It had been a little over three weeks since I took over as magister of the flier college. Technically speaking, we hadn’t made any progress. We hadn’t found hide nor hair of Ling, hadn’t so much as found someone who admitted talking to her.
On the other hand, we were having loads of fun.
“Tekhiko!” I called. “Watch your backdraft! Justine, help Reinhold get his carpet untangled!” Floating in the center of the swarm, I raised my voice. “Let that be a lesson for the rest of you! When you’re flying at night—or vampires, during the day—your vision will be impaired, and you need to be careful!” I frowned at another of my pupils. “Orla, I saw that!”
I knew I couldn’t keep this up. Being a teacher was surprisingly easy, but despite the name ‘magister,’ I wasn’t actually supposed to be a teacher. I was supposed to be a warlord, leading these men and women to glory and riches.
I wasn’t acting like Uncle Art, I was acting like my mom. She was the teacher of the family. When I was a kid, stuck in NHQ for reasons I didn’t understand, I had spent half my time watching her go over her lesson plans and listening to her stories about her classes. The other half was spent trying to sneak out of the Necessarian blockade.
Both were proving useful here, but unless I started learning what the lessons Uncle Art had to teach, it would all be for nothing.
“Miss Clarke!” one of the others called. He was an orc, and one of the pure gravity controllers, like me. The fact that he didn’t use a more formal title was a bad sign, but not an unexpected one. He pointed at the horizon. “Enemy fliers coming in from the west! They have their guns out.”
I squinted in the direction he had indicated, but couldn’t see anything. Still, I had to trust his judgment. “Sascha! Where are you?”
“Here,” she said from five feet behind me. I wheeled around to see the kemo pod-brain floating there serenely, holding hands tightly, as always. Sascha was a levitator, like me, and could only affect herself, but Kora’s telepathy linked them tightly enough that Sascha’s ability worked on both of them, so long as they were holding hands. At least they had finally stopped speaking in stereo.
“Get closer, please” I asked. “But not too close. See what Platon can see, and report back.”
The twins nodded and floated forward, Platon—the orc—following behind them quickly. So long as he kept his eyes somewhere other than the girls’ rear ends, he should be able to give me a good picture of what we were dealing with.
“Everyone else!” I called. “You all know that this is going to be dangerous! If you don’t want to fight, head out now!”
No one left, instead choosing to circle around me. Most of the winged fliers, like Fimmtu and Whiteheart, had to land on the nearest roofs, as without the warm thermals of the day, they couldn’t hover. Honestly, they could rarely hover even then. The rest of us floated down to the rooftops as a courtesy to them. Besides, we needed to preserve our reservoirs.
It only took a few minutes for the enemy fliers to come into sight, before the twins and Platon could return. Oddly, it almost looked like most of them weren’t fliers. There were only six of them, and they all flew in standing on small round discs of metal. Unless they all had the ability to control metal—which, I had to admit, was far from impossible—it looked like one of them was providing lift for the rest.
I floated up to meet them, the others remaining carefully hidden.
“Hello,” I greeted the kemo leading them. “Should I address you as Honored Hunter or Honored Magister?”
“I am Wahil,” the werewolf growled with a voice like gravel. “Acolyte of the kytons.”
Acolyte? I hadn’t heard that one before. I guess it was a lesser title, like how the vampires had Nobles at the top, nightstalkers in the middle, and then ordinary ones at the bottom.
I had, however, heard of the kytons. Chain-wielders with the ability to kinetically manipulate metal. I didn’t know anything about their limits or disposition, though. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that I might run into them.
I had very little doubt they could kill me before I could run.
“I am Robyn Joan Clarke,” I replied pleasantly, masking my fear with friendliness. “Magister of—” I verbally stumbled. Well, this was embarrassing. We didn’t even have a name yet. “—of these fliers. Did you just stop by to say hello, or did you have another reason for being here?”
The kemo glared at me with yellow eyes. On a closer look, ‘werewolf’ didn’t describe him accurately. He was an anthro of some description, no question, but while his fur and elongated snout made him look like a lupe, I wasn’t sure that was actually what he was. The fur was wrong, too short, and he had short but sharp claws.
A wolverine, maybe? I couldn’t remember the name for them. There was a ‘g’ in there somewhere. Whatever it was, I knew that they were a quasiculture, a smaller and less influential brand of kemo than even the murids. They were more on the level of the cherves, and had largely been folded into the lupes. Though technically wolverines were more related to the visons, but—
Whatever his precise subculture or whatever you want to call it, the acolyte was in no mood to make small talk. “You and yours have been spying places you shouldn’t be, Magister.” The lack of the honorific itself was clearly intentional. “I am here to make you stop.”
