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Shattered Sky, a work in progress


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I was going to write for NaNoWriMo this year, but then exams popped up and for some reason or another I had to do them. So I didn't write.




But now I'm writing! Here's the first of two chapters I have so far. Leave comments and constructive things!














My name is Barthol Vex.




I expect to be dead by tomorrow.




I should probably tell you a bit more.








It all began in a little hole in the ground in northern Ventar. I say 'little' because, over the years, I have seen indeed, created ones of far greater scale. It was a rough square three hundred metres on a side and thirty deep, swarming with geologists, archaeologists, surveyors essentially, anyone who could hope to turn a profit from a life spent crawling around in the dirt.




And soldiers. I distinctly remember the soldiers. They were there to protect us, so they said.




There was a brisk wind fluttering between the tents and more permanent log buildings of the camp, which perched on the western lip of the excavation, the shuttered windows of the supervisors' cabin watching the excavation like a wooden hawk. From up here, I could hear the crunch of shovel and soil, the soft tap-tap of mallet and chisel, and the shouts of senior staff as they directed teams of workmen.




It was late autumn. Up here, where there were still trees, there was a thick carpet of crimson and gold leaves. A man could feel important just walking from his tent to the jakes.




Many of the trees would soon be gone. With winter coming on and no word as yet of any major finds to pass on to our patrons, we were having to see to our own welfare. Some of the workers had already come down with illnesses, and we'd had to send them back south for treatment. Nobody had yet thought to send physicians up to us, so for the last seven months, we'd had to rely on the medical orderlies that came with the soldiers, and whoever else had any passing talent for stitching up wounds. There was a fellow named Jangel, from some western province, who dealt in herbal remedies and things of that nature. I didn't trust him, and neither did anyone else who had two halves of a brain to work with. Those who took Jangel's remedies tended to spend several days in a blank-eyed daze, mumbling about the flowers. Of course, their head cold or whatever it was would be gone, so the word had gotten around to the diggers and haulers.




Personally, I tried to keep my distance from his tent. It always had a strangely calming aroma lingering in the air about it, and in an environment where the predominant smells were of freshly turned earth, machine oil and sweat, you couldn't trust that.


It was noon. I should have been outside, making the most of the warmth while it lasted. I liked to tell myself that all this paperwork really needed to be sorted out soon, but really, the reason I spent so much time cooped up in the office was that here, at least, I wouldn't have any of Captain Yoven's no-necks breathing down my neck. They had orders not to disturb me while I was in the office. I preferred to think that they were allergic to words more than seven letters long, and numbers that they couldn't represent with their extremities. There was, however, one waiting outside my door at any given time, in case I felt like wandering outside, so the office was my one sanctuary in the entire godforsaken place.




The 'paperwork' was a stack of documentation and miscellaneous literature of dubious worth sitting forlornly to the side of the room, which, had I been a more diligent man to begin with, should have all been reviewed, signed and filed away in the first few months of the operation. Unfortunately, my desk was presently occupied by a bottle of Arragesh whiskey, a number of empty cups and a book full of exquisitely detailed and more importantly naked women.




Looking out of my window, I sipped at a cup of the whiskey, my third since waking up a few hours ago. There was a work team carefully lowering one of our digging mechanisms to the floor of the pit. That was something. The people down in the dirt rarely found anything of enough interest to bring in the heavy machinery. Of course, when the archaeologists found anything of interest, they tended to grab the nearest sack and fill it with whatever looked like they could sell, but after the first couple of months, I'd decided that they were really only a secondary part of the operation. The geologists, tapping away at whatever rock we'd managed to expose, were the ones who would find what we were looking for.




It had taken the better part of the last few months, but we had finally exposed a goodly amount of rock to work with. The soil had turned up nothing more worthwhile than a few shards of pottery and bits of corroded metalwork from whoever had decided to make their home in this part of the world who knows how long ago. Still, the Imperial Archaeological Society was footing some of the operation's cost, so I'd heard, so it wouldn't have been fair to not take some of their people along. I just wished they'd stop getting in the way so often.




There was considerable hubbub floating up from the bottom of the pit now, and I noted with interest that one of the new equipment lifts was being used to lower a crate of drystar rods. The workmen were fine with carrying several tons of machinery, but they'd be damned to haul fifty kilos of volatile fuel.




So they'd found something very interesting, I thought to myself, with more than a little amount of satisfaction. Interesting enough to bring in more fuel than they normally needed for the excavators. I allowed myself a smile. It would look good if I was down there, especially if they dug up something of interest to our patrons using one of my machines. Barthol Vex! The man whose work was so instrumental in the discovery of what, exactly? It didn't matter. It would be enough that I would have some of the glory.




I grabbed my equipment belt from its hook by the door, and was still buckling it on when I burst out of the room, the musket-toting trooper in the trench coat outside falling into step behind me without a word. There was a personnel lift near the administration cabins, but I decided to descend using the zigzagging ramp we had originally dug against the excavation wall. I'd always insisted on conserving what fuel we had for essential tasks, and I was not about to waste power on a task that would save me only a minute.




The brisk walk down to the bottom of our pit and then to the rock face left me short of breath. I am by no means an unfit man, but anticipation was pumping adrenaline through my body. I felt tired, but invigorated. Dust hung heavily in the air, and the smell of fresh earth filled my nostrils. By the time I reached the rock face, everyone had gone quiet. There was a metallic click and a soft hiss as one of the workmen slid a fuel rod into the excavator.




Four of them were picking it up when a voice picked me out from the surrounding crowd.




'Milord Vex! Just the man I'd like to see!' It was accompanied by a jovial old Dramaskan whose leathery face was almost entirely obscured by a white beard of truly heroic proportions.




