impostors, miss.”
It slapped a strange apparatus in front of it. A wash of magic rolled over the party and the results of the scan flickered on the screen.
“You are Queen Alma, titular ruler of Figaro, your Majesty. You are her bodyguard, Lynne, treasure hunter and Returner liaison, miss, and you are Miss Lynne’s small dog, Missile, sir. I have confirmed that you are not Imperial personnel, your Majesty. As for your companion, he will be detained following your deaths, your Majesty.”
Cabanela broke his bindings with one quick and clever flick of his fingers and slid in front of his escort. “You won’t be killing anyone today, maaan.”
“We shall see, sir.” The huge masked man slapped the apparatus again, causing alarms to wail all around them. “You will not escape, sir.”
Cabanela called the lightning from the sky, aiming it directly at the guardian’s chest. It earthed itself harmlessly, absorbed into the humming shell of magic that arose around the magitek monstrosity. Missile tried a fireball with similar effect, then flung himself forward, barking something about biting the big, masked man, but was repelled by a similar wall of protection that appeared to deflect all physical force. The huge man began to walk forward. It was not fast; it didn’t need to be. It was an indomitable force, bringing doom where it walked. The metal of the flooring crunched beneath every step. The strange apparatus that appeared to control his magic was dragged with him; they could see it was chained to his feet and appeared to roll.
“We need to get out of here,” snapped Alma. “Everyone, retreat back to the entrance.”
“Wait! We can’t lead them back—” said Lynne.
“Yes, I know! Get to the ducts! I have a plan!”
They ran, the guardian following them at a leisurely stroll. As they hopped the fence and jumped back onto the ductwork, the guardian didn’t even lift his feet, still moving forward implacably through the railing and dropping with a huge whump onto the metal below. The whole framework shook, metal creaking and popping underfoot as they backed away.
Missile crouched and growled, ears flattening as he sniffed the air. “The bad man smells strange! I don’t like him at all!”
“Get ready to get back as fast and far as you can,” Alma murmured. She unsheathed her huge sword, standing at the ready. As the Guardian stomped forward, she charged her power and let it go, aiming not at him but at the ducts beneath his feet. “Now! Go!”
Metal began to fall apart at the seams, unable to take the pounding footsteps combined with the force of Alma’s blow. The party backed hurriedly away as the Guardian began to move more quickly, but the metal shook itself apart faster and faster, popping and snapping. With one last colossal shriek, it gave way underfoot, dropping the huge man and his controller into the abyss, leaving the inner paths of the ducts open to the air.
Lynne began a sigh of relief as he fell, hopping backward as the metal shook. The ducts nearly came apart underneath her but held steady and stabilized. Her cheer was cut short; the Guardian reached out and slapped his apparatus in midair, showing no sign of fear. Its drop slowed and stopped as magic flared and spread to encompass the Guardian. He began to float upward, ever so slowly, the magic straining to lift his enormous weight, angling so that he could knock them into the depths himself.
“Guess that answers your question, baby,” said Cabanela, face grim. He shoved his way forward, putting himself in the front again, causing them all to teeter. “You all go. I’ll take care of this.” He readied a spell, preparing to call down the most powerful bolt of lightning he could, in some kind of hope that he could break through the magical shell before the monstrosity reached them.
The first two deflected harmlessly into the void; the third ricocheted back at them, nearly causing the ducts to begin to crumble yet again. Alma grabbed his hand and stopped him before he could cast a fourth.
“It’s useless. We have to get out of here, draw it away—“
“No, Cabanela—we will draw it away.” Acacia and Tinctoria appeared from the inner workings of the ducts, crossbow and knives ready.
“Cabanela—” Tinctoria met his eyes. “I’m sorry.” He gestured helplessly. "I should have known—"
“What?” said Lynne.
