Sunday, 18 March 2018

Chapter 41, Part Two: A Grimy Place of Dying.

Thanks for reading. Here concludes the rough draft of chapter 41, hope you enjoy!

“Hey, is it me, or does that sound like it’s getting faster?” He asked.

“Blood loss does that.” She cocked a critical ear at the sound of the heartbeat. “I’d give you a minute at most until you suffer a myocardial infarction.”

“You said infarction.”

She snapped her fingers repeatedly in front of his face. “Focus, Stirling.”

“So, it sounds like we’re at the part of the conversation where I get the high-pressure sales pitch.”

“Good guess. I know you’ve been thinking of heading back the Skeleton Club and waiting this out. That’s not going to work for me.”



“How come?”

“What you’ve seen of Knox’s operation is just a small fraction of the whole. He’s personally responsible for the enslavement of thousands of spirits. As someone who’s charged with helping the dead pass over, that offends me on a very personal level. I want it fixed.” She spoke the word with the tone of finality that left no question to the meaning.

“Seems reasonable,” he said cautiously, “but I have a couple questions first.”

“Better ask them fast.”

“Don’t take this as me complaining, but how come you don’t deal with this mess? I’m a magic nerd who taught himself some homemade tricks in his backyard shed. You’re Merciful Death; she who makes the sun black as sackcloth. It seems to me you’d be a lot better suited for a job like this than I am.”

“I’m not allowed to interfere, none of the incarnations are. Death is impartial. I don’t get to choose who dies or when I just oversee one of the aspects of Death.”

“Uh huh, and out of all the millions of people who die on a daily basis, why choose me?”

“That’s not a huge intuitive leap, you already play for team Death. Most magic uses life energy, but a necromancer’s talent draws magic from the absence of life, the downward turn of the wheel. You’re just being officially tagged in.”

She sat on the edge of the chair and crossed her legs again. It was difficult to keep his eyes on her face. She grinned at him in a way that made it clear she knew exactly what effect she was having. He gave her a mental salute. For a young guy whose sex life was rarely off life support, it was a smart strategy. Stupid glands.

“Listen, you‘ve already told Knox to fuck off once, all I want from you is more of what you’ve already done.”

“Yeah, and I’ve been so great at it that I’m about to die of blood loss inside a plastic barrel.”

“You sound like you actually want to pass on.”

“No, I’m just trying to see all the angles here. If The Twilight Zone taught me anything, it was to check the fine print when you make a deal with Death. What exactly are you offering?”

“Work for Death, get a second chance.”

“Work for you?”

“Calm your hormones, Romeo. Not me, my boss. I’ll be the go-between.”

“Can I meet them? I sort of want to meet my potential employer.”

“Sorry, you don’t rate that high. Did you miss the part where you’re dying? No time. In the rare case something needs attending to that we can’t do ourselves, we’ll call you in.”

“What if I don’t like the job. Can I say no?”

“You can always say no.”

“But that would be bad,” he guessed.

“The deal being offered is that you work for Death, in return you get to live. If you refuse, the offer gets taken off the table.”

“Now, tell me if I’m way off-base here, but the only thing you’ve said you can’t do is to kill folks, right?”

“I did say something like that.”

“So, I’m guessing that when you do call on me, I’m not going to be called in to pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread from the store.”

Thump… … thump.

The room around them wavered like the heat haze on hot pavement for an instant.

She gave the room a worried look and rushed ahead. “Stop Knox. Free the souls he has captured.”


“You’re smart. Use your head.” She was speaking quickly now.

“Fine, but I want Becky to get her body back.”


“Rebbecca, my friend. She got caught up in this and Knox got her. I want her to get her body back.”

“I can’t do…”

“That’s my price.”

“If you die, your soul will pass over and there will be no you to make this deal.”

Stirling glanced around with a bored look on his face and inspected his nails.

“Fine. I’ll do what I can. Now can we…”

“What’s your name?”


“Your name? Merciful Death is just too much of a mouthful.”