'Dr. Malkim,' I acknowledged him. 'Always a pleasure. Though I wish you'd stop calling me that.'




Dr. Gustav Malkim was the de facto leader of the geologists on site, mostly owing to his rather pronounced seniority. He was good-humoured and passionate about his work, which, unfortunately, was more than I could say about well near everyone else. Presently, he was rubbing his wide palms together in excitement. 'You won't believe it, Barthol,' he said, taking me aside as the workmen hauled the excavator up against the rock face. 'I think we've finally found it.'




'Found what, exactly?' I asked. 'Pardon me, Dr. Malkim, but we've had people saying that they've found it at least once a week since summer. I'm not even sure what it is any more.'




If Gustav was disappointed by my reaction, he hid it well. I'm sure that he'd had his share of junior geologists claiming to have found something important as well. 'I understand, Barthol,' he said, 'but look! Here,' he produced a small notebook from his jacket and flipped it open to a page covered in scrawl and bewildering symbols, 'look. The conditions, the stratum level, the rock composition, the arcanometer readings! It's all optimal.'




'For what?' I pressed him. This was probably the closest that any of the field staff had come to telling me just what it was they were using my machinery to find. Gustav leaned close, glancing at the crowd as if to make sure nobody was eavesdropping.




'Skystone,' he whispered, almost reverentially. I paused midway through forming a denial.




'Skystone?' I asked. I wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly. 'As in, the mythical gemstone? The one that the Dragon Cults have murdered people over rumours for? That skystone?'




'The same,' he said, with far too much enthusiasm for someone who was about to unearth something of enough value to spark fanatical uprisings. 'I think we might have found a vein.'




'And you want to dig it up,' I said flatly. I wasn't too keen about the idea. We'd become famous. There was no question of that. There was no avoiding it. But then, every bloodthirsty cultist this side of the Imperial heartland would be after us for what we know. I didn't exactly fancy that prospect. 'Think about the ramifications, Gustav.'




'I have, Barthol,' he said, 'I have. But Lord Rorden was very specific about what he wanted.'




'Is that what the old fox is looking for?' I asked incredulously. 'We've been here for more than half a year and spent enough to support a town for about as long. And he's had us chasing old stories?'




'He had a reliable source, so they say,' Dr. Malkim said. 'I didn't press him for details, you know?'




Neither did I, come to think about it. I just assumed that working for a Dramaskan noble would involve information being given on a need to know basis. I didn't expect that I needed to know much more than that they'd be using my equipment to dig up who knows what. If I'd known, I doubt I would have accepted the contract.




'I'm a tinker and machinist from the Wall, Gustav,' I said with a sigh. 'I don't need this kind of attention. Not from Cultists or whoever else decides to take an interest. I thought we were looking for something a little more mainstream, like gold, you know?'




'This is worth more than gold, Barthol,' he said. 'Far more. In every way. What's the return on the risk, eh? Who cares about what happens? Think about the future, man. Imagine a book that they'd keep in the Tower or in the Imperial Archives for centuries to come Barthol Vex, the man who dug up the legendary skystone. Your name, Barthol, to be remembered for all time. If there's something you do in your entire life to be remembered, let this be it.'




'That's very easy for you to say, Dr. Malkim,' I said, 'but I have many more years to look forward to, and frankly, I would take those over any amount of posthumous fame.'




'I'm afraid neither of us has a choice, Milord Vex,' Gustav said, walking towards where the workmen were waiting with the excavator. 'We have to maintain our professional integrity!' he shouted as the six workmen lifted the huge machine onto a guide carriage.




I couldn't help but feel a little dismayed when the excavator's drive engine started without any problems. As the entire assembly began to rattle and growl, I felt a deep sense of resignation. This is it, I told myself. One way or another, if they find anything here, I'm history.




The work team pushed the juddering guide carriage solidly against the rock face. Dust and rock chips immediately erupted around the excavator's churning teeth, and the engine began snorting out puffs of bluish mist. The rock was splitting off in slabs where the machine's ravening, twisting jaws caught onto cracks created by the smaller teeth. Superheated steam vented out of the excavator's throat was helping to split the rock face.




More workmen were arriving with wooden beams and supports, ready to shore up the tunnel behind the excavator. Others were carrying down a portable generator and bundles of wire and glowlamps. There were more fuel rods being hauled down. Dr. Malkim must have been extremely certain about his find, a fact which I did not find comforting in the very least, given its supposed nature.




I spent the next two hours pacing. I wanted to hear that nothing had been found. I wanted to hear that, despite the favourable conditions described by Gustav Malkim, the work teams had unearthed no skystone. I desperately hoped that they wouldn't. I was comfortable with tinkering with my machines and making a living gouging holes in the ground. I didn't want to be the target of every superstitious and, moreover, violent cult on the continent.




It was mid-afternoon when I realised that I was famished. I hadn't had anything since the night before except for a quarter bottle of whiskey. Taking my leave of Dr. Malkim, I made my way back up to the camp's mess hall, the silent trooper in tow.


I was halfway through my second bowl of stew when Dr. Malkim came into the hall, his beaming face red with what I assumed to be the effort of walking up here. He swept off his hat and ran a hand through his sweat-soaked white hair as he sat across from me.




Despite, or perhaps, because of his obvious excitement, dread gnawed at the back of my mind. 'How far in have you dug?' I asked him, trying my best to avoid the inevitable subject of his call.




'About sixty metres in,' he said, 'maybe eleven, twelve metres down. We're installing lighting now.'




My heart sank. So he intended to dig for a while more. 'Any problems?' I asked.




'No,' he said, grinning. 'Barthol, listen -'




'I don't want to know, Gustav. Please. I don't want to know if you've found it. Please, for the love of the First Emperor himself, tell me you've found something else. Gold. Silver. Anything else.'




