Arrival

Lance Corporal Linus Kolgriv stood as ramrod straight as he could muster. ‘Twas more than arrows could get you killed, in this man’s army. The man in question was Leftenant Commander Holvelak. Kolgriv supposed that the Commander must have a first name, but he was sure that he didn’t know anyone who’d dare tell him, much less speak it aloud. Everyone just called him “The Commander”, out of sheer self-preservation. There was power in names, and Kolgriv would bet his paltry wages that the Commander would hear any words spoken after his name was mentioned aloud, unless spoken in church, or under a new moon.

That was the way, with witches.

“Where,” came the sibilant hiss, “do you suppose they went, then?”

Kolgriv studied the air in front of him with the fervent intensity of a schoolboy whose lector has just called for a volunteer to enumerate the organs of female reproduction. He was damned if he knew, in any case. The bloody elves had just disappeared, leaving not a trace of their passing. A whole village of them.

And he had to admit, he wouldn’t have been able to do much to pick out the organs of female reproduction, either. Might have saved himself some trouble, though at least his sudden new wife was a good Church girl, and Powlish, to boot. That had made things easier on his poor mum.

Hmm… Svelkie should be due soon. Assuming that the Commander didn’t pick him out of the line for—

“Sir,” called out Major “No-Shit” Thunder, whose cheery obliviousness was extreme even for the 27th Thaumaturgical Brigade. “I respectfully submit that they have gone to link up with the main contingent, sir, in the face of the 27th’s overwhelmingly superior force!”

The sneer was obvious, even to those like Kolgriv who determinedly avoided looking at it. “Your sobriquet is well-earned, Major.” The Commander turned, and looked down over the fern-strewn descent into the quiet elf village that he and his men had been inexplicably sent to “pacify”.

Even in the full light of late morning, the forest floor basked in an arboreal twilight, broken only by the flickers of white balefire at their backs that formed a perimeter around the elf-city. The scent of two hundred meters of charred forest tickled at Kolgriv’s conscience, but only a little. Good Church upbringing or no, it took a lot more faith than he’d brought with him to insist that a little bit of calculated destruction of the Lord’s creation was against His will, not when so much of that creation seemed to be trying to kill you. The Commander had ordered the perimeter razed “so that even a mole might not cross unnoticed.”

With its usual battery of flame and lightning, the 27th had followed orders with nervous intensity. Two hundred feet of verdant forest now more closely resembled a volcanic plain of barren earth and still-burning fires. At the outer edge stood a twenty-foot wall of unearthly white balefire that had risen up behind the Commander as he had walked the perimeter, forming a blazing shackle around the elf city.

If there were any moles left, Kolgriv was sure that they had better sense than to burrow through that strip of hell.

The Commander laid it out. “We lost twelve men in full thaumechanical battle dress to a hive of bumblebees, Major. A hive that just happened to be obscured from sight by the reflection from a brook just wide enough to catch the sun for the two hours in the afternoon that an advancing force would be likely to arrive, given the only sensible encampment within a day’s journey. A hive that just happened to fall in such a way that those twelve armored men, in an attempt to avoid the bees, stumbled onto a bank of moss so unusually slippery that they lost their footing and plunged down a hill, which just happened to have at its base a quarry of razor-sharp quartzite.” The Commander spat. “Do you happen to remember how long those men struggled to free themselves, before we stopped hearing them cry out?”

“Or,” he added ominously, “perhaps you just happen to remember how we lost the battle tank?”

Despite himself, Kolgriv gulped. He remembered what had earned him that field promotion. He hadn’t had time yet to add a rocker to the single chevron that his uniform had come with.

“No, Major, the elves did not flee us.” The Commander’s voice was flat. “But I submit that you should organize some men to find them, before we learn where they went in some equally grotesque fashion. Lance Corporal Kolgriv!”

Kolgriv’s sphincter puckered. He’d been so close! “I have learned that we will be having guests, on the morrow. A priest. See to it that I am not bothered. I have… other matters to attend to.”

The Corporal stammered out an assent. A priest… might not get him killed. You never could tell, with Church men.

His relief was mixed with a new dread. He had been unable to avoid the Commander’s eye just then, and he had seen something there that he’d never seen before.

Fire. Excitement. Lust.

