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The New Game

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The New Game

Nicholas sat in the motorcar, listening to the hypnotic static on the 'portable' wireless set monopolizing the rear passenger seats. Gerard reclined beside him, eyes closed, relaxed set of his jaw indicating that he had dozed off despite protests that he was not as tired as he looked. The demands on all of the remaining Rienish sorcerers continued to be high, as the Gardier in their world resorted to more and more rash actions.

He glared into the mug of coffee he'd poured from the thermos, gloved hands cupped around it to ward off the chill air. He would have preferred not to wait in the vehicle – the metal chassis seemed to suck the heat right out of him – but they would need to react quickly when…. That. Over the hiss of the static came a staccato of faint clicks. Nicholas tossed the rest of the coffee out the window, and cranked the engine. Gerard sat up with a start.

"Is that it?"

"Yes."

The clicking continued as the car behind them purred to life, and Nicholas pulled out of the alley. Gerard looked over at him, the sphere he held now making soft clicks of its own.

"That's the Gardier code?"

Nicholas's answering smile was thin and cold.

* * * * *

"We knew it was probable that Gardier spies were still active in Vienne," Morane had explained several weeks before. "They'd have been trapped like the rest once the Master Gate at Maton-First was destroyed. The problem is that as the resistance becomes more and more desperate, these spies are somehow becoming increasingly effective. It seems likely that the sphere that disappeared from Capidara last month has made its way back here, in enemy hands. The further implications are, I'm sure, clear to all present."

"But where would they get a sorcerer, if all their power came from the crystals?" Colonel Seraim, the new nominal head of the Rienish military, had proved an efficient strategist so far, but he'd found himself inducted into a circle of people much better informed than he was on certain details.

"We know that some of the Aelin were capable of using magic on their own – before they became the Gardier," Niles responded. He'd remained as a liaison to the Viller Institute, as one of the sorcerers most experienced with both using the spheres and fighting the Gardier. "It is possible they've found one of their own who can operate the device. The protective qualities will, of course, work for anyone. If they have sent it here, that and the fact that, all things considered, they haven't been exploiting its full potential, indicates that we're not dealing with someone who is fully trained. Frankly, I think we'd all prefer it be a naturally adept member of the Service caste than the alternative."

Heads around the table nodded.

"That's the bad news," Morane proceeded, his smile becoming slightly less grim. "The good news is that we've managed to pin down some fairly critical information about their operation. We know they are using wireless signals to carry some of their reports. We know the bands they've been using, and are working on breaking their codes."

"You have transcriptions?" Nicholas asked. He'd been silent up to that point, and most of the room had managed to forget he was there. It caused some consternation several meetings later when they realized he'd disappeared again.

* * * * *

The 'portable' wireless was a project still under development by the army. At the moment, it had two major drawbacks. The first was that it was still entirely too bulky to legitimize its name. The second was actually working in their favour tonight – it had a fairly limited range, and the clarity and volume of the transmission both increased proportionately with proximity to the source. Nicholas apparently knew the general area the spies were operating from, and planned to narrow it down further using the device.

Gerard knew better than to inquire where Nicholas has acquired the unit, or just where he'd turned up the carload of armed muscle tailing them as they sped through the streets. It was late enough past the curfew the city still enforced outside of the residential neighbourhoods that they were unlikely to encounter any legal traffic, and the window of time they had for this part of the operation was limited. He braced himself as they came to a sudden stop at a nondescript intersection surrounded by dull warehouses bearing scars from the bombings. "Don't you think we're getting a little old for this?"

"Oh come now. There's nothing wrong with my ears."

He regarded his friend with a look of mild annoyance, knowing the futility of pursuing that line of questioning as well. Tremaine probably could have provoked him into revealing just what she wanted to hear, but they'd had no further contact with her after she'd returned to Cineth. Without her or Arisilde, there was no one around to rein in Nicholas, and no one seemed to know just what he was up to. When he added irony to injury by turning down a road that led away from the apparent source of the transmission, Gerard just sighed, adding it to the list. If he hadn't been confident that the man knew his business, he'd never have answered the summons that had come that morning. Still, the perverse amount of pleasure that Nicholas took in leading him around like this was a touch aggravating.

The shortcut proved its value a minute later, when the clicking picked up, and became quickly louder as they pressed down a particularly narrow alley. They reached a point where their progress was impeded by a hunk of rubble that had collapsed off of one of the damaged warehouses. The transmission ended just as Nicholas killed the engine, the static from the wireless now sounding especially hollow.