His smile faded. 'I didn't think you'd want to hear,' he said, reaching into his jacket and taking out a pouch, which he emptied onto the table. 'So, here. Look.'




I looked.




And there it was. An unassuming stone, about the size of my thumbnail, sitting in a bed of dirt and loose bits of worthless rock. It was colourless, or at least pale enough that it might as well have been. I thought it looked like a zircon.




'Is that it?' I asked. My apprehension was slowly giving way to relief. 'So you've just found cash stones?'




'This was the first to come out,' Dr. Malkim said. 'I told the men to stop for now. They're on their breaks. I don't think anyone saw me take this one. I thought you might want to keep it.'




'You dug it up, Gustav. You take it,' I insisted. 'I'm sure you can add it to your collection.'




'No,' he said. 'That's no ordinary stone. Take a closer look.' He plucked the stone out of the dirt and slid it across the iron tabletop towards me, along with a small magnifying glass.




I looked.




I almost shouted in surprise. I believe I did give a jolt of fright, however, and almost dropped the magnifying glass.


The stone was clear. I am no expert on these things, but it looked like a very rough diamond. It would not have been worth much back home. But for the swirling, golden light inside it, I would have thought no more of it than I would have of a street peddler's brass-and-glass wares. The light moved with curious, serpentine motions, almost as though it were alive.




'Breathe on it,' Dr. Malkim said, eagerly. I did so, with a little reservation for his insistent tone, but also with a fair amount of curiosity.




I dropped it almost instantly. The light inside flared to a painful radiance, and the tiny stone had become unbearably hot. It melted a crater into the table where it fell. Almost instantly, the light dimmed once more.




'Oh, Emperors,' I breathed.




'The power of a sun, unlocked by the essence of the skies,' Dr. Malkim said. 'Just as the old legends say, Barthol. Think! If we could only find a way to tap into this energy, we could build a new golden age for the Empire!'




'I don't like it, Gustav, old friend,' I said. The thought of so much power, in such a small thing. Such a tiny stone, so easily stolen, so easy to fall into the wrong hands. 'I think that you should collapse that tunnel and forget that you ever found anything.'




'Listen, Barthol!' he insisted, his eyes fierce as he pushed the cold skystone into my hands. 'Take this stone. Keep it. When we dig up the rest, we will become a part of history.'




'Gustav,' I said, 'that's exactly what I'm afraid will happen.'








I spent the rest of that day in my office, wallowing in an alcohol-induced stupor which I regretted almost as soon as I woke up the next morning.




Someone was knocking on my door. The sound echoed the incessant banging in my head. I lifted my head from the desk with great difficulty, my hand scrabbling madly for my spectacles as I tried to make sense of the blurry darkness. The blinds on my window were shut, and I didn't fancy letting any more light in than I had to.




'I'm coming,' I called as I pushed myself up, holding onto the edge of the table with one hand and putting on my spectacles with the other. I swore loudly as a stabbing pain assaulted my skull. I had the two empty bottles lying on the floor to blame for that. My mouth felt as though I'd been gargling sand for hours. I did not assume for one moment that I looked remotely presentable.




I staggered to the door, my clumsily shuffling feet kicking aside discarded tools and odd bits of machinery. The deadbolt made a booming sound that rebounded several times in my skull when I threw it back, and the light that poured into the office as I opened the door made me shield my eyes with my free hand. I believe I uttered a profanity before saying, in my cracked, dehydrated voice, 'Yes?'




'You're late.' It was Gustav. 'Staff meeting, Barthol. About yesterday's find. We've got Lord Rorden on 'path-link. Everyone's waiting for you.'




'That's a first,' I said dryly. 'It's usually the other way around. Excuse me, Gustav, I'm not feeling too well.'




'I can see that,' he said, peering into my office and wrinkling his nose. 'You're required, I'm afraid. Lord Rorden has specifically asked that you be present. Didn't you get the note?'




'Note?' I looked back into the office, noticing a sheet of paper just past the doorway. Someone had probably slipped it under the door. I'd stepped on it on my way to the door, but I picked it up and smoothed it out. 'Oh,' I said, as I read it. 'This note. I suppose I did.'




'Make yourself decent,' he said. 'I'll tell them you're on your way.'




I stared at the note for a few moments after he'd left. So they'd sent news back to Lord Rorden. He was a smart man. He'd keep the find quiet for a while, but how long would that last? There were many people involved in this operation. Someone was bound to let something slip once they got back to civilisation and the bonus pay began to be spent.




For me, it was too late. I was stuck. One way or another, my name was going to be known. The Dragon Cults were relentless when it came to artefacts that could lead them to that ascension that their deranged leaders preached to them. And they could be anywhere.




Emperors, there could be some in our crew here.




But it was no longer the time to worry about that. I could only hope that, while sliding down this slippery slope, I might fall on a ledge, maybe break a few bones, and then crawl into a cave and try to stay out of sight until someone else could clean up the mess. Except that, once they knew that skystone had been found, the Cults would practically be tripping over each other to recover all that were found, or force those involved to lead them to more of the damn things. If the stories one heard had any grain of truth in them, the Cults could be remarkably resourceful when it came to finding what they wanted, or at least people whom they could 'persuade' to help them.




As far as I could tell, the best I could hope for was that they'd be too busy fighting among themselves to fully concentrate on finding me.




For now, I had to concentrate on the meeting I should have been at half an hour ago. As I pulled clothes from the bag I kept in my office for emergencies like these, I began to wonder what it was Lord Rorden could want from me. Perhaps he wanted more of my machines.




Of course, that turned out to be exactly what he wanted, though not in the way that I'd originally imagined.