The balefire that trapped them all in this place crackled at Kolgriv’s back. He eyed its creator, a shudder running the length of his spine. Whatever that mage’s mysterious business, Kolgriv was certain of one thing: the destruction behind him would pale by what else this madman had in mind.

Chapter One

Sometimes God tells me who and how to kill. Other times, He’s a bit more mysterious.

I grit my teeth as I stub my toe on the top step of the exit stair, and my toes curl instinctively. Spitting a silent curse, I hop around for a moment, and then stare daggers down through the deck at God, no doubt laughing at me from far below.

That’s your big Revelation? Curl my toes? Have I pissed You off, lately? Sometimes, I swear to You, being a divine avatar of God’s justice is a royal pain in my ass.

I cautiously close the bulkhead door behind me as I follow my throbbing foot out into the wind. The top deck of the dirigate is a wide, lonely place, all grey elementeel plating and salamander-welded seams. Civilian models are a lot glossier, but this is a military boat we’re on, so no frills here, just armor and the occasional servo-mounted cannon. The drone of the dozens of gyrorotors that help heave the cathedral-sized platform aloft and keep it stable on top of its elemental sphere thrums through the air and through me, blanketing the entire world in the roar of their thaumaturgical engines. Absent any suppressing fields or other mystical conveniences, you’d have to shout in order to be heard. I won’t have to worry much about tiptoeing, at least.

The wind is strong up here, and my vestments whip about wildly. My cassock swirls around my legs as if trying to escape, and the red sash around my waist snaps and cracks when the gusts catch it. Though my shirt is relatively tight, the flaring tips of my ceremonial sleeves puff and dance through the air. I hate this damn outfit. It’s a mad bastard to move in, especially when you’re fighting for your life. After five years of this particular alternative lifestyle, the cassock still looks like a skirt to me. The only good part is the collar; I’ve always thought that band of scarlet at the throat looked smart against the black. I probably could have picked an easier way of earning a banded collar, or the right to wear whatever I wanted. But of course, it’s not as if God had really asked my opinion, about the garb or the gig.

We’re flying below the clouds, just a few minutes shy of land-ho, everybody off! That means we’re all supposed to be belowdecks--wouldn’t want another repeat of the “yes, Madame Justice, your favorite nephew was picked right off of the ship by a giant roc” incident that happened last year. It also means that this is the only time on this whole damnable voyage where I can get to the cargo I came to destroy.

The sky over Noldon is steel-grey, clouds laced with lightning, ice, and nastier things. At some point, they might have been clean--in the countryside you see them, all white and puffy, or wisp-thin, like a breeze painted on the sky. Not so in Noldon: decades of necrotic spillage have shorn the sky of stars. The clouds don’t even have shapes anymore; they’re just a gray slate across the hidden sky.

There are those rare days when the sun breaks through. Let’s not talk about what happens in the height of midsummer, when the clouds part for whole weeks at a time and the sun bakes the alchemical filth in the river Irsa into a dry crust across its surface hard enough to walk on. The stink of it is overpowering on an average day; on those days the shimmer in the air can peel the paint off of buildings and scald your lungs for the rest of your life.

Ah, Noldon. Home, sweet home.

Corwinne’s voice humms in the comm-stone in my ear, a little tinny but clear despite the noise of the gyros. “Scrying eyes still diverted. You’re all alone up there.”

“Thanks,” I whisper, knowing that her thaumaturgy will pick my voice up over even the loudest background noise. “Be sure to keep moving. Once I pop this thing, I won’t be able to get back to you if anyone starts making poor life choices in your vicinity.”

“You’re adorable when threatening hypothetical people who may or may not show up to cart my perky yet possibly treasonous ass to jail,” she returns sweetly, “which, may I remind you, is the present location of a dauntingly large number of monumentally unpleasant persons whom we’ve put there ourselves--the ones you forgot to kill, anyway--a fact that strongly suggests that the perkiness of said ass could be sorely tested should such an unfortunate event occur.” A pause. “You just get the job done, fast, ‘kay? This whole job has me creepified in the most intense of fashions.”

A faint-yet-alarming perception snaps me into movement. Damn it all. “Will do.” And, because I can’t resist, “God be with you.”