“One way or another?” I said, trying to ignore the pounding in my chest.
“I am to ask,” he said. “Once.”
Okay, there was still a chance to keep this from blowing up in my face. “Well, we both want to keep this from getting violent. So why don’t you tell me exactly where you don’t want us to go, and we can agree to leave you alone?”
The wolverine growled. It had been a while since a kemo growled at me. I had forgotten the bone-chilling terror that came with it. “The location of the kyton academy is hidden, Magister. Tricks will not gain you our secrets.”
Is that what it looked like I had been doing? I had just honestly thought that was the best way to resolve the situation. Red dusk, I was bad at this.
“The only other option is for us to call off the search completely,” I recovered quickly. “We are looking for someone important; we must keep looking until we find her.”
“The kytons are not the only ones you have disturbed,” the anthro warned. “Merely the first to come after you. The others will likely not be so kind as us. The ekolids, especially, have only barely established their new nest above ground. They are not pleased that you have found it.”
I had been trying to forget about that disgusting hive we had stumbled upon, but I guess the bug-demons didn’t see it that way. Maybe we should have stuck around to talk to them and reach an agreement, rather than flying away like thieves in the night.
Still, I didn’t have a choice. I straightened, floating slightly higher in the process to give myself the impression of extra height. “I’m sorry, but you have my answer. The only way to make us stop is to help us find Ling Yu. Then, there will be no need for more scouting missions.”
The kyton quirked his head. “Ling Yu the Paladin?”
He sighed. “That is a good reason.” His eyes turned hard. “But I have my orders.”
The second he finished speaking, I heard a yelp from behind me, and saw Tekihoko, the pyro, getting swiftly entwined by thick chains that appeared to be moving under their own power. A number of the other fliers were being similarly restrained.
The kytons liked chains. How had I not seen this coming?
“A simple trade,” the anthro in front of me explained, his voice as calm as if we were discussing our tea preferences. “We release the members of your college in exchange for your promise that you will cease your search, at least through the territories you have already passed through.”
I ground my teeth, and belatedly realized that I had floated back away from the intimidating man without noticing. “You think it’s that easy? You think you can threaten me and just walk away?”
“Yes,” he said bluntly. “You are not a warlord, Robyn Joan Clarke. You can’t fight us now, and you won’t be able to fight us tomorrow. Just agree to the terms, and none of your people have to die.”
“I am a Paladin, you moron, I can call—”
“You won’t,” he interrupted, his tired and bored tone unchanged. “You know that if you do that, the kytons and the ekolids will declare war on you, along with anyone else you managed to annoy in the process.” He shrugged. “You’ll probably win, in the end. Even if it’s just the Paladins themselves, without Necessarius or Akiyama’s kensei getting involved, you’d probably win.” His eyes turned cold. “But how many of the members of your college would be killed in the process?”
I looked behind me, at the fliers chained to various objects on the roof.
I looked back at the man in front of me.
I needed… I needed…
Platon figured out what I needed before I did.
“Orla!” he called. “Now!”
Orla of Westfall was one of my fliers, a girl from the disastrous battle of the Western Gate years ago, when one of the old gangs had tried to escape Butler’s purges aboard a dreadnought they had managed to steal from somewhere. They had died to the man, but apparently some of their children had survived.
That wasn’t really important at the moment. She had never shown any grudge against Butler or his armies, and especially not towards me. She might have a mischievous streak, but it was mostly easy to keep reined in.
No, the important thing was how she flew.
She did it by levitating metal. In other words, controlling it.
With a wave of her hands, the short girl broke all the captured fliers free of their restraints. Knowing better than to stick around, they all flew straight up, far out of reach of the kytons and their chains.
I followed quickly, and a glance downward told me that the wolverine lupe was doing the same. I didn’t know how many of his men had the level of control required to fly, and I wasn’t interested in finding out.
“Everybody, SCATTER!” I called.
They spread out like an explosion, zooming away as fast as they could in every direction. In seconds, we were alone. Just me and the kemo. The rest of his men had remained down below; he likely had needed the extra power saved by leaving them behind to catch up with me.
“No hostages,” I noted.
“Cute,” he growled. “But I still have you.”
I smiled, trying to hide my apprehension. Surely he couldn’t hear my heart, pounding away like a jackhammer inside my ribcage, right? “It’s not that easy, and you know it. If I go missing, my college will come looking for me, and you’re right back to where you started. Even worse, since they have some idea of where your base is.”
