The Floating City - Chapter 27

The Grand Reunion

“Well,” Roshan said, “We’re here.”

                “Where is everyone?” Isa said, looking around.

                “And where do we go next?” Eithne added. “I am cold and wet and tired, and I dare say the rest of you are as well. Tired people don’t think properly. They make mistakes.”

                Roshan nodded, she had a point. “We need to get off the streets. It’s a bad sign they are deserted this early in the evening.  The last thing we want is to run into a bunch of Stripies enforcing martial law.”

                “Too true,” Rika muttered. Roshan smiled at her.

                Everyone looked at Roshan. He realized with a start that they were looking to him for a plan. He hadn’t thought much behind reaching Ater-Volante and confronting the Don. Now that he was here, he realized that he had no idea where the Don might be hiding, or how to find him. He needed time to think.

                “Right,” he said. “Well, follow me then,” and he turned and walked up into the City. For lack of a better idea, Roshan led them towards The Tipsy Turtle, his original destination those six long months ago. He had been planning to lay low there before trying to escape the city on set-down day, but had been rescued by Rika and Isa instead. That had certainly been preferable, though he hadn’t known it was an option at time. Anyway, all the things that made him head towards the Turtle then were true now. It was quiet, out of the way, and the owner didn’t ask any questions. Most important, it was close by.

                Roshan kept the group to darkened side streets and even darker alleyways. The main avenues and thoroughfares were more brightly lit, and seemed to have a heavy watchmen presence. Off in the distance they could hear the tramp of boots, and the occasional shout or scream of protest. It appeared things in the city had changed much since his precipitous departure.

                Through a combination of luck, and Isa and Rika’s skill at covert infiltration, they managed to reach the back door of the Tipsy Turtle without anyone noticing them. A few members of the watch would wake up in noxious alley gutters with searing headaches, but Roshan wasn’t very concerned about them.  There was enough conflict in the streets already that any Stripies sapped by Isa would just be glad to be alive. The Turtle’s back door was dingier than its main entrance, but only just. The alley it opened into was a dim, damp passageway between two brick tenements. The bricks themselves were stained with water damage, and the walls seemed to bulge outwards over the alleyway. The cobbled street itself was clean. A whiff of rotting foodstuffs suggested that it had been emptied recently, and swirls of multi-colored liquid and grime on the cobbles pointed towards a less than thorough cleaning.

                Eithne raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Really?”

                “Do you want to be warm and dry?” Roshan asked.

                “Yes, but I don’t want fleas either.”

                Roshan made a placating gesture. “It’s a lot better inside, I promise. The Turtle is disreputable, but it’s not squalid.”

                “I’ll hold you to that, mister,” Eithne said in a warning tone, but her eyes were smiling. Roshan smiled back.

                “The Turtle?” Rika asked. “As in, the Tipsy Turtle?”

                Roshan looked at her, surprised, “You’ve heard of it?”

                She grinned. “Isa, Trentor, and I surveyed most of the city taverns when we were here.”

                “I’ll be you did,” Evan muttered from the back of the group.

                Rika grinned at him, and glanced at Isa. “Do you remember it?”

                “It had the mock turtle soup, right?” Rika and Roshan nodded at her.

                Roshan said, “It’s famous for it. No one knows what’s in it, but everyone’s certain it’s not turtle. Tastes good though.”

                Eithne made a face, “Ew,” but Isa bobbed her head in agreement.

                “It’ll do,” she said.

                Evan gestured at Roshan. “Lead on then, I am eager to try this soup.”

                “It’s an experience,” Rika said drily as the group followed Roshan up to the doorway.

                “Ew,” Eithne said again.

                The inside of the Tipsy Turtle was just how Roshan remembered it. The main common room was filled with several rough-hewn wooden tables and benches. It was difficult to tell their original quality, as all of them were scratched, stained, and scarred from decades of hard use. The room itself was dim and empty, except for a scattering of older men and women, most of them determinedly drinking alone. They picked their heads up and regarded the group with a wary disinterest. Roshan was surprised. Set down and take off were usually a holiday from classes, and he had expected the place to be filled with raucous students.  He shrugged. It would have made blending in easier, but it would also be conspicuous to back out now that the patrons had noticed them. Squaring his shoulders, he made his way to the front of the room, where the bartender was cleaning a dirty glass with a rage that looked even dirtier. He recognized her as Madam Reira, who Roshan was glad to see still owned the Turtle. She had single-handedly kept order in her tavern for years, and any student of Eolas with a healthy sense of preservation strove to keep on her good side.

                “We’d like a room, please,” Roshan said. Reira grunted at him in acknowledgement. She was a robust woman, with a squashed nose that had been broken several times. She had a scar on the outside of her jawbone that ran from her short, greasy hairline down to the sparse, grey hairs on her chin.

                Roshan clinked a coin purse onto the bar. “We can pay,” he said. The woman’s dark eyes flickered from him to the coins and back again, and narrowed in suspicion. Then, they widened. She stared intently at his face.


                He nodded.

                “Roshan!” The woman leaned across the bar and flung burly arms around him in tight hug. Roshan felt Rika and Isa start forward, but he managed to wave them off with a free hand. It wasn’t easy, Reira’s grip was tremendous.

                “I thought you were dead!” Reira continued in her deep voice. “All Aki told me was that you had vanished, and with the Stripies rounding people up, well…”

                “Please Reira, keep it down,” Roshan made a calming motion with his hands.

                Reira just laughed. “Everyone in here’s a regular. There will be no telling tales out of school,” she raised her voice, “Right?” All of the Patrons who had been listening suddenly looked away, feigning intense indifference. Reira sniffed in approval.

Lowering her voice to a more normal level, she said, “So, you weren’t dead, after-all,” her eyes narrowed again. “You weren’t skippin’ out on your tab, were you?”

Roshan sighed and plopped another jingling coin purse next to the first. “I was hoping you might have forgotten,” he said.

Reira snorted. “I never forget a bill. Or forgive one,” but she smiled warmly as she said it. “Now, what can I do for you, Mr. Returned.”

“A room for my friends and I” Roshan said. “to start with. And then I want to hear about everything that has been going on.”

                Reira’s face looked grimmer than usual. “It’s quite a tale,” she said. “Let me show you upstairs.”

                Several hours later, and full of soup of a delicious but questionable provenance, Roshan addressed the others.

                “What next?” he asked, looking around their room. Like the rest of the Turtle the room was dim, lit only by the low glow of a single Fòrsic lantern. The wood-paneling on the walls was mostly dirt free, and the pallets on the floor were clean smelling and stuffed with fresh straw. Reira kept the place clean, although she preferred a rundown look. She said it kept away the riffraff. Rika and Isa were sitting on one of the beds, leaning against one another.

                “I’m concerned about how much the Prime and the Choisant are cracking down,” Rika said. “It’ll make it hard to move around.”

                “But it could drive more people to support the Resistance,” Isa pointed out.

                “Is that what we are concerned with?” Rika asked.

                Isa shrugged. “I think we are,” she looked at Roshan. “Do you want Rika and I to try to contact Syd and the others?”

                Roshan shook his head. “Eventually,” he said. “But we’re still getting our bearings. I don’t want to confront the Don until I have a better idea of why he left us for dead, and left Alsce so precipitously.”

                “Contacting Syd doesn’t mean confronting the Don,” Rika pointed out. “And she might be able to tell us what is going.”

                Roshan rubbed his chin, feeling the scruff there. He was well overdue for a shave, but he thought the beard made him look rakish. Maybe he would keep it. “I don’t want to risk it,” he said.

                “What exactly do you think would happen?” Isa asked. “Do you really think he would try to kill us again, or something?”

                “I don’t know,” Roshan snapped, and then sighed. “I’m sorry. I guess I don’t want to contact the Resistance until I have some sort of leverage on them.”

                Evan nodded. “That makes sense. Something to compel an explanation, and make it so they work with us, rather than us for them.”

                “That’s a good point,” Rika said, “even if Isa and I don’t feel it’s necessary.”

                Eithne smiled, “I think I have just the thing,” the group turned and looked at her.

                “What?” Roshan asked.

                Her smile was a grin now, “The Don has the Foinse-rod, but what you are all forgetting is that there are two of the things.”

                Roshan stopped, he stared at Eithne, his mouth open. “You’re right,” Rika said, musing, “I had forgotten.”

                “What’s the good of another of those… what did you call them, Foinse-rods?” Evan asked.

                “It’s a counter,” Roshan spoke slowly, drawing out the words as we worked through the implications of Eithne’s reminder. “Eithne, I could kiss you,” he said, and did. He looked back at Evan, his excitement growing, “The Don has one already. If we have the other, we’re his equal. In Fòrsic capabilities, if nothing else.”

                “At the very least,” Isa added, “if we have it, he’ll have to talk to us. If only to be certain we won’t use it against him.”

                Roshan nodded. “We need it. Do any of you have any idea where it might be?”

                Eithne shrugged. “The last I read of it, it was in the Rare Fòrsic Artifacts exhibit in the Eolas Library. If only the Don and we know what it can do, it’s probably still there.”

                Isa rubbed her hands together excitedly. “Let’s go get it.”

                Rika nudged her, “We need a plan, silly, we can’t just break into the University Library.”

                Roshan’s spirits felt buoyed by the conversation. They had a base, they were warm, dry, and fed, and they had a next step. He could feel his luck starting to change, although his previous dark mood still clung to him.

                “I’ve asked Reira to get a message to my friend Aki,” he said. “Aki will know more, and she might know what the Resistance is up to. In the meantime, I don’t think we can wait. The Don is surely aware of the potential of the second Foinse-rod. We have to get it, tonight.”

                “And do you have a plan?” Rika arched an eyebrow at him. “We can’t just waltz in a grab it.”

                Roshan smiled at her. “You know, I think maybe we can.”


Several bells after the Committee’s meeting, Aki’s head was still spinning. The Don’s arrival had been like tumbling into a whirlwind. He raised all the committee members up and twirled them all around until he had them pointed in the direction he wanted. Aki had learned hard lessons in tactics and manipulation over the last months, and even she had been swept up in the fervor of his words. It was quite an experience. In short order, he had taken over the running of their little rebellion, parceled them out into teams, and given them instructions and Aki found didn’t begrudge him that in the least.

                “Are you sure you know what you are doing?” Maz asked, whispering. The two of them were tucked away in the shadows beneath one of the walls surrounding Eolas. Dark had fallen, and the night sang with a wet, blustery wind as they passed over the desert outside of Dak. Ater-Volante had risen into the sky, albeit several days behind schedule. Aki was happy to get off the ground, even if she had been part of the plan to delay it in the first place. There were too many variables on the ground. Now it was just the Resistance and the Prime. By the time the city set down a month from now in Crystalis, it would all be over. The Don had promised.

                “Of course, I do,” Aki said. “And if I don’t, then the Don does.”

                “You are fine not being in charge?” Maz sounded skeptical.

                Catching the tone of her voice, Aki winked at her in response. “At least the Don is competent. Working with the Committee was like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”

                Off in the darkness to her left, Aki heard Padraig quietly laugh. “I hear that,” he said, “Some of those merchants couldn’t find their ass with both hands if they had a map,” he and Ora were stationed on the side of the building opposite her and Maz. The better to keep an eye on all the approaches  to this section of the wall.

