The words you are searching are inside this book. To get more targeted content, please make full-text search by clicking here.

A literary short story collection set in a magical steampunk world.

Excerpt from BONES FOR THE SEA:

With the tail horn of the moon passing from the face of the sun, dawn began to flood Alchemist City and its mostly groggy residents. Mook Pearler though was a fisherman, and fisherman got up early. In fact he was late and should have been out at sea over an hour ago. This wasn’t his fault however, unless he could be blamed for agreeing to take on that lousy Quird Cunes as a partner.

“You need help,” his wife had said. “You’re not a green dragon anymore.”

She did that sometimes, belittle him, but he’d long ago learned that she could talk spider webs around anything he said so Mook usually kept his soreness to himself.

Why Quird though?

Discover the best professional documents and content resources in AnyFlip Document Base.
Search
Published by mawaddahnur, 2021-05-10 05:22:57

Alchemist City Stories: Abridged Edition by John Xavier

A literary short story collection set in a magical steampunk world.

Excerpt from BONES FOR THE SEA:

With the tail horn of the moon passing from the face of the sun, dawn began to flood Alchemist City and its mostly groggy residents. Mook Pearler though was a fisherman, and fisherman got up early. In fact he was late and should have been out at sea over an hour ago. This wasn’t his fault however, unless he could be blamed for agreeing to take on that lousy Quird Cunes as a partner.

“You need help,” his wife had said. “You’re not a green dragon anymore.”

She did that sometimes, belittle him, but he’d long ago learned that she could talk spider webs around anything he said so Mook usually kept his soreness to himself.

Why Quird though?

ALCHEMIST CITY STORIES

Abridged Edition

John Xavier

© Copyright John Xavier 2020

This is an authorised free edition from www.obooko.com
Although you do not have to pay for this book, the author's intellectual property
rights remain fully protected by international Copyright laws. You are licensed to use
this digital copy strictly for your personal enjoyment only. This edition must not be
hosted or redistributed on other websites without the author's written permission
nor offered for sale in any form. If you paid for this book, or to gain access to it, we
suggest you demand a refund and report the transaction to the author and Obooko.

“I was very pleased with myself when I discovered
that sunlight could not be reproduced; it had to be
represented by something else... by colour.”

Cezanne

CONTENTS

The Introduction of Orb
AIRSHIP LUXURY EXPRESS

BONES FOR THE SEA
CONFIDING IN ORACLES
GOLIATH’S ANDROID SHOP

HUNTING ORCS
IN MOONDUST SHADOWS
MURDERS ABOMINABLE
ULTRA CODEX – ORIGINS

The Introduction of Orb

All of the stories contained in this collection were first written in the span of
fifty days except for Goliath’s Android Shop, which had been published several
years earlier in a slightly different form. Alchemist City was therefore somewhat
dimly imagined well before any lore had been developed for it. The surrounding
cosmos of Orb conversely came in sudden inspiration when writing fiction began
to appeal to me again during a time of personal adversity. I was looking for a project
and found it in when I recalled the steampunk fantasy tale I’d created previously
that appeared now to be worthy of further development. This quickly proved itself
with Hunting Orcs and a deluge of accompanying notes fleshing out the lands
surrounding Alchemist City and their inhabitants. Ideas were practically piling up
on each other, so abundant were they, that the only thing which consistently
distracted me during the day from writing the stories I had in mind were
inspirations for other stories. I knew then that I’d tapped in to something special.
Previously I’d always preferred writing poetry, it was consistently more gratifying,
but now fiction was providing that same level of satisfaction. Which means I hope
to continuing writing stories set in Alchemist City and the world of Orb for years to
come. I’m not only driven by a personal artistic ambition here though; these stories
are also written for other people, a readership I picture that consists of individuals
like myself who are appreciative of all the rewards that literature has to offer,
regardless of genre. To them I offer this.

AIRSHIP LUXURY EXPRESS

The majestic zeppelin soared across a vast sea, carrying with it not only its
affluent passengers but the hopes of a new age. Where previously only powerful
wizards could levitate things, here was proof that the same miracles were also
possible through the genius of modern science. The world of Orb was now
undergoing a great and terrible revolution but, at this time, there was only one city
among its multitudes where the spirit of this change was in full focus. Alchemist
City. Hardly more than three centuries old, it was built on a site that had seen
numerous settlements over the last eleven hundred years and, partly because of
this, the civic motto of the city was “On the ruins of others.” But also on account of
the Technomages. Now the Supreme Guild of Technomages, as they were properly
referred to, consisted of mages obviously, but ones who uniquely embraced the
ideal of combining magic with technology. Elsewhere logicians carried out science
in leisurely speculation and wizards used the arcane arts for the purpose of
tyrannical domination, yet despite this no one had previously sought to yoke the
two under the whip of industrialization. As such Alchemist City quickly became
preeminent among the Free Nation city states and only its ancient enemy, the
distant and crumbling Old Empire, could plausibly dispute this. It was however a
time of relative peace and this gave the Technomages and their minions the
opportunity to devote all their energies to expanding their influence among their
immediate neighbors. Included in the projects this entailed was the development
of airship routes throughout the Free Nations (While being careful to maintain

clandestine monopolies over the companies involved) The earlier mentioned
zeppelin was the product of this very same plan and it was currently making
impressive speed towards the metropolis of its invention after a lengthy journey
from the deservedly celebrated city of Vesante-Vix, interrupted only by a brief
recreational layover at the island port of Fleurin. That’s why, as it neared in
approach of its destination, it arrived from the open Thalassic Sea and not via the
West Lowlands. Said Low-lands were an expansive stretch of flat country that ran
as far as the mountains of Elvany and ended in the east at the flank of the Clavac
mountain range where, on the other side of an elevated plateau, Alchemist City
throbbed at the mouth of the river Sybeles. If you believe this to be too much detail,
consider yourself fortunate that you are presently spared a lesson in the total
geography and cosmology of Orb since, if you weren’t, this knowledge would no
doubt prove too cataclysmic for you to endure.

Setting aside that apocalypse for the moment, it will be sufficient to return
to the present matter of the Airship Luxury Express now rapidly descending from
the sky as it made its way to land. With the regiment of men arduously shovelling
coal into a furnace hidden deep within its bowels, the passengers aboard the ship
had nothing guilt-inducing to distract them as they reclined on their cabin balconies
and took in the sites below. One young boy though, Bivels Hazerford, son of Sir
Esten Hazerford, wasn’t satisfied with this and made an absolute pest of himself
about it until his father finally relented and took him to the forward observation
deck. There Alchemist City was at last revealing itself and, with a darting finger
extended across the inner railing, Bivels unleashed a ceaseless stream of comments
and questions while the elder Hazerford did his best to be indulgent.

“That’s Gaol Island isn’t it sir?” asked the boy, using the formality his rather
stiff old man required of him. Sir Hazerford hadn’t even finished nodding to this
when he was hit with the next salvo. “Yes! There’s the Vampire District there I think.
Surely can’t image a whole district of vampires though.”

His father chuckled. “Oh, there’s not many vampires there Bivels. And I hear
the few there are have been mostly gentrified.”

Bivels looked over at his father with a sheepish smile before bouncing back
into a fresh run of chatter. “But that is Pox Island behind it and I know they do send

the sick there sir! A chum of mine told me so himself at school. Funny thing though
sir; doesn’t it look like they’re both about to get eaten?”

Sir Esten Hazerford however lacked the fanciful imagination of his son and
so did not interpret the two large encroaching peninsula as scorpion mandibles the
way his Bivels did. Out of necessity then he ignored the question and instead
pointed to a tall structure on the tip of the eastern peninsula.

“Look there Bivels! See that? That’s the Star Citadel. And over there behind
it is Star Citadel Academy; the finest source of military education in all the sphere.
You’ll make a fine sight one day Bivels after we’ve wrung you through that. Oh, rest
assured!”

The younger Hazerford was considerably less enthusiastic about the idea
than the elder one but he was smart about it and managed to hide this in his face.
He did not however attempt to feign interest in the matter.

“Not much to look at over on that side though sir,” began the boy with
growing momentum as he went. “That hexagon shaped building for instance is
rather boring. But quite the contrary on the opposite mainland! Yes sir, I think I like
that side much better. Why there’s all those splendid ships there coming into port.
And a whole mob of towers I should say beyond that! Is that a church in between?”

Sir Esten raised a hand to the brim of his top hat to shield his eyes from the
sun. “By the blessed deity my boy! That’s Eudoxa Cathedral,” he answered before
adding with emphasis, “Those are ow-rrr people.”

In matters of religion Bivels was ever eager to be in agreement with the old
man. “Quite right father,” he said. “And there’s jolly Minter’s Street; why you can
practically hear the coins jingling from here. And a bit farther there is the Cypress
District. Those are some of our people too, aren’t they sir?”

The elder Hazerford put an approving hand on his son’s shoulder. “Indeed,
some of them are my boy,” he added after making a show of scrutinizing the area.

By now the zeppelin was well on top of the city and other craft, mostly
balloons and gliders but also the odd mounted drake, were likewise cutting paths

across the immediate sky. As lively as these sights were however, Bivels focus was
presently occupied by a small shining disc almost directly below. “That’s the Omen
Well, correct, in that curve there along Elven Way?”

Sir Hazerford leaned over the inner railing to get a better look. “Yes, it must
be,” he replied before continuing. “Back when our ancestors first arrived on the
Landings, that was one of their most startling discoveries. Probably exaggerated
though; the things they saw in its waters.”

Bivels didn’t hear this last speculation however as his attention was
distracted elsewhere. “Sir!” he exclaimed. “That’s the Amphitheater just starboard
of us! And the Arena beside it! Oh! But that is a mighty pyramid even further
ahead.”

The elder Hazerford smiled to himself. Rather should humor the boy more
often, he mused before addressing his son’s erroneous appraisal. “That’s a ziggurat
Bivels. Centuries ago our forefathers used to make animal sacrifices to the deity on
top of that.”

The boy was mesmerized. “Wow! But not anymore sir?”

Here Sir Esten removed an elegant cigarette holder from the inner pocket of
his leisure jacket and placed an offering of immolation in this as he replied. “I should
hope not! I’m sure the deity prefers his meat at a civilized table like the rest of us.”

He accented his point by taking long smooth drags from his combustible in a
manner that had only recently been perfected after generations of breeding. For a
while then they simply stood together in silence, a father and son approaching the
last great destination on a transoceanic voyage. It had been grand. There in front
of them now though was the Aeroport and they had to prepare themselves for
disembarking. The elder Hazerford made a wordless tilt with his head for his son to
get going and then flicked his cigarette out of its holder so he could follow, heedless
of where the still smoldering item fell among the crowded streets below.