There were three men in the other vehicle, and Gerard recognized none as they all piled out. The driver stepped forward, looking between him and Nicholas before speaking.

"Madame said to come along, and help you with anything you need."

Behind him, one of the other men was shouldering a rifle that matched in make the speaker's heavy accent – Gardier. Nicholas just nodded curtly, hands in his pockets. Gerard guessed it wasn't just because he was cold.

"Did she say anything else?"

"To tell you that the renovations to the Opera House are progressing well."

Code, of course, but for what he could only guess. He was still a little out of practice with his Valiarde-speak, but he didn't have time to dwell on it, or the host of other questions the exchange had raised in his mind. Traveling now on foot, the group of five pressed on – not down the street, but into the heart of the ruined building. It was easy for a practiced eye to pick out an established trail through the rubble, circumventing areas where the floor looked weak or the ceiling unstable. The iron staircase leading to the cellar had been shored up with scavenged bricks, but even so, it groaned in ominous protest when one of the Gardier stepped carefully onto it to see if it could support his weight.

All five paused, and from the darkness below came the faint echo of… something. Nicholas looked to him, but he was already affixing his etheric lenses. Peering down the staircase, Gerard could make out a weak blue glow – faint enough that he might have overlooked it in better lighting. It was a very basic cantrip, and the only thing impressive about it was the fact that it had lasted more than a few minutes. There were more effective ways of achieving the desired results, otherwise. He frowned. The architecture reminded him of something, but he couldn't quite place it.

"What is it?"

Gerard realized he'd been staring too long at a very minor enigma when they were still pressed for time. Nicholas was frowning, and the Gardier were waiting for their signal to proceed.

"There is a spell at the bottom of the stairs – not a ward, but passing through it will trigger something *nonmagical*…"

"An explosion?"

"Possibly."

"Can you keep the spell in place while we pass through?"

"Yes."

Nicholas nodded, and waved the men through once Gerard was ready. They hesitated only briefly, their leader's boots clanging quietly against the iron stairs as he headed down. Nicholas started over to supervise, but Gerard held him back.

"Who are they?" The veil of silence was lifted – he figured he may as well inquire.

He received a blithe smile and a lifted eyebrow in return. "Well, they're my Gardier spies, of course."

Gerard sighed, shaking his head as his friend walked away when the man at the bottom of the stairs called out. They'd discovered that the spell had been holding an incendiary – a Gardier device – in place. If triggered, the spell would have released the pressure from the strike lever, and kaboom. It was like a tripwire without the wire.

The lead Gardier, Serit, disarmed the device, handing it off to Nicholas before they proceeded along the adjacent corridor. Nicholas took point, seeming to have a fair grasp of where he was headed. He stayed in sight, waiting for Gerard to give him the all-clear before moving into any new passages.

Managing the goggles was something of an inconvenience, but clearly necessary. The second trap they encountered was similar to the first – eerily similar, in fact. Inexperienced casters were rarely capable of such standardized precision in spell construction. But then, he realized, they weren't dealing with a real caster.

"They're using artifice stones. Commercial ones."

Artifice stones were barely a step up from hedge wizardry. Some considered them a step down, as they could be used by anyone. They were trinkets imbued with charms so simple they barely rated as party tricks – a candle's worth of wizard lights or small flames, a little levitation or kinetic movement, mild confusion or vertigo – not much that couldn't be effected just as easily by a half-decent sleight of hand artist. There had been a market for them, among the bored, the lazy, and the practical jokers of the world.

Nicholas nodded – he couldn't have known what they were dealing with, but that was apparently not going to keep him from acting as though he had. He could have had suspicions, which would lead to lists of names of companies, and employees, and God knew what else. He made up for his apparent omniscience by asking a question.

"The sphere could work with the stones?"

"Someone with enough magical aptitude could do it, yes. That could be what we're seeing here."

He nodded, as though Gerard was simply confirming another pet theory. The Gardier defused this bomb as well, though Gerard was sure Nicholas was capable of it himself. Their involvement remained a mystery, and he was growing tired of playing along.

"Nic, what is going on here?"

* * * * *

Amelie Cusard had the opportunity at Nicholas Valiarde's most recent return from the grave to root out the Gardier agents who had infiltrated her cell of the spy network-cum-resistance force. The others, letting their feelings of betrayal rule their reason, had expected her to simply – or perhaps creatively – dispose of them. But she hadn't kept her place after her husband's death by making rash decisions, and with the reappearance of Himself under strange circumstances, she'd sensed a change in the wind. Instead, she'd held them. And after the events that took place during the liberation of Lodun, that change had come.