                Aki shook her head, smiling. “Well, we don’t have to worry about their map-reading skills anymore,” she paused, “we still have to work with them, though, so keep your opinion to yourself.”

                “Yes, boss,” Padraig said, still grinning.

                “And be quiet.”

                He nodded. All four of them stood in silence. “Think they will be here?” Maz whispered.

                Aki thought about telling her to be quiet, too, but decided it wouldn’t do any good. “Sephina is cantankerous and stubborn,” she said back, keeping her voice as low as Maz’s had been. “But she’s not a liar. Her friends will be here."

                Maz inclined her head, but otherwise didn’t respond. It seemed that was all she wanted to know.

The wind picked up. A few fat raindrops sprinkled the cobbles, indicative of Ater-Volante’s return to its customary level. Aki hoped the clouds would hold. They ought to, considering they were out over dry steppes, but you never knew. She would hate to have to scale Eolas’s outer wall in a rainstorm as well as windstorm, but needs must. The Don had asked her to steal a certain rod from the University’s Rare Fòrsic Artifacts museum. He had been light on the details as to why, but she knew it had something to do with the weapon he had. Perhaps he wanted to make another one. That would certainly be worth the risk. The University was heavily watched these days, by members of both sides, but Sephina said she had some informants willing to get them in. Sephina wouldn’t risk her people stealing it themselves. Aki understood, it was hard to find good informants. Plus, it would be nice to walk Eolas’s grounds again, if only for a moment.

The slither of a rope on stone interrupted her reverie. The knotted end slapped against the stone of the wall near them. Aki stepped forward and tugged it three times. Two jerks of the rope answered her. She tugged the line once more, followed by another jerk. She turned to the others. “This is it. Maz goes first. Ora next. Padraig and I will bring up the rear. Quick and quiet, now go!”

Aki kept a watchful eye out as the others ascended the rope, but the street where they had crouched remained deserted. No one wandered the city any more, not with the threat of the Stripies and the Choisant breathing down their necks. She smiled, not without a good reason, anyway. Then it was her turn. Like the others, Aki wore soft-soled boots, perfect for gripping the rough stones of the wall. Only Maz wore one of the Fòrsic suits. Aki rarely saw her out of one, these days.

 Aki walked up the wall, using the rope to keep her upright. The position strained her stomach and her arms, but she set her jaw and continued upwards. The wind blew wisps of cloud and small rain droplets around her. The rope swayed in the stiff breeze, but by tensing her legs, Aki could keep her position. She muttered prayers to dar-Alos that the clouds not open further. Climbing the wall was hard enough. Ahead of her, Maz darted over the top of the wall and began helping to haul the rest of them up and over. As their weight left the rope, it became harder for Aki to keep her footing. She slipped. Fortunately, she kept her grip on the rope, but she swung forward and slammed her knees into the stonework.

Aki had to grit her teeth to not curse wildly. She looked up, and saw Maz’s head poke over the wall. Aki couldn’t see Maz’s expression in the darkness very well, but she saw her shake her head. Soon afterwards, the rope lurched upwards, carrying Aki with it. She ignored the indignity.

Maz and Padraig pulled her up over the wall, while Aki did her best to keep her legs from becoming more scraped that they already were. She could feel a bruise forming.

Maz helped Aki back to her feet, “should have worn a suit,” she said.

Aki shook her head. “Stealth over strength, remember?”

“I’m sure your limping will be very stealthy.”

Aki ignored her. Instead she looked over to where Ora was comforting a scared looking blond girl dressed in brown robes. “Sephina’s contact was an apprentice?” Shock warred with anger and worry in her mind. Apprentices were children! They didn’t deserve to be thrust into this conflict.

Padraig nodded. “She said there were others, but they left her to keep an eye on the rope. A group of people waiting up here in the rain is suspicious, but one small figure could be overlooked.”

Maz shook her head, her expression one of distaste, but she said nothing. Aki agreed with her, surely, they could have left someone other than a terrified girl. She watched Ora share her hip flask and nodded approval.

Ora looked up at Aki. “She says that her name is Osta,” she said. The girl glanced up too. The dram of whisky in Ora’s flask must have been showing its restorative properties.  She had blond hair so light as to be almost white, and pale green eyes. She also looked to be no older than twelve, and Aki fought an urge to shake her head in condemnation. However young Osta looked, she was part of the Resistance now, and deserved to be treated as such.

“If it please you,” Osta’s voice was very quiet, Aki had to strain to hear it over the wind. “I’m to guide you to the museum.”

Padriag snorted. “We were all students here. We know where it is.”

Aki shot him a glare, but Osta didn’t appear to notice his condescending tone. “They’ve set up wards around the buildings. You need a pass-stone to get in,” she pulled a thin leather thong from beneath her robe, threaded on it was a dimly glowing crystal.

“That must make attending classes difficult,” Aki said.

Osta nodded. “The Professors have to lead us from class to class, and back to the dormitories afterwards. No wandering.”

Aki had heard security at Eolas had been tightened, but she hadn’t realized it was so strict. And it was unlikely to get better after they pilfered the museum. Well, it was a war, after all. Hopefully it would all be temporary.

She offered Osta a hand up, “Lead on.”

Visibility in the University commons was low. They appeared to be moving through a cloud, and the wind swirled grey mists everywhere. It was difficult to see more than ten feet ahead, despite the openness of the commons. It was the perfect night for getting in undetected.

Osta lead them across the grounds, leaning so far forwards into the winds that Aki thought she might fall flat on her face. Aki sympathized. She wasn’t as slight as the girl, but it was heavy going for her all the same. The roar of the wind wasn’t as noticeable here, but it still formed a pervading background of noise that made it difficult to hear anything at all. Aki hoped that would work for them, and not against them. A building materialized  out of the darkness. It was grey, and rounded into a squat looking tower. Aki recognized it as one of the annex buildings of the library. 

She tapped Osta on the shoulder, “we’re here?” Aki tried to whisper directly into her ear, but she had to pitch her voice louder than she wanted.

Osta nodded. The girl pointed towards the yawning entranceway. She motioned for Aki to take her hand, and Aki complied. She reached her own hand out, and felt Maz’s glove. The group formed a human chain, and Aki squeezed to let Osta know that they were ready. Holding the wardstone high, the girl led them forward into the darkened doorway.

The doors were unlocked. Inside, it was deathly quiet, the wind outside reduced to a whisper. Osta looked around, “the wards didn’t react,” she whispered to Aki, her young face a worried frown.

Maz tapped Aki on the shoulder. “Look,” she pointed to the corner. There were two Fòrsic guard dogs, constructs of iron gears and levers, and glowing crystal eyes. These ones were missing their heads, and the bodies themselves had been smashed and mangled. There was the faint, acrid hint of smoke to the air.

“Someone’s ahead of us,” Aki said. “To the museum, quickly now.”

The museum was in the central chamber of the annex, flanked by two spiraling staircases that ran up the sides of the tower to the second story. The rod the Don wanted was supposed to be on a cushion on a plinth between the staircases.  The whole room was dark, and looked empty, but as they pounded through the main doorway, Aki saw a group of figures across the room. She noticed several of the displays had been smashed, including the glass covering over where the rod was supposed to be. The displays themselves were empty.

“After them!” Aki said. Maz fired a stunning blast of force from her suit, and sprang forward across the middle of the chamber. There was an answering flash, and Aki watched in shock as a blond woman with a glowing shield reflected Maz’s blast back at her. Maz collided with it in mid-air, and crashed down through one of the tables in the center of the room. She struggled to her feet, as Ora and Padraig flanked left and right around the curve of the room.

“Maz!” Aki shouted. She looked at Osta. The girl looked terrified, but was holding a small, crystalline wand, her jaw set in a defiant expression. I don’t have time to babysit, Aki thought. She didn’t have time to argue with the girl either. Instead, she snarled, “stay behind me,” and charged forward after Maz. The room dissolved into chaos.

                A glowing figure in the other group was flinging blasts of pure Fòrsa around. One of them clipped a table, flipping it into Ora. She dived out of the way in a roll, and came up behind a decorative marble pillar. Meanwhile, Maz was back on her feet, trying to break through the shield held in front by the blond girl. An energy burst blew towards Aki’s head, and she went down in a slide, one leg outstretched.  She popped up next to Maz, and hurled her own sizzling blasts from a slim baton. Electricity crackled across the room, but Maz stepped forward to shield the blow with the suit. Aki readied her next blast, looking around to see where the others were. Ora was still crouched behind a pillar, pinned down by the glowing figure, who Aki saw was a stocky, brown-skinned woman. Padraig was nowhere to be seen, but Aki had noticed him on the stairs before. Hopefully he was getting into position for a flank attack. Osta was still behind Aki, although she was ducking and cowering at the stray sparks of energy.

                A male voice cut across the cacophony. “Aki?”

                Aki’s eyes widened in surprised. She knew that voice.  “EVERYBODY STOP!” Her bellow plunged the room into abrupt silence. She stared hard at the other group of thieves.

“Roshan?” she asked hesitantly

A man pushed forward from behind the woman with the shield. He looked gaunter than Aki remembered, and had an ugly beard, but the same shining light was in the same brown eyes. Roshan started forward. Maz made as if to interpose herself between him and Aki, but Aki ran past her. She and Roshan collided in a leaping hug.

Chapter 28 can be found here.

The Floating City - Chapter 26

The Return Home

Aki’s first thought was rage at Darius’s announcement. How could he not tell me something so important? Then her rational mind took over. Obviously such an important secret as the Don of the Resistance arrival in Ater-Volante would be well kept. She would be surprised if anyone outside of Darius and a few of his hand-picked people knew. It also explained his reticence about the purpose of the sabotage mission; it had delayed the City long enough for the Don to catch up to it from wherever he had been hiding. Aki hoped he had brought more than himself. They needed trained soldiers, and people to lead them. Her next thought came with a wild flare of hope. Could they actually prevail? She had been having her doubts, with the ineffectiveness of the committee and martial law declared on the city, but if they now had an army of Resistance members… It must be why he came, she thought, it has to be. Her thoughts turned to Roshan. Maybe he was here, as well. She missed her friend, it would be wonderful to see that gawky boy again.

All this flashed behind her eyes in moments. As Lothar sputtered his shock, she was first to rise to greet the Prime. To her surprise, however, she was not the first to speak.

“Welcome, Alistair,” came Sephina’s raspy voice. “It is good to see you again.”

The Don strode into the room, his black cloak trailing behind him like a shroud. His face was lean and gaunt, and his hard eyes reminded Aki of the fierce stares of birds of prey. Still, at Sephina’s words his mouth softened enough to permit a small smile.

“Still torturing apprentice Theorists, Sephina?” He asked. Aki’s eyes widened. She had no idea that the Don had studied at Eolas, and he must have, to know Sephina so well. She wasn’t sure anyone had known that he had been a student. The Don’s past was one of the most mysterious things about him.

Sephina chuckled. “It never gets old, seeing them squirm. But those days are behind us all, now,” her tone was firm, the quaver she affected gone.

The Don nodded. “I know,” he said softly. His lips made a firm line as he surveyed the room. The silence stretched out in anticipation of his words.  Finally, he spoke.

“I am here to make an end,” his words were clipped, falling like stones into the quiet room. “The time is ripe, and the Prime and his… minions shall be our harvest,” his eyes seemed to pin each and every one of them to their chairs.

Aki shifted, uncomfortable with the intensity. So that’s why he’s here, she thought.