“I’m sorry, there’s very little time to explain,” said Acacia, calmly watching the Guardian float upward. “I got word almost as soon as you left that Professor Cidgeon went into the underground facility and hasn’t been seen in months. The Emperor withdrew his support for his projects and turned everything over to the Imperial Doctor’s hands.”
Cabanela went pale. “Asbolus has him?”
“We think he has King Jowd, too,” said Tinctoria. “If you want to save them, you’ll have to go underground.”
“Tinctoria, we have to go,” said Acacia. “Get ready to jump—”
“Wait! What are you planning?” said Alma.
“We’ll draw this thing away from you,” said Acacia. “For the good of the cause!”
She jumped, drawing her own long knife as she fell. Tinctoria took a wild glance at Cabanela, hesitating, but jumped almost in tandem with her, the two of them catching onto the chains near the Guardian’s feet and overwhelming the magic keeping him up. He began to fall again, gravity helped by the momentum of Acacia and Tinctoria swarming around to his back and swinging on the chain to keep the magic control apparatus from his reach. As he flailed at them, they all sank into the depths.
“Cabanela!” called Tinctoria. “There’s something else, something you need to—“ The Guardian managed to grab him, silencing Tinctoria with a grip around his throat. Tinctoria struggled and Acacia went to his rescue, but it wasn’t long before they were too far down into the echoing pit for anything else to be heard.
As they fell, the Guardian’s eyes fixed on Cabanela’s. It bellowed something unhearable. Cabanela held the stare but deliberately turned away after a few seconds.
“We’ll see them again,” he said, iron certainty in his voice. “Let’s find Jowd and da—the Professor.”
There wasn’t much time and all of it needed to be spent in action, not planning; Cidgeon needed to walk and think. He ducked out of the upper labs more or less the same way he had come in, debating the entire time whether a diversion was necessary but ultimately deciding on speed and surprise over flash and noise. As he all but ran into his own suites, to grab the pack he’d already had prepared, Lovey-Dove flitted from her perch where he’d left her. Asbolus’s labs were no place to take the former research subject, but he certainly wouldn’t be leaving his good lady behind.
He stepped out, not bothering to lock the empty and barren labs, sparing not a glance for the place he’d spent so many years. They weren’t lost, weren’t wasted, he told himself. He’d gained far more than he’d spent in this place. Lovey-Dove, certainly, information and plenty of it on the Empire’s aims, a foolish boy that despite himself, he’d come to care for, and through him, a connected family that began with his young protégée back in Thamasa. Jowd, the unknown factor, would be worth the time too, he told himself as he hurried down halls and deeper into the facilities.
His credentials could stop allowing him through at any moment. Research Room 19F-6 was far below the surface, in the old mining section where they dug tirelessly for the metals strong enough to hold the framework of magic and circuitry needed for the endless rounds of magitech experimentation. It was the center of magic research—the labs on the surface were mere satellites to the real work in the blackness below.
Cidgeon calculated as he hurried at a fast shuffle, Lovey-Dove fluttering along behind him or dropping into his pack when she needed a rest. The Espers were held in the E section of the subterranean labs. If he could manage to find and rescue at least a few of them along with Jowd, so much the better. He could take them back to Thamasa, let them hide in the caves until some of the furor blew over. They, too, were family, of a sort, and didn’t deserve to be left with the Empire.
“One in the eye, indeed,” he muttered. What had Asbolus meant by that anyway? He was sure he was the old fool mentioned, but letting this changed Cabanela torture and send some poor peon to a miserable death, while vile, was no worse than any other act the Azulian doctor had perpetrated. Why was this one worthy of comment? Mysteries upon mysteries, and no time to solve them.
At last, he reached the elevator that led to the central hub of the deep mines, through which he could go directly to Section F and cut through it to E. Jowd was minutes away—how long did he have? Would it be enough? The elevator dropped soundlessly into the abyss, taking Cidgeon and Lovey-Dove into the dark.