The first thing I noticed about the glowlamp-lit meeting room was the pot of coffee on the table. I took a seat quickly, ignoring the stares everyone but Gustav was giving me, and helped myself to a cup of the brew. It was just like any other day's coffee, which meant that it was weak and almost tasteless, but in my present state, you can imagine that I slurped it down like the life-giving elixir that it was. There were biscuits. I had some of those, too.




Someone coughed politely, and I looked up, cup in one hand and half-eaten biscuit in the other. I imagined that I looked ridiculous.




My attention was being drawn to a translucent head floating above the desk, its mutton chopped jowls set in an expression of calculated disinterest. It was being projected by a sickly looking telepath strapped into some bizarre device on the wall, which explained the icy chill in the room. There was a coating of ice on the floor under the faintly humming machine.




'Good of you to finally join us, Mr. Vex,' the head said, its speech strangely out of time with the movement of its lips. 'I see that you've been celebrating the night away.'




'Of course,' I said, washing down the biscuit with a swig of coffee that hit my hangover like the fist of an angry god. 'Milord,' I added hastily, not wishing to appear rude. I was already lying. I didn't want to add to that.




'Quite.' The dry comment came from the monocled gentleman sitting across from me. Wolfgang Sibl, the foreman in charge of the manual labourers. I didn't like him. He was a snob, like most Rallenes. He tried to apply his outmoded sense of feudal hierarchy to everything he did, and as a consequence, he could not get along with the Dramaskans on staff. He had a passing understanding with the Ventarans in his employ, because they had almost as backward a sense of legitimate authority as he did. We only tolerated each other because of our working relationship. If I'd met him in a drinking den back home, I would have broken his nose.




Or tried, anyway. He was almost twice as big as me.




'Back to the topic at hand, milord,' Dr. Malkim said smoothly, likely foreseeing another shouting match between myself and the disagreeable Rallene, 'what would you have us do here?'




'Continue with the operation,' said Lord Rorden's head. 'I will send supplies for the winter. If there is more of the stone to be found, let it be found. Mark my words, gentlemen,' he said, addressing all seven of us, 'we stand to make an enormous profit from this venture. Imperial authorities are very interested in our find, and I am meeting with representatives in a few weeks' time. You have yourselves to congratulate.'




There was some clapping. The two men from the Imperial Archaeological Society were somewhat more reserved. 'And what of us, Lord?' one of them asked, a fellow whose name I had never bothered to learn. They made a point of not using my 'clumsy machines', as they called them.




'You may continue your efforts for as long as you wish,' Rorden's head smiled. For as long as the Society kept funding the operation, he meant. 'In the meantime,' he said, the projection turning to face me, 'Mr. Vex.' I almost choked at the sudden attention. 'I shall send a flyer to fetch you. The Duke of Mircalae is holding a festival of sorts. I should like you to join us here.'


There was muttering. What could Lord Rorden possibly want of me that was so important as to require my presence? More to the point, why couldn't he say what it was with them present?




'Yes, milord,' I managed to stammer, trying to keep my jaw hinged. 'When should I expect to leave?' The sooner the better, I thought. The security would surely be better if I was around a few noblemen and away from the troublesome rocks.




'Tomorrow,' he said, 'so do try to keep your celebrations to a minimum tonight, unless you wish to spend a few very uncomfortable hours high up in the air.'




'Yes, milord.' There was really very little else I could say.




'Dr. Malkim,' said the floating head, turning to face Gustav. 'I should also wish you to send a few samples of the stone with Mr. Vex.'




Ah, well, I thought to myself as I fought to keep from squeaking, it was probably too much to hope that I'd get away from that problem so easily.








'It's your damn stones,' I was complaining to Dr. Malkim. It was a chilly evening, and he'd met me on one of the overlooks. The pit was outlined against the night by glowlamps set at intervals on poles along its lip. Clusters of glowlamps below shone like miniature constellations. There were still some workmen below, on whatever errands the other staff saw fit to send them on.




'Why?' wondered Gustav, taking a long drag on his pipe. 'Think of it as an opportunity, Barthol. It's not so bad, actually. After all, you've been given the chance to return south, and if Lord Rorden really wants you for something important, you might just get to spend your winter in a cosy Mircallin villa instead of out here.'




'I'd appreciate that, sure,' I said, 'but all the same, if there's anything you can say about this place, it has a lack of dark alleys and manic cultists that I find very comforting.'




'I think you're being paranoid, Barthol, old friend,' Gustav chuckled. 'You're a little young to worry so much. Look at how old I am! I'm not half as worried as you are over this find.'




'I've said it before, Gustav, and I think it should be mentioned again: I stand to lose more years of sweet life than you do. I've heard stories about the Dragon Cults, and I don't like any of them. They're not... nice people,' I finished lamely.




'Stories,' the old geologist laughed. 'We've all heard stories, Barthol. Most of the bad ones, I've told to my own grandchildren to make them behave themselves. Come now, you don't seriously believe half of the superstitious silliness that people say about them, do you? They're just folk who're a little obsessed with bowing in front of funny looking rocks and chanting in foreign languages. They're about as dangerous as some of the western colonials.'




'Have you spoken to Jangel recently?' I asked him pointedly, looking him straight in the eyes. 'No, really. I really don't think he's joking. He seriously believes that his gods taught him how to brew up those concoctions of his. If you don't think those things are dangerous...'




To my annoyance, Gustav laughed again, smoke erupting in clouds from his mouth as he returned to staring at the distant tree line. 'I believe you, Barthol. The amount of time he spends around those herbs that he uses, I'd frankly be surprised if he didn't think some floating, invisible men in the sky were talking to him.'




'You've heard the stories about the colonials as well, Gustav. They play with sorcery.'




He turned to face me again. 'For a man who has spent most of his life in the company of machines and other bits of metal, you are surprisingly superstitious.'