She furrowed her brows at him, nonplussed. “Emily.”

“In that case, Emily, I agre…”

With a jolt that felt like every particle in his body was being smashed together at the speed of sound, he was back inside the barrel. Blood was drooling out of his mouth to run down his front and his heart was pounding painfully in his chest. He couldn’t breathe, it felt like he’d been holding his breath for a minute. He breathed in hitching gasps that brought no air to his lungs.

Whatever Merciful Death planned on doing clearly hadn’t worked. He was still dying. Panic seized him as he gasped for air. His brain raced. What had gone wrong? Why was he still dying? His heart felt like it was trying to pound its way out of his chest, each beat a painful blow against his sternum.
He clasped his arms around himself in an attempt to squeeze out the pain. In the confined space his forearm knocked something solid in his jacket pocket. It was the medicine bottle he’d picked up off the rack next to Rebbecca’s barrel. Lloyd had said it was like Panacea, but that something was wrong with it. As though thinking of it caused it to wake, the contents of the bottle suddenly resonated with his entire being. It was like the feeling he had when he’d sensed the possessed bodies in Strangefellows. His own power was part of whatever was inside the bottle.

Not having any other plan, but lacking anything else to do, he fumbled the bottle from his pocket with clumsy fingers, uncapped it, and brought it to his lips.

Even above the smell of his blood and leftover preservative, there was a sudden melange of scents inside the barrel. The first was the smell of living things that brought to mind the first mist of green on tree branches on the first warm day after a long winter. Wrapping around it all though was a sickly corruption, not decay, but a stomach rolling burned-bone sweetness that made him nauseous, even over the pain.

Even as the liquid seeped over his tongue, his arm was instinctively withdrawing the little glass bottle.

“Too late,” whispered a little voice in his head.

He tried to spit out the drops, but they evaporated on contact with the warmth of his flesh. The sensation reminded him of a high-end Scotch he’d once sampled, sadly, that was as far as the comparison went.

The flavour blossomed in his mouth like a combination of burned syrup and rotting fish. It was so overwhelmingly foul that he momentarily forgot the pain in his chest. His stomach heaved, and the agony of it made his vision tunnel in.

A feeling of jagged heat radiated out from his mouth, washing down his body. It felt like what he imagined having ice crystals form in your blood would feel like if they were on fire and shaking themselves to pieces at the same time.

He clenched his arms around himself even more tightly, trying to keep himself together in the face of this new pain. He gasped out a spray of blood that he dimly saw run down the inside of the barrel before true blackness covered his vision.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Chapter 41, Part One: A Grimy Place of Dying.

Thanks for dropping by this week! This is one of those chapters I'm unsure of. I give it equal odds it will make it to the final copy without being completely rewritten. Hope you enjoy!


It was becoming difficult to draw even half a breath and Stirling could taste copper blood misting his tongue on the exhale. His chest gurgled when he tried to breathe like somebody had left an egg to boil on the stove. Now that he had one of his very own, a sucking chest wound sounded way cooler than it actually was. His heart thudded hard in his chest, so hard he could feel in in the back of his throat. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut.


He opened them again, expecting to see the faint glow of the warehouse fluorescents weakly filtering through the side of his plastic barrel, instead, a blurry rectangle resolved into a motivational poster of a kitten clinging to a tree branch with a caption below reading, “Hang in there.”

Wait, what?

He blinked again. Yup, no doubt about it. There was a kitten poster hanging a few feet in front of his nose.

Wait. He knew that poster. It was the same one that had hung unironically at the office of the gas station where he’d worked during high school. The thing that made this poster slightly different from the original was that immediately below the kitten was the open throat of an industrial wood chipper, the blades blurring with motion. That was a bit fucked up.

Just to the left of that poster, there was another, this one just as familiar. It showed a grinning man wearing colourful skydiving gear, spreadeagled in free-fall against a clear blue sky. Where the poster had once read, “Reach for your dreams!” the caption now read, “If at first you don’t succeed, bouncing doesn’t count.”