Alchemist City’s Aeroport, being one of its latest constructions, and most
important, was naturally a stupendous work of engineering. An unusual building, it
is somewhat hard to describe but, nevertheless, this you shall have. First, picture

the bell of a tuba and chop it off at the neck say, eight inches from the mouth. Then,
divide this in half diametrically and plant the wide end on the ground; that’s the
Arc. Following this, add large spoke like horizontal extensions out from the convex
side of the top, these being its docking bridges, and then place adjacent to the Arc
a detached Control Tower where the convergent lines of the docking bridges would
hypothetically meet. Now marry this with a brutal but ornate style of crystalline
architecture, flood it with supernatural light, and then swarm all of that with a flying
anarchy of machinery and there you pretty much have it. The dockhands working
at the Aeroport of course did not have the luxury of contemplating any of these
things as they were much too busy unloading crates of Orthosian wine, craft
furniture from the dwarven carpenters of the Wocce Forest, and even the
occasional live baboon or jaguar outrageously shipped by air from all the way down
in the Southern Continent. Tastes were quite decadent at this time and some of
those most responsible for this were eagerly awaiting aboard the Airship Luxury
Express as the slowing zeppelin neared the docking bridge it had been cleared for
by flag signal.

“Look lively Bivels!” clanged the elder Hazerford as the two stood at the front
of a queue waiting to exit. The other passengers were also ready to get going, but
casually so, with the temperament of those used to getting what they want and
when. Only a lanky porter who stood behind the two Hazerfords in a black and gold
uniform, his arms overly loaded with carry-on luggage, looked anything like
uncomfortable. It was his first week and, still unaccustomed to the pace of the job,
he was trying his best to shake off the persistent feeling he was drowning. He could
have fallen over dead right there though and the father and son in front of him
wouldn’t have noticed. Indeed, all they saw was what lay before them and, as the
bay doors of the passenger section opened, the two revved forth to meet it.

“Sir Hazerford, what a splendid honor it is to have as a visitor to our city
someone of your august peerage. Welcome!” These words came from a
suspiciously feline looking young woman who punctuated her greeting with a
curtsy in an ankle-length dress of robin-shell blue that was inlaid with white
embroidery. She was in fact half-panther; her best half too, although both halves
were very much admired.

“My name is Ms. Simone,” she continued in a velvet voice, “And I am the civic
guide you requested in your letter.”

Beast folk, although rare, were only slightly less common than elves and so
Sir Esten was not perturbed in any way by dealing with one; plus Ms. Simone was
certainly charming.

“Very agreeable my dear,” he said as the Hazerfords and their guide began
walking in a vanguard together at the front of an unloading crowd of people. Behind
this trio the porter trailed as best he could while, around them, other ships docking
on top of the sixteen-story high Aeroport bobbed against their anchor lines and
flushed steam into the air. While his father and Ms. Simone discussed an
assortment of mundane matters, Bivels was once again caught up in the novel
sights surrounding him. For example, he felt great delight in witnessing a pair of
mechanics pushing a trolley full of caged gremlins and almost interrupted his father
to bring this to the old man’s attention before finally thinking better of it. Other
fantastic spectacles urged him to do likewise but it wasn’t until the group of four
had made their way to one of the mechanical elevator stations that a pause in the
adult’s conversation gave Bivels the opening he was looking for.

“Father sir,” he began. “May I ask the lady a question?” The elder Hazerford
nodded at the boy as he lit another cigarette. Needing nothing beyond this, Bivels
launched away.

“Ms. Simone, I’ve heard that all the civilized peoples of the world reside here.
Every folk imaginable. Is this true?”

The panther woman gave the boy a radiant smile. “It most certainly is. But
sadly some are distinctly less civilized than others. Young master though, I have the
odd suspicion that these might be the ones you’re most interested in.”

Ms. Simone had of course hit the cyclops dead in its eye and, after checking
to find an amused look on the elder Hazerford’s face, she proceeded to delve into
some of the more fantastic business of Alchemist City and its exploits while deftly
avoiding any of the truly unsavory realities.

“Rumors abound precocious sir, that a banshee arrived in a bone carriage
just the other day, being led by a team of wyverns. It is said she’s a countess from
the lands of the Witch Queen Gidu and is here to consult the astrologers of our
Opticon regarding some matter of necromantic ritual. Then there’s our own

Tarantulas, the city’s thieves’ guild, who I’ve heard now employ a gorgon and have
been using her to petrify the drivers of armored stagecoaches in our poor Coin
District. Naturally the City Warders will soon put a stop to that and machine men
presently patrol the area in abundance, zealous to catch the culprits. Beyond this
there’s the usual issues with goblins and orcs and mermaids but they are too trivial
to merit any curiosity. What of your homeland though young master? I’ve heard
that the country of the East Lowland’s is utterly teeming with talking animals and
that a person can’t go farther than three paces afield before being accosted by
throngs of cheese begging mice?”

Ms. Simone here was significantly exaggerating for comedic effect. Before
Bivels could protest however, the elevator arrived and the four of them entered an
open air gondola that had a view of the fountained and statued courtyard
surrounding the base of the Control Tower. As they rode straight down in their
cushioned seats, all except the fidgeting porter standing with clasped luggage,
Bivels took only a couple seconds to study the view beyond before refocusing on
Ms. Simone and answering her as best a child pontiff could.

“I’d like it better if it were so but where we live in the East Lowlands, down
in Mundany Ms. Simone, there aren’t any creatures of the sort and hardly enough
magic to light a lantern. My chums and I think it’s dreadfully boring actually. Really
there’s nothing worthy of a tale until you get out to Dwarfania.”

Ms. Simone’s stunning eyes twinkled with mirth. “Oh!” she exclaimed, gently
putting a hand up to her collar bone. “Would you like to go and live among the
dwarves?” The elder Hazerford raised an eyebrow as he watched his son make a
face of undisguised contempt.

“Positively not!” sputtered Bivels, before adding, “I’d rather eat scaly chicken
stew!” Unimpressed, Sir Esten scowled at his son and used his third most imperious
tone of voice.

“None of that boy!” he growled before disposing of the cigarette he’d been
neglecting and crushing it under the front of his shoe. Bivels responded with a very
meek “Yes sir,” and lapsed into a submissive quiet. His father however had his own
questions for Ms. Simone.

“I was informed, my dear, that you would also have some news I’d be
interested in. Am I correct?”

The civic guide confirmed this with a bow of her head. “Indeed sir. As per
your instructions, I have reviewed the state of affairs regarding the subjects of your
interest and can proceed with a summary of them however you prefer.”

The elevator doors here rumbled and then opened as it finally reached the
main floor of the building and everyone walked out into the immense hall awaiting
them. Bivels eyes shot to the vaulted ceiling, and the frescoes there approved by
the Lord Mayor himself, while the porter sighed at the busy space full of well-
attired aristocrats and muttered a single exhausted prayer to himself. Sir Esten
though took no notice of his surroundings and instead replied to Ms. Simone.

“Just out with all of it. Beyond that I’m sure you can do the task quite
competently without specification.”

Ms. Simone bowed deferentially to soothe the slight note of exasperation
she sensed in his voice and then confidently did exactly as he asked.

“Well sir, to quote the ancient proverb ‘silver is the blood of power’ I must
begin then with matters of finance. Yesterday the Patrician Review reported that
quotas at the Foothills Mine have been lowered by the Syndicate for the second
quarter in a row. That, combined with the continuing riots in Meridio means a
simultaneous animatite and esaguan clay scarcity could occur in the near future.
Obviously this would be disastrous for golem production and, even if the present
difficulties are overcome in a timely fashion, speculators will certainly take a lash
to all susceptible enterprises. No doubt you know better than I which ones those
might be so I will spare you any further comment on this except to say that my
sources in the Scribes Guild inform me there are rumors crawling in from all
directions that our periodicals are deliberately underreporting the matter due to
directives from you-know-who.”

Sir Esten adjusted the cuff of a sleeve as he considered this. “A silent wolf
need not share their prey,” he remarked idly as he waved for Ms. Simone to
continue.

“A most perceptive analogy sir,” she said before proceeding. “Moving on to
another economic matter, but one more specifically political in its origins, unrest in
the Knave’s Quarter has worsened and this seems to be correlated with a recent
increase in piracy which Random Tides, a reliable newspaper published by the
Seafarers Guild, says is leading to calls for strike action from certain plebeian
agitators. The City Warders however raided half a dozen of the agitators’ tenement
meetings only last week and I am assured that this has alleviated the matter
entirely.”

Sir Esten contemplated what he’d just heard with a moment of opaque
concentration while Ms. Simone recalled the competing account offered by the
anarchist newspaper, The Kindler, which asserted that only two “civic activists” had
actually been caught and that the rest escaped the tenement raids by being tossed
across rooftops by a pair of troll sympathisers. Don’t imagine he’d like to hear that,
she thought to herself before Sir Esten asked another question.

“What of matters of magic though? I’ve just now recalled a conversation I
overheard in Fleurin concerning new regulations being imposed in that
department.”

Ms. Simone here, as chance would have it, randomly killed two vampires
with one stake when she bowed as Sir Esten motioned for her to exit the Aeroport’s
main doors first, some manners preceding even status of class, and in doing so
simultaneously acknowledging his last remark.

“That is indeed the case sir,” she confirmed. “Due to the higher than normal
levels of moondust production and addiction this year, city hall has passed new
laws regarding the sale of witching ingredients and alembic devices. Obviously no
one is going to publically dispute the wisdom of the wizards here but I confess I’ve
been told that many apothecarists think the extent of the new restrictions is utterly
mad.” Sir Esten Hazerford noted this final piece of news with an ambiguous
“Hmmmmm,” as his attention turned to the plentiful chaos of the surrounding
concourse.

Directly outside the Aeroport, the placid ambience it contained evaporated.
Hawkers, salivating at the prospect of hoodwinking some gullible patrician out of a
portion of their purse, set up temporary shops there in an eclectic array of tents,

disposable stalls, platformed wagons, and hovering airship. This is what had come
to be known as the Quicksilver Bazaar on account of its fluid composition and also
because of the occasional punitive actions by the City Warders which usually
involved demolishing large sections of it. Aside from these bits of unpleasantness
though, a general atmosphere of revelry prevailed. Not only were the merchants
here invigorated by a lust for gold but the area had furthermore begun to be
frequented by tourists and curiosity seekers from every social class. It would not be
an unusual sight there to watch a robed sorcerer with his hands behind his back
scrutinizing a heaped display of imp teeth while a pair of drunken satyrs clopped
past sloshing bottles of Red Basilisk wine. In short, it was an eternal spectacle.

Sir Esten however did not appear impressed by what he saw even as a
distracting feeling caused him to stare out in perplexity. Still unable to figure out
what it was, he nevertheless took a moment to address his guide. “Ms. Simone,
thank you for your services. You may take your leave now.”

Ms. Simone curtsied as she replied, “Of course sir. Again, it has been a great
honor.” With that she took one last look at the old man, even as he ignored her,
before bestowing a soft smile on a still chastened Bivels and turning around to
depart. As she disappeared back into the Aeroport, only a moving crease in the
back of her dressed betrayed a tail twitching with mild annoyance. A handful of
seconds passed then before the other Non-Hazerford spoke.

“Excuse me sir, would you like me to leave too?” This produced genuine
surprise in Sir Esten and here he did look over.

“Oh! The porter. Yes. Do go and run along as well.” The porter awkwardly
waited for a moment, expecting some kind of gratuity, when Sir Esten suddenly
erupted with epiphany.