The Don continued. “Darius has informed me that you all share my goal. So now, I ask, will you join me?”

“We are honored…” Lothar began, but Aki cut him off. She wasn’t going to allow that oaf to speak for the Committee.

“We are honored by your presence, sir. May I ask a question?”

Alistair made a magnanimous gesture, “proceed.”

Aki steeled her nerve. “Why now?” she said, “Begging your pardon Sir, of course. But what makes this the right time?”

The Don smiled a toothy smile. It didn’t reach his sharp eyes. “Aki, is it? Your friend Roshan told me all about you.”

“Roshan?” Hearing his name startled the word out of her. “Is he here, did he come with you?”

The Don help up a hand. “One question at a time, my dear.” He turned to the rest of the room and continued speaking. “It is through your efforts that I could be here. Think!” He spread his hands in an expansive gesture. “The flame of rebellion burns bright even here at the floating heart of the nation. The Prime and his people are reeling. How could we not strike now?”

Smiles and grins around the room showed the Committee’s approval for such an idea. Aki could feel herself being swept along with it. It felt like a validation of all that they had done. All that they had worked, and worked hard, for. It felt like justification for all that they had lost. She could picture the tide of rebellion, of Resistance, sweeping forth over the Prime and his forces like some inevitable tide. It all seemed so easy. There must be a catch.

A rail thin woman in a voluminous fur coat spoke up. “Forgive me, Sir Don. I believe that our goals are aligned, but unless you brought a mighty army, I fail to see how we could take the City,” her voice was a grating soprano. Aki’s brows wrinkled in surprise. Elsbeth rarely spoke. She traded in furs and leathers from Hascillis, but in the committee meetings she seemed content to let Lothar, her fellow merchant, blather on. Aki did not have a good read on her, neither her temperament, nor her competence. The question did seem a reasonable one.

If the Don was perturbed at the questioning of his motives, he did not show it. Instead, he continued to smile, and appeared to be in good humor. “You are right to question. A merchant should negotiate with all the facts, no?” The merchant members of the room made gestures of assent.

“I have an answer for you, but I can only tell you in confidence. It must not leave this room,” his grin invited them all to share his secret, and Aki nodded along with everyone else. The man was hard to resist. His manner would have peaked Aki’s curiosity, even if she wasn’t already grateful for the help he was bringing.  

                They were all silent, hanging on his word. The Don leaned forward, and the attention, and the light, in the room seemed to bend towards him. He milked the moment. With deliberate slowness, he withdrew from a pocket in his cloak a slender, fluted rod. Though the base color was ivory, Aki could see that the surface was black with carvings, covering the rod from top to bottom. She was impressed with the level of detail of whatever glyph set the Don had inscribed there.

                “What is that?” Lothar asked.

                Dolt, Aki thought, but refrained from snapping the word aloud. Instead she waited to see what the Don would say. Were she the Don, she would have been annoyed by the questions. She was annoyed by the question. However, the Don seemed to welcome it.

                “I’m glad you asked, my friend. This right here,” he twirled the rod for emphasis, “is the key to bringing down the Prime. Now, for a demonstration. One someone please kindly fire a Fòrsic blast at me?”

                There were no volunteers. The Don rolled his eyes. “It’s hardly a difficult request,” he waited another beat, then nodded at Darius, who was still standing near the door. Darius took a small crystal from his pocket and pointed it at the Floor. There was a bright flash of light, followed by a whumph, and exclamations of alarm from the rest of the room. All of Aki’s hair stood on end. She blinked to clear her eyes, and saw a small ring etched into the clay floor, burned black by the Fòrsic blast.  Everyone looked at Darius. He shrugged.

                “To prove it worked,” he said, and the raised his hands and triggered the crystal again, this time pointing it right towards the Don. There was the same blinding white flash, but no whumph. Blinking her eyes again, Aki swung her gaze to the Don. He was standing, untouched. The fluted rod was raised in his hands, outstretched towards Darius. She thought she saw a dim glow in the inscribed carvings, but it faded before she could get a second look. Once all eyes were on him, the Don twirled the rod again, and slipped it back into his pocket.

                “Numbers,” he said, “mean nothing. Their Fòrsic equipment will be as nothing. They will fall before me,” his voice dipped low, before rising to end in a ringing shout. “And I promise you, we will be victorious!” The room exploded into cheers.


Rika, Isa, Roshan and the other men from the village reached Alsce just as the sun was setting. Eithne was waiting for them, standing at the edge of the village looking up at the mountains as the group descended towards her. The wind had whipped her hair free from its braid, and the setting sun made it a copper corona around her head. Her pale face was pinched and anxious with worry, but she smiled hugely and clasped Roshan in a tight embrace as the group strode up to her. Rika smiled to see the two of them. Isa wolf-whistled, but Roshan and Eithne ignored her.

                “They’re really gone,” Roshan said, his voice flat. Those were the first words he and spoken since Isa’s revelation outside the cave.

                Eithne nodded. Roshan buried his head in her shoulder, and she held him.

                “They’re going to kill people,” he muttered into her shoulder. “They’re going to kill people with my research.”

                Eithne stroked his shoulder. “I know, love. But what are you going to do about it?”

                Roshan picked up his head and looked at her, and then back at Rika and Isa. Isa nodded at him. “We’re going after them,” he said.

“For an explanation, at the very least,” Rika said. “If we can stop them from doing something stupid, so much the better.”

Isa looked at Eithne. “Are we all prepared? We have to leave tonight if we want to reach Dak before Ater-Volante takes off again.”

Eithne shrugged. “We are, but there are some complications.”

Rika felt a tendril of worry twist up her spine. They really did have no time to spare. Even with good horses, and on a direct route, Dak was a week away. Ater-Volante would arrive in 6 days. Unless something changed, the Don would make it in time, but they wouldn’t.

“They took the horses,” Isa said. She didn’t sound surprised.

“Everything but a few nags and draft horses,” Eithne said. “Most of the working Fòrsic carts, too.”

 “Then we are done before we even started,” Roshan said, his voice filled with despair. Rika nodded in agreement. She had been mulling over this problem on their way down the mountainside, and she did not see a solution. They’d had as much hope as a dinghy in a storm of making it, even with horses, but now they had no hope.

Eithne shook her head and laughed. Both Rika and Roshan gave her a strange look, but Isa grinned. “Are you Fòrsic Theorists or aren’t you?” Isa said. She looked at Eithne, “Did you get it all?”

“As much as the villagers were willing to spare,” Eithne said, with a nod towards their companions, who returned the acknowledgement. She turned and led Roshan towards the lodge. With a glance over her shoulder at Rika and Isa she added, “Follow me.”

“What is it?” Roshan asked, but Eithne only shook her head and said,

“Let me show you.”

Bemused, Rika followed the two of them towards the lodge and into the great hall, with Isa at her side. Once through the doorway, Roshan stopped dead in his tracks. Rika, craning her neck to see around him, gasped in shock. The floor of the great hall was littered in Fòrsic equipment. Resting on large tarp of white canvas were metal gears and pulleys, broken limbs and axles of Fòrsic wagons, and other mismatched collections of Fòrsic equipment. There were also piles of crystals, and though many of them were cracked and battered, they still shone with the tell-tale fire of Fòrsic energy. The room itself was as bright as day, the walls covered in brightly shining Fòrsic lanterns, accompanied by a roaring fire.

Eithne stepped forward, “If we want transportation, we’ll have to build in ourselves.”

Rika looked at Isa, “Was this your hair-brained scheme?” she asked, an accusing note in her voice.

Isa spread her hands. “It was Eithne’s idea, actually, but I very much approve.”

Rika nodded, then frowned as a thought struck her. “Do we have time?”

“We have no choice, I think,” Roshan said. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Depending on what we throw together, we could even make up time.”

Rika shuddered. As impressive as the pile of Fòrsic equipment was, much if it was broken or ill-used. Anything they made would be similarly… mismatched. And terrifying to ride on at high speed. She sighed. “I assume you already have an idea?” she asked Roshan.

“As a matter of fact…”

She nodded. “Good. Let’s get to work then.”


                Isa skittered down the shale slope. The clatter sounded like the first few raindrops of a heavy storm, and Rika was glad there weren’t many people around in the desert to hear them.  The five of them, Isa, Eithne, Roshan, Evan, and Rika herself, were sitting at the base of one of the remaining hills leading from the mountains to the plain Dak sat on. It was the last chance to observe the city from relative concealment, as the few remaining miles were flat and open, covered with short, dry scrub growth. The only concealment was a dry gulch that cut through plain. It ran wet and wild during the rainy season, and the spring, as snow melted on the mountaintops, but was rocky and impassible even at the best of times. The scrub on the plane itself wouldn’t hide a hare, let alone a party of five. Under normal circumstances, they could have joined a merchant caravan or some such, heading towards the city. They were in hurry though, and their transportation was anything but conventional.

                “What did you see?” Roshan asked Isa as she slid to a stop in front of the rest of the group in a shower of dislodged pebbles.

                “Ater-Volante,” she said, breathless. “It’s still there.”

                “Praise be to Alos,” Eithne said. “We’re in time.”

                “Just a moment,” Rika cautioned her. She turned to Isa. “You’re sure?”

                She shrugged. “It’s getting dark, but the landing area is on the side of the Dak closest to us. It’s there.”

                Roshan spoke up on Rika’s left, a musing quality to his voice. “I wonder why it’s still there. It’s at least a day overdue.”

                “I don’t know,” Isa said. “But I can tell you that Ater-Volante is still grounded outside of Dak. Why don’t you go up and look for yourself?”

                Roshan waved her off. “We don’t have time for that. We have to assume that it could lift-off at any moment.”

                Rika frowned in thought, “Did you see anything else?”

                “Just the usual activity. If there was something wrong with the spar-crystals it would be being worked on underground, wouldn’t it?”

                Roshan nodded. “Yes, you’re right,” he smoothed the scruff on his chin as he thought. Between the cave-in and the frantic journey to Dak, they hadn’t had time for any careful grooming. Rika itched to shave it off his face. It looked terrible, in her opinion. Eithne didn’t seem to mind, though. Rika’s mind snapped back to what Roshan was saying.

                “We know the Don was heading this way. I bet that he wouldn’t want to cut his timing too fine. If the Resistance had people on Ater-Volante…”

                “They do,” Isa interrupted, nodding.

                Rika stared at her. “How could you possibly know that? We’re not supposed to know the location of any teams outside our own.”

                Isa smiled. “I listen. Besides, it makes sense. I’m sure we have people in every city. Probably multiple groups.”

                “Alright, alright,” Roshan said. “We’re wasting time. Even if the spar crystals were disabled, somehow, we still don’t know when, or when they’ll be fixed. The sooner we get on the city, the better.”

                “Hear hear,” Evan said. The man had insisted on following them from Alsce. Other villagers had wanted to come, but they couldn’t fit any others. Rika had been glad to have him. The man had an air of quiet competence, and there had been a definite improvement in their meals. Not that they had had a lot of time to stop and cook on the way from Alsce.

                “Lets go then,” Isa said. “Is your Fòrsic contraption ready?”

                “It’s a perambulator,” Roshan said, a trifle grumpily. “And yes, I just put a new set of crystals in.”