Stirling took a pace back and felt mildly surprised that there was no longer the plastic curve of a barrel at his back. The wall he was facing was filled with familiar posters with all-new captions. The poster with the closeup image of a snowflake resting on a frying pan. “You can be replaced,” was written in large swirly script above.


His heartbeat came again, but it felt far away, unimportant.

A shuffling sound came from behind him and he turned to find Magnon perched on the back of a stained cloth office chair. It wasn’t just the posters that were familiar, this was the manager’s office at his old gas station. It was identical down to the huge, old-style computer monitor and neon-haired troll dolls lined up on the windowsill. Even the air had the same whiff of refrigeration, burned coffee, and stale nacho cheese.

“What is this?” Stirling asked the crow.

“No idea, it looks like a shitty little office to me,” said Magnon, eyeing the stacks of hard copy and cardboard files.

“Okay, why are we here then?”

“The boss wants a word,” replied Magnon.

“The boss?”

“The embodiment of finality in the universe,” explained Magnon. As before when speaking with the crow, with the words in his mind came meaning. The meaning behind these words wasn’t just the familiar everyday death of living things as they grew old or sick. In this case, “Death” carried the notion of a force that caused galaxies to wind down, and old stars cough themselves out into empty space.

“Wow. Really? Capital ‘D’ Death wants to meet me? I should let you know now, I’m shit at chess, so if he wants to game it’ll have to be Risk, or possibly Settlers of Catan.”


The door at the back of the office opened and Death stepped in. Whatever Stirling was expecting to see, the figure in the doorway was not it. Death didn’t wear a black hood or carry a scythe. What Death did was look a lot like was an attractive girl around his age.

She was petite with bright red hair, and not surprisingly, was extremely pale. Between his pale complexion and hers, Stirling was sure they could have kept multiple sunscreen companies in the black. Death wore dark eye makeup, had cranberry coloured lips, and a wore a black skirt that cut off just high enough to be professional, but low enough to be interesting. She walked in and extended a hand to him. “Merciful Death,” she introduced herself. “Nice to meet you.”

Stirling shook her hand and stood dumbly as she sat in the swivel chair and crossed her legs. She gestured to a plastic folding chair across from her and he sat. 

“You’re Death?” Stirling blurted.

“An aspect of it,” she said. “You seem surprised.”

“When Magnon told me Death wanted to meet me I was expecting more of a Witch-King of Agnor look. I salute your unconventionalism.”


Death paused to look at him, he had a distinct impression that she had heard his heartbeat as well.
When she finally spoke, she said, “You named him Magnon?” she asked using the hard g English pronunciation.

Stirling nodded.

Death’s lips pressed tight together, and at first, Stirling thought she appeared to be angry. Instead, she began to laugh. Her laughter was genuine and at one point even contained a snort. It went on for some time, and Stirling couldn’t help but smile along.

“Oh shit,” she finally got out, “that is going to irritate a lot of people. One of the thirteen gets named Crow Magnon.”

“It was either that or Hecubus,” he said modestly.

Death cocked an eyebrow at him. “There’s a chance you’re taking this as seriously as you might.”

“Probably,” Stirling agreed, “but I just died, so you’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling a bit whimsical.”

Death shrugged, “You’re not dead yet. Listen.” She held up a finger for silence. After a long moment…


“There it is.”

“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that there’s something I can do to get me out of this little pickle I’ve found myself in.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Oh, come on? Really? Look at this place, look at you. I mean, just look…”

“Humour me.”

It was Stirling’s turn to cock an eyebrow at her. He looked around at his surroundings and back at her. “Fine, this office for one. I remember this place. This is the gas station where I worked on weekends all through high school.”


“So, by then I’d had my little accident and nobody could stand to be around me. I’d already been fired from a bunch of other places, but I was convinced that if I could keep this one shitty job then somehow I wouldn’t be such a loser. Nobody wanted to work with me, so I got stuck working by myself on the graveyard shift every single weekend. I worked twice as hard as any person there just keep this job. It didn’t matter though, the manager tried to get rid of me every chance she got. I had to check in every day to see if my schedule was the same because they’d change my shifts without telling me. In the end, the manager made me work with a guy who she knew was selling cigarettes to underage kids and fired both of us.”