“The blasted stagecoach! That’s what I forgot to ask her about!” With this he
snapped his fingers at Bivels. “Stay put while I go find that woman again.”

Bivels sniveled. “And what am I supposed to do here sir?”

Sir Esten unexpectedly crouched down beside his son as he directed the
boy’s attention skywards with a pointed finger.

“Look up. See that? That’s the other side of the world. Nothing’s hidden my
boy. It’s all right there, just waiting to be taken.”

Confused, Bivels nevertheless obeyed, and his father swiftly stood and shot
a command at the help. “You, porter, follow me.”

The porter, who in fact had a name, knew it was a bad idea to leave the boy
alone but the ungrateful gentleman bossing him around wasn’t even going to give
him a single bronze coin as a tip so why should he try to help the old dragon?
Instead, out of both duty and rebellion, he too did as he was told.

Bivels didn’t really look up at the sky much since it was always just there and
it didn’t change much. Sensing that he was supposed to understand something
though, he made a careful examination of what he saw. First he started with the
Thalassic Sea, also known as the Equatorial Sea, which circled the entire cavity of
Orb in an enormous belt of salt water that divided the Northern and Southern
continents. These were distinctly unequal, the North being noticeable smaller than
the South due to the asymmetrical band of the Thalassic, but very similar in their
main features. For instance, each had a polar desert, these referred to respectively
as the Aridic and Antaridic realms, where the shadow of the moon never fell and
night had never been experienced. Yes, in the lands of Orb that encompassed the
inner surface of its sphere, every dusk was an eclipse and every dawn its end. The
moon responsible for this, a physically crescent shaped body, meanwhile orbited,
in parallel orientation, a stationary sun situated at the exact center of the sphere
where it was surrounded by an inner host of circling stars and nebulae. This was
called the Heavenly Core and, aside from being a sight powerful enough to humble
anyone who hadn’t been raised beneath it, this slowly whirling storm of golden
light had been an endless source of consternation and reverence for at least as long
as Old Empire priests first started studying it twelve thousand years ago. As for
what Bivels’ father said, he was literally correct in so far as everything not directly
blocked from line of sight by the unmoving Heavenly Core or roving moon was laid
out perfectly illuminated. Two things helped in this; the relatively gentle radiance
of the sun and the reflective influences of the great sea, large lakes, and the twin
polar deserts. It was therefore possible for anyone of average vision to follow the
entire curve of the world with a single sweep of their head and this without moving
an inch from where they stood. That wasn’t the point though, thought Bivels. His
father had been speaking poetically. He didn’t just mean that the whole world was

accessible. Not merely that. Rather it was because the world lay there wholly
revealed, it was therefore ours to possess.

“What cha’ looking at?” jangled a melodic voice beside him. It was a girl
about his own age but one with strange markings on her skin and she was also
wearing the outfit of a primitive urban scavenger. Think pigeon wings and goblin
hide and industrial junk accessories. Despite this Bivels found her embarrassingly
beautiful and immediately became her captive.

“A destiny I think,” he replied without entirely comprehending what that
meant.

“I’ve heard of those,” laughed the girl in response before adding, “A little
boring though don’t you think?”

Bivels beamed. “Quite right!” He said with total enthusiasm. There was a
pause in the conversation as both children grinned at each other.

Then the girl said, “Come. I want you to meet my friends,” while offering
Bivels her hand. Bivels took it.

When his father reappeared several minutes afterward to find his son
missing, a search was swiftly begun but it wasn’t until weeks later that the younger
Hazerford was located in Pale Body’s Lane among a tribe of feral orphans. He was
barely recognizable however with all his fresh body and face tattoos.

BONES FOR THE SEA

With the tail horn of the moon passing from the face of the sun, dawn began
to flood Alchemist City and its mostly groggy residents. Mook Pearler though was
a fisherman, and fisherman got up early. In fact he was late and should have been
out at sea over an hour ago. This wasn’t his fault however, unless he could be
blamed for agreeing to take on that lousy Quird Cunes as a partner.

“You need help,” his wife had said. “You’re not a green dragon anymore.”
She did that sometimes, belittle him, but he’d long ago learned that she could talk
spider webs around anything he said so Mook usually kept his soreness to himself.

Why Quird though? He was half a devil if he was anything and may have only
been a half at that. The man was unreliable. He was always going off in the middle
of dock work on who knows what and then would show up at the Sunken Hull
without any attempt to explain himself. Since Quird’s magician acts tended to end
with him sitting at their local tavern, Mook initially suspected he was sneaking off
to go drinking. But the man was never drunk! And that in itself bothered Mook
because what type of self-respecting mariner spent all his time on land sober? No,
the whole thing was a mystery and an irritating one at that. When it came to trouble
however, his nets always came up full, so Mook Pearler did his best not to let the
shackle of Quird bother him and instead stuck to taking care of the morning.

Mrs. Pearler was baking in a frenzy at the small wooden table by the hearth
when he entered. Their house only had three rooms; the one with the bed, the one
with the fire, the one with the chamber pot. And of course all of these put together
didn’t even add up to the space he had on his boat. The Pearlers however were
childless so that helped, although sometimes Mook could sense that the long
periods of quiet shared between him and his wife at home didn’t please her as
much as they did him. Lately she’d been making herself busy with all sorts of things
though and, if it kept her from cracking the whip at him, he was fully supportive.

“Morning girl,” he said to the woman he’d married over sixteen years ago
when her first husband died. “Looks like you’ve been at it for some time now.”

His wife, who was concentrating on her rolling pin technique, didn’t look up
as she replied. “Can’t all fuss around in the bedroom all leisurely like can we?”
Mook was stung by this sudden cannonball and, despite his better judgement, he
fired one of his own across her bow.

“Not much I can do until your boy Quird Cunes gets here with a new net!”

Mrs. Pearler paused in the middle of her kitchen engineering and scowled at
him with one eye like the stare of a giant squid. “My boy!” she snapped. “What chu
mean by that!?” Sensing some real heat coming off her words now, Mook Pearler
attempted an ungraceful retreat.

“Nothing at all,” he sputtered meekly. Not really the best thing to do is it Mr.
Pearler? thought Mook to himself. Starting a row with the missus first thing into
the dawn. His professing innocence didn’t alleviate the tension in the room but,
after glaring at him for a few more seconds, Mrs. Pearler went back to work and
Mook let out a quiet sigh. For a moment he wasn’t sure what to say next but then
the smell of baked apple pie decided for him.

“Working on some pies I see. Very nice. Are these ones done over here?” The
abrupt weaponizing of the rolling pin here caused him to take a step back.

“Don’t be touching the pies!” growled his wife. “They ain’t for you!”

Throwing his hands up in the air, Mook decided he’d dug a deep enough hole
before breakfast and figured he’d take a break from trying to bury himself.
Grumbling quietly, he attempted to think of some satisfying jokes he could make
about his wife that would give the fellas a laugh down at the tavern. As always,
nothing emerged from the fog and he’d have to rely on the one he stole from
someone else many years ago. Yes, Mook liked to repeat the joke that he had two
anchors; one in his boat and the other in his bed. What he wasn’t able to admit to
himself however was that he deeply needed his wife. He wasn’t the same man long
ago when he was a bachelor. Someone who could arrive home to an empty shack
without a single pang of loneliness. And he was too old, and ugly frankly, to try and
trade her in for another woman now. Like wives were just islands to be hopped on
and off. No. His life was set in stone now and at this point it could only break.

Mook poured himself the last bit of warm coffee in the Pearlers’ dented
metal tankard and carried it over to the window. At the far end of the hearth room,
away from his toiling wife, he stared out at the harbor adjoining their second story
abode. The sails of tall ships buffeted in the breeze and cresting waves rasped with
curling white lips as they briefly lived and died. It was typical weather for the start
of the month of Glooming but today it put an icicle through Mook’s heart as the
weariness of his life swept over him. Must be nice to work in one of those spires
they got in the Tower District, he thought before adding a, I should’ve tried and
been a clerk. Instead he’d be spending the next eighteen hours out at sea in the
briny slop throwing stinking nets and traps into the water and it wasn’t likely he’d
bring in anything more than a coffin’s worth of catch. And he’d have to listen to
Quird and his endless prattle. Maybe he could just go and get the boat ready and
leave word for Quird to meet him there? Or he could have a second cup of coffee.
Before he’d had a chance to justify to himself the latter choice, fate decided for him
and a third decision imposed itself. Quird appeared.

Arriving from down the street with a glint in his eye and a strut in his legs,
Mook could not help flicking out his tongue and horking in disgust at the man’s
inconsiderate timing. His wife glanced over at him with an arching eyebrow’s worth
of curiosity but he said nothing and instead watched as his partner made their way
along the sparsely crowded walkway. He was a peacock, Mook would give em that.
Not pretty like a dandy though but presentable, yes that’s the word, by the
standards of the dock crowd. He was always clean shaven except for a thin black
awning of mustache and he kept his hair slicked tight with lard and his trousers neat

and his shirts tucked in. Not a big man though. Mook had about forty pounds on
him; admittedly that was with extra around both the arms and waist. Not that Quird
couldn’t handle himself in a rowdy patch of the briar but Mook was sure he could
take him even with his almost decade head start into the downhill years. But it’d
never come to that. They weren’t brawlers; they were working men. More anvil
than hammer really.

Mook was just putting on his boots when there was a flurry of hard raps at
the door. Quird as usual didn’t wait to be let in.

“There’s the old gruff,” he said to Mook as he bounded up to him with a
smile. Mook clenched his teeth but nodded as pleasantly as he could before
thinking of a response.

“Saw you through the glass,” he said. “Looking like a man who’d just found
buried treasure.” Quird laughed.

“Every day’s a treasure captain!” he replied before glancing over at a
spectating Mrs. Pearler. “Happy Woesday to you Mrs. Pearler,” chirped Quird. “Not
wasting the day at all are ya!” Mrs. Pearler seemed to fluster a little bit as she tried
wiping some of the flour off her hands with her apron.

“Just trying to do my part Mr. Cunes,” she said with a blush. “Us wives always
have plenty to do while our men are who knows where.” Quird shrugged his
shoulders comically in Mr. Pearler’s direction before looking back at the man’s wife.

“Well, Mr. Pearler most certainly is a lucky fella,” he proclaimed and Mrs.
Pearler blushed again while feigning to wave away the compliment.

“We’ll see how the day goes,” answered Mook with a grunt as he put on his
sealskin jacket.

There was a lull in conversation as Mook searched a shelf drawer for the pipe
he seemed to recall leaving there. Still looking, he asked Quird a question a few
seconds later.

“Get the net?” Quird gestured in light hearted dismissal despite not having
Mook’s attention.

”Of course captain. It’s hanging off the boat as we speak. I mean, I wouldn’t
let you down now would I?”