I’m spared her adorable follow-on heresies because I’ve pulled the comm-stone from my ear just in time to stumble into the smartly-dressed young soldier whose pipe-weed I caught scent of a moment ago. He’s gripping the pipe firmly with his jaw, making a game--if futile--attempt to smoke it despite the howling winds. Bucking for a commission, I’d guess. Aside from his death-grip on the pipe, he’s got a clipboard under one arm and the look of someone satisfied that his checklist has just been completed. Until he collides with me, that is. That’s when the comm-stone in his ear starts to look a lot more relevant.

His eyes first go wide, then narrow, then flicker uncertainly from side to side. He can’t quite decide if the pipe should be in his mouth or out of it; should he yell at me, sound the alarm, or am I perhaps somehow authorized to be here? Clearly no one who’s not authorized would in fact be up here, it’d be against regulations, and nobody on this boat would dare buck the system, least of all the brand new chaplain... His hand flickers towards his ear for a moment, and then... pauses.

But it’s too late. We’re both out of time.

“Er... Father,” he starts, apparently opting for the reasonably safe, deferential approach. One never does know with church officials. “You’re not really supposed to--”

My knife catches him in the soft spot just under his chin, and I heave it upward, pinning his jaw to his brain. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I feel its tip scrape the inside of his skull. Warmth gushes down over my hands, and I drop the twitching corpse onto the deck, futilely trying to wipe away my sins on his uniform. I slip the knife back into the hidden sheath in my cassock before returning the comm-stone to my ear.

“... darn it, Jaspar, hello? Is everything all right up there? Any trouble?”

“No trouble,” I whisper, tenderly closing the soldier’s eyes. Doing this properly is out of the question, but I at least make the sign of the star over his brow, helping to ease his journey to the next world. I stand, shake off my doubts. “Ran into something; popped my stone out.”

“Jaspar Fellthorn, you are the world’s worst assassin! Always bumping into this or tripping over that,” Corwinne gripes, reading into my words the double meaning that I’d hoped she’d choose. “What are you going to do if there’s a patrol up there that’s not marked on the schedule I nabbed?”

“Kill them all, probably,” I reply, huffing a little as I break into a run. “If I have to get into lengthy conversations about who’s authorized to be abovedecks during landing, all of Noldon is going to get coated in unholy flame. This boat’s hitting dirt in less than ten minutes, and we’d better give it at least five for the bomb to do its work. We really don’t want to be off by even a second, here.”

“Seven Hells, must you always make me sorry I ask?” The image of her wispy red locks shaking to and fro is as clear as the blood on my hands. “Just keep it quiet up there, ‘kay?”

“Very quiet,” I agree, wondering if Corwinne can hear my pounding feet through the comm-stone as I sprint up a set of elementeel stairs and across a causeway. The massive dirigate stretches out far beneath me; the thing must be two hundred yards or more on each side. My speed is reckless; any patrol would hear me instantly, despite the roar of the gyros. I’d say that the thunder in the sky hides my clattering footfalls, but the Edicts prohibit me from telling false truths, so I’m limited to lying by creative omission.

Fortunately for my immortal soul and Corwinne’s blood pressure, there are no more guards up here: all hatches are battened, so no cause for violating the God’s decrees any further. Even the honor guard that’s stood watch over the war-dead has gone below, in these last few minutes before touchdown. When I was a kid, the decks of dirigates like this one would be teeming with people waiting to see their loved ones, everyone pushing to the edges of the deck to wave at a likely-looking speck below. Far too many “incidents” later was the last straw with Lady Scarblossom’s nephew and the oversized bird, and that was that. No captain would risk what happened to that poor bastard after the High Courts got through with him. No, right now I’m alone with the dead.

Hopefully their number doesn’t include any more soldiers on last-minute patrol whom I don’t have time to sweet-talk.

I bound down the stairs and vault the twenty foot drop to the cargo deck. Corwinne’s half right: I’ve got days when I could probably turn my ankle while walking on cobblestones, but I’ve also trained hard to overcome a certain lack of natural grace--and I have God on my side. I land without so much as a thump, and unsling the satchel at my back. It thrums in anticipation. My dagger is in my hand again, and I make a little adjustment to the gauge at its pommel. Reality shimmers; my hand is now filled by Jorngnir, the Butcher’s Blade, which I pried years before from the fingers of Urngar, the mad Hall-Thane of Thibaney. I flick my wrist; with less force than it would take to swing a carpenter’s hammer, the ancient weapon shears the top from the box in front of me.