Isa had yet to get the name right, despite helping to build the thing. Rika knew it was her way of tweaking Roshan’s nose. In the gentlest way possible of course, but a little bit of normalcy was important. And he did tend to have a swelled head about his latest creation. Rika had to admit that it was impressive. If, like she had suspected, terrifying to ride on. Roshan, with Isa’s engineer expertise and Rika’s advice, had created something truly unique. The body was shaped like nothing so much as an enormous cat. They had used iron and leather together to create a sleek looking feline form, but one large enough and broad enough for them to ride two abreast. It was the inside that was the impressive part. An intricate system of gears and pulleys made up the interior, especially the legs, which ended in broad metal ‘pads’, covered in leather for traction. There were crystals to manage the shock absorption of the limbs, and the whole thing was powered and steered by a cluster of glyphs and crystals near the front. The emphasis on the mechanical nature of the construct meant that it could be powered quite efficiently. A necessity since the crystals available to them had been mediocre at best.

Isa had covered the back with the skin of a mountain tiger Eithne had found in the lodge. The head of the skin covering the front, so that it looked like a cat in truth. It wasn’t as smooth as one though, it ran with jerking, bounding movements. Even though Rika had grown up on the ships of Hascillis, the motion made her quite sick. But by Alos it was fast. They had to have set a new, nauseating record in their crossing of the mountains to Dak. It looked now like they had made it in time.

They climbed onto the Perambulator’s back, and Roshan activated the crystals. The whole contraption hummed with energy, its insides clicking and clunking as the gears turned. “We can follow the stream bed,” Roshan called back to them over the noise. “No one will see us approach.”

Great, Rika thought, we can be wet AND sick when we arrive. She looked around at her companions. Eithne’s pale face was tinged very green, and Rika absolutely sympathized. Evan’s mouth was firm, and he looked determined, if resigned. Isa had a wild look in her eyes, and a war whoop on her lips.

“Let’s go!” Isa cried, and Roshan lurched the Perambulator into motion. It bounded down onto the plain, leaping from rock to rock. The wind roared in their ears and Rika bared her teeth in a grin at the thrill of it, even as her gorge rose in the back of her throat. There was no denying it, it was exhilarating.

They leaped down in the gulch, landed with splash in the streambed. Water and muck flew everywhere, covering all of them in ice cold water. Rika shivered. The snow melt had started, but it wasn’t peak season yet, otherwise they would have been swept away by the tumult. As it was, the current pushed and pulled at them, and Roshan was forced to leap forward. They landed on a rock, and then another, and another. Bouncing from stone to stone, and sometimes on the sides of the ravine, they made their way down the stream bed with a dismaying rapidity. Rika had to shush Isa, she wouldn’t stop whooping with each mighty leap.

The sun had finished setting by the time they leapt out of the ravine, coming to a clanking halt just outside the disc of Ater-Volante. While on the ground, it was ringed by an imposing stone wall, nearly ten feet high. There was only one gate, guarding the road towards Dak. The rest of it was designed to keep people from smuggling themselves onto the city.

Below them, they heard the roar and rumble of rock scraping on rock. “IT’S LEAVING!” Roshan yelled.

“GO!” Isa shouted.

Rika gulped. Even in the dark, they could see the center hill of the city starting to rise. Roshan slammed a new crystal into a slot on the front of the Perambulator. It was their last, one of the few crystals they had that wasn’t battered or cracked. They burst into motion. The Perambulator ran at a dead sprint. Rika could feel the legs pumping beneath them, the impacts rattling her teeth, her bones. Beside her, Isa’s lips had curled back in a rictus grin. The wind stung Rika’s eyes, and she could barely see. She wondered how Roshan could possibly guide them. Everything around them was darkness, dust, and motion. Then, with the constructs mightiest leap, they sprang to the top of the wall in a single bound. Immediately they jumped again, reaching up, up towards the Ater-Volante as the city rose skyward. Isa was shouting, Eithne was praying, and Rika kept her teeth clenched. The roar of the city’s rising drowned out all sound, and Rika shut her eyes.

They landed with a heavy thump. One of the Perambulator’s legs shattered, dumping them off onto the cobbles in a sprawling heap. Picking herself free, Rika looked around. They were in one of the warehouse districts lining the outer edge of the city. It was deserted, the wind whistling through the alleyways. Beside her, Roshan pulled himself up.

“Well,” he said. “We made it.”

Chapter 27 can be found here.

The Floating City - Chapter 25

The Missing Members

The blackness under the mountain was absolute. It wasn’t just a matter of not being able to see one’s hand in front of one’s face, it was so dark that Roshan sometimes wasn’t sure if he had hands at all. Or a face. For all that he could see, he might as well be a disembodied spirit under the mountain. Feeling was a different matter. His head ached. Off to his right, he could smell the stale mustiness that was their temporary privy. It wrinkled his nose whenever he noticed it, but that became less and less as he adjusted to the scent. His head and hair felt sticky with dried blood. At least my bleeding stopped, he thought. All that could be heard was a tap, tap, tap of rock against rock, matching the rhythm of his throbbing head. The cadence seemed to swell until it was all he was; one aching mind full of tap, tap, tap.

“Please, Rika, stop tapping.”

“Right, sorry. I forgot.”

Roshan heaved a heavy sigh, “I know, I’m sorry. There’s not much else to do, but it hurts my head.”

“I don’t know how that’s possible,” Rika said, but she stopped. They sat in silence.

“How much water do you have left?” Roshan asked.

He heard Rika sloshing her water skin back and forth. “It’s about three quarters gone.”

“Mine too, I think,” they lapsed into silence again. Roshan assumed there wasn’t much Rika felt like talking about. He himself couldn’t think of anything. They’d tried a few conversations, but they all circled back around to whether Isa and Eithne were coming to get them. They were. He knew they were, but talking about waiting for them just made the situation worse. The last they had seen of them had been the light from Isa’s arms disappearing back into the vent after she had dropped off the water skins they had found. Isa had also reported that the main chamber of the cavern had also partially collapsed, blocking the exit, but she and Eithne thought they had found one of the shafts leading to the surface. There was no sign of the Don. Roshan supposed that could be a good sign, but his thoughts continued to run in pessimistic circles, digging their ruts deeper and deeper.

Roshan heard Rika’s stomach growl. His gut answered with its own baying rumble. If only Isa and Eithne had been able to find our food, he thought, and sighed. The silence of the mountain pressed down on the both of them, oppressive in its stillness. It was time to assay another attempt at conversation. “Hey, Rika,” he turned and looked towards where she was, even if he couldn’t see anything.


“I can’t believe I never asked this before, but how did you an Isa meet?”

“What?” he heard the smile in her voice.

“I guess I just assumed you had always been together, but there had to have been a beginning, right?”

“You’re right. And I really haven’t known Isa for the long, it just feels like forever,” she was silent for several moments. Just as Roshan was about to prompt her again, Rika said “It was just over three years ago, right before I joined the Resistance,” her voice was soft, the rhythm sinking into one of memory.

“Like all Isa stories, it begins with an explosion…”

“And ends with one too?”

Rika laughed, “I’ll get to that. Now try not to interrupt,” Roshan heard cloth scrape on stone as she settled back against the wall. “The first time I saw Isa was at a party at Seaward, the university in Hascillis. I wasn’t invited. Then again, neither was she. We bumped into one another sneaking in the back.”

“Really? What were you both doing there?”

“Isa was infiltrating as a member of the Resistance, of course. My own case was a little more complicated,” Rika’s voice had wry tone.

“How so?”

“The party was in honor of the Chancellor of the University’s son, who had just achieved his Maestery. The conniving bastard was also my former research partner.”

“Oh,” Roshan said, he thought he could see where this was going.

“‘Oh’ is right,” Rika sounded bitter. “The scum stole my research, all of it. When I brought an accusation before the University court, the Chancellor had me expelled,” she sighed, and the anger flowed out of her voice. “The injustice still rankles me, but it brought me so I can’t be too mad,” there was a pause as they both stared out at the darkness. “Well, maybe a little mad, but the point stands,” They both laughed a little, and lapsed into silence. Roshan was still curious though.

“The party?” he prompted.

“Right, the party. I was sneaking in on some ill-advised attempt at revenge when I tripped, literally, over Isa. I think we both tried to get though one of the windows at the same time. We had both used crystals with concealing glyphs, never even saw each other until we were a pile of tangled limbs on the floor. It was an Alos-damned miracle that no one heard. We started bickering instantly,” Roshan could hear the smile in her voice. “Never really stopped, I suppose.”

“What happened to your former partner?”

“Once I explained why I was there, Isa threw away her own mission to help me. The party was for the Chancellor to showcase his son to other university officials and some government higher-ups. Part of the presentation was of his research. My research. Long story short, we sabotaged it. It blew up in his face,” she sighed, “the glee in that moment, the working together even as we argued and impressed each other. I think it was the most fun I’ve ever had.”

“I’ll bet Syd was angry.”

Rika laughed, “She got over it. Eventually. It helped that I joined up. And then I was with them ever since,” there was a long silence as she finished her tale. Roshan sat, thinking. After a while, he noticed Rika had been more silent than usual.

“You’ve been worried about her,” he said.

                She snorted. “I wasn’t exactly hiding that fact.”

                “I guess not. I mean, I’m sure you’re always a touch worried about Isa…”

                Rika laughed, a little, “too true. But, this time… this time I was going to lose her. I could feel it,” Roshan realized with alarm that she sounded like she was choking back tears.

                “Everything is going to be all right,” he said. “I cured her.”

                “Do you really think that? We barely knew what was wrong with her. We still don’t,” the bitterness in her voice was palpable. “And now she’s off gallivanting and we’re stuck here waiting to die.”

                “Not gallivanting, they’re coming back,” Roshan pointed out.

                “I know that,” it was practically a shout. Then, in a much softer voice, so quiet Roshan wasn’t even sure that he heard it, Rika said, “I’m just not sure I believe it.”

                Roshan thought he knew what she meant. He was starting to think similar thoughts, it was hard to hold onto hope in the darkness. He decided to change the subject, “I have a theory.”

He heard a rustle of cloth as she shook her head, “of course you do. You wouldn’t be you without having a theory,”

Roshan shrugged. “I am who I am. Do you want to hear my idea or not?”

Rika snorted, “I guess so,” Roshan was relieved she didn’t sound as angry and hopeless as she had before. “Tell me your theory, then.”

“It’s like this. We know that the energy in Fòrsic crystals is generated slowly, over a long period of time. There are many possible explanations for this, the turning of the Earth, energy from the stars, etc.”

“I know all this,” Rika said, complaining.

“I know, bear with me. One of those theories is that Fòrsa energy is everywhere, surrounding us. Some unique property of the crystals draws it in, allowing us to use it, but the Fòrsa itself is really everywhere.”

“Okay, keep going.”

Roshan was getting excited now. He gesticulated as he talked, despite that fact Rika wouldn’t be able to see him. “Isa’s been exposed to a lot of weird blasts of Fòrsic energy over the last year, including having crystals imbedded in her arms. What if she became attuned to that Fòrsic field?”

“Like a crystal? Rika sounded skeptical. “Is that even possible?

“Apparently so,” Roshan rubbed his hands together. “So here is the theory. She became attuned to the free floating Fòrsa, but not all the way. The Fòrsa didn’t have anywhere to go, so it was making her sick. When we added extra energy from crystals, it expressed as the same type as whatever glyph we used, because we gave it a channel.”