'I just don't like taking those kinds of chances, that's all,' I said, dismissing his observation with a wave of my hand. I swilled the amber liquid in my cup for a moment. 'I mean, what if the stories turn out to be true? What then?'




'Worry about that when you need to,' he said, tapping his pipe against the iron railing, the contents disappearing into the darkness below. 'Me, I'm calling it a night. I'll see you in the morning, before you leave.' He clapped me on the shoulder, and walked off towards his cabin, whistling tunelessly.




I stood there for a while, watching Red Moon slowly rising from behind the mountains to the east, as though it were being pulled up the silvery chain of the Belt, shining in a great arc high above. The breeze was cutting through my coat and the warmth that my drink tried to provide. I turned to walk away.




'Do you have a moment?' a voice asked from behind me. I almost jumped. I most certainly uttered a profanity.




'Captain!' I exclaimed, wiping spilled drink off my hand with a sleeve. 'I didn't notice you.'




'No,' he agreed, stepping forward to lean on the railing. 'I don't suppose you did.'




Captain Yoven frightened me. He was very much like the troopers under his command at this camp: quiet, focused and possessed of an air of menace which said, The only reason I'm not killing you is because I haven't been ordered to. Lucius Yoven, however, went a step further by playing the role of the unassuming officer. He was not a big man, smaller in stature than many of the workmen, and was lean and wiry, unlike his imposing troopers. He reminded me of a man I'd seen once in my youth, who was hanged for a series of brutal murders.




Since I met him, I had the uneasy feeling that he was just as capable of such a thing. In fact, judging by his medals and what I'd managed to learn of his service history through gossip, I was reasonably sure that he'd done his fair share of slaughtering.




A couple of months ago, I'd had the opportunity to watch him lay out one of Wolfgang Sibl's workmen over some infraction. Yoven had been so calm about grabbing a man about twice his size by the collar and then beating him senseless.




You can understand that I was quite uncomfortable with being alone with him.




'I'd like to know, Mr. Vex,' he said finally, after a period of silence which I was sure was calculated to make me ready to wet myself. I almost did. 'Did you keep anything important in your office? Anything at all?'




'Some of my tools and my booze, Captain,' I answered. 'Why?'




'We're doing an... inventory,' he said as he turned away from the railing. I caught a glimpse of his eyes under his hat's peak. I thought he looked a little predatory, which probably explained why I was unconsciously recoiling. 'Thank you for your cooperation.' He tipped his hat, and disappeared into the shadows.




It was right about then that the wording of his first question hit me. The cup in my hand fell to the iron floor of the lookout platform, spilling its remaining contents into the yawning abyss, as i made a run for my office.








It was a mess. Someone had broken the lock on the door and had obviously conducted a very thorough, if ungentle, search. It was the only sequence of events that came to mind, because an explosive going off in here would probably have left less of a mess. I looked back out the door of the cabin, trying to see if there was anyone I could harass for an explanation. There was a conspicuous lack of a trooper stalking me, which I found to be a discomforting surprise, given the situation.




As far as I could tell, nothing had been taken. I didn't suppose that whoever it was had searched my quarters as well, because they were part of a larger building and closer to the camp proper. Moreover, there would have been people there. Nobody hung around the office cabins at night. Well, I did, but that was usually because I was too drunk to bother walking back to a real bed.




I began returning books to the shelves, and gathering up scattered odds and ends, sorting them in piles by function. Much to my dismay, whoever had gone through my office hadn't touched the pile of paperwork. I would have welcomed any excuse to be rid of it. No matter. I'd be gone by tomorrow...




... which brought to mind some interesting questions. Why ransack my office now? Why not wait until I'd left? More importantly, why do it in the first place? What could I possibly have in my possession that was valuable enough to risk the attentions of Captain Yoven and his black-coated troopers?




I was fumbling in my pocket for the key to the filing cabinet where I kept my reserves of alcohol when my questing fingers brushed against something cold and hard. I muttered an oath. The skystone? Could the thief have been after the skystone?


I dismissed the thought. Nobody could have known that I had the shard that Gustav had given me. Despite my initial reaction to it, and my desire to keep myself out of harm's way, I decided to hang on to it for now. Whoever it was who broke into my office had obviously not found what he wanted, and a part of me wanted to keep the stone in my possession, if only to spite the erstwhile thief.




Another part, one which I confess I don't pay much attention to most of the time, felt that it was better that the skystone was in my keeping, rather than some lunatic's.








The next morning, there was a fog hanging over the excavation. My luggage took the form of a battered old trunk filled with clothes and a bottle of Arragesh, which I told myself was there in case of an emergency. Despite not having to do any actual work today, I wore my tool belt, for the comfort of its familiarity more than anything else. Already, I felt a distance from the sounds of work floating up through the fog from below. I sat outside the dining hall, leaning against my trunk, with some kind of meat-stuffed bun in one hand and a cup of bland coffee in the other. I found myself surprised by the realisation that I was not hungover.




'Have you seen Wolfgang?'




I looked up, swallowing the last of the bread. It was Gustav. 'No,' I said, 'why? You can't be that desperate for his company.'




'No, not that,' he shook his head. 'I want to know if he's done anything with the work rotation. Three of the workmen I was supposed to have this morning haven't turned up.'




'That's odd,' I said, licking crumbs off my fingers. I stood up, leaving the nearly empty cup of coffee on my trunk. 'He's usually tripping over himself to find work for his thugs. Have you asked Captain Yoven about it?'




'Gods, no,' Gustav said, clearly uneasy with that option. 'I want to find them, not have them cut to pieces.'




'Listen, Gustav,' I said quietly, changing tack, 'while we're on the subject of Captain Yoven. I really need to talk to you about something. Last night, after you left, he came out and asked me a very strange question.'