Mook exhaled sharply through his nostrils “Right,” was all he said before
finding the pipe a moment later. He’d started to hate the way Quird said “captain.”
Like there was a private joke in it or something. And Mr. Pearler had loved being
called captain once. Back when he and Mrs. Pearler still chased each other around
like starlings, she would call him captain, dripping the title like honey into his ears.
But those days were long gone and it was no use moaning about them. Walking
over to his wife, he surprised her with a quick peck on the cheek and then squeezed
her hand and turned to leave. She looked at Quird awkwardly for a moment before
recovering.

“When’ll you be back?” she asked. Mook stopped at the door and exhaled.

“Twelve hours past the noon or thereabouts,”” he said, meaning twenty
hours hence or a full two thirds of the thirty hour day. When it would be dark then.

The men walked out together into the chill of the morning. Both of them put
their hands in their pockets as Mook noted that Quird was pensive and silent. Well
that’s a nice spell of change, thought Mook. Moving briskly, the pair soon left
behind the Pearler’s apartment in the Angle District, so called because of the
random layout of its streets and correspondingly odd shaped buildings, and crossed
over into the Port District. Sailors and longshoreman, mostly human but with the
occasional dwarf or orc, attended to the hoists and cranes as cargo was unloaded
from as far away as Equatoria. Here and there were also various scoundrels and
scavengers recovering from their earlier nightly exploits but the cold and the
morning hours quelled any lust for trouble in their hearts and they mostly went
about in huddled quietude. No, the only sounds were industry and the cries of
seagulls which everyone there was so used to they barely even heard them
anymore. As Mook and Quird made their way through a throng of day-laborers
waiting on a dwarf foreman checking his ledger while standing on a crate, they were
greeted with the unwelcome sight of Alga Strimer.

You couldn’t imagine her young. You couldn’t imagine her clean. She was as
rancid a witch as they came. Picture a piece of dead wood pulled from a swamp
that was shaped like a human woman. Then cover this in rags and dangling oyster
shells and cat skins before finishing it off with raven eyes and a tangled bramble of
dreadlocks. Also her nails looked like long twisting yellow roots and she was
barefoot so you could see all twenty four of them. Worse for Mook and Quird as
they approached, she recognized the men. Alga Strimer lived in a shanty she’d built
under one of the docks and all the fisherman did their best to avoid it. This included
Mook and Quird but apparently fortune was against them today.

“More bones for the sea eh?” she cackled. “The great mother’s always
hungry!” Neither of the men said anything but Quird made a sign with his hand he
hoped would ward off her powers. Alga just laughed at this and, pulling on the chain
of a two foot tall imp she had in a collar, she addressed the creature.

“Have a peek Vexly! You’ll not see them both again!” Vexly, a little red devil
with clawed feet and hands, a goblinesque head, and two purple veined bat wings,
obeyed. Then he smiled and the mouth that did this was filled with rows of scorpion
stingerish teeth. Mook and Quird needed no further encouragement; they
hastened away as inconspicuously as they could, checking more than once over
their shoulders as they did to make sure they’d left the witch far behind. Then Quird
began to stammer in Mook’s direction.

“Uh, I have to uh, see about something. At my hostel. Won’t be long though.”
For a second Mook failed to react.

“What!” he said with a scowl as he finally realized what he’d just heard. But
it was too late. Quird was already sprinting down the street, away from whatever
it was that awaited him out on the water.

After sending a shower of glass flying with an angry kick to an empty bottle
of Golem’s Blood Rum, Mook continued on his way. Of course! he thought. Couldn’t
do it on his own time! Mook was still seething when he reached the fisherman’s
wharf. At the sight of his own boat however his mood picked up a bit, as it always
did. There she was, all eighteen feet of her. The Regal Swan. Not the name he’d
have chosen personally but that’s what she was called when he bought her and
Mook Pearler was scrupulous when it came to superstition. You don’t rename a

ship that’s had as good a run as hers. Looking lovingly at the boat like it were a
daughter, Mook noted with relief that Quird hadn’t lied about the net. Deuce’s urn!
What was he doing then? Mook spat into the sea as he climbed about his ship. Well,
all I can do is get ready and see if he shows up. Heading out on his own however
would’ve been a considerable challenge so Mook didn’t prepare as fast as he might
have and frequently indulged the sights of nearby distractions. As he was sweating
away at his bilge pump for example, he gazed with a judgemental eye at the quintet
of leisurely attired patricians taking a sailing vessel out for a romp. In the middle of
the week? In this weather? Anyone who lived so idly had to be a cad, he thought.
The waves seemed to take mirth in this, in his private misery, and splashed around
the boat with glee.

“Blast you too,” he muttered and then turned to coil some loose rope.
Despite working as slowly as his conscience would allow, Mook Pearler was still by
himself when he finished with all the preparations he could attend to. Might as well
have a smoke, he decided as he pulled out his pipe and began stuffing it with
tobacco. He had just gotten it going properly when a large shadow flew over him.
The darkness didn’t even last a second but it was enough to get his attention and,
looking skyward, he soon found the drake banking a hundred yards to the right.
Probably an eighty footer, he mused to himself. I wouldn’t do that though, ride one
of those things. As a child Mook had met a drake wrangler and the man had only
one hand and a half a face. It was enough to leave a lasting impression. Got to credit
those city warders though, he continued as he noted the silver gleam of the rider’s
armor. Sometimes they’re all that keeps us from falling into orc-dom.

Quird appeared thirty minutes after Mook set foot on deck. The man seemed
to have recovered himself and Mook, eager to get underway, commented on his
vanishing act with the sparest of venom. Working the rigging of the sails together
while Mook simultaneously went back and forth from the helm, they maneuvered
their way efficiently through the other ships in the area and set out for open waters.
A wall of dilapidated tenement housing to their left, in the east, stood at the shore
of Gaol Island like exhausted alms seekers pleading to them, but Mook gave this as
much attention as he would actual beggars and steered his speeding craft true
south and then west, past the southern edge of his own Angle District borough.
Mook noted with satisfaction that the chop of the sea had softened a bit since
earlier and the two crew of the Regal Swan soon found themselves in a decent
location off the small, lighthouse topped island of Senfrey. A dunce’s cap, Mook

recalled. A warning. Again, this was not a witticism of his own invention but one
he’d heard from an elderly oarsman once, during his junior years aboard a galley
barge. Mook Pearler now was ready to order the anchor thrown but, after doing
so, he observed a snag up the main mast. As he went and stood under this, he
craned his neck so he could study the problem. It was a pulley, caught in one of the
mast rungs. He could climb up and take care of it himself but he might as well get
something for his coin out of Quird.

“Mr. Cunes!” he shouted with a hint of wicked zeal. “There’s a snare here
begging your enthusiasms!” Quird wiped his brow and made his way over in a series
of grabs along the rail while the Regal Swan listed against the tug of its anchor.

“I see it,” he said with a furrowed face and then began clambering up the
mast. Mook remained at the bottom, prepared to stand vigil, when he noticed a
trivial little detail that struck him with calamity. Indeed, it was a disaster as horrible
as any the sea could summon but this one didn’t have any involvement of storm or
water. Rather it was simply this; Quird Cunes had flour on the buttocks of his pants.

With sudden brutal clarity, Mook realized what this meant and he had to
hold himself up by one of the mast rungs to keep himself standing.

“Don’t be touching the pies!” he heard his scolding wife say. Ah! But Quird
had been having his share of pie alright! He was getting his fill, no doubt about that!
Suddenly everything made sense. Quird’s behavior, his wife’s recent distance. And
all this time he’d been happily playing the part of the fool. What a world! A pair of
angry tears now swelled in the corners of Captain Pearler’s eyes but he quickly had
to wipe them away as Quird Cunes descended from on high. The man landed with
a thud and stood there brushing off his hands for a moment.

“Easy enough Captain!” volunteered Quird with a grin. “You’ve just got to
know how to handle the old gal!” Mook could only stare at him with seething
disbelief before turning and stumbling away.

“Curse you,” muttered Mook to the deity. Maker of crap is what you are. He
was leaning on the railing at the prow of the Regal Swan, staring at the lighthouse
across the waves. Quird, having absolutely no idea what was going on with the
crazy albatross, coped with his confusion by baiting and throwing traps. For over

an hour they said nothing to each other as Quird worked and Mook fumed. Mook
thought about killing Quird outright but it was still too decisive an action for him
and, after a couple of hours fantasizing about it, he would eventually admit to
himself that he didn’t have enough ice in his heart to murder the man cold. In the
meantime though he contemplated other scenarios. He thought about confronting
the miserable cuckolder on the boat but didn’t want to deal with whatever that
would unleash for the rest of the day. He thought about when he got home to see
his wife; what would he say then? And, more importantly, what would she say? She
couldn’t turn it around on him. Well, he couldn’t see how. Also, there was what
other people would say since he knew that once he exposed the fact he’d
discovered the affair, word would get around. Or maybe it already had? Could he
have been the last one to figure it out? In a flash of fevered paranoia, Mook ran his
mind through the interactions he’d had over the past few weeks but nothing he
could remember confirmed this fear. No. The treachery of his wife and partner had
not only destroyed his marriage, it’d stranded him on a ship of sinking uncertainties
and no matter what he chose the outcome would be bad for him. Even if he just
went home, packed his stuff and left, he still couldn’t escape the consequences of
their actions. He had no family besides a brother locked up in Squidings; there was
nowhere for him to go. Sighing and then rubbing his hands together for warmth,
Mook realized the only power he had in this situation was when he himself was
going to dump the bubbling pot of tar on his own head. When he was going to pour
the mess over his life. That was it, thought Mook. That’s all I’ve got left. Oh, for
sure, he’d have it out with Mrs. Pearler and Mr. Cunes at some point, preferably
one on one, but he wouldn’t let their adultery force his hand. He would control how
it happened. When it happened. Gazing over at a now aimless Quird pretending to
look for things to do, Mook Pearler made a decision and approached.

“Time to throw in the net,” he said to his startled partner.

They worked together that day better than they ever had before. Quird,
realizing Mr. Pearler was grappling with something immense but being otherwise
clueless and unwilling to broach the matter, clung to the tasks he was given like
they were driftwood in deep water. Mostly he didn’t even want to look at the
captain; Quird, a man whose main concern in life was making sure he enjoyed
himself, didn’t have the experience or inclination to engage anyone in matters of
serious emotion. He was the sort of guy who made excuses about missing funerals
and he was content to live his whole life that way. Mook for his part was as

perfunctory as a gear in a machine, moving only as the external forces of necessity
demanded. When he brought traps up out of the depths, he didn’t care what was
inside and so he just threw their contents in the hold or tossed them back into the
sea out of indifferent obedience to memory. Such small whims of fate had
momentarily lost their sway over him and and it was with apathetic surprise that,
as he checked the relative positions of the sun and moon with his compass, he
realized it was five hours past the noon; five hours into the evening. He told his wife
he’d be back past twelve but that was with two hours added for a stop at the
Sunken Hull. So really five hours of fishing was left for them minus the time it’d take
to get home. Quird was examining a horned helmet covered in rust and barnacles
they’d dredged when he caught Mook looking at him and discarded it into the
water.

“I’m goin’ ta take her in closer to the mainland,” said Mook to Quird. “There’s
a spot there that hasn’t been touched in a while.” Quird nodded.