“dar-Alos be damned,” Rika said in a low voice. “That makes some sense. And you think your last madness with the Foinse-rod reset her attunement in just the right way?”


“Huh,” Rika said after a moment. “You’re a madman, but it does seem to hold water as a theory.”

“Thank you,” Roshan said, trying to be modest.

“You know,” Rika said, “A similar principle is the basis for blood magic…”

“Oh…” Roshan hadn’t made that connection before. Once Rika spoke, he wished that she hadn’t made it, either. “I suppose. This feels different though, somehow. For one, Isa is alive.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry I brought it up. Still, it’s interesting.”

“I’m not sure if interesting is the word I would use, unsettling, maybe.”

He heard Rika nod. “It is that,” they were silent again. Roshan leaned his head back against the stone wall, his excitement at expounding his theory draining out of him into the vast stillness around them. He felt so tired. Roshan closed his eyes and let the coolness of the stones surrounding him wash through his thoughts. The darkness throbbed in rhythm with his heartbeat, a distant whump, whump, whump that merged with a more immediate tap, tap, tap.

“I thought I told you to stop that Alos cursed tapping,” He said.

“What tapping?”

Roshan snorted, “I can hear your fingers! Listen!” They both went quiet. Off in the distance he heard the sound again, tap, tap, tap, tap… “See!”

“Roshan,” Rika’s voice was hushed. “That’s not me.”

He frowned. “How can that not be you, I can hear it right there.”

“Roshan! It’s not ME,” she stressed the words.

“Oh,” his thoughts snapped into focus, “OH!”

“Exactly,” Rika laughed. “Someone is coming to get us.”

* * ************************

For all of their excitement, rescue was not immediately forthcoming. They sat, often in silence, listening to the growing sounds of excavation. Rika could hear a vast symphony of sounds, but she was left to guess what each one might be. She was sure the steady tapping was a hammer or a pick, but there was also the scraping sound of shovels and the clink of metal on rock. Once or twice there was a rumble that sounded like an explosion. Sure proof that Isa was on her way. Rika wondered why there was so little use of Fòrsic energy, but when she voiced her question aloud, Roshan said it was because any explosions might bring the roof down further. Rika kept a wary ear on the ceiling after that. Occasionally some dust fell. She could hear it sprinkle down onto the smooth floor, or, if it hit her, feel it sticking to her clammy skin. It was time to be gone. But, they could do nothing but wait as the sounds of tunneling grew louder, and the trickles of dust grew wider. Rika wasn’t sure which would arrive first, the rescue party, or the ceiling.

Finally, with the dull clunk of metal on rock, a shaft of bright, white light opened. Rika winced, and closed her eyes. She covered them with her sleeve, and opened them a crack. Isa’s face was illuminated in the shaft of light. She was grinning from ear to ear, and covered in grey dust.

“Did you miss me?” She asked.

Rika smiled back, “Only a little,” she struggled to her feet. Her legs were sore from inactivity. Roshan lifted his head to follow her up. He looked ghastly. His face was pale and grimy, and streaked with blood. His hair was a crusty mass.

He winked at Rika, “How do I look?”

“Probably about as well as you feel.”

He winced. “That bad, huh,” Rika grasped his arm and hauled him to his feet. He gasped and swayed, holding his head. Visibly gritting his teeth, he steadied his legs and his breathing. “Let’s get out of here.”

With Isa and some men from the village on one side, and Rika on the other, they passed through the rubble in short order. Isa was the first through the gap, and she grabbed Rika in a crushing hug. Rika let her head fall onto her shoulder with a grateful sigh.

“You stink,” Isa said.

“Do I?” Rika asked, her face still buried in Isa’s shoulder, “I hadn’t noticed. I must have been distracted by being trapped in a cave for years.”

Isa ignored her and looked at Roshan, Rika twisted her head to follow her gaze. “Alos, you’re a sight,” Isa wrinkled her nose, “You smell, too. Let’s get you two into a bath.”

“A bath sounds wondrous,” Roshan said. “Did you bring one with you?”

“Sorry, you’ll have to hike down with the rest of us.”

“I knew it was too good to be true,” he said, stretching. He sighed heavily, “Let’s get this over with.”

“Wait,” Isa said. She procured two red bandanas from a leather pouch on her belt and proffered them. “For your eyes. Eithne and I were near blinded when we stumbled out into the light,” As Rika took one bandana for herself and passed the other to Roshan, she looked pointedly at Isa’s arms. Following her glance, Isa shrugged, “Still… the way they were. I put on heavier leathers though. Best not to upset people.”

Rika nodded, and tied her bandana around her eyes. She could still see somewhat, but the light was filtered through a red haze and much less painful.

“Where is Eithne, anyway?” Roshan asked.

“She stayed behind to ready the village for us,” Isa said.

Rika frowned, there was something evasive about Isa’s tone. She was too tired to get into in now though. All she wanted was to be out from under the mountain.

“Lead on,” she said.

The men from the village were waiting outside in the tunnel they had cleared. The smiled with relief as Isa led Rika and Roshan through the gap. Rika grinned at them, “What took you so long?” They were covered in dust and showing clear signs of exhaustion. The collection of semi-familiar faces tickled the back of Rika’s mind. Something was off.

“We came as soon as we could,” a tall, slender man said. His red hair marked him as Crystalin.

“I don’t doubt it, Evan,” Roshan said. “Who would drink your chicory in the mornings if you hadn’t come to rescue me.”

The man laughed. “Irreplaceable, that’s what you are,” he said, and the two of them clasped hands.  The group led Rika and Roshan outside, where packs of water, and dried meat and cheese were waiting. Once they had filled their aching bellies, and quenched their parched throats, Rika felt well enough to look around. She raised her blindfold. The light was painfully bright, but not so much that she wouldn’t adjust. The surrounding hillside looked much the same as when they had entered the cave, muddy and tree-lined. Rika felt a trifle disappointed. She had expected damage outside of the cave, as well.

Guess it was just us then, she thought. Her single-minded devotion to eating ended, her brain started to work again. The village men, and Isa, were readying packs for the descent. Rika took a moment to peer at them with greater care, studying them as opposed to a glimpse in a dark tunnel. Something clicked. These are just men from Alsce, she thought. Her belly knotted.

Out loud, she asked, “Why didn’t any Resistance members come?” Everyone shifted to stony silence. Rika felt her pulse quicken. The silence seemed to spread out further and further with each thudding heartbeat. Unable to bear it any longer, Rika looked to Isa.

“What happened? Tell me,” she demanded.

“They’re gone,” Isa said. Though her voice was low, the words seemed to hang in the air. Her skin was pale, a worrying sign on someone as dark-skinned as she was. All Rika felt was confusion. And worry.

“What do you mean they’re gone? Who’s gone? Where?” Rika sounded angry, even to her own ears. Her words had note of bewilderment to them.

Roshan reached understanding before her. “The Don,” he said. Isa looked at him and he continued, “He’s taken the Foinse-rod, hasn’t he,” the words were flat, without inflexion.

Isa nodded, but said nothing.


Isa dipped her head, and stared hard at the ground. “Ater-Volante,” she whispered.

                Rika felt threads coming together in her mind, seeking to make sense out of what she had just heard. The Don was heading to Ater-Volante, at the head of an army of Resistance members. Why? And Why now?

                Once again Roshan was ahead of her in his thinking. He sank to the ground with a mien of defeat, yet his words were snarled in anger. “He wanted me to turn my research into a weapon. When I did, he left us for dead. Who knows how many other people will be killed?”

                “Hang on,” Rika said. “We don’t know what he intends, or what he was thinking,” She looked around Isa, Roshan, and the men from Alsce. “Aren’t we part of the Resistance? Don’t we want the Prime to fall?”

Roshan shook his head. “Not like this. Not because of me. I wanted to save people…” He trailed off, his head in his hands.

Rika put a comforting hand on his shoulder, and looked at Isa.

Isa shrugged, “They were gone when we reached the village. Syd, Simon, Trentor, Alistair, all of them. No one left knew where they had gone, or why.”

“How did you find out?” Rika asked.

Isa’s lips quirked up in a half smile, “Trentor’s lady-friend found me. He had told her where, told her to tell us when we resurfaced. They, at least, believed we were alive.”

“Yet they left anyway,” Rika said, a musing tone in her voice. “Did Trentor leave any other message?”

Isa smiled broadened. “‘Come find us.’”

 Rika smiled back. So that’s how it was. Something was askew, and Trentor, probably at Syd’s orders, was telling them to unravel the mystery. She clapped Roshan on his shoulder.

“Snap out of your mood,” she said.

He lifted his head. His eyes were red. “Why?”

“Because we’re heading to Ater-Volante.”


Chapter 26 can be found here.

The Floating City - Chapter 24

 The Trapped Cave

“Ow,” Someone said, and coughed. Their voice sounded muffled. It was too dark for Rika to see who it was, but she thought it was Eithne.

She coughed herself, and spat, trying to clear her mouth of caked on dust. She could feel it all over her body, and her eyes stung. “Please don’t spit on me,” Isa said from underneath her. “I’ve already had a mountain fall on my head.”

“Isa! Sorry. Are you alright?” Rika raised her voice, “Is everyone alright?”

“I am fine,” said Eithne. Rika thought it was to her right. “But I can’t move. Roshan is on top of me, and I think he’s unconscious,” her voice had a panicky edge to it.

Rika took a deep breath and coughed again. Stay calm, she told herself, Panic kills, patience saves. Aloud, she asked, “Is he breathing, can you feel a heartbeat?”

There was a pause, “Yes, and his pulse is strong” Eithne sounded relieved, but the edge was still there. “I think he got hit by a rock though, the back of his head is sticky and wet.”

“Head wounds bleed a lot,” Isa said in a calm, matter of fact tone. “It probably feels worse than it is. “Can you wake him up?”

“Roshan, Roshan, come on now, you dear man, wake up!” Eithne pleaded.


She tried again, it sounded like she was crying.


There came another sound, suspiciously like a wet kiss, and then Roshan spoke, “What… what happened?” His voice slurred, but at least he was awake.

She heaved a sigh of relief. “Welcome back. Do you remember anything?”

“Head… hurts,” he seemed to be trying to pull his focus together. “Did… the mountain collapse?”

“Feels like it,” Isa said.

“Here, move over,” Eithne said. There was a sound of sifting rubble. Someone, Roshan, Rika assumed, started retching.

“Head wounds can make you nauseous,” Isa said. “I should know, I have had a few in my day.”

“That explains a lot,” Rika said, and Isa laughed weakly.

“Come put your head in my lap,” Eithne said, and there was more shuffling noises, and then quiet.

After a moment, Rika asked, “anyone have a light?”

“You know, I think I do,” Isa said. A warm copper glow filled the room.

“Dar-Alos be praised,” Eithne breathed, “Isa, look at your arms!”

Her arms were spectacular. What before had been a dim glow was now a shining beacon of light. The traceries of scars were now veins of copper. They encircled her arms like fine filigree, but whereas before they had seemed an imposition on Isa’s skin, now they were vibrant. They seemed a part of her, somehow. “Oh Isa,” Rika said. “I am so sorry. I guess all this was for naught,” she gestured around the room, feeling bitter. With the light from Isa’s arms, they could see the debris around them. A large stone, wider than Rika was tall, leaned over them. It had gotten trapped on similar column of stone, and sheltered them from the worst. That stone was the totality of what they could see. Rock and rubble filled every corner in around them, aside from their pocket. They were trapped.