It hadn't been easy work. It was part threat, part promise, and a healthy dose of cold, hard facts. Once she'd secured a tentative loyalty, she'd sent them to ferret out their own. Rienish traitors were dealt with more harshly, but the Gardier had their uses.

The three she'd sent with Nicholas, Serit, Vendrin, and Alster, were the three she considered the most reliable. They understood how the lingering war had pushed them all into precarious positions. Talking with Nicholas after they'd retaken the city had made her consider just what their options were. The three Gardier had agreed, and now, they were being tested and it was out of her hands. She could do nothing but hope for the best, and trust that Nicholas was correct. One thing remained for her to take care of, however, and as her nephew entered her chamber, she looked to see it through as well. She pulled her shawl up higher around her shoulders, and shook a stray lock of hair out of her eyes as Ricard approached.

"Mallory reports that everyone is in position."

She nodded. "Anything else?"

"Yes. We searched the areas you indicated, and found a couple of places they'd been stashing supplies. Most of it is pretty basic – food, water, clothes. Some weapons, and some of these." He reached into a coat pocket and passed her a handful of rounded clay pebbles in different colours. She picked up a blue one, running her thumb over the proprietary mark stamped into the smooth surface. Right again.

"Perrin says they're-"

"I know what they are. How large a group do you think we're dealing with?"

"Not many. I'd say not more than seven or eight, and that's being generous."

"And no sign of the wireless?"

"We didn't find the unit, but we came across something that Armand says they could be using to boost the signal. I left him and Lucia there – Mallory's got the rest covered."

"Excellent. Send a runner to call back the other teams - Looks like it is Pascale's after all."

Ricard nodded, and turned to go. Madame Cusard sat down, with little else to do now but wait and see how things went.

* * * * *

The sound of pistol shots echoed from further down the tunnels, and Genevieve scowled at Erevin.

"I told you – I knew it was a trap." She might have expressed her displeasure in greater detail, but it would be a wasted effort. The Gardier's command of Rienish wasn't comprehensive enough to cover the more creative expletives. The dark look she returned made Genevieve wonder if her companion didn't share her feelings. As though she had the right.

"Yes, is trap," she snapped. "Still report good."

Now Genevieve knew she was being petulant. How well Erevin deigned to speak was clear indication of her mood. There were days where Genevieve half wished that if any of the Gardier spell crystals had survived, it could have been one of the translation units. Surely, they'd've both been happier. "Right. Come on."

They'd been using the subway access tunnels to get around, though she wasn't entirely sure how the Gardier had learned of them. These could be reached from various buildings around town, including, through some convenient twist of fate, the warehouse neighbouring that where her brother had rented space for his merchandise. But they weren't the only ones who found the tunnels convenient. Just now, they'd backtracked to avoid the men they'd spotted in the transmission tower alcove. Knowing there would be more, they'd split up to head back towards the entrance, trusting in the security of the protective traps they'd laid. Surly Erevin might be, but she was good at making use of limited resources. That she'd cobbled together the tower in the first place was evidence enough, even if she hadn't, through apparent sheer force of will, managed to make one of the Rienish sorcerer spheres work for her.

How things had changed – and she with them: from a desperate naïf to an equally desperate embittered collaborator. Tarras had been long dead, she now knew, well before they'd promised his safety for her aid. It seemed a lifetime ago, but there was no turning back. Whether she cared about her allies was a moot point – she cared about herself, and there wasn't much of a future for any Rienish caught working with the enemy.

She glanced back at Erevin, wondering why the other woman wasn't following, to find her listening intently. She reached out suddenly and took Genevieve's hand, pulling her back and looking into the darkness ahead. Pausing, Genevieve drew her own pistol and tried not to think about what those earlier shots must have meant. Erevin drew the sphere – a small dull metal ball that glowed a very dim blue along its seams, and made an occasional soft click. It was an underwhelming thing, given all she'd heard they were capable of in the hands of a real trained sorcerer. The minor tricks her brother's artifice stones were capable of could apparently be enhanced enough by the device, however, to facilitate some impressively subtle acts of espionage. But they were a resource that she controlled, which meant that the Gardier needed her, at least for now. Proving the point, Erevin also took out one of the grey stones Genevieve had provided, and offered her arm as she touched the two together, a look of concentration crossing her severe features. Genevieve accepted, clutching her weapon. She could hear something ahead as well.