“I’ll go up front to keep an eye out.” A sensible course of action, thought
Mook as he steered his boat starboard so they’d be facing into the waves when
they cast anchor. This he did in a wide arc and, after travelling somewhere over two
thirds of a large circle, he motioned to Quird to go ahead and drop the chain. This
Mr. Cunes did immediately, knocking down the lever of the anchor mechanism with
a loud thwack and sending its weight rattling into the abyss. Or so they both
thought. Instead it hit something on its way down and that something rose up in a
furor to meet them.

Quird shouted as soon as he saw the surge in the water and Mook was
already halfway to him when the serpent reared its head. Or at least it appeared to
be a serpent at first. Then it became two and three, and long finned tentacles began
to coil around the railings. Therefore it was not a serpent; it was a hydra. Now, in
general, hydras aren’t found in that region of the Thalassic, and are really only
frequent around the eastern shores of distant Panhallia but, unfortunately for the
two men, their day had just decided to veer into the extraordinary. And, other than
a briefly precarious encounter with a pair of feuding water elementals in the month
of Perspis, the crew of the Regal Swan hadn’t seen any danger all season. As such
it certainly couldn’t be said that they were in peak fighting form.

They did have some luck however. The hydra was a juvenile so it couldn’t
simultaneously attack them from both sides. In fact its fray of snapping heads could
not even reach half-way over the deck and its tentacles were ineffective beyond
latching on to the ship’s railing. Using this to their advantage, as well as a pair of
seven foot hook-poles, the two fishermen held the beast at bay and the contest
settled into a stalemate. They knew they couldn’t kill it; any flesh they destroyed
would just regenerate unless it was cauterized and this was too big a job for Mook’s
meager pipe flint. Their only hope then was to flee but, even if they raised the
anchor, the hydras tentacles would still have them in its clutches. What they
needed was a plan. Mook recognized this though so among the bouts of frantic
swinging and alarmed yells, he went about giving the matter some thought. In fact,
it was only moments later, as Mr. Cunes happened to be briefly thrown to the deck
while hanging on to a hook-pole embedded in the monster’s flesh, that Mr. Pearler
realized the utter simplicity of their situation. Pull anchor, lock the steer, and
assault the beast until it went away.

“Mr. Cunes!” he shouted to Quird as the man scrambled to his feet. “I know
what needs to be done!” Panting as he swept some disheveled hair out of his eyes,
Quird Cunes was eager to hear it.

“I’m faster at the winch,” continued Mook, “So I’ll handle that. Meanwhile
you distract the creature so it doesn’t come around at me and then once I’m done
I’ll put the steer on a course and we’ll repel the fiend for good!”

Although not especially enthusiastic about the part where he’d be facing the
hydra alone, the Captain’s promise to get rid of the thing had enormous appeal and
Quird was persuaded by the sureness with which he declared it. Making a fist in a
gesture of solidarity and determination, Quird then went grimly towards his task as
Mook turned around and set to work on the winch. This took just over a minute
and, fixing the steer, even less time, so soon Mook was right beside his partner;
battling the hydra’s dozen fanged mouths and prying at its coiled tentacles. Helped
by the drag of the water as the Regal Swan picked up speed, both the men were
amazed to find themselves making steady progress. Moments later they were even
standing together on the precipice of victory with the hydra, now mostly
submerged, clinging in vain frustration against the hull. Quird, elated, leaned over
the railing to try and jab the creature fully away.

“We’re almost free Captain!” he shouted excitedly. Here, at the last second,
Mook had a spontaneous change of heart. Grabbing Quird around the knees, Mook
lifted him up and tumbled him overboard. On the way down, Mr. Cunes was kind
enough to dislodge the hydra by colliding with it but proceeded to disappear under
the water after doing so. Mook watched for a moment as the rippling area of the
sea where Quird landed began to float away; then the man came thrashing to the
surface. “Mook! What have you done!?”

Surprising himself, Mook roared with laughter. “I’ll tell Mrs. Pearler you
made off with a mermaid!” he promised before punctuating this with a maniacal
whoop.

Captain Pearler didn’t immediately leave the area; he made sure he saw the
man who’d been giving his wife the rod, wrapped up in the hydra’s tentacles before
doing so. Then he headed home. We’ve had enough drama for one day, he thought.
The weather had calmed hours earlier but now at last he could enjoy it. Sort of.
Mook still wasn’t sure what he was going to do about Mrs. Pearler but at least the
two of them hadn’t got the best of him. He’d won. And despite the fact that his
marriage was a fraud, there was satisfaction in this. Chaos had been held back at
the gates. Later, nearing the harbor front of Alchemist City, Mook pictured Quird,
as he must be now, torn to pieces inside the hydra. The thought made him smile.
No more dividing the spoils, he mused. A seagull riding on an updraft shrieked here
and Mook admired it with a benevolent eye. Ah! I wish I could be as free as you my
friend, he thought. Soon however Captain Pearler returned to shore, and all he said
by way of explanation on arrival was.

“A monster got him.”

CONFIDING IN ORACLES

The sorceress had a conservatory at the top of her tower. Consisting of a
single glass dome encompassing the entire eighteenth floor, the room was quite
simply stunning. Beyond its large triangular panels fashioned by the finest gnome
craftsman, the city sprawled in quiet panorama and an ample helping of arresting
sights lay there before the viewer’s discretion. An assortment of towers belonging
to other eminent wizards and the citadels of large corporations made up the rest
of the immediate vicinity but these did not obscure the sights of landmarks like the
Altar Sanctum or the great river Sybeles and, in the opposite direction, the Thalassic
Sea reached across the entire southern horizon and upwards, ascending with the
curve of the inner surface of Orb’s sphere. Far smaller in scope but still fascinating,
the contents of the conservatory were equally available for inspection. Most of
these ringed the outer edge of the marble floor; here newt farms rested beside
cages of mycotoxin-cultivating rabbits and potted mandrakes stood next to tidy
bookshelves stuffed with hardcover esoterica. There were other treasures and
wonders too but most notable was a plant at the very center of it all. Pythonesque
vines as thick as an adult man’s thighs spilled out in every direction across the floor
surrounding its truncated axial stalk. A three step recess in the ground contained
this all in a twenty foot diameter area and that was furthermore sectioned off by a
short gilded railing. The plant itself then had two other distinctive attributes readily
perceived from behind this. One was a plethora of flower bundles resembling
azaleas, but iridescent, and subtly drifting along a spectrum of luminous colors. The

other, less numerous, were immense green flaps fringed with tender spines; these
periodically opening and closing as softly as pairs of butterfly wings.

That morning when she arrived for work, Axiana Spranger headed straight
for the top as usual. Friarsdays were cleaning days and she preferred to do the
tower floors in descending order so she wouldn’t be climbing stairs at the end of
the day when she was tired. The lone apprentice to her mistress, the famed Huria
Crimsory, she had several hours of chores ahead of her but it was a trivial weekly
sacrifice for the chance to soak up the wisdom of one of the Landings countries’
greatest magic users. At least that was the theory. In the nine months she’d been
employed by Mistress Crimsory though she’d learned nothing in terms of spells or
insights from working there and all her progress in the arcane arts had come in
private and secrecy. At least it’ll look good on my application to the Arcaneum next
autumn, thought Axiana. She’d already decided that her apprenticeship would be
a temporary one so she wasn’t distressed by the situation and simply went about
her tasks as one confident that gates to more glorious opportunities would soon be
opening. It wasn’t like her days were hard, just tedious, and she was young and
eager for adventure. Naturally the city was more exciting than the medium-sized
town near Lake Argeno where she grew up but she had convinced her parents to
let her study here in the hopes of something greater. Reaching the conservatory
now, Axiana emerged from the spiral staircase in the floor singing gently to herself
as she made her customary first stop at the dissection table. There assorted
instruments had been left out haphazardly as a result of her mistress’ experiments
the previous evening and she reorganized these as she’d been instructed to while
also disposing of some specimens, both vegetable and animal, which were marked
for her as failures. Quite unprecedented however was the mirror resting there
rather than its normal place on a distant mantle and, picking it up by the handle to
go return it, Axiana couldn’t resist looking at herself for a moment. Pale from years
of cloistering herself in libraries, her skin had only the odd mahogany freckle but
she knew them all and eyed them warily like a teacher might a room of suspiciously
quiet pupils. Don’t go multiplying, she’d think. Her nose too, while petit and elegant
on its own merits, seemed disconcertingly larger in her own mind and she could
only look at it for so long before sighing and moving on. These eyes though she
liked, two turquoise lagoons, and the pink rose petals of her lips also provided some
measure of satisfaction. As for her hair, it was a constant and arduous battle. The
color of a fox’s tail, it was almost as wild, and so she combed it twice a day and
braided it every morning simply to keep it from open rebellion. Last of all before

replacing the mirror, she took a minute to scrutinize the sterling circlet she was
wearing; a gift from her mistress. No, gift wasn’t the right word. Safeguard maybe?
She could recall with perfect clarity the words which had sent a chill through her.
“What’s this for mistress?” she’d asked.

“To protect you, my dear, from the towers other residents,” came the sober
reply. And still she’d yet to see any.

That morning she wouldn’t either but an accident would set in motion a
change in circumstances which eventually would. Only three floors into her queue,
she stumbled off the stool she’d been standing on and landed with a thump. Why
do you have to be so difficult, she thought as she scowled at the unfinished golem
she’d been trying to wipe down. It made no attempt to apologize though so she
gave it no more mind and got up to brush herself off. It was then however that she
realized her circlet was missing.

“Mercy!” she yelped, as her eyes began to frantically dart around the room.
How could it just disappear!? Her answer came when, searching next to the
descending staircase, she saw something gleaming on the next floor down. Ah! A
bit of elfish trickery hmmm? Scurrying to go pick it up, she was dismayed to find
that it’d been broken in the fall. The narrow band of metal was completely severed
in one segment and the circlet as a whole was now only a misleading approximation
of one. It’s not even noticeable though, mused Axiana as she tried to console
herself. I’ll wear it as is for the rest of the day and get it fixed on the way home.
There was a blacksmith not more than two blocks from the public dormitory where
she resided, a kind good-natured man who always heartily welcomed her whenever
she stopped by to visit, and she had no doubt he’d mend it for her at no cost and
as quickly as an enchanter with their wand at that. So this is what she did, because
what else could she do? Tell her mistress? And have the great Huria Crimsory think
of her as a clumsy fool? Unacceptable. She could handle this on her own, provided
the sorceress didn’t find out and, that evening when she said goodbye to Mistress
Crimsory, the deceptively young looking expert in the arcane barely even noticed
her, let alone the circlet.

After a Satyrsday where a phantasmagoric party on the river shore made her
late for curfew, and led to her getting a lecture from the madam of the Spirit of
Chastity Dormitory for Upstanding Ladies, it was right back to life as an apprentice

the coming Sunsday. With her repaired circlet of course. A largely uneventful week
followed though and Friarsday came again. Repeating her cleaning routine, she
began in the conservatory and for a while everything was the same as it always
was. Then she started to feel a curious vibration in the air, like standing near a hive
of bees. Only it wasn’t many vibrations, it was just one. She glanced around but
couldn’t discern the source of it. How strange, she thought, but it was worse than
that and she could feel her nerves fraying as the vibration intensified. Here it
abruptly stopped and, despite telling herself it was nothing, she exhaled with great
relief. Meaning to focus on her work now she tried to do just that when she was
interrupted suddenly by an unknown voice.