“Sounds rough.”

“Then there’s you,” he continued without pause. “You laugh at my name for the crow, and trust me, even the few people who get that joke think it’s lame.”

“Hey!” Magnon protested.

“Well, it is,” Stirling said.

“You come in looking like the love child of Emma Stone and Shirley Manson, both of whom I’ve had a crush on nearly since I was old enough to have crushes. My guess is you’re betting on me being so distracted by not revealing my imminent boner that I’ll agree to whatever you want. So, what’s the deal?”

By the end of his speech, she was smiling sharply at him. Even though he knew he was being played, Stirling couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to kiss her.

“Really? You think I’m pretty?” Death asked playing with a strand of red hair.

Stirling fixed her with a level look.

“Yes, Stirling. You’re right, I do have something I’d like you to help me with. And this setting,” she said nodding her head and taking in the grungy office, “was designed to put you in the right frame of mind.”

“But all this,” she said gesturing to herself and beaming a smile at him, “is just me. Thanks for the compliment. A girl likes to be told her looks are having an effect.”

Stirling ran his fingers through his hair, which was unkempt and oily from a day with no access to a shower, and began to pace. “Riiight. And I’m supposed to believe that? You, the avatar of death are a twenty-something redhead with perfect skin? Hell, I’ve read more believable lies In The World Weekly News.” He held up his hands to make air quotes, ‘New Batboy Slim Jim diet makes you lose weight fast!’”


“Shut it, Reaper Girl, I know you aren’t all…all… this!” he said gesturing toward her. “In real life you’re probably some tentacled horror with strange geometries that would break my mind were I to merely gaze upon you.”

“That’s not how it works, this isn’t a Lovecraft book.”

“Yes, your tentacled hotness,” he said, flopping back against the wall.

She sighed. “I’m not a tentacled anything. Listen, what it boils down to is that I’m just one of the representatives of Death on Earth, and the one closest geographically to you.”

“One of them? There are more?”

“Not all death is merciful.”

“Good point. So, how many of you Deaths are there?”

“It varies, but usually a dozen or so at any given time, and that’s just on Erde. Every world of the Aether has representatives.”

“Death, we’re everywhere you want to be,” said Stirling. So, when you’re not snuffing people in the nicest way possible, what do you do?”

“I’m an attending doctor in the ER.”

“You’re a doctor? Isn’t that sort of a wildly inappropriate career for an incarnation of Death?"

“I’m Merciful Death. People who come into the ER are the ones who need my services most.”

“Wow. Talk about putting the hypocrisy the Hippocratic oath. Whatever happened to ‘do no harm?’”

Her expression turned serious. “When you’ve worked in the ER for any length of time you understand that there are people who can’t be saved. My day job is to preserve life, and I’m damned good at it. I also preserve dignity in death when it’s called for.”


Monday, 5 March 2018

Chapter 40, Part Two: A Worrying Premonition of Ominous Foreboding.

Hi everybody, thanks for dropping by! Hope you enjoy this week's installment. The usual warnings apply.

In the end, it took longer for Inspector Viscounti to pick the splintered chunks of door out of her hair than the original conversation had. The gun had been loud, especially in the confines of the office. The alarm brought on by the noise was still sloshing through the Armoury like water in a jostled aquarium but things were now beginning to calm down. In a detached way, Aleph was actually pleased when Visconti had brought out the gun and pulled the trigger. It showed she would commit to action in a bad situation. All things being equal, Alpeh would have preferred the gun hadn’t been pointed at her, but she could appreciate the guts it took from an objective standpoint.