* * * * *

"Backup," he explained to Gerard, as a second distant ring of gunfire carried to them through the tunnels. Nicholas smiled grimly, but he wasn't pleased. He wanted them alive. Cusard's people had been given much more direct instructions on how to deal with their quarry. It wouldn't do for them to escape, but he'd rather catch them alive. Or some of them, anyway. Thankfully, the mind behind the operation here seemed too careful to blunder into such a direct confrontation. "The artifice stones are capable of minor illusions?"

"Yes, very minor. With the sphere it might be enough to encompass one or two people. I'll keep an eye out." Gerard fiddled with his glasses a moment, frowning. As effective as they were for discerning etheric traces, they were cumbersome, interfered with his normal sight, and limited his peripheral vision. Serit and Alster moved in to cover him, with Vandrin bringing up the rear. The three worked well as a unit, and were quiet – so far so good. He pressed on ahead through the tunnel, keeping to the shadows.

Nicholas noticed that something was out of place just as Gerard stopped. He had his gun in hand as the section of wall ahead of him faded away to reveal two women, one tall and strongly built, and the other small and almost waifish. Both were dressed in worn Rienish clothing. Gerard raised the light around them, and the shadows cast by his wizard lights blanketed the area where Nicholas backed up against the tunnel. The shorter of the two had a pistol pointed beyond him, towards Gerard and the others. The taller one, however, was looking directly at him despite the cover. She held the missing sphere in one hand, and an incendiary in the other.

"You're outnumbered," Gerard proclaimed as he pushed the glasses up off his eyes. "Lay down your weapons and surrender."

"Surrender?" The woman in front gestured with her pistol. "You'll just kill us later. Why should we make this easier on you?"

While she talked, Nicholas flattened himself against the wall. Very cautiously, he took a step forward. Her companion followed him with her gaze, but didn't otherwise react. Possibly, it was just the three rifles trained on her by the Gardier – the other Gardier – but he didn't think so. She had a familiar face, and it showed suggestive traces of confusion.

"I don't think you understand quite what is going on here, Miss Pascale. You are being given a genuine opportunity to keep yourself alive. I would advise against throwing it away. There isn't going to be a repeat offer."

Unlike her companion, she looked frustrated, desperate and afraid, and scowled more deeply at the mention of her name. Genevieve Pascale was the sister of Tarras Pascale, purveyor of occult trinkets and magical supplies. He was one of the few who'd had any success peddling goods to more casual consumers – goods that included artifice stones. Tarras Pascale had been a better business man than a sorcerer, but the Gardier had not been particularly picky as to who they enslaved. And somehow, they'd become experts at exploiting the hope created when a loved one was missing but not known to be dead… If only people were a little less credulous, and a little more wiling to accept that the worst scenario was often also the most likely, the Gardier espionage campaign would have been far less effective. At least, more of it would have been crippled when the control crystals had all shattered.

"Erevin…" Pascale hissed, with a thick undercurrent of 'do something!' One of the Gardier moved, and she switched her aim away from Gerard.

He did know that name. The spy had the courtesy to confirm the connection when she spoke, in Gardier, addressing Nicholas.

"I know you, Adram."

Pascale whirled her aim again when she finally noted him, and Erevin took the opportunity to distance herself, stepping backward so that Pascale was still between her and the various weapons being pointed their way. It was apparently far enough that the smaller woman was no longer covered by the sphere's innate protective aura, as she shrieked suddenly and dropped her pistol. It glowed red for a brief moment, and popped loudly as the chambered charge overheated and exploded. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the ceiling behind them.

"Stay where you are," Gerard ordered, nodding to Alster. The Gardier shouldered his weapon and advanced to collect Pascale. She was cradling her injured hand, and generously directing murderous looks towards everyone in the tunnel.

"Traitors," Erevin spat in Gardier. "You work for that one?"

"We're not traitors," Serit replied, his tone as even and level as his aim. "But we know we can't survive this war if we can't change."

Nicholas suppressed a satisfied smile – it was good to know that the men backing him really were reliable. Pascale was out of the way, and he could decide what to do with her later. Alster had brought her over closer to Gerard, but had secured her hands and was in the process of searching her.

"Do you know who he is? He is a spy. He spied at Maton-Devara, and he is using you now to betray us."