“Never thorns, always flowers.” Spinning around in fear, she stared with fully
widened eyes expecting an intruder and finding none.

“Who’s there!?” she demanded but no reply was forthcoming. She waited
for a moment in the eerie calm that followed before calling out again. “If someone’s
around, answer!” Still nothing.

Axiana then cautiously checked a couple of floors below but she found
neither a person nor any sign of one. Lady Aca, protect me from evil spirits, she
prayed. As troubled as she was by all this however, she didn’t want to have to face
the displeasure of Mistress Crimsory if she didn’t finish her work on time today.

“What’s this!?” she recalled her mistress asking acidly the earlier Twinsday.

“That’s the seal of Master Starlings, Mistress,” she answered after a brief
look at the unopened scroll. “

So why wasn’t I immediately informed of its arrival?” demanded the
sorceress. It wasn’t that Huria Crimsory ever erupted in anger (No, she was too self-
possessed for that) but she could carve you up with a few sharp words and an
arched eyebrow if she was even slightly dissatisfied with your performance.
Conscious of this, Axiana steeled herself and returned to the atrium.

“Left to wait the endless hours,” poured the voice again. This time she didn’t
cry out, whirling only in silence where once more she found herself alone.

Crimsory’s apprentice now tried to rush through her tasks but she wasn’t fast
enough.

“If asked but once they could speak, the two atop the tower’s peak.” A devil
of riddles it is, fumed Axiana. Switching from fright to irritation here, she yelled

“Will you stop that!” A reply of sorts arrived after a pause.

“And how many times have I listened to her talk to herself?” Axiana didn’t
quite know what to say to this.

“Who are you?” she asked finally.

“Ah!” began the pleased response. “Very nearly a polite question. Maybe
there’s hope for you Ms. Spranger. But has she really not told you about me? Of
course not. She’s never been one to share.” Axiana’s eyes searched the room but
she still couldn’t pinpoint where the voice was coming from. It seemed to fill the
whole dome.

“I hear you,” the apprentice confessed, “But I can’t see you.” The air trilled
with a velvety laugh.

“I beg to differ,” the voice replied. “I can feel your eyes on me every time
you’re here.” Axiana remained baffled and her mysterious counterpart tried again.
“I’m the one who’s always in the same place. I’m her favorite prisoner.” At last the
apprentice clued in.

“You!” she gasped, as she addressed the gargantuan plant that dominated
the center of the conservatory.

“Mistress Crimsory certainly did tell me about you,” Axiana went on. “She
said I wasn’t to go anywhere near you. That it was absolutely forbidden.” The plant
absorbed this news without any apparent reaction; the usual color play of its
glowing flowers not seeming to be affected in the slightest.

“Did she say you couldn’t speak to me?” asked the plant eventually.

“No,” squirmed Axiana unsurely. “My mistress didn’t even say you could
speak.” This answer satisfied the plant.

“Well, that settles that then. If it was important, she would have mentioned
it. To even raise the matter with her would imply a lapse in judgement on her part.
It would be tantamount to an accusation of neglect. Or senility. And trust me, you
don’t want to go anywhere near the second one of those. She’s very touchy about
her age.” Axiana Spranger gulped at the mere thought of doing anything remotely
like that.

“It must be okay, mustn’t it?” she asked herself out loud. “The mistress was
quite specific when it came to everything else.” The plant hummed in approval.

“Excellent logic,” it said. “And anyways, don’t bother yourself too much
about old dour Huria. In all her centuries I doubt she’s even had a day’s worth of
fun. Mostly I think she just makes rules for others because she doesn’t know how
to be free herself.” It all made sense, mused Axiana. Everything the plant says. But
something didn’t feel right.

“How come you’ve never spoken before?” asked the young woman
suddenly, a hint of accusation in her words. The plant however was unperturbed.

“Have you not met the sorceress Ms. Spranger?” it retorted. “Do you think
she’d indulge my need for harmless conversation while she’s absorbed in her
vicious little experiments? Obviously not. Any time I grow a vocal organ now she
just snips it off. It’s the most casual of cruelties really. Ah, but you’re different. It
took me a few months to figure out what sort you are but I know now you’re a kind
and compassionate young woman. Someone who doesn’t begrudge a helpless
plant’s need for companionship.”

The entire time the plant had been speaking here, Axiana was studying the
aforementioned vocal organ. It was an apparently freshly budded appendage,
resembling a melon in size and shape, protruding from the top of the plant’s
truncated stalk. It had not been there when Axiana first arrived that day.

“You seem to know much about me,” she replied, “And I nothing of you. Do
you have a name?” The light from the plant’s flowers visibly brightened.

“I am called Oracle.”

At first she found speaking to a plant surreal. Axiana had heard of talking
trees and mushroom men of course but she’d never met any in real life. Soon
though it was as natural as anything. And surprisingly easy; Oracle was very
enjoyable company. The plant spoke so eloquently and listened so attentively that
in no time at all, Axiana was sitting on the outside of the railing around its
enclosure, beaming as she listened to its stories and sharing details from her own
considerably less exciting life. Every time she mentioned one of her problems too,
Oracle was ready with the most insightful advice. Axiana hadn’t talked like this with
anyone in ages. Maybe ever. It was with considerable regret then that, looking up
beyond the conservatory dome at the moon’s position in the sky, she realized
something like an hour must have passed in only a few frolicking minutes.

“I’ve been under a spell!” she exclaimed. “The mistress will turn me into a
troll if she finds out I’ve been dawdling.” Oracle laughed.

“Don’t torment yourself for her sake,” the plant continued. “She’s not nearly
as attentive to her things as you might think. That bookshelf across the room for
example, the one you carefully dust every Friarsday, she hasn’t read anything from
it in decades.” Axiana looked at the shelf and then back at Oracle.

“How do you know so much?” the apprentice asked. The light of her
counterpart’s flowers almost seemed to blush. “Oh, many ways,” the plant replied.
“I even divine things from time to time.”

Axiana’s mouth opened involuntarily in amazement. “You mean, like the
future?” she inquired cautiously before accepting the idea in a flash and adding,
“Please tell me mine!” The plant hummed and hawed as it considered this request
before finally relenting.

“I’ll say this. You’ll only be a servant for a short time. Then you’ll become a
part of something greater.” She knew it!

“Thank you, kindly Oracle,” she gushed. “Talking to you today has really
helped a lot.” The plant murmured in agreement.

“The same to you,” it said. “And who knows, maybe a situation might arise
one day where you can help me. But actually, there is one thing…” As Oracle trailed
off into an uncertain silence, Axiana sensed an anxiety in the plant.

“What is it?” she said as gently as she could.

“It’s just that, she’s so brutal with her clippers,” answered the plant, “And I
know if she finds out I’ve grown another vocal organ, she’s simply going to chop it
off.” The wickedness of such a thing, thought Axiana.

“Say no more,” she insisted. “Given that you’ve kept so many of my secrets,
it’s only right that I keep one of yours.”

Later in the same day, deep in evening when work was well behind her and
the moon was once more encroaching on the face of the sun, Axiana reflected on
all that had happened. Finally something magical, she thought, as she sat on the
edge of her bed and took dainty spoonfuls from a bowl of hickory garbanzo soup.
The private room her dormitory provided was modest and austere but tonight it
didn’t have the mildly depressing quality it usually did. Her imagination was alive!
Meeting Oracle felt like it had brought her to a threshold of wonderful possibilities.
A new and unknown world almost. Even meeting Mistress Crimsory and securing
the apprenticeship hadn’t been this thrilling. It was a new dawn for her but
unfortunately not one that was entirely free of dismal clouds. To treat Oracle so
poorly! Over the last several months it was quite apparent that the sorceress was
not a particularly warm person but Axiana wouldn’t have thought she’d be capable
of such malice. To keep an intelligent creature that isolated… it was downright
villainous. And actually Oracle was more than a mere creature; Oracle was a being
of great wisdom. Yes, she would try and find some way to help them; she was
certain of it. At the moment though she had no idea how she could, so she
somewhat reluctantly returned to the current object of her self-imposed reading
program. It was an issue from one of last year’s Gnosticomnia; a quarterly
periodical published by the Arcaneum. They were actually rather difficult to get a
hold of, copies being in limited circulation and fiendishly guarded, but she had
prevailed on a friend whose uncle was a warlock and professor at the Star Citadel
Academy to “borrow” it for her and let her have it for a few days. As if its rarity
wasn’t enough to impede the free distribution of knowledge, its articles were often
written in archaic strains of Imperial and then further veiled with highly symbolic

language. But Axiana would change all that; she had no doubt of this. When she
became a full-fledged enchantress and had influence over how things worked, she
would make enlightening humanity in the mystic arts one of her foremost priorities.
Once she had her own tower and her name was praised across the Lowlands, she
would use that fame for the benefit of others. She could host symposiums for
instance and have the foremost experts in fields like alchemy and levitation give
lectures on their respective specialties for the education of the ordinary and
mundane. True, even a basic spell of illumination was still a challenge for her, but
being adept would come with practice. Surely this was what Oracle was speaking
of when they alluded to her destiny. If only success wasn’t so far off! Here Axiana
returned to her soup and article, staring at the thickets of words in black ink while
stellar dreams danced in the background of her mind.

She had to wait a whole week before she got a chance to speak to Oracle
again. The next Friarsday however she made sure to get up several hours early and
fidgeted her entire ride into the city as she sat among the weary masons and
seamstresses she shared that morning’s commute with on a packed twenty seat
carriage. When she reached Mistress Crimsory’s tower, the giant who stood sentry
barely had time to winch the portcullis before she flew in under its iron gate and
dashed for the stairs. Never before had there seemed to be so many but gradually
she got closer and closer to the eighteenth floor and the awaiting conservatory.
Slowing down as she neared the second to last set of stairs, Axiana recalled some
of the topics she had thought about introducing into their next conversation. How
old was Oracle? Had they always lived in the tower? Were there others of their kind
like them with the same powers of thought and speech or were they the result of
a singular magical event? There was so much Axiana was curious about but, as she
made her way to the final set of stairs, she took a second to reproach herself. Don’t
smother them in prying questions. Nobody likes that. Make sure you act interested
but not over eager. As her head ascended above the floor line of the conservatory
though, she couldn’t help but immediately glance in Oracle’s direction. They really
are beautiful, she thought. I can’t believe I stopped noticing that after only a few
months. Doing her best to hide her excitement, Axiana made her way over to
Oracle’s enclosure hoping the plant would speak to her first. When it didn’t she bit
one of the corners of her bottom lip as she tried to think of the right way to begin.
Best to just keep it simple.

“Morning Oracle,” she said softly and with a brief but noticeable hesitation.
The plant did not immediately respond but then its vocal organ unfurled from a
hidden cavity.