Emerald Visconti was an industrial dryer of a woman with short dark hair and mahogany skin. If they’d been on Erde, Aleph would have pegged her as Thai or Vietnamese. The heavier than usual dentition, amber eyes, and the auburn tint in her hair told Aleph that if she was Vietnamese, it was from a Vietnam quite a few worlds up the cosmic ladder from Erde—maybe from Ys or Cibola.

Right now, Inspector Visconti sat at her splinter covered desk with a slightly stunned expression while Aleph laid out the situation in short, concise sentences.  Aleph wasn’t holding anything back, there was no point seeing as Visconti was the only one with even the slightest chance of seeing them through this shit storm. A trapped-ferret expression was beginning to form around her eyes as a result.

When she had finished, Viscounti looked at her helplessly. “So what am I supposed to do?” Her words were crisp, emerging from her mouth like the snap of static shocks. She obviously came from a verbal tradition that took enunciation seriously.

“I can’t tell you that. My position has always been outside the normal chain of command because I’m limited in what I can do to help. Do what you think you should, but I’d do it fast.”

Visconti’s caged look began to sublimate into a look of pure terror.

“Aleph?” Sam asked.

She turned to raise an eyebrow at him questioningly.

“Speaking hypothetically,” he began, “what would you do if you were caught in a situation similar to, but, and let me stress this point, not quite the same as this one?” He’d put on a newscaster’s smile and spoke like someone in a bad corporate training video.

“What an excellent question, Sam, I’m so glad you asked,” said Aleph, catching on immediately. She gave him a too-wide smile, her white teeth gleaming against black lips and gums like the nightmare of all toothpaste commercials.

“If I was in charge around here, I’d give some serious thought to field promotions for some of the more capable members to plug the holes blown in the rank structure.”

Sam turned and gave Viscounti a meaningful look.

To her credit, Inspector Viscounti only looked back and forth between the two of them for a few seconds before sweeping the detritus off her desk and locating a small tablet under the shards of splintered wood. Aleph paused for her to load a recording app before continuing.

 “Well, Sam, I’d make sure that I’d gathered in every last person in uniform to the Armoury; all the Market Barkers, all the Constables, right down to the guy who cleans the toilets. Everyone. I’d activate the Special Weapons and Tactics, and the Special Magics teams. I’d make sure they were on standby as soon as possible.”

“Fascinating,” said Sam. “Tell me more.”

“If I was ever in a situation similar to, but positively not this one, I’d say that it would be important to delegate authority to competent people who can be trusted to carry out their orders. A smart leader surrounds herself with capable followers who can not only carry out orders, but also are capable of using their initiative.”

“Very good point there, Aleph.”

“Thanks, Sam. The Corps Sergeant Major would be someone I’d definitely want to keep very close by for advice and support. Don’t forget Prospero and the other watchworkers were bought as surplus from the Great War. Those guys are the only ones here who have seen real combat. They would be an invaluable asset if it came to a real fight. I would make sure that the biological members of the Duke’s Own were made very aware that their survival in the coming hours will depend heavily on how the watchworkers are utilized.”

Sam nodded, “Because a lot of the members see constructs as pieces of thaumic tech, possessions at best, and a threat to their jobs at worst.”

“Right you are Sam. It’s comforting to think that we stand in a place where all the countless, possible worlds of the Aether merge and even here, we can still find assholes. In this hypothetical situation, the assholes could be a problem. Division in the ranks could be the difference between a bloody victory and a bloody defeat.”

Sam’s smile slipped a bit at her words and his next words were less animated. “So you’re sure that there will be a blood, a battle?”

“Absolutely positive, Sam. Let’s look at the extremely theoretical evidence. Someone has spent decades subverting thousands of desperate people so when the time came they would have their very own standing army.” Aleph wasn’t stupid enough to throw around names while being recorded—especially if those names happened to be attached to an alchemist. No matter how positive she was that Knox of the White was behind the current situation, the legal dogs would have her for lunch if they got their hands on a copy. “The very same day the army is activated, key members of the command and control staff of the Duke’s Own are removed,” she continued. “Armies don't get activated to stand around and drink coffee.”