“I feel better. Like a weight has been lifted from my chest,” in the light cast by Isa’s arms, Rika could see her shrug. “My arms feel different, too. They don’t hurt, and I can… feel the Fòrsa,” she flexed her arms. The light pulsed in rhythm to her movements. “I think with some work, I could even control it!”

Control it?” Rika was skeptical. “Fòrsic energy is inherent to the crystals. There’s not wisps of free energy floating around.”  

“There might be, how would we know? All we know is that the crystals are failing,” she shrugged again. “Maybe the rules are changing.”

Eithne added, “the histories on Fòrsic Energy are undecided. The consensus is that the energy has to come from somewhere, and most researchers lean towards the theory that the Fòrsa comes from the Earth, and is gathered slowly over time. That would imply some sort of free energy out in the world.  

“See!” Isa pointed at her arms, “We use runes and glyphs, why not my body?”

“Wouldn’t that be blood magic?” Rika said.

Isa thought for a moment. “No,” she said, her tone firm . “The Fòrsa used by that horrible Choisant woman felt so… wrong. This feels different.”

Rika opened her mouth to interrogate her further, but Eithne interrupted them. “Let’s assume for now that whatever Roshan did with the Foinse-rod worked. Somewhat. But we have bigger problems right now.”

“You are right,” Rika looked around the cramped space they were trapped in. “I wonder where the Foinse-rod is. For that matter, where is the Don? Not under all that rubble, I hope.”

“Last I saw him, he was near the entrance,” Eithne said. “Maybe he got out! He could send someone to rescue us!”

“If he thinks we are still alive,” Isa said in a somber tone.

That quieted all three of them. Finally, Rika spoke up. “We can’t wait here for rescue. For one, we don’t know if it is coming. For two, we can’t wait long, anyway.”

“Why not?” Isa asked.

“No food, no water,” Eithne’s expression was grim. “Either we get out of here quickly, or not at all.”

There was silence again. The three of them sat, thinking, while Roshan lay with his head in Eithne’s lap. Ideas and plans whirred through Rika’s thoughts, each considered and then discarded in turn. No matter how many times she took a mental inventory of their supplies, she came up with the same results. They didn’t even have any blank crystals on them. No matter how she looked at it, they were in deep trouble.

“Water,” croaked Roshan.

“We haven’t got any, love,” Eithne stroked his head.

He cleared his throat and tried again. “No, I mean there is water.”

“Really, where?” Rika asked, feeling a bloom of hope.

“There’s a spring off of the middle room, remember? We just have to get to it.”

The bloom faded. “Roshan,” Isa said, “we’re still trapped in this chamber.”

“I have a concussion, I’m not stupid.”

“Right, sorry.”

He smiled, “It’s fine, we’re all tense,” Rika could still hear a slurred edge to his words. The rock must have struck quite a blow. Moving with great deliberation, Roshan turned to point to the wall of the cavern behind Eithne, “we can go out through there, hopefully.”

The wall was the only main wall of the cavern not covered by mounds of rubble. Rika opened her mouth to point out that it was, in fact, a wall, when she noticed a dark, shadowy space near the ceiling. Her eyes narrowed, “Do you mean to suggest there’s a secret passage through there?”

“Something like that. It’s actually a ventilation shaft.”

“Wouldn’t that just go straight out to the side of the mountain?” Eithne asked.

“You would think so, but not exactly,” Roshan winced as he tried to sit up further. He gave up and laid his head back down in Eithne’s lap. “There’s shafts over every room, but they’re all interlinked. We can go over the blockage.”

They were all silent for a moment. Isa was the first to speak up. “Are you quite sure that your head injury hasn’t affected you?”


“Because, you dolt,” said Rika, “If the shafts interlink, we can get out of this room entirely! No need to bother with getting water.”

“Oh, huh,” Roshan seemed stunned. “I guess you are right. I wonder why I didn’t think of that.”

“Head injury,” Eithne reminded him.

“Right. Well…” he paused in thought. “I don’t think we will all fit. For certain I won’t.”

Everyone turned and looked at Eithne. At just over five feet tall, she was the smallest of the group. If she didn’t fit, none of them would. “What? You can’t mean to make me go all alone.”

“I’ll go with you!” Isa said.

“No!” Rika was not going to let an injured Isa go wandering around in the mountains, even if it was springtime.

“Well someone needs to go with her,” Isa said. Rika could read her anger at Rika fussing over her, but at the moment she was having trouble caring. “Why don’t you go?”

“I don’t really want to leave the two sick and injured people alone, either,” Rika said after a pause.

“You don’t need to coddle me,” Isa said, with a vehemence that surprised Rika. “Not anymore. Look at me, for Alos’s sake. I’m not just cured, I’m improved!” She threw up her arms. A blast of power shot out of her palms and slammed into the roof. Everyone dove out of the way and the walls around them rumbled, but only a few small stones fell.

“That’s amazing,” Roshan said, “Can you do that again?”

“NO!” Rika and Eithne shouted. He looked surprised, then chagrined.

“Right, sorry. Not the time.”

“I’ll say,” Eithne muttered.

Isa was staring at her arms in amazement. “What in the world?”

Rika put her own arm around her. “I’m sorry I was feeling so over-protective, but I don’t want anything further to happen to you.”

“I know,” Isa rested her head against Rika’s. It felt warm and pleasant, without the too-hot fever heat that had plagued her since Crystalis. “But I do feel different,” she said after a moment. “Stronger. I think I could go with Eithne. She’ll need a source of light, anyway.”

“And we don’t?” Rika asked, half-joking.

Isa shook her head. “If we don’t get someone out, we could all die. We have to try.”

Rika sobered. “You’re right,” she looked at Eithne. “No sense wasting time. We’ll lift you up to the vent, and then try and send Isa after you.”

Eithne nodded. She looked scared, but determined. “Let’s do it.”

Roshan struggled into a sitting position, but if he was trying to stand up, got no further. He leaned back against one of the rock piles filling the chamber. “I’ll stay here, I guess,” he said. He tried to grin, but his expression was bitter.

Eithne smiled at him. “No moving unless absolutely necessary. We’ll try to bring water first, and then we’ll go for help,” she stood up and moved to underneath the ventilation hole.

Rika and Isa stood up and followed her. “We’ll boost you up, and then I’ll help Isa clamber up.”

Eithne nodded. Rika and Isa knelt, and intertwined their cupped hands. “First one foot, and then then other, and then we’ll lift,” Isa said. Eithne stepped her right foot up to rest on their hands, and then the other. She wobbled, and Rika felt her muscles scream, but Eithne stabilized herself by resting a hand on each of their hands. With great care, they lifted her gradually upwards, until she could reach the lip of the hole. She pulled herself up, scrambling, while Rika and Isa continued to lift.

“It’s cramped, but I think Isa will fit,” she called back down.

“Excellent,” Isa said. She looked at Rika, “will you be able to lift me?”

“Not the way we did Eithne. What about my shoulders?”

Isa nodded, “that should work.”

Rika crouched, and Isa straddled her, sitting on her neck and shoulders. Slowly, Rika straightened. Her leg muscles ached and trembled, but she stood up far enough for Isa to reach up and grab the same handhold Eithne had used. Once she had a grip, Rika pushed up on her feet until she was able to crawl into the ventilation shaft.

“We’ll be back soon!” She said, and disappeared into the hole. Slowly, the light from her arms faded as she crawled away. Rika and Roshan were left alone in the crushing darkness.

** ** ** ** ** **

There was a knock on the door.

“Curse it!” Aki whispered, her mind whirring. She looked around the cramped quarters she shared with Maz. Their small, and uncomfortable, bed rolls aside, the room was packed to the brim with Fòrsic equipment and supplies, most of it quite unorthodox. All of it was illegal. They’d had word a house by house search by the Choisant was starting, but she hadn’t expected it so soon. There just wasn’t enough time.

Maz made a calming gesture. “No demands,” she said, and started towards the door. She clutched a lead-weighted baton in her hand. A crystal sparkled on its tip. Aki knew from experience that the runes on crystal would deliver a punishing shock. They had repurposed it, like much of their equipment, from City Watch supplies they had acquired over the course of the last several weeks. Their own stores of crystals stolen from the University were running dangerously low.  Aki furrowed her brow in thought. Maz had a point. It wasn’t like the City Watch to not announce their presence. However, she was glad Maz was still taking precautions. The knocking came again, urgent and hurried. Not forceful and demanding, like it would be if it were the Choisant or the City Watch knocking.

Maz creaked open the door a crack. She put her eye to the gap, and then pulled the door open. “What are you doing here?” She demanded, as Jos and a Crystalian Engineer by the name of Padraig, spilled into the room. While Jos was a thin, weedy looking man, Padraig was short and stocky. Like most Crystalians, he had a sheaf of bright red hair, done up in a bun. He was also supposed to be nowhere near this building.

“Darius sent us,” Jos explained, tripping over his words in a hurry. “The Choisant are starting their search. They’re already at the building next door!”

Aki frowned. How did Darius come to be ordering her people around? She would be sure to have a pointed conversation with him, later. If they got out of this current predicament, of course. “How long do we have?”

“The Watch is out in force,” Seamus said. “With reinforcements from Dak. They’re going room by room, so we have time, but not much of it.”

“They are using something to detect Fòrsic equipment,” Jos added. He gestured around the room. “We won’t be able to sneak this stuff by them.”

 “Smart of them,” Aki said. “Not unexpected though. Maz and I have a plan.”

 “What do you need us to do?”

The next few minutes were filled with frantic motion. Aki and Maz had been midway through their packing process when Jos and Padraig interrupted them. Anything with a trace of Fòrsic crystals attached to it went into a three large wooden chests. The chest themselves were lined with lead, which was known to block Fòrsic emanations. As they filled them, Aki activated a series of small crystals and dropped them on top of the load. Those crystals, along with the lead, would impede the Watch’s detection equipment. Either should have been sufficient. With both together, the Watch should have no idea the chests were there at all. The next step was to haul the chests into the various hidden compartments around their room. The building was smugglers haunt. All the chambers were cramped because they took up much less space than the building floorplans would indicate. The extra space was in the walls, floor, and ceiling, making each section of the tenement a room within a room.

One chest went into the floorboards, the next into the space between the walls. The last chest was the most difficult, but they managed to hoist it up into the attic space. They were all sweating by the end of it. Aki was glad Jos and Seamus were there, even if she still planned to have words with Darius about sending them. It would have been a job with just her and Maz. Aki’s arms hurt even from the limited lifting she had to do.

“What now?” Jos asked, once the chests were squared away. They heard a knocking, shouting, and the stamp of booted feet as the Watch entered the building four stories below them.

“Now we run,” Aki said.


“They don’t look like they are giving up, do they?” Aki said to Maz. The four of them lay on one of the peaked roofs of the warehouse district, heads just cresting the top of the roof. They were well camouflaged, dressed in grays and blacks to blend in with the slate covered rooftops. Ahead of them, up the hill towards the city center, they could see squads of Choisant and City Watch guards continuing their thorough house by house search. They had narrowly escaped the sweep of their own building by climbing out the window and up on to the roof. From there, they jumped across several buildings until they were out of the search’s cordon, but still close enough to observe. Aki especially wanted to make sure that their stashed Fòrsic equipment survived.