I had no idea if the fliers would actually react that way. My relationship with them was still weird and undefined. But it certainly sounded good. It was the kind of thing a warlord was expected to say.
The kyton narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps. But if I torture you to death and scatter your remains across the district, they will perhaps receive the message, and back off from this foolhardy quest of yours.”
I scoffed, trying as hard as I could to bury the part of my soul that was screaming in terror. “Please. I am Robyn Joan Clarke. Daughter of Isaac Clarke. My dad had NHQ built purely to keep me safe.”
“But you’re not in NHQ right now,” he said quietly. “Are you?”
In a few seconds, my heart was going to pop and save this guy the trouble of killing me. But he was a predator, and you don’t show weakness to predators. “True enough. But then my father and my uncle will bring down the full might of Necessarius on your little college.” I smiled sweetly. “Your magister might find that a little counter-productive to the whole ‘Keep the base secret’ thing you’ve got going on.”
“…perhaps,” he said hesitantly. Then he rallied. “But perhaps if I kill you, and the rest of your college, there will be no one to speak out against me.” He grinned toothily. “Yes, that will work nicely.”
I was actually genuinely unimpressed. “Seriously? That’s your plan? Hunt down a couple dozen fliers, many of whom have probably already uploaded this little altercation to Fundie? You can’t seriously be that stupid.”
“My kytons are hunting them as we speak,” he countered. “They will be recaptured before the hour is done.”
“Yeah, sure, if you say so.” I was more than a little worried for them, but I was still willing to bet on the fliers before the kytons. “But that’s a lot of risk and murder for a problem that could be solved with some simple negotiation.”
He produced a gun from somewhere. “Here is your negotiation: Surrender or die.”
I sighed. “Really? Are we really doing this?”
He kept the pistol, a small Hellion model if I wasn’t mistaken, aimed at my head.
“Fine.” I raised my hands slowly. “I—”
My phone rang. Five simple beeps.
The kyton blinked in surprise.
“Uh…” I said. “You mind if I…”
He waved his hand. “No, of course, I understand…”
“Thanks.” I flipped out the phone. “MC? This had better be important. I’m kinda in the middle of something.”
“Robyn!” she cried in my ear. “Are you okay? How are you?”
“What? I’m fine. I’m…” I looked over at the kyton with the gun. “…why do you ask?”
“Alex and Jarasax have been kidnapped.”
I frowned. Who…
Wait. Alex was the angel who followed around the Belian. And Jarasax… didn’t he have something to do with Lily? She had mentioned him a couple times, I thought. He was a changeling, I was pretty sure.
They were both members of the retinue.
I took a deep breath. “What do you need me to do?”
“Same thing as with the screamers,” she promised breathlessly. “I just need eyes. Search the area, find clues, find them. They haven’t been gone long.” There was a pause, and I could imagine her taking a deep breath of her own. “Please, sister. We need your help.”
I winced. She knew I couldn’t resist her when she called me sister. “Okay, okay, fine. I’ll do it. I’ve got some people—” No, actually, I didn’t have any people I could put on this. They had all flown away. “…I’ll handle it myself. Where is it?”
“Nishrek. In Acheron.”
“…I hate that place.”
“Everyone hates that place. But it’s where they disappeared.”
Rubbing my forehead, I nodded. “Right, got it. I’ll go. Tell them to expect me shortly. How far am I right now?”
“About an hour by flight.”
Really? I must have really gotten mixed up. It was easy to end up flying farther than expected when all the buildings looked the same from above. “Okay, I’ll be there as soon as I can. Tell Kelly to meet me there.”
“She’s already there.”
I nodded. “Perfect. See her soon.”
“Bye.” The line clicked dead.
“Sorry,” I said to the kyton. “I have to go. Necessarius emergency, you know how it is.”
He glared. “You really think I’m going to just let you fly away?”
I shrugged. “Maybe?”
Then I shut off my powers, and suddenly I was freefalling from a thousand feet in the air.
The kyton cried out in alarm and tried to follow, but I re-activated my power and stacked another couple gravities on me, falling faster than he could fly with that limited metal scooter thing he was levitating everywhere.
The second I passed a building, I shot around the corner, circling it halfway and then dodging around another and another. I heard the kyton howling in rage behind me, then a smash of glass. He must have run into the side of a ‘scraper.
I didn’t dare look behind me to check, though. I just kept flying a distracting pattern for ten or twenty minutes, then, when I was finally convinced that he had abandoned the chase, turned east towards Acheron.
The domain of the traitors.
I could already tell that this would be a fun mission.
Behind the Scenes (scene 252)
This took far, far longer than it had any right to.