I look down sadly at the coffin on the deck at my feet. Not much more than a crate of pine, it’s barely got room for the soldier stuffed inside. His uniform is a near-match for the one I left lying a hundred yards away; the only difference is that the blood here has dried. The body still has a pair of arrows sticking through it. Though the yellow feather-tipped ends have been snapped off, I’ve seen enough of these to mark them as elven. From the look still on his rictus-warped face, this kid hadn’t. He hadn’t seen elf arrows before, and probably hadn’t seen the ones that brought him down, either. Poor bastard.

I crouch down, resting Jorngnir on my knees. Too soon, my questing fingers find the hole at the base of his neck that confirms my fears. “Sorry, kid,” I mumble. “Sorry you had to die in some God-cursed war with pissed-off tree dwellers. Sorry some asshole--who I will find and deal with--had to go and defile your corpse by pumping it full of bug. Sorry you’re not going to get the state funeral you deserve. May God keep your soul with Him in the Core, and forgive mine.”

My comm-stone is still in my ear; I’d forgotten it for a moment. Her voice is soft through the aether static. “Jaspar, I know. But it’s got to be now. If those corpses touch down with the bugs still inside...”

“Mealtime in downtown Noldon. This many hatchlings ‘ll overwhelm the coppers in seconds. Hundreds dead, and that’s before the next wave hatches from their corpses. After that...” My breath huffs out involuntarily. “I remember, ‘Winne. I can still hate it.”

I pause for a moment, hoping that maybe God will show up and tell me not to bother, that it’s all okay. The Good Ship Falkoj drifts serenely through the sky as rumbling thunder is my only answer. Thunder sounds different, up here: it seems to come from everywhere, and you feel it deep down, “in your water”, my father would’ve said. I grit my teeth against it and wait a few moments for the creaking and resettling of the massive dirigate as its elementeel frame absorbs all of the thundrous energy.

For just a moment, as the ship slows down to begin its touchdown, even the hum of the rotors seems to fade. The silence is perfect. Lights sparkle below, as if the sky were beneath me and I were staring at a field of stars. I’m accursed enough to have some notion of what lies beyond those stars, and this thought gives me a little shudder. The old ship seems to sympathize, with a little rumble from deep down, she purrs at me, buzzing gently.

I cock my head. Buzzing?

Corwinne’s voice snaps me out of it. “Jaspar!”

“Right,” I reply, pulling the long cylinder out of my bag. I tuck it in with the soldier and start pressing buttons in the sequence Corwinne had me memorize.

“No, that’s not it,” she starts, checks herself, continues, “well, yes, it is that, do hurry, but when you get an eeensy little second could you give me a quick count of the was that very loud beep the end of the release sequence?”

“Good ears!” I shout, legs pounding beneath me as I run for dear life. “What was it you wanted?”

Her reply is lost over the hissing that’s coming from behind me. I say a prayer to Sayn Ieander, and pour on the speed. My legs lighten, carrying me faster than a man, faster even than an elf, and I bound up the nearest set of stairs by threes. I don’t much care where I’m going, so long as I get up over the spreading pyrotoxin behind me. As I reach the top of the first flight and bounce off of the opposite railing to race up the next stairwell, I catch a glimpse of the destruction I’ve wrought through the open gaps in the stairs.

The pyrotoxin is spreading over the pile of coffins, racing along every surface it encounters with supernatural guidance. Where it meets a thing that once lived, it glows white-hot, and leaves nothing but ash behind. The mound of coffins, probably ten feet high and three times as long, is consumed in seconds. A ring of glowing red gel spreads away from it at speed. The elementeel beneath is untouched; probably a little warm, and completely shorn of all traces of any living thing, but otherwise not damaged in the least. The pyrotoxin will spread, covering every surface, pouring through every opening until it finally runs into itself again on the far side of the ship, when it will disperse into an inert dust. It’s a perfect killer: toss it into a troll’s warren and you’ll kill everything inside, but leave all the nice, shiny valuables.

Toss it into a warren with two exits, and you’ll risk coating the entire world in the stuff, wiping all life from the planet. I’m not sure that’s what would happen, but I’m not sure that it wouldn’t.