“No,” was Maz’s short reply. Aki watched as members of the Watch and Choisant soldiers marched up and down the streets, accosting passersby and raiding homes. They were not subtle about it. She hadn’t expected them to be, but she still found it disconcerting to watch squads of guards frisk and accost pedestrians. Nearby, others broke into buildings one by one. If people protested, they were slammed to the ground and hogtied, to be dragged away for later processing.

“I wonder if they’ll be less heavy handed in the wealthier districts?” Jos said behind her.

Padraig snorted. “Dar-Alos knows they will. Only the poor are treated this… poorly.”

Maz looked at Aki and rolled her eyes at the pun. Aki smiled, and decided it was time for some education. “You’re only half right. Plenty of our new members have come from the upper-crust of the City, and the Prime, or at least the Choisant, has to be aware of that. You’re also missing something important.”


“Yes,” Aki’s smiled turned grim. “They’ve attached harsh penalties to vague crimes, including complete seizure of assets for ‘conspiracies against the government’.”

“What does that matter?” Asked Jos.

“The Prime wants more power, and needs more funds. It’s the perfect time for some of his political opponents to be found to be enemies in truth. Regardless of whether that’s actually the case.”

“Sneaky bastard,” Padraig muttered.

“And don’t you forget it,” Maz advised, her voice solemn.

“Although in this case it was probably Magnus Stirech’s suggestion,” Aki put in. “The Choisant is always looking for more excuses to go rummaging through other people’s possessions.”

All four of them watched in silence after that, as the search cordon tightened and moved up the streets and out of sight. Finally, Maz sighed. “Jails will be crowded tonight.”

Aki looked at her, “You thinking new converts to the cause?”

Maz shrugged. “Worth looking into.”

“Well forget it. They’ll be handed off to Dak. Which means off the city. We don’t know when they’ll repair the spar crystals, so it’s too risky to go poking around.”


“Mention it to Darius!” Jos suggested with enthusiasm.

Aki frowned. He had a point. The Resistance had resources that were beyond them. Namely, resources form outside Ater-Volante. Maybe he could pass the word along. She hated relying on other people, but it galled her to do nothing as citizens, innocents, were hauled away in chains. “I’ll bring it up at the meeting tonight,” she said after a moment. “But for now, it’s time for us to go.”


With the search and purge still ongoing, strategy meetings between the senior members of the Engineer’s Rebellion had to be very circumspect. Aki was of the opinion that they represented an unacceptable risk. Especially considering how little they were able to agree on, these days. No one had listened to her. The influx of former Eolas faculty and Volante merchants, all of whom were used to regular meetings as part of their day-to-day routines, were so far unwilling to change their behaviors. At least when it came to the senior members. Aki often found herself cursing their new rebellion by committee. She and her Engineers had had to focus on keeping everyone else safe from the purges and searches while the others argued. And she still had to turn up for the meetings. She fully expected the Choisant to come crashing through the door. As far as she was concerned, it was a miracle they had avoided them this long.

“The point stands, it was your reckless and unplanned action…” Aki’s thoughts turned inward as Lothar droned on. She had to concede that he had a point, although she never would admit it. She met Darius’s gaze across the table, and he winked at her and rolled his eyes. Aki smiled. At least someone agreed with her.

As well he should, she thought to herself, it was his idea after all. And he had claimed a plan to go along with it. Maybe it’s time to hold his feet to the fire for a change. She opened her mouth to interrupt Lothar’s drone and ask Darius direct, when there came a pounding knock at the door.

Everyone flinched. Everyone, except Darius, and Lothar, who might not have noticed if the ceiling had caved in. The eyes of the room swiveled to the door in apprehension. Aki cursed herself for jumping along with the rest of them, she was supposed to be made of sterner stuff. The knocking came again; Lothar’s pompousness ground to a halt as he realized he was no longer the center of attention. Once he was silent, Darius rose to his feet.

“I’ll just get the door, shall I?” He said, a cheeky grin on his face.

Aki frowned, and tried to catch his eye. What is he up to? She wondered, but he ignored her, just as he ignored the shouts and protests from the rest of the gathering. Before anyone could stop him, he strode to the door and threw it open with a flourish. Highlighted in the doorway was a tall figure in a dark cloak. The Magnus! Aki swore in a sudden terror, and darted for her weapons. She had almost reached them, when Darius announced “Ladies and gentlemen, I present an end to your bickering. I present the Don of the Resistance, Alistair Gaunt!”

The Floating City - Chapter 23

The Daring Leap

“Are we in favor?” Heads nodded around the cramped room. Aki stifled a yawn. This meeting had been going on all morning and nothing of importance had been decided. Three five-days after Benji’s death and everyone was still overly cautious. It didn’t help that the Prime and the Choisant’s crackdown on the city streets above had become even more brutal. While it had led to members of Eolas faculty, members of the Resistance, and even townspeople joining their cause, the new arrivals were skittish. And worse, thought they should be in charge.

She leaned forward on her stool, “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree.”

Several of the other people in the room grimaced. There were nine of them crowded into the small room, and despite the chill in the air outside it was stuffy and cramped. “We have been over and over this, Aki,” Said Lothar, the self-appointed leader of a delegation of townspeople, mostly other merchants. It seemed to Aki like the merchants had picked their representative based on his wealth and volume of his voice. Getting to know him over the past several days had not dispelled that notion. His face was florid and flushed with and there were large sweat stains on the armpits of his robes, which looked ornate for someone who was part of a revolution. “It is too dangerous to come out into the open. We have to be cautious, wait until set-down. The Choisant outnumber us five to one…”

“So you have said repeatedly,” Aki interrupted. “But what none of you have acknowledged was that it was ten to one odds three five-days ago,” palms flat against the battered table that filled the room, she stood up and glared back at the other erstwhile leaders of the Engineer’s Rebellion. “With every crackdown, every time the Choisant arrest innocent men and women in the street, more and more townspeople join our cause. People like yourselves. If we wait until set-down, they will reinforce, and by then it will be too late. The time to take the fight to the Prime is now!”

“Calm down, calm down,” came the querulous voice of Sephina, one of the older faculty members. She was a gnarled looking woman, with thin and wispy white hair. Aki remembered Sephina ruling her classes with an iron fist, in defiance of her decrepit appearance. She also knew for a fact that Sephina had joined to protect some of the younger students. Aki wished that Filias had showed the same strength of character. “We appreciate the work you and the other Engineers have done, but, I am afraid that Lothar is correct.“

“Thank you,” Lothar began, but Sephina glared at him, and he quieted, a sullen look on his face.

Sephina held the glare a moment, to make sure that he would not start speaking again, and then continued. “We may have had more people join the cause, myself included, but none of us our soldiers. We are outmanned, and without the armament, Fòrsic or otherwise, that we need to bring down the Prime.”

“But we have to try!”

“Aki,” Sephina’s voice softened, “I know you are broken up about the death of young Benji, but throwing all our lives away will not help. We need to escape the Ater-Volante instead, regroup and raise the ground-siders to join our cause. If the city cannot resupply, then the Prime will have to listen to our demands.”

Much as she wanted to, Aki couldn’t deny that Sephina was right about the tactical situation. They had been pulling back and hiding since before Benji’s death, more people supporting them notwithstanding. “It is not enough,” she insisted, trying to keep the anger out of her voice. “We may be surviving, but we are not doing anything else.”

“I believe I may have a compromise,” a third voice put in. Aki frowned, curious. This was the first time she had heard him speak, she realized. The speaker was a middle-aged man, bland and non-descript, although his accent and skin-tone both had a Thesian flavor to them.

“And who are you?” Lothar asked.

If the man was upset with Lothar’s tone, he did not show it. Instead, he just smiled. “People know me as Darius.”

Beside her, Maz stirred in her chair and leaned over to whisper in Aki’s ear, “He’s the senior Resistance member in the city, or so Aziz claims.”

Aki pursed her lip, thinking. So that was who he was. The Engineers had been regularly dealing with the Resistance all along, but the organization had many layers. She had only ever met a few, like Aziz, a Alisian man who had been their main point of contact.

“That tells me nothing,” Lothar said, his face growing redder.

“What do you propose?” Aki cut in before Darius could answer. She wouldn’t allow a cretin like Lothar to upset as potent a potential ally as this one.

Lothar sputtered, but Darius ignored him and locked eyes with Aki. “The Don has a request of you, if you have the stones for it.”

She smiled, “Tell me.”


Three days of frantic preparations later, they were ready. Aki checked her Fòrsic pocket-watch and frowned at the time. She looked over at Maz, “They’re late.”

“Good distractions take time,” Maz shrugged, the motion causing the glider suit she was wearing to creak. Aki was similarly outfitted, along with Ora and Jos, two of her fellow Engineers. Darius was wearing a suit as well, with an intimidating crossbow on his back, but his was not a new suit. Maz had found some time to make a few more, but none had fit Darius except for Benji’s. Aki tried very hard not to look at the scorch mark on the chest plate. 

Her eyes flicked over at the thought, but she managed to bring them up to his solemn face instead. “Feeling nervous?”

Darius shook his head. “Feels like I should be asking you that question. This is your first mission since the… incident, is it not?”

“I’ll be fine,” anger had her biting off the words more than she would have, otherwise.

He smiled. She couldn’t tell if it reached his eyes, shadowed as they were by the suit’s helmet. “Just making sure your head is on straight. This mission is too vital.”

Aki ground her teeth together. “I said I will be fine,” she took a deep breath, and changed the subject. “You still have not told me why this mission is so important.”

It was Darius’s turn to shrug. “You need more time, this mission buys it for you.”

“It buys us time on the ground, which is not the same. Besides, I know that’s not why you suggested it.”

“I guess you will just have to trust me,” he grinned, showing teeth as white as pearl. “I know it’s not why you’re here, either.”

“Hmph,” Aki grunted, and the group lapsed into silence again. She knew Darius was right. She couldn’t sit on her hands anymore, and so had jumped at the opportunity for a little sabotage. Or a lot of sabotage, as the case may be. But why did the Resistance want Ater-Volante grounded? She stared out over the edge of the city, the patchwork fields below giving away to sparse, desert scrubland as the city settled into place over Dak.

A distant Whumph interrupted her thoughts. She shifted her feet as the ground shook, and all five of whirled around to stare up toward the city’s center. They were rewarded with sight of a dark plume of smoke billowing skyward. “I wonder what they blew up?” said Jos.

“We can ask them later,” Aki’s tone was firm. “It’s time to move.”

The rest of the group nodded. Together, they activated the central crystals in their suits. The air hummed. Aki felt the warmth of the crystal on her chest. “Here goes nothing,” she muttered, as she threw herself over the edge.

She spread her arms. The fabric and struts on the arms of her suit caught the air, slowing her fall. The strain on her arms was immense. What was a pleasant breeze on the edge now felt like a howling gale. The land below her spread out in dizzy infinity, and the sight of nothing beneath her caused a gibbering panic to curl its cold way up her spine. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. There wasn’t time for terror. Hoping the others followed behind her, she angled herself in against the side of Ater-Volante. The city was wide and shaped like a spinning top; to stay close, she had to catch the air and angle herself forward into the side of rock before her. The effect was disconcerting. The glide evoked a sense of being out of control that was exhilarating, and she had to fight back the urge to whoop at the top of her lungs. After all, it was supposed to be a stealth approach.