I recounted last night's events to him, including the attempted burglary of my office. I spared him my thoughts on the matter, thinking that he might well dismiss them as more paranoia. His creased face began to look very concerned indeed as I went on, and I knew that he had his own suspicions.




'I'll definitely ask to have security stepped up,' he finally said. 'After all, it needs to be, considering the value of our discovery here. Have you spoken to Yoven about your office?'




'I think he knew when he asked me,' I said. 'Not much gets past him.'




'No,' Gustav agreed. 'I'll have to talk to him after I speak to Wolfgang. Here,' he said, taking a small case out of his jacket, 'Lord Rorden will want this. I was meaning to give it to you later, but I think I'll be a bit busy. If I don't see you before Lord Rorden spirits you away, well...'




'We'll meet again in Mircalae,' I said. 'I doubt Lord Rorden will need you up here in person for much longer, now that you've found what you had to.'




He looked around the camp with what I thought looked like regret. 'I don't mind it here,' he said. 'The air's better than back home. I hope he finds me more work like this. I want to end my days in the field, Barthol, not in bed like an infirm.'


I didn't want to say it, but I certainly thought that there would be no hope of a peaceful end for either of us, not with what we had taken from the earth.




Instead, I said, 'Let's hope, Gustav. Go on, you've got work to do. I'll see myself out.'




He smiled, his teeth white against his nicotine stained moustache and beard. 'Pleasure working with you, Barthol Vex,' he said, extending his hand. I shook it, and he left after one last goodbye.




That was the last that I would see of Gustav Malkim for a long while.








At noon, the flyer came. It was an old model, one which was quickly becoming a more common sight in civilian hands. It swooped in from the southern horizon, the noise of its twin engines preceding it like a bow wave.




There was a clearing prepared for it a short distance away from the camp proper. The grass there was instantly flattened by the downblast of the engines as they rotated to bring it down gently to the ground. The flyer was a sleek craft resembling the beak of a bird of prey, and someone had painted it a garish shade of yellow. It was a testament to the influence of our patron that he could acquire something like this; though they were ageing machines, the Imperial Sky Army was loath to part with its steeds, and would only do so for exorbitant sums of money, not to mention the amount of drystar fuel that the beasts consumed.




The flyer had brought in boxes of supplies, and they were swiftly offloaded by several of Captain Yoven's off-duty troopers. In my present state, I was not interested in the nature of the boxed goods, seeing as how they would not be likely to benefit me in any way. I noticed with some apprehension, however, one particular crate whose lid had come off at some point.




I distinctly remember it because it was stacked with boxes of musket balls and powder cartridges.




I put it to the back of my mind. Of course Captain Yoven would need those. With the winter coming on, the camp would be an inviting target for hungry wolves and whatever else lived in these godforsaken hinterlands.




As the flyer's co-pilot instructed me on how to buckle myself into one of the cabin seats, however, I began to wonder if Lord Rorden had the same apprehensions as I did about the find, and if he wasn't as concerned with the operation's safety as I was with mine.

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I haven't actually finished reading it because I have to do my homework soon, but Wow I think its really really good! It has a very mature writing style and the description is brilliant in my view. There's quite a lot of it but that's not a bad thing. It's nice that the paragraphs are kept quite short but plentiful... makes it a lot easier to read!




I'm not sure if a beard of 'heroic proportions' is the right way of saying it? One last thing - when Barthol disagrees with Dr Malkin about the stone I think his shock and hesitation could be better cultivated/pronounced.




I'll read the rest another time I promise! But so far it's amazing! Keep going :)

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  • 5 weeks later...

Can you guys tell me if there's anything wrong with the pacing?




I'm a little out of my comfort zone here, what with writing in first person and not having any killing happen in the first few paragraphs.




Anyway, he's some more.














There was a corpse on the floor, and the striking young Ventaran woman kneeling beside it sang beautifully between masterful sobs. Lord Rorden was paying rapt attention beside me, a tiny pair of binoculars held up to his lean face. At his other side, Lady Rorden was wiping off tears with a silk handkerchief. The other five men in the entourage were doing a convincing job of pretending to pay attention.




I hadn't even had time to fully appreciate the beauty of the cliff city of Mircalae before I'd been bundled into a coach and told that I would be attending an opera with Lord Rorden in a few hours' time. All I'd seen of the city was what could be glimpsed through the portholes of the flyer as it descended to perch on a high landing platform.




The lights were dimming in the theatre as the final echoes of the song died down, and the audience began to applaud. The performance had been about some old Mircallin legend about a privateer and a noblewoman. I must confess that most of the language was lost on me. Lord Rorden was kind enough to explain it to me during the intermissions, so I had the gist of it.




There was a captain from the southern isles who took a liking to the Duke of Mircalae's daughter at a ball, and the poor girl had disguised herself as a crewman on a whaling ship in the hope of seeing him. One night, a ship approached hers, and, thinking that it was her lover's, she hailed it. It turned out to be a pirate ship, and a great battle ensued between the whalers and the pirates. I must admit that I found that scene to be quite spectacular. Word back home was that the Mircallin, like the other technologically backward peoples of the eastern territories, had some proficiency with the arcane, and they certainly used their illusions to great effect.




At the climax of the action, just as the girl was about to be captured, another ship drew alongside to save the day. There was another fight, and it turned out that it was the privateer vessel she had been looking for after all, and the captain put up a bold fight to save her from the pirates. Alas, just as the last of the pirates were defeated, he found that he had been mortally wounded, and I thought that he was able to sing at surprising length for a dying man.




Apparently, it was the kind of story that appealed to the Mircallin mindset. And to people like Lord Rorden, I thought.