“So we’re screwed.”

“What we’d be looking at in this very hypothetical situation is the degree to which we’re screwed, and whether we can do any screwing of our own back.”

“So, Aleph, how would you propose we do that?” said Sam, regaining his announcer's voice.

“Well, Sam, I’d speak to any technomancers we had laying around.” Here she grabbed Dimitri’s upper arm and shoved him toward Visconti. “And I’d see if I could break through the communications problem we seem to be having to get word to any off-duty members. I’d make sure to tell them to get here as quickly as they could. If you manage to do that, I’d begin trying to get word out into the city for people to keep their heads down.”

“That sounds like a reasonable course of action.”

“That’s not all, Sam. I’d send out runners into the Market telling people to get out. I’d get those same runners to empty the Black Market of anything that we could use during the fight; Food, water, medical supplies, and anything to burn in the Armoury’s crucible. There’s a chance the Char Witches might need to hold out for a good long while. I expect we’re going to going to be going through a lot of fuel once things kick off.”

“That sounds like a lot of work!” said Sam.

“It is,” Aleph agreed. “And the sooner begun, the better.”

“But what about the Assistant Commissioner,” Visconti blurted out.

Aleph turned to her.

“What about him?” she asked in her normal voice.

“The Duke was attacked. I thought he was the traitor.”

“I don’t know about that. He’s a dick, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he’s involved, but take into account that Nigel’s also a gutless weasel. I don’t see him having the balls to go after the Duke. I think the real traitor, or traitors,  are still around.
 “Of course, this is all hypothetical,” said Aleph, beginning to walk toward the empty door frame that led back out into the hall. “I would never presume to give advice of any kind to a mortal in this situation because that would be wrong and against the rules.”

“Oh, of course,” Sam agreed, starting to follow her out of the room. “I was just curious in case this kind of thing ever happened again.”

“Good thinking, Sam, you can never be too prepared.”

Aleph was nearly over the office threshold before Visconti called out to her back. “Sergeant Major, where do you think you are going?”

Aleph turned at the unexpected tone in the inspector’s voice. Visconti had come around the desk and was now wearing a grim smile.

“I’m going to find the Corps Sergeant Major.”

“Do that, and bring him back here to see me. Since you have given,” she turned to look at Sam, “Sam right?” He nodded. “Sam here, such good advice, I’m promoting you to my Aide de Camp.”

“I can’t interfere…”

“Yes, I know, you can’t interfere with mortal affairs in your capacity as a diving being. If I can’t get a goddess, what I can get is a competent member of the Duke’s Own who can take orders and use her initiative. You are competent?”

Aleph’s back straightened at the words. “Yes.”

“And a member of the Duke’s Own?”

“Supernumerary…” she started to say.

“And I can already see you can act on your own initiative,” she said waving a hand toward the shattered doorframe. “You’ll be perfect.”

Aleph stared at her for a long beat before a slow smile began to seep across her face. “This could end up being interesting after all.”

Visconti was smiling her own tentative smile back when a bird’s-eye view of Memorial Square suddenly flashed into Aleph’s mind. Thousands of men, women, and children, were pouring out of the lit square. They spilled into the streets to the northeast filling them like a rising tide of mindless humanity.

The smile faded from Aleph’s lips. “Get the runners out now. We have an hour at most before they’re at the Market Gate. They’re coming.”

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Chapter 40, Part One: A Worrying Premonition of Ominous Foreboding.

Hi Everyone, First off, thanks for reading! Updates on the blog may be only once a week for the next bit. I have a lot of work on my plate and I'm hoping to have the rough draft complete in the upcoming months so I can begin with edits. Hope you enjoy!


“I can’t do anything without an express order from Inspector Visconti.” Prospero didn’t sound pleased about it. “She’s the last officer still able to give orders in the Armoury.”

“There must be something, the chain of command is there so things don’t grind to a halt. We needed the SWAT and SMAT teams geared up two hours ago.” She knew she was unloading on Prospero, and she already knew his answer, but she couldn’t help it.