“Ah, Ms. Spranger,” they replied. “A pleasure ahead of schedule.” Axiana
smiled with happiness and relief as she explained.

“There’s lots of work to do today,” she exaggerated before capitulating.
“And, um, I wanted to make sure we had time to talk again.” Her counterpart’s
flowers pulsed with delight.

“How nice of you to think of me,” said Oracle. “I won’t lie, this last week was
utterly dreadful. Barely even a sparrow song the entire time. I trust yours though
was much better.” Axiana furrowed her brow in thought.

“Not really,” she confided. “I spent most of my free time planted, or uh I
should say seated, at my desk. Studying.” Axiana rebuked herself inwardly for her
thoughtless gaffe but Oracle didn’t react to this. Instead their curiosity was aroused
by something else she’d said.

“You mean magic?” asked the plant before adding, “Can you tell me about
it?” This question came as a big surprise to the apprentice.

“You want… me, to teach… you, about magic?” she marvelled. “But you’re
so well versed in, I mean, everything. What could I share that you don’t already
know?” Oracle seemed to hum with mirth but then responded rather more
seriously.

“It’s somewhat embarrassing to be honest,” they began. “The truth is, I’ve
been fairly neglectful of the arcane. Anything you can tell me about it would be
immensely appreciated. Even the most basic things.” Ms. Spranger was amazed.

“Of course,” she blurted. “I could summarize the hexagogue curriculum I
suppose. It’s what I was taught and it’s probably the most widely practiced among
the academic systems of magic.” Oracle found this to be a most welcome
suggestion.

“Please do,” they said before withdrawing into anticipatory silence.

“Okay then,” Axiana began. She was on the verge of giddiness at finding
herself in the unexpected position of instructing one she so admired. This was not
how she thought this was going to go at all!

“Um, probably the best place to start is the nature of magic itself. The most
common definition of it is that it’s the ability to shape the world through acts of
will. A mage is someone who’s learned techniques for doing this and can utilize
these themselves. There’s actually a, I guess you’d call it, hierarchy of those with
various levels of proficiency…” At this point Oracle politely interrupted.

“So, is this what humans refer to as arcana then?” they asked.

“Well technically,” explained Axiana, “Arcana is the body of knowledge built
from magical experimentation. Sometimes magic and arcana are used
interchangeably though. But that actually brings me right to the hexagogue system
I learned. It divides magic into six classes; um, psyomancy, the arcana of telepathy
and extra perceptions, elemancy, the arcana of manipulating elemental forces,
necromancy, the arcana of controlling the dead and inducing vital effects,
conjuration, the arcana of summoning entities and powers, transmutation, the
arcana of altering entities and imbuing them with magical effects, and uh
invocation, the arcana of soliciting aid from the higher realms.” Here she’d been
counting off the different classes of magic on the fingers of her left hand and ended
finally on her right pinky. Then she found she had to suddenly inhale deeply
because she’d been forgetting to breathe the whole time.

“Wow, it sounds quite complicated,” remarked an evidently impressed
Oracle. “And you can do all that?” Axiana laughed in a gush of of untapped self-
deprecation but also with a hint of wistfulness.

“Oh no Oracle,” she replied smiling. “I’m just a novice. Right now the most I
can do is see auras if I really concentrate or bend a beam of light.” The plant’s
flowers glowed with apparent appreciation at her candor.

“So no summoning swords out of thin air yet?” they teased affably. “Or
shooting fire from your fingertips?” Axiana blushed.

“Nothing of the sort sadly,” she said. “Why? Do you need a fire?” At this
question the plant seemed to shiver.

“Summer forbid,” they said. “My kind are very happy not to be near any
gluttonous fires thank you.”

Their conversation carried on as it had the previous week, Oracle blossoming
with charm and Axiana thoroughly enraptured. She didn’t even notice when a
griffin veered by only a dozen or so yards above the conservatory’s dome and
instead focused on every word coming out of Oracle as if she were a juggler, in the
middle of a climactic performance, concentrating on the falling pins. Whenever an
opportune moment arose she asked one of the questions she’d collected the
previous week, but she noticed a curious pattern in this. Whenever she sought
advice or inquired about some random topic, Oracle was totally indulgent. Any
attempt however by her to learn more about her new acquaintance seemed to
bring their discourse straight into a bog. They don’t particularly like talking about
themselves, mused Axiana. It was almost starting to trouble her when she abruptly
realized what it was; Oracle had spent so much time alone, absorbed in the prison
of their own solitude, that they were utterly starved for the world outside
themselves. That’s a relief, she thought, but I should set aside any personal
questions for a while then. As young as she was, even she knew that true friends
are as precious as anything and when you meet one you need to keep that in mind.
Getting to know someone is more than just gathering information about them; it’s
attuning yourself to their needs and their preferences. It’s not just listening, it’s
perceiving. With this at the forefront of her thoughts, Axiana decided to go out of
her way to demonstrate how much she cared.

“Is there anything you need Oracle?” the apprentice inquired. The plant’s
flowers glowed with what Axiana interpreted as affection.

“No no, thank you though,” they replied. “I’ll say this in favor of old Huria;
she always makes sure I’m well-watered and the sunlight this room gets couldn’t
be better. I really have nothing to complain about besides tedium. Which your
company of course cures magnificently. Although, and it’s so trivial I only mention
it because you asked, I have been experiencing the strangest itch lately. Little spots
here and there. My vines, my stems, my flaps… It’s quite odd. Never mind though.

In fact, I notice it’s slightly past the time when you usually start your cleaning
rounds. And I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Axiana was startled and grateful to find that Oracle had caught what she had
missed. So, after several minutes of protracted and mutually pampering goodbyes,
the apprentice got down to work. See, she thought to herself, that’s exactly what I
meant about caring for the needs of others.

Brimming with happy energy after such a great start to her morning.
Axiana took to her tasks like a hummingbird among flowers. A collection of skulls
on the thirteenth floor for example received an impromptu serenade as they were
receiving their weekly polishing and the array of crystal artifacts on the eighth floor
gleamed with her ghostly image as she danced in their midst while sweeping a
straw broom. Today a little toil was no match for her joyful heart and, with
relentless enthusiasm, she demolished her chores one after another until her work
had nearly been finished and the bottom of the tower almost reached. This ecstasy
suddenly turned into dismay though when she cavorted down the steps of the third
floor and unexpectedly found herself confronted by the petrifying glare of one
Huria Crimsory. The sorceress was seated in a wicker lounge chair and the austere
beauty of her regal face was momentarily lifted from the depths of a creosote
colored grimoire as she waited impatiently for her apprentice to explain
themselves.

“Mistress Crimsory!” stammered Axiana. “I… I didn’t see you!” The
sorceress took her time answering.

“That much is quite evident,” she said. “Yet it does nothing to clarify the
prancing manner in which you’re currently rushing through your duties.” Here only
the edge of the axe was being brandished but it was ready to come down in full
force if the ensuing reply proved inadequate. Normally this would’ve been enough
to reduce Axiana to abject submission, but the fire of rebellion spontaneously
swept over her and she responded with a glint of challenge in her words.

“My apologies mistress,” she said. “I didn’t realize a glad spirit could be
offensive.” Now the sorceress was the one who was surprised; her apprentice had,
up until that point, been thoroughly deferential. Huria Crimsory however had done

battle against infernal tyrants and gorgon coven leaders; she wasn’t one to be awed
by a petulant young naïf who grew up in a burgher family in the West Lowlands.

“Is that what that was?” mused the sorceress with a wry smile. “A glad
spirit? Perhaps you’ve decided that in your brief sojourn here you’ve absorbed
everything your apprenticeship has to offer. Which would make this a celebration
I suppose. The triumph of the great Axiana Spranger who accomplished in a few
months what it took her mistress several mortal lifespans.” While not a full
decapitation, this was enough to knock the imaginary crown off Axiana’s head.

“No mistress,” she replied with a sigh. “I was simply feeling unusually
happy.” The implication behind that answer softened Mistress Crimsory slightly.

“I do not mind zeal,” the sorceress continued. “Zeal has its place. But the
heart is, and always will be, a fool Ms. Spranger. Do not think that just because a
river appears gentle or pleasant that it can’t carry you to ruin. Bear this in mind
whenever you find yourself levitating away on some wonderful feeling.”
Chastened, the sorceress’ apprentice bowed her head.

“I’ll try,” she answered. Then, because Huria Crimsory had started to read
her book again, Axiana went to work in the room. This she did in a quietly morose
way and the two had no further interaction until, a while later, Ms. Spranger was
making to leave and Mistress Crimsory spoke up.

“Before you go, take this statue and put it on the shelf by the entrance to
the atrium.” As she said these words, the sorceress held up a small ebony statue of
a raven but instead of handing or throwing it to her apprentice, the statue briefly
came to life and flew across the room into Axiana’s hands. She was mesmerized
and it was the first time her mistress had ever done magic in her presence.

Feeling that there was plenty she had to think about, Axiana decided to take
some of the afternoon off that Satyrsday to go for a walk in Stag Park. An idyllic
location with fields of lush grass and venerable balsam trees, it was situated in the
easternmost region of Lower Domestia against the immemorial city wall known
since the founding as The Battlements. The maroon colored robe she wore had a
cowl but she decided to take a parasol anyways and she twirled this while shading
herself with it among the other upstanding denizens frequenting the park that

afternoon. Mistress Crimsory really wasn’t a bad sort, she thought to herself. This
business with Oracle must be some kind of aberration in her behavior. Maybe the
two had a falling out over something? In any case, it still wouldn’t justify keeping
the poor creature secluded from all other life and society. It was settled then. As
nervous as she was to do so, Axiana Spranger would confront her mistress over the
issue. She realized just as quickly however that it would probably be a good idea to
speak to Oracle first about the matter. Tomorrow, she decided. It was no good to
put it off. Here a flood of warmth washed over her in this newfound resolve. You’re
growing up, she thought as she watched a distinguished looking man in tails and
top hat training a fledgling wyvern.

Sunsday morning she kept the promise she’d made to herself and duly set
out at an early hour for Mistress Crimsory’s tower. There the sentry giant was
surprised to see her since she wasn’t expected at all, but he crouched down and
scratched his head as he tried to make sense of her rambling explanation before
shrugging and letting her in. As she had so many times before, she spiralled her way
up each of the ascending staircases, every step though bringing her closer today to
a moment of fateful resolution. For Oracle however it was simply a pleasant
surprise.

“Ms. Spranger!” they chimed as she made her breathless arrival. “This is
quite early, even for you. I believe Friarsday is still at the opposite end of the
week?” Axiana smiled bashfully at the joke but then recovered her sense of
purpose and launched herself into the matter.

“Oh Oracle,” she began with a certain amount of excess drama. “There’s
something very important I want to discuss with you. But it concerns Mistress
Crimsory.” At the mention of the sorceress’ name, Oracle briefly seemed to panic.

“Why?” asked the plant. “Is she here?” A little perplexed, Axiana
nevertheless answered the question.