'What did you think of it?' the old nobleman asked me as we took drinks in the foyer. 'This is the third time that I've seen it since arriving here, and I must say that it fails to lose its novelty.'




'It was nice,' I said lamely. 'I'm sure I would have something more to say about it if I could understand what they were saying, my lord.'




He barked out a laugh and clapped me on the shoulder, almost sending me sprawling forwards. 'Good man. Honest. If you had any idea how many of these charlatans,' he said, waving his hand vaguely at the groups of aristocrats around us, 'have professed to loving every aspect of De Mare after hearing that a Dramaskan nobleman had taken a liking to it...'




One of his men walked up and whispered something in his ear. 'Excuse me,' Lord Rorden said. 'It appears that there is a matter requiring my immediate attention. I will see you in my chambers tomorrow morning, Mr. Vex.'




I raised my glass in acknowledgement as he turned and walked off, his gold-trimmed black opera cloak billowing behind him.




I quickly became acutely aware of just how isolated I was from the rest of the milling crowd. I wasn't a nobleman or a man of means, and I couldn't really relate to any of them. Truth be told, I was only here out of politeness to my employer. This whole trip was for business, and I didn't see how I could talk shop with any of the overdressed people in the opera house's foyer. There were drinks, though, so I stayed and mingled for a while before taking myself out to a balcony, a drink in each hand in case my first ran out.




The opera house sat on a rise overlooking the city's mercantile district. Beyond it were the great, squat shapes of Mircalae's famous sea lifts, each one housing a piece of arcanotech which if the stories were to be believed allowed people and goods to be moved to and from the docks half a mile below in moments. Both moons were well on their way to the western horizon, leaving much of the city in shadow. Its broad, winding streets were picked out as snaking lines of oil lamps, and the faint light from the Belt was reflected off the occasional dome or spire. It was nowhere near the overwhelming scale of smog-choked Dramaskus City, but it was certainly beautiful. It certainly lacked some of Dramaskus' other charms, like its rowdy night life and raging gang wars.




'Waiting for someone?'




It was the Ventaran lady, the singer. She spoke flawless Dramaskan. She was smiling. I found myself staring at her lips more than her eyes or her cleavage, an attraction which I still find difficult to explain even with the benefit of retrospect. She had a gauzy shawl wrapped around her slender, tanned shoulders.




'No,' I managed to reply after a moment of near-panic. I was not accustomed to being addressed in any remotely friendly way by lone, attractive women. 'Just enjoying the view.'




She laughed a little, a smoky sound that would have been at home in any Dramaskan gentlemen's club, although in that situation it would have set you back a fair amount of currency. 'It is better during the daytime,' she said as she gave my attire a considering look. 'Not from around here?'




'From Dramaskus,' I said, as if she couldn't tell from the austere, high-collared coat. 'Here for business.'




'You are with Lord Rorden?' She smiled. I didn't think she meant it as a question, which put me on my guard instantly.




'I spoke with him,' I said, not wanting to answer her question entirely. 'He left early.'




She chuckled again, much to my discomfort. I was suddenly aware of how chilly the evening was. 'So the men he chooses to associate with are as intelligent and circumspect as he is,' she said, plucking the glass of drink from my other hand without so much as asking. 'And as suspicious, I see. A fascinating man.'




'You know him?'




'I know of him,' she smiled. 'His love of the arts of our backward people is famous. Or infamous, depending on who you ask. I don't know you, however. Katarina di Vastri.' She offered her gloved hand.




I shook it. 'Barthol Vex,' I said, before registering her scandalised look. 'What?'




She rallied well, giving a short laugh. 'Accepted practice among primitives like us is to kiss the lady's hand, Mr. Vex,' she chided me. I laughed nervously.




'This isn't my element at all.'




'So I see. Would you care for more wine?'








Lord Rorden's chambers were in the south wing of the ducal palace. They were richly appointed with frescoes and white marble bas-reliefs of ships and sea creatures, and hanging drapes that matched the blue-on-white livery of the servants. Out of consideration for his Dramaskan sensibilities, the palace staff had refrained from assigning him any of the slaves.




There was a balcony overlooking the courtyard three storeys below, and Lord Rorden was leaning over it, his hands on the marble balustrade. There was an empty glass beside him. There was a servant who took pains to ensure that mine never ran dry, but the old nobleman didn't seem to have my appetite.




'You are one of the finest machinesmiths in the Imperial capital,' Lord Rorden said.




'Thank you, sir.'




'You have helped one of the Empire's most celebrated geologists make what is, I believe, the most important discovery in Imperial history since Gerhaz Valzarene documented the properties of drystar more than fifteen hundred years ago.'




'Thank you, sir,' I said again, wondering if he'd called me south just to congratulate me.




'Do you have any idea, Mr. Vex,' he said, turning his head to look at me, 'of the impact on Imperial science that this discovery will make?'




'A little, my lord,' I said, bringing up knowledge from memories of my formal education, such that it was. 'Torvene's energy conversion formulae will need some revision, as will Voltath's laws of matter agitation. I don't know too much about the subject, but I believe some works of arcane theory will also require re-examination, especially the stuff that deals with elemental reactivity and binding. I'm sure Dr. Malkim will have plenty to say to the Institute about their criticism of his former work on theoretical geology.'




'And that's only scratching the surface, is it not, Mr. Vex?'




'Yes, my lord.'




'Leave us,' he dismissed the servants. 'Look at this,' he said, taking a small device out of his pocket. It was a small wooden cube with brass fittings styled to resemble ocean waves. I did not for a moment believe that it was Imperial in origin. 'Mircallin,' he confirmed my unspoken suspicion, handing it to me. 'There is a tiny drystar engine inside it. I must say that these people are becoming very adept at miniaturising our technology. Of course, they're still no good at using it on the scale that we do, but I must give them credit for something. Try it.'