He stepped out into the brilliantly lit, scrupulously clean halls of the Magitek Facility Research and Development department. It didn’t seem as though they were in the depths. The walls and floors were spotless and gleaming, the acerbic smell of cleaning products hanging in the air over a deeper, more salt/metallic note. Trust Asbolus to take a mining facility and repurpose it to a hospital anyway. The man never could bear to work above suspicion.
The assorted noises and clamor from the halls leading to A-D, the sectors where they researched weapons both mechanical and biological in nature, magic as manifested by non-Esper subjects such as psychics, fortune-tellers, and bards, and the main magitech building facilities, sent Cidgeon skidding down the hall to E and F sectors, which at least had few if any researchers wandering the halls.
He had meant to go directly to F, but there were guards to the doors. E was silent and unguarded for the moment and he knew a less obtrusive entrance into F, a door where he might possibly make less of a scene and preserve the element of surprise when he knocked out the guards. He presumed everyone was either watching the experiment in sector F or going about their business in other sectors, but it really was oddly quiet. Even Lovey-Dove sank into his hair, her body trembling against his head. He could feel her straining not to panic and knew she was reacting to his own nerves.
“Shhh, shhh, old girl,” he murmured, reaching up to soothe her. “We’ll be out soon enough and go back to Thamasa. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
As he turned a corner, the last leading to Sector F, his heart sank. There were two people in the hall ahead. He had done so well avoiding everyone up until now; he just hoped he could talk his way around whatever these two might say to stop him. He forced himself to walk casually, slowly. Perhaps he could stroll right by.
“Where is he?” the shorter, dark-haired one hissed at the older man next to her as Cidgeon came within earshot. “They said my son is here, has been here all along. We have to find him. You promised.”
“Ssh!” the man said through his prodigious beard. “Cait Sissel, you must be patient. We haven’t even come close to searching all these rooms. I can feel their magic here somewhere—“ he whirled around, pinning Cidgeon with his gaze. “Who are you?”
Cidgeon backed a step. “Just passing through,” he said, endeavoring to look harmless.
The old man drew himself up, towering over Cidgeon. “You work here. The stench of their works is on you. “ He frowned. “And a magic I haven’t felt for so many years, not since—“ His eyes narrowed. “Thief,” he said, flinging a hand forward. “You dare to flaunt my own kin’s magic to me after you stole it? What did you do with the Loremaster after you drained his magic, thief? Where is his body?”
The bolt of lightning shot from nowhere; Cidgeon just barely managed to jump back in time. The bolt left a blackened crater in the middle of the otherwise spotless white hall. The woman squeaked and jumped behind her escort, peering fearfully out at Cidgeon.
“Stop!” Cidgeon spat, hoping he could explain before being blasted out of existence. “You’ll draw attention!” He put his hands up. “I’m not an infused being. I have magic naturally.”
“H-how?” husked the woman, peeking around her companion’s robes. “How could a human have Esper magic without stealing it…?”
“How do you?” Cidgeon asked, eluding the question with practiced ease, although he knew the answer from the application of a little critical thought.
“We are magic,” she said simply. “In our bones and blood.”
“Espers,” Cidgeon said. “How did you escape?”
The man said, “There’s no time for this. If you didn’t steal our magic, just answer this. Be you friend or foe?”
Cidgeon snorted. “Few would call me friendly, but I mean you no harm. I was hoping to find any Espers I could, but I have to rescue someone first. Come with me if you want, and I can get you out of here.”
“We have to find my son,” the woman said firmly, with the first spark of determination Cidgeon had yet seen from her. “I won’t go anywhere without him.”
Cidgeon found himself soothing her as though she were a wounded, broken pigeon. At least that was a familiar situation. “We have to find Jowd, and then we’ll rescue your son. What’s his name? What are yours?”
“I’m Ramuh,” the old man said. “This is Cait Sissel—“
“And my son is Sissel,” she said eagerly. “He’s a half-Esper. Have you seen or heard from him?”