“No no no,” she said. “In fact she’s going to be gone all day, at a guild council
I think. No, I merely wanted to talk about going to her to plead on your behalf. To
try and improve your circumstances.“ Oracle required an interval to contemplate
something before it replied.

“Truly?” they said with a trace of epiphany. “Then this really is the perfect
time. Go ahead dear. But actually, if you could just do something for me now. I
think I mentioned an itch that was bothering me before. Well, it’s gotten worse. If
you would scratch me in a few places while we talk? Assuming of course that’s not
too much trouble.” It sounded like nothing at all.

“Far from it,” assured Axiana as she straddled and then hopped over the
enclosure railing. It was her first time doing so and she stood apart unsurely from
Oracle for a moment.

“Could you start on the vine closest to you?” asked the plant. “Yes, that one.
Just give me a gentle scratch around the flower bundle on your left. Yes, there.
Hmmm, that feels very nice. Very nice indeed.” Axiana had never scratched a plant
before, well not intentionally anyways, and she tried to be extremely diligent about
not inflicting even the least amount of damage on her friend. So focused was she
in this that momentarily she forgot her whole reason for being there but,
remembering again, she began to go over the matter.

“The way you’re treated is awful Oracle,” she contended.

“Awful,” purred Oracle in agreement.

“Which is why,” Axiana went on, “I want to confront her about it. With your
permission of course.” The lights of the plant’s flowers flickered rapidly.

“Yes, you certainly have it Ms. Spranger,” they exuded. “But tell me what
you’re planning. And… and if you could move a little farther up the vine. Near where
those flaps are.” Axiana did as she was asked and was about to leap into her
proposal when she noticed the massive flaps beside her open wide, the spines on
their lips flowing in her direction. And then it happened; the flaps whipped towards
her in a flash, lifting her off her feet and swallowing her whole. No trace of the
apprentice then remained.

Snares, she heard her mistress call them once. Many months ago when the
sorceress was entertaining one of her rare guests. It had occurred so swiftly though
that initially Axiana was in a state of pure confusion. Then the horrifying and spirit
crushing realization set in; Oracle had eaten her. She wanted to sob but the instinct

to live made her lash out against the slimy walls of plant flesh pressing in on her.
Desperately Axiana searched for a way to break through; a place to pierce, a crease
to tear, anything. She found none. The inside of the snare was like a pliant enamel
that stretched when she pushed against it but grew more resistant the more she
did. It smothered her on all sides and it was becoming increasingly hard to breathe
in the hot acrid air filling up the confined area.

“Why Oracle?” she asked weakly but if the plant could hear her it gave no
indication that it did. The apprentice thought back to their previous interactions
and with sickening clarity she understood that it had been grooming her from the
beginning. To be a meal. The carnivorous plant had even made sure she didn’t have
the power to escape once it’d swallowed her. And she had never sensed any
danger. Every time a warning sign arose she explained it away in a manner that
would let her keep what she really wanted; the special hope of the extraordinary.
Of better things. And as death here was drawing ever nearer now, she admitted
how lonely she’d been. How much she wanted someone she could share a secret
with. To be significant to another. Tiring in her struggle, Axiana made only cursory
gestures of defiance against her approaching destiny. It was over. All her dreams
ended with this. She imagined how her mother and father would react when they
found out; but would they even get the real story? For all she knew, she would
vanish into a mystery that the people who loved her would never be able to answer.

Elsewhere in the city, Huria Crimsory was having a cup of tea. The meeting
of mages she was attending, all of whom were members of the supreme guild itself,
had devolved into the petty details of bureaucratic minutia and the sorceress was
presently more preoccupied with her warm beverage than anything else. If only
they knew how much the mundane dominated our lives as it did theirs, mused
Huria as she thought about all the under folk she crossed paths with on a regular
basis. My apprentice for example. A thoroughly romantic girl driven by typical
notions. Only, there was a thoughtfulness in her that might bloom one day into
something exceptional. As Huria Crimsory pictured Axiana Spranger in her mind
however, a sense of foreboding crept into the image. Something is going on, the
sorceress realized. Thinking about it for a few more seconds, Huria at last made her
decision.

“Magisterial colleagues,” she said in a loud voice as she rose from the table.
“If you’ll please excuse me, there is an urgent matter I must suddenly attend to.”

The other mages acknowledged her with a variety of respectful nods and more
idiosyncratic reactions before returning to the business on the agenda and leaving
Huria to exit out a set of rear doors opened for her by a pair of golem servants.
Then it was through a series of convoluted halls and out the front entrance of the
Technomages’ guild lodge. There her chauffer was waiting next to two zebras
hitched to an ash-colored carriage. Seeing his employer, he rapidly emptied the
pipe he’d been smoking and went and held the carriage door open for her.

“To my tower,” she said by way of command and the frock coated chauffer
obediently ran and took his seat up front before cracking his whip above the heads
of the zebras to get them started. Traffic down Elven Way was relatively light so
they made good time and it wasn’t too long before Huria Crimsory stepped out of
her transport and briskly crossed over to her primary work property. The startled
giant at the gate hurried to let her in and she entered almost without pause. There
in the atrium though she stopped.

“No, I think not,” she muttered cryptically to herself as she laid eyes on the
first set of stairs. Soon this was followed by a clarification of sorts; Mistress
Crimsory being enveloped in a fog that seemed to emanate from all around her.
Once she’d vanished completely in this, the fog then rapidly began to flow up the
stairs in a kind of hovering funnel. In less than a minute it ascended all the way to
the top where Huria Crimsory then materialized out of the once more gathered fog.

“I see,” said the sorceress as she looked upon the aftermath of her
apprentice’s misfortune. The snare was still bulging with its trapped occupant but
there was no apparent movement from within. Obviously Huria Crimsory could flay
the plant open in an instant if she wanted to but that would damage one of her
most prized possessions.

“The girl should have listened,” she sighed and then turned and walked
downstairs.

Axiana meanwhile was still in the process of being digested. Delirious now
from the fumes inside the snare, she contemplated the dim green-tinted light
seeping in through the walls of her prison. I’m going to die in a flower’s womb, she
thought. And then a second later; that doesn’t even make sense. Ah, well, what
does it matter? Stupidity doomed her to this, stupidity could see her through. How

rude to abandon her now. Coughing, Axiana looked at one of her hands with
squinting eyes. It’s dissolving my flesh, this slime. It’s like the acid of a man’s
stomach. Eventually I’ll become a liquid nutrient that’ll fuel the flow of those
sinister blossoms. In fact, as this sentiment rolled through her mind she seemed to
notice her hand fade in and out slightly. A trick of addled sight? But no. It happened
again, and more pronounced this time. Lady Aca please protect me, prayed Axiana.
The voice that suddenly began to arise in fearsome chanting though didn’t sound
like the gentle warble she’d always imagined that the first woman possessed.
Rather it sounded like the door to a furnace bursting open and some banshee of
fire howling within. This is it! Axiana had to shut her eyes completely as her entire
body phased back and forth from some unknown dimension.

“Save me,” she whispered. Anyone. And with that final thought she was
winked completely from existence. It came as a considerable shock then when she
landed in a pratfall not more than ten feet outside Oracle’s enclosure.

“How?” she said bleary eyed before she saw Mistress Crimsory kneeling in a
meditative posture on a glyph woven mat. Sweat was dripping down the sorceress’
face but, conscious of her apprentice’s gaze, she wiped it off as imperiously as she
could before standing slowly and approaching.

“Hmmm,” said Crimsory as she snatched Axiana’s circlet off and examined it.
“To mend the outer appearance of something does not always mean that it’s been
fixed.” Axiana, wavering between laughing and weeping, instead blurted a
question.

“How’d you release me?” Mistress Crimsory exhaled.

“Teleportation,” she explained. “A spell you might learn one day if you listen
to what you’re told.”

Axiana was miraculously alive but she felt utterly ruined. She’d made herself
completely vulnerable and her trust had been exploited with ruthless depravity.
From now on a piece of her innocence would always be missing. Huria Crimsory,
mindful of this, would wait to give the girl her inevitable scolding.

“They’re called Lady Trap Oracles,” the sorceress divulged. “They’ll eat
anyone whose minds they can get inside of but their seductive powers seem most
effective against children and young women. A long time ago this one almost ate
me so I keep it here; partly as a reminder, partly as revenge. Now, as for why I didn’t
tell you, there are a number of reasons. One, because I don’t want anyone to know
I have it. Two, because I’ve found that telling brand new apprentices they’re
working only a few feet away from a deadly carnivorous plant is not the best way
to retain them. Of course you may not like these reasons but if you intend to remain
as my apprentice you’ll have to live with them.” Axiana was still too weak to argue
but she responded with a certain amount of incredulity.

“You could have at least taught me some protective magic,” she complained.
“Instead all I do is mundane errands.” The sorceress sighed at this but she wasn’t
angry.

“The reason the wise majority of us who are experts in the arcane teach their
apprentices first through toil is because the most important things for new mages
to learn are patience and humility. The world has too many reckless and arrogant
magic users as it is.” She was right in this at least, thought Axiana. That I’m naïve is
beyond all doubt today.

“Alright,” the sorceress continued. “Come on then. You interrupted my tea
and you could probably use a cup yourself.” It took a minute but Axiana managed
to rise on her wobbly legs before her mistress spoke again. “Oh, and Ms. Spranger?”
added the sorceress just as she was going down the stairs.

“Yes Mistress?” her exhausted apprentice replied. Here Huria Crimsory gave
Axiana an extremely unambiguous look.

“Let’s be perfectly clear though about one thing,” said the sorceress. “You
are not allowed in this room anymore.”

GOLIATH’S ANDROID SHOP

In the heart of Alchemist City, among the cobblestone alleys patrolled by
hobgoblin cutpurses and platoons of steam-powered machine men trying to
preserve order, there lived a giant. He was unremarkable as far as giants go; plus
he mostly kept to himself in a gargoyle covered building located beside one of the
many mercury canals. Here he ran the business of an android shop called “Goliath’s
Android Shop” and his name was Goliath. He was a peaceful giant so the name
didn’t really suit him but he pretended he liked it just fine. Goliath preferred
tinkering away in his shop, as oblivious as possible to the outside world, rather than
living a life of eating peasants and battling heroes which people tended to expect
from his kind. So far he’d done a good job of avoiding adventures but this was about
to change when one day something resembling a girl snuck into his garage through
an open window and hid among the boxes of spare parts there.

No one inside noticed at first. “Cogwheel?” called the giant in a casual way
as his attention remained fixed on the eyeball mechanism he was examining
through a pair of small opaque-seeming goggles. When no answer was forthcoming
he lifted his head and called again.

“Cogwheel? Did you find the torso I asked for?” added the giant, his baritone
voice still pleasant. The sounds of things being bumped into and knocked over
resounded from a nearby doorway before a robot carrying a heap of precariously
balanced android parts in their arms veered erratically into the room. Their upper
body was obscured but its lower half consisted of an articulated cone shaped


Click to View FlipBook Version
Previous Book
Root of Unity by S L Huang
Next Book
แบบสำรวจความสนใจในนโยบายการลงทุนในต่างประเทศ