“I’m aware.”


“I don’t have the authority. There is still an officer able to give commands, even if she isn’t. We’re in the middle of a crisis, the only thing that will happen if I start handing out orders that I know won’t be followed is that I’ll be undermining my own limited authority.”

“I know, I know,” said Aleph massaging her eyes. “It’s just frustrating. Our window for being able to pull this out of the fire is closing.”

“Our hands are going to be burned,” said Prospero. “Now it’s just a question of how badly.”

She and Prospero were making their way past booking and up the wide flight of stairs to the inspector’s offices with Miranda, Sam, and Dimitri trailing behind them.

“What about Penhold? Is there anything new?”

“No. We can’t find anything wrong with him and none of the usual reagents show any sign of poisons, tricked or otherwise. It’s like he just fell over and went to sleep.”

She took a breath before she asked, “Have you spoken to Williams of the Black?”

“What reason would I have for doing so?” There was an edge to Prospero’s voice.

Aleph paused on the stairs and moved in close so only Prospero could hear. “Because if nobody is here to take charge soon, we might as well go ahead and slit the throats of everyone here ourselves.”

“We aren’t at that point yet, and he’s made his wishes on Panacea clear. He won’t have it.”

“Even if people die because of his decision? He has a responsibility to his people. Sometimes it means doing things he finds distasteful.”

“And we have a responsibility to uphold his wishes.” He turned away and continued up the stairs. “We have other paths open to us before we decide on that one. Inspector Visconti for one.”

Aleph flexed her black nails. “I’ll bring Visconti around. She’s not Penhold, but she’s a good officer, she just needs her backbone stiffened. In the meanwhile, if I could make a suggestion, it might be wise for you get everyone in a uniform back here as fast as you can.”

Prospero stopped on the landing and the others stopped with him. Aleph could tell what was coming. It was his turn to make unreasonable demands now.

“Sergeant Major, this is going to become tiresome if you insist on suggesting everything. Take charge. The staff respect you, they are familiar with you. We need experienced leaders, not professional suggesters.”

She did her best to keep her voice steady. “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t take on a position of command.”

“But if you would only…”

“No,” she said using the same tone of the last nail being struck into a coffin.”

Prospero searched her face her for a long beat with his empty glass lenses before her nodded in grudging agreement. “Your suggestion to get the members back here is a good one,” he said, “but let Aristarchus do it. He’ll have better results than if the order came from me.”

“Whatever you think is best. Knox has had two hours to bring his drones in from Vancouver. He isn’t going to wait for us to get our shit together. Whatever we do, we should do it quickly.”


Prospero turned to Miranda. “Please find Sergeant Dane for me as quickly as you can and bring him to me in my office.”

Miranda gave a quick nod and sped off back down the stairs. Aleph watched Sam’s eyes track Miranda as she left. Interesting.

Prospero began climbing the next flight of stairs and turned back to Aleph. “Sergeant Major, I know you are limited in what you are able to do, but would your followers be able to keep an eye on events in the city?” He was being more formal than usual, she must have really irritated him.

“It’ll spread us thin, but I think we can keep an eye on things.”

“Thank you,” he said gravely.

“Um, I’ve got a question,” Sam spoke up. “What’s going to happen when Nigel comes around? Won’t he just take over again?”

“The Assistant Commissioner won’t be with us for some time I’m afraid” Prospero answered, arriving at the top of the stairs. “On top of that blow to the head, his peanut allergy has mysteriously flared up. He’s swollen up from head to toe. They’ve had to put a breathing tube down his throat as a precautionary measure. Sadly, this means that when he does finally come around communication is likely to be difficult.”

“That’s so sad,” said Dimitri.

“Absolutely heartbreaking,” Aleph agreed.

“If only he knew Semaphore,” said Sam with a grin.

Prospero made a sound from his nose that was part leaky bellows and part harmonica. “We all hope that the Assistant Commissioner enjoys a speedy recovery.”