Rocky walls sped past. The crystal against her chest grew hotter as it worked to slow her fall. It helped that Ater-Volante was moving too. It was descending towards its berth on the ground below, moving with imperceptible slowness. The city rotated as it dropped. With Aki as the point of a V, the five of them moved diagonally down the city’s inward sloping underside. Ahead of them, a narrow, crystal spar jutting from a hole in the rock denoted one of Ater-Volante’s maintenance shafts. Under normal circumstances, the shaft would be closed and the spar of crystal withdrawn. However, during set-down day, maintenance workers opened the tunnel mouths to blow a change of air through the city’s subterranean systems and ran out the spar to help manage the descent. Aki flared her body as she approached the hole. The strain on her arms doubled and she gritted her teeth as her progress slowed. The crystal on her chest burned white hot. Hoping it would hold, she allowed her remaining momentum to slam her into the crystal spar. The air whooshed out of her. Aki scrabbled for purchase on the crystal and struggled to regain her breath. Looking towards the entrance, she saw an astonished soldier watching them. She struggled to get a hand free so she could fire on him. On either side she felt the spar shuddering as the others hit. Aki was focused on the man, but a part of her counted the impacts. One. Two. Three. Damn.

Aki whipped her head around to see who had missed. It was Maz. Aki was about to call out, to drop off and follow her down and rescue her, somehow, when Maz suddenly lifted her arms and banked upward. The wind blew her up in a graceful, arching loop that brought her back towards the spar. Aki watched, heart pounding, as Maz made a lazy flip midair. She landed lightly on the edge of the spar, and then triggered her suit. A blast of lightning shot forth from her hand, sending the man watching them sprawling. Maz charged down the spar to secure the entrance. “Show off,” Aki muttered as Maz passed her. Maz just grinned.

Once they had all managed to scramble inside the tunnel, Aki paused to assess the situation. While at first glance the man had been a soldier, upon examining his body they found that he wore a maintenance uniform. A half-burned cheroot in his hand explained his presence at the end of the tunnel. Aki felt guilty about that, but needs must. She turned to Darius. “We got you inside, now comes your part.”

Darius pulled out a rolled map from a bag on his hip. “All these tunnels are connected,” he said, spreading the map on the floor. “Each of the supporting crystals has its own pathway feeding back into the central crystal. All of which are closed to human access,” he pointed at the maze of blueprints. “Luckily for us, there are maintenance tunnels that parallel the route,” he knelt and jabbed a finger into the map, “here, here, and here,” he looked around to make sure the group was following him, and Aki nodded. Standing, Darius rolled the map up and stuck it back into his pouch. “Just follow me, and we’ll sabotage the lift spars as we go. I’m not expecting any resistance, but keep your eyes and ears open.”

“That reminds me,” Aki took a crystal from her own pouch, and activated it with her breath. She strode to the edge, and affixed it to the base of the spar. She checked the sight of the ground below, and then returned to the group. “That crystal will discharge in fifteen minutes, and the descent will be done in twenty. We have ten minutes to get to enough of the other crystals and get out.”

The rest of the group nodded in agreement. Aki inclined her at Darius, “lead the way. And I expect you to tell me why this matters, afterwards.”

“We’ll see,” he winked at her, and strode off down the passageway. The rest of the group hurried along behind him. The tunnel was dim, lit only by widely spaced Fòrsic lanterns. The group moved in a series of short dashes and shorter pauses, staying out of the patches of light as much as possible. They saw several branching pathways, but Darius led them past without a second glance. From the directions of their turnings, Aki could tell they were moving in a clockwise fashion along the outer edge of the city. They reached the next crystal spar without incident. Aki placed the next crystal, breathing on it to activate as before. She did not adjust the timing. The Theorist who had put together the Fòrsic Disrupters, as she called them, had been adamant that Aki change nothing. The plan was to induce a cascading series of failures among the balancing crystals, the spars that jutted out along Ater-Volante’s perimeter, and the slightest disruption could ruin the effect. Or so Valessa, the Theorist, claimed. The Runic patterns behind the city’s capability to float was a closely guarded secret. Aki herself knew nothing about it, and had to trust that Val was not sending all of them to their doom. “I’m done here,” she said, and Darius nodded, and led them back towards another junction. The next two crystals were much the same. They saw no one in the deserted passageways they scurried along, and Aki was able to place her crystals with ease.

It didn’t last.

They had come around a corner to find a squad of Stripies stationed in a tunnel intersection. Maz had reacted first. Raising her hands, she threw lightning from her fingertips. It fizzled out. Aki grabbed Maz and threw her back behind the corner. She motioned the others back as well. Meanwhile, the guards snapped to attention and began to fan out along the wall of the corridor. Aki risked a glance and swore at the telltale shimmer surrounding them. “A Fòrsic barrier? Here?”

“It makes sense,” Ora pointed out. “Our advantage is our better Fòrsic equipment, and not all Theorists and Engineers are against the Prime.”

“But why not deploy them until now?” Jos looked nervous, Aki could see sweat beading on his face.

Maz shrugged. “Powerful shield, though,” she moved to the edge of the corner, and took a defensive crouch.

“Maz is right,” Aki said. “It has to be powerful, to block her energy so effectively. A shield like that must burn through crystals, no matter how efficient they make it. Maybe they were afraid of the expense?”

Darius spoke from further down the tunnel. “Can we shelve the musings for later? There are footsteps coming from the other direction.” 

“Halt in the Prime’s name!” someone shouted, and the situation devolved into chaos.


“I thought you said there weren’t any guards?” Aki yelled, and ducked. There was a sizzle as a bolt of Fòrsic Energy slammed into the wall above her head.

“I said I didn’t expect any,” Darius’s voice was calm and collected. Remarkable in the din swirling around them. He moved his head a fraction of an inch, and another blast rent the air just past his ear. Maz held off the first squad of guards, ducking and weaving and slinging Fòrsic lighting from around the corner. The guard’s barrier didn’t appear to be portable, and they were reluctant to leave its protection.   

On the other side, Jos and Ora had their hands full holding off the Stripies coming from the other end of the corridor. Aki and Darius were between the two groups, planning. There were only two squads so far, maybe ten men, but more were undoubtedly on their way. They needed to leave, and fast. Aki pointed at the crossbow on Darius’s back. “Are you any good with that?”

He unslung it and smiled. It was already loaded, and he gestured wicked looking barbed bolt. “I don’t have many, but I can make them count.”

“Go forward with Maz, if we can whittle the guards in front of us down, we can push through. I’ll deal with the ones behind us.”

Darius nodded. He stepped forward to crouch behind Maz. “Can you extend a shield around the corner?” He asked her.


“On my mark then. Three. Two. One. Mark.”

Maz flexed her suit fingers. She made a gesture, calling on the suit’s core crystal, and Darius began to shimmer. He raised his crossbow, stepped out in the corner, and fired. The butt slammed into his shoulder, followed by several blasts. The blasts flared as they struck. The corridor glowed with a sudden white light, but the energy left no lasting impact. The shimmer around him fading, Darius ducked back around the corner unharmed. He began to wind the crank on his crossbow, while Maz replaced one of the core crystals in her suit. “That’s one down,” Darius said.

“Keep at it,” Aki turned away, satisfied that he and Maz had the situation under control. She looked at Jos and Ora. “Do you have any spare crystals?”

Jos checked his pouch, “only a few, and I have a feeling I might need them.”

“I am in the same boat,” added Ora. “These suits may be powerful, but they are not at all efficient.”

Aki put her hands on her hips, thinking. They all needed function suits to get out, and they were light on other equipment, besides her cluster of crystals meant to disable to lift spars. The ability of the suits to channel and redirect Fòrsic energies should have been sufficient to bull through any obstacles, but they had not expected as many well-armed guards as there appeared to be. They had placed three crystals. Hopefully, the damage from those would ground the city long enough for Darius and the Resistance to do whatever it was Darius was planning. Valessa had etched the glyphs to produce a wave of energy that would interfere with the Fòrsa channeled by the lift spars. Theoretically, this effect would bleed over onto crystals not targeted by Aki and her team, and force the Prime to replace the whole ring of lift-spars if he wanted to lift Ater-Volante off the ground again. They could achieve a similar effect with the crystals she had already placed, albeit on a much smaller scale. If they were lucky.

The priority now was to escape. Aki dug through her bag, setting one crystal aside in case she had an opportunity to disable one more spar on their way out. Using a metal-tipped stylus, she quickly adjusted the runes on the other five crystals. By adding a few lines, she could convert the crystal from one that channeled air-aspected Fòrsa to one that channeled ice. She also shortened the time before the crystals activated.

Aki signaled to Jos and Ora to cover her with Fòrsic barriers. As soon as they did so, she activated the crystals. She placed three of the five in a line across the middle of the hallway. The other two she affixed to the wall. “Get back!” she warned.

The three of them scrambled down the hallway towards Maz and Darius. Behind them, Aki heard a shattering CRACK. The air in the tunnel suddenly felt much, much colder, and she shivered. She risked a glance behind. The whole width and breadth of the tunnel had been stoppered by an enormous plug of ice, nearly a yard thick. “That will slow them down,” Aki said. “How many left on this side?”

Darius shrugged. “I hit two, and grazed a third. They’ve taken cover now, though.”

“Three left, then,” Aki looked around at her team. “Fresh crystals for the final push. If we rush them fast and hard enough, we will break through easily,” she locked eyes with Darius. “Once we’re through, you are on point. Get us out, I won’t risk our lives anymore.”

He hesitated, but she held her gaze steady. “Fine. Try to keep up.”

“Maz, you’ll lead the charge. Ora and Jos will back you up,” Now that Darius had agreed, Aki ignored him.

Maz nodded, as did Jos and Ora. “We won’t let you down,” said Jos.

“Let’s all just focus on getting out of here,” Said Aki. “Are we all ready? Good. Now… GO.”

Maz shot down the corridor. She used the gliding mechanism in her suit to take to the air, only to ram feet first into a startled guardswomen, who had ducked out of cover to level a Fòrsic lance at the charging group. She went down, hard. Maz, however, sprang to her feet, and continued on down the corridor, Darius right on her heels. Ora and Jos each took on a remaining guardsmen. Jos feinted, coming in low. A blast from a Fòrsic lance fizzed against his suit’s shield, and he popped up with a brutal uppercut. The guardsmen shot towards the ceiling, and then fell to the ground, limp. Ora had a little more trouble. Her opponent was massive, over six feet tall, and he had no trouble keeping the slim woman at bay. Coming up behind, Aki triggered a blast from her suit that fizzled against the guards’ shield. The bright light distracted the guardsmen, and he threw up a hand. Ora slammed a kick into the man’s crotch. Her blow had all the force of her suit behind it, and the guardsmen let out a strangled yelp. He fell to the floor, clutching himself, and the Engineers charged onwards.

Darius led them unerringly. Left, right, and then left again, and Aki saw daylight ahead. She shook her last crystal loose from her pouch, slapped it into place, and then followed the others leaping into the chill spring air. They glided outwards, just above the tops of Dak’s tallest minarets. Up in the air, all her fears and worries fell away. Aki whooped with glee. This is what taking action feels like, she thought to herself, this is exactly what we need to be doing. Ahead of her, Darius heard her war whoop. He turned his head, and she thought she saw the glimmer of a smile.

Chapter 24 can be found here.