It’s insane that this stuff even exists... but you’ve got to love human ingenuity when it comes to killing people in the most efficiently horrifying ways possible. Getting a canister of the stuff damn near killed me: you’ve got to be one crazy warlock to want to have it lying around, and Leftenant Commander Holvelak had been crazier than most. Though the Calisar forces on the war front might miss him and I’ve got no love for elves, nobody with bars on their shoulder needs to be in possession of something of its destructive potency. Those bars get heavy; I suppose they must weigh on the soul. That weight makes them want to use the accursed stuff.

Frankly, I probably shouldn’t have had it, either, but I’m a man of God. Besides, it was a perfect tool for clearing a deserted airship surface just before touchdown. As long as it spreads across the ship before we hit groundside, we’re fine: it’ll neutralize when it meets itself on the far side of the ship, and I’m pretty sure you could safely put what’s left into a cocktail. (Well, maybe the cocktail of somebody who wasn’t too picky about the taste.) If it doesn’t make it... it’d be far worse than the bug infestation I’m using it to cure, for one thing. Pyrotoxin spreading through the capital of Calisar wouldn’t even be something that cheered the elves, and they’re butchering our troops in droves.

Pyrotoxin catching me might cheer up an elf or two, but would certainly be the very last part of my day. I’ve cleared another story, and I can hear the hiss of it burning its way after me. From its insistent volume, I’m not going to make it another flight before it catches up with me. The one nice thing about pyrotoxin is that it comes in finite quantities: as it expands, it spreads out in a thinner and thinner ring... By now, that ring is probably only a dozen feet or so thick, which means that it’s no longer coating the pile of ash that is all that’s left of the pile of coffins where I released it. There’s still a lot of the stuff down on the deck, but if I can stick this jump...

I press my back to the railing, take two deep breaths, and run. I’ve got four steps, three; the pyrotoxin is now at the top of the stair--I can feel its heat, thirsting for me, ready to devour--two steps to go; it’s coming a little faster than I’d thought...

Before I really wanted to, I throw myself into the air, a wave of red death sweeping under me, coating every surface with elemental flame. My leap carries me forward--really gotta make it far enough to get into the safe zone, near where I set the bomb off in the first place--but not quite high enough: little fingers of death rise from toxin-covered edge of the railing, defying natural order by sheer goddamn nastiness, and caress the toe of the boot that had just cleared the rail.

Well. Damn.

No time to think: this stuff is death and those boots are leather. I curl my toes in and whip down with Jorngnir, and hope that God thinks I’ve done a good deed today, or that I’m at least worthy of having somebody help grow me back a foot. I feel a tug, and then air... and then an explosion of pain in my shoulder as I land entirely wrong from a thirty foot fall. I roll like I was trained to, only a lot less effectively, and I’m choking, coughing--I can’t see--oh, God, I don’t want to die like this...

And then I cough some more, and my shoulder continues to throb. In fact, I cough rather a lot, definitely more than someone who was being atomized by a fiery supernatural toxin ought. There’s deck plating beneath me, along with a thick coating of... ash.

Hacking and fighting to breathe, I struggle out of the cloud that my fall has caused, and expel the stuff as best I can from my lungs. As I wave the plumes away from my face, I catch sight of myself in the toxin-polished deck plating--I’m covered, head to toe, in black soot.

Well, not entirely. Five pink, fully-attached toes peek out from the tip of my boot, where Jorngnir sliced off the deadly pyrotoxin.

I laugh, a weird, croaking laugh. “Curl your toes.” Praise be to God. Looks like I live through this, after all.

I hear a distant throb, like the dying pulse of a thaumaturgical engine, and there’s a white flash from the other side of the ship. Looks like the pyrotoxin fulfilled its end of the deal on the opposite side of the Falkoj, and has gone nicely inert. Noldon isn’t dying in fire today, praise God.

As I retrieve my fallen blade, the sound of Corwinne’s voice cuts through the ash. My comm-stone has popped out of its own accord this time, but I can hear her faintly from wherever it lies: she must be shouting.

“... didn’t get all of the coffins, do you hear? They moved some down to the cargo hold so the broadsheets could get a pictograph op when we disembark! We need to--”

That’s exactly when the airship explodes.