There was a small copper stud on one side of the box. I pressed it, and promptly let go of the device in surprise. A spark of electricity had arced along a couple of the fittings, and the whole thing began to float in front of me, supported by a pair of miniature copper wings that all that I knew told me should not have been able to keep it aloft.




'Arcanotech?' I mused, marvelling at the tiny flying device. To my dismay, it only floated for half a minute before falling unceremoniously to the floor, inert. I picked it up and took out the tiny tube of drystar fuel. 'How?'




'It seems,' Lord Rorden said, 'that our seafaring, magic-using friends have discovered something interesting of their own. They've had the ability to turn arcane power into electricity for a while, as you probably know. The sea lift is a good example of it. They use that kind of arcanotech to haul things they otherwise couldn't use magic for, such as with arc-sensitive or arc-null goods. Very interesting stuff. You can probably guess at what they managed to find with that little trinket I just gave you.'




I thought for a moment, several ideas forming, but none of them seemed at all possible. Finally, I gave up thinking, and suggested the one that seemed most logical given Lord Rorden's train of thought. 'They've found a way to convert electricity into arcane power?'




He clapped me on the shoulder, grinning. 'Exactly, Mr. Vex. They've found a way to reverse the process.'




'Drystar is a natural arc-null material,' I protested, my mind refusing to accept the idea though I had an example lying in a ruined heap at my feet. 'They couldn't have...'




'We've been working on insulation for a while,' Lord Rorden reminded me, and I grudgingly nodded. 'But from what I've heard, they use the arcane feedback to boost the conversion. It's not very efficient, you see.'




I didn't have the heart to ask him where he'd heard all this. He was already displaying a surprising amount of technical knowledge for a nobleman. What was a bit of arcanotechnical savvy beside that? Anyway, nobles had a lot of money and time on their hands, and I supposed the old man had simply chosen to point his energies at something other than politics or the innumerable vices that I would have taken up were I in his position.




I began to form an idea of what he could have wanted of me, given the circumstances. Surely he was telling me some sort of privileged knowledge. But why me? Why not an actual Imperial engineer?




'Because you are in my employ,' he said when I asked. 'The engineers in Velind might have all the resources of the Empire at their disposal, but ultimately, they answer to the Emperor and the Council of Nobles. What I want from you will not be popular among many of the Empire's wealthy and influential.'




I was afraid of that.




'The skystone,' he said, stepping back inside. I followed him as he went to his desk and opened the case that Gustav had sent with me. He put on a heavy leather gauntlet, and took out one of the tiny stones inside, admiring it against the sunlight. 'Fascinating thing, and if your theory is correct, Mr. Vex...'




'It's not a theory, sir,' I said, 'just some old stories. And all I know from one observation.'




He waved me into silence. 'Your theory. A potentially limitless source of energy. A vast amount of power, unleashed whenever wind touches the stone.'




'Dangerous, sir,' I cautioned him. 'Very dangerous.'




'Of course,' he agreed with a smile, 'as objects of power tend to be. You don't think for one moment that drystar is harmless, do you? No, far from it... but look at how we benefit from harnessing its power. This tiny stone, Mr. Vex! Think of how the Empire no, all mankind can benefit from it. A new age of technological prosperity, Mr. Vex, all from your work.'




'Dr. Malkim said much the same thing, my lord. I'm unconvinced.'




'Unconvinced?' He put the stone back into its case, shutting it with a snap. 'What is there to not be convinced about? Look at how far we have gone with drystar engines, Mr. Vex. Think of what we could do if their power was magnified tenfold, maybe a hundredfold, using one tiny stone and literally a bit of air.'




'We don't know everything about it, my lord. It took us a century to realise that it was drystar that was preventing us from using arcane power like we used to. I'm not in a hurry to start using this new source. We should study it first.'




Lord Rorden smiled at me. 'I think you've got it, my boy. Think! The skystone, a source of power like we've never seen before and this new arcanotech. Inefficient, yes, but when you have an infinite source of power...'




'You want to use the skystone to bring magic back to the Empire,' I said flatly. 'My lord, we still have vast tracts of forest in our lands that are irreparably corrupted by arcane energy. Let the other peoples of the world have their magic, sir. The Empire has done well enough without it.'




He looked downcast. 'We will be more responsible with power than our ancestors,' he said, his voice lacking conviction. 'We won't make the same mistakes.'




'And the Dragon Cults, sir? Do you think they'd be as restrained?'




He sat down behind his desk, his previous energy gone. In its place, a look of resignation. Emperors, but I did feel sorry for the old man then.




'You say we should study it,' he said, after a few minutes of awkward silence.




'Yes, sir,' I agreed, though I was apprehensive. Lord Rorden did not seem the type to give up that easily, and he was canny enough that whatever he originally wanted, he would get, one way or another. I must admit that he had me trapped, regardless. I couldn't walk away from this, not now. Not when I needed his protection.




'Good.' He took a thick, bound file from a drawer and slid it across the desk to me. 'Show me what you can do with it.'

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Wow, I must say that is amazing.




Such a great central character and the world its set in seems so rich.




Just immense, Absoluetly love it.

Theres a fine line between not listening and not caring,

I like to think I walk this line every day.

Pinning blame on Jagex is like trying to put pants on an old man.

You both know he needs them, but he'll just keep dancing around, avoiding them at all costs.

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Katarina's references to her people being primitive are sarcastic, right? You could make that more clear. Other than that, I can't really find anything to criticize, which is more than I can say about many published works I've read.

Ah, this reminds me about the noob on the Runescape forums who was upset with the quest "Cold War" because apparently his grandparents died in the war. :wall:
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