"I hardly think it's fair of you to take issue with me spying." It was time to move beyond the current standoff. "Yes, I was in Maton-Devara. I even remember you – I imagine you were one of many transferred out of Science after that particular incident, but you've obviously managed to fend for yourself. I see no real merit in making this personal, but if you insist, it might interest you that I've also been to Adera, and the Marches. I know more of the Gardier plans here than even you do, likely. I know about the petty men and women, Command spies left to watch your own, who've taken over. I know about the lack of morale, the suicides, the general pervasive hopelessness. I've seen rioters attack prison camps for those trusting enough to think we would, even if we could, keep your refugees safe. I've seen more than riots – if you've heard rumours, I assure you, I've seen worse. And I know you can't do anything about it. And so do you."

Erevin was listening to him, but at least half her attention still rested with Serit and the other Gardier. Alster was still watching Pascale, but with a wave from Nicholas, the other two lowered their rifles, leaving him and Erevin the only ones obviously armed. Gerard still held his sphere, but more casually. Erevin tucked hers away, trusting more to her incendiary even though Nicholas was the only other person who'd be in any real danger from it. The rest were close enough to Gerard that he could shield them.

"I would see this ended – this war we can't win," Vendrin put in, shouldering his weapon. "The people this man works with, spies or not, have the resources to help us: Information, supplies, plans, magic. Isn't that what you're after?"

"And what's the price for all this aid, traitor?"

"What is the price of ignoring this chance? We lose the war, and whoever survives will be reduced to Labour for angry enemies. Then there will be no prices to worry about, because the only choice left us will be how to die. If there is a price for better options, I will pay it, and be glad."

Erevin shook her head, looking back to Nicholas. "Since these fools won't tell me – what do you want from me." Her tone was clipped and terse.

"First of all, I want you to realize that, much like your friend over there," he inclined his head towards Pascale, "you should be thinking very carefully about your options right now. You can work for me, and make the best of it, or you can try and walk out of this tunnel alive."

"Then you want to make me a traitor too."

"No, I really don't. This whole conflict is wasteful. Resources, lives…" He killed the accompanying thoughts before they had the chance to finish forming, and found himself grateful that Gerard couldn't follow the conversation. "Years of my time that could have been better spent," he continued. "I want to see Vienne recover, and I don't want to worry about what happens to you people. But it seems all the government can manage is to throw away more money and people, and that's just going to end with us very poor and you all dead. Or slaves, as your compatriot suggested. So convention isn't going to work. You know your leaders don't have any better answers either. So work for me."

She looked at him, stone-faced, but he could tell she was thinking things through. She'd proved herself clever and resourceful, and she also possessed technical training beyond that of most of the Gardier left in their world. If she was committed to her own, that was useful in its own way. Reliable people were harder to find than the many who were self-serving and motivated more easily by greed.

He waited while she considered, but leapt back out of pure instinct when she dropped the incendiary. If it had been activated, he realized, it wouldn't have mattered. Erevin smiled thinly, a hard look still in her eyes.

"I will work with you, but not for you."

"If that's what you'd like to hear, alright." He slipped the gun back into his pocket, and looked to Serit. "Take them to the Pier. Madame will know what to do." The Gardier nodded, gesturing to Erevin to join him. Nicholas crouched to collect the dropped explosive after she'd passed by him. "Search her as well."

"The sphere?" Gerard asked pointedly in Rienish.

Erevin paused, produced the device, and passed it to the sorcerer without a word.

* * * * *

The trip back up to the surface was made in relative silence as well. Gerard waited until the Gardier and assorted captives were packed away into the other vehicle before turning to Nicholas.

"So, well done. You caught the spies, and recovered the missing sphere. I'm sure the war effort will be very grateful. Now, tell me what this was really about." He hadn't been able to follow the conversation in Gardier, though he was fairly sure he had caught the gist of things. That both captives were still alive was telling.

Nicholas looked over at him and seemed to be on the verge of some blithe retort. Instead of delivering it, however, he opened the car door, sat, and waited for Gerard to do the same.

"It's almost funny. I've heard people here talking as though I'm some kind of hero, because Arisilde and I were the first to learn of the invasion, and because we tried to find out more about what was going on. As though we did it for Ile Rien, or the world. Or whatever."

"Ah." Nicholas had fixed him with a bland, inscrutable look of the kind that gave nothing away save the suggestion that there was something being hidden. "Apparently, they don't know you very well."

He closed the door and started the engine, looking back out into the night. "Apparently not."