They moved down a long panelled hallway with thick carpet that smelled strongly of lemon wood polish. Prospero stopped at an unremarkable wooden door and made an ‘after you’ motion to Aleph.
“This is Inspector Viscount’s office?”

Prospero nodded and took a step back, putting his body out of any potential line of fire.
Aleph raised an eyebrow but followed his lead to stand on the opposite side of the doorjamb.
“I need to attend to the business below, will you be alright here, Ma’am?”

“I should be fine.”

Prospero nodded and began to make his way quickly back down the hallway.
Aleph turned back to her task and knocked gently on the door. “Inspector Visconti?” There was no reply.

“Inspector Visconti, can you please speak with me? It’s Sergeant Major Queen. We have a situation that you need to attend to.”

“Don’t come in here!” came the slightly muffled voice from the other side of the door. I’m armed.”
“Yes, I’ve heard. Inspector, we need to speak to you. We have a situation.”

“I’m not coming out!”

“I’m not sure how to put this gently, but at the moment you’re the highest-ranking member of the Duke’s Own in the Armoury. You need to take command until someone of higher rank arrives. It’s sort of important.”

“If I’m the highest rank, that means everyone above me has been killed. That’s not an argument you’re going to be able to use to convince me!”

“Nah, some of those other ones just up and fucked off,” Dimitri called out helpfully.

“Who the hell is that!?”

“Just some douche of a webmage from Erde that I regret ever bringing with me,” Aleph said, glaring at Dimitri.

Aleph turned back to the door. “Inspector, if I had time I’d walk you through this gently but we don’t. Here’s what’s important right now. You know who I am, you know what I am. Believe me when I tell you that if I had the slightest interest in harming you, this door would already be off of its hinges. Now, please let us in.”

“No, fuck off!”

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Chapter 39, Part Two: Assistant Commissioner of the Ring

Thanks for reading, everyone! A bit late this week. I'm behind on a few work projects and am scrambling to catch up. The usual warnings apply, hope you enjoy!

“Ma’am,” said the construct, stopping in front of her cell and looking in between the bars. Aleph had the feeling that he was restraining the urge to click his heels together and come to attention.

“Prospero,” she replied feeling her shoulders relax slightly at the sight of him. “How is Aristarchus?”

“He’s well. It was touch and go for a while, we had Williams of the Black on hand to dose him with Panacea, otherwise, I fear it would have been more go than touch. The bullet was lodged in his kidney and made a real mess of things. I thank you for bringing him so quickly.”

“I’m glad to hear he’s alright, he’s one of the good ones.”

“He is.”

There was a long pause where Prospero shifted his weight from foot to foot, and the only sound was the faint click and whir of his sigils as they shifted and realigned. Finally, he spoke. “I find myself in a dilemma, ma’am.”

“I thought you might have,” Aleph replied, she knew this would be difficult for the construct.

“Do you know what has been happening here in the Armoury?”

“Only in very broad strokes, but I have a hunch you’re facing a sudden shortage of qualified leadership.”

“You intuition serves you well. This morning when you left for Vancouver we had a Duke, an Assistant Commissioner, a Commander, a Chief Inspector, and four regular Inspectors, all here on staff. Now we have an Assistant Commissioner, one Regimental Sergeant Major, that being myself,” he said touching his chest, “one Supernumerary Sergeant Major who has been jailed,” he said gesturing to her, “and a single Inspector who has armed and locked herself in her office. She refuses to come out, and honestly, I don’t blame the woman. None of the constables I’ve sent out into the city have returned.”

Prospero drew in a breath with the sound of bellows being inflated in his chest. “Assistant Commissioner Peters has given the rank and file no instructions other than to say that it was,” here he made a voice that sounded uncannily like Nigel Peters’ own, “‘business as usual.’ I find myself strongly disagreeing with the Assistant Commissioner’s assessment of the situation. Things are not business as usual.”

“What happened to everyone?”

“The Duke was found unconscious and is under guard in the infirmary, the others are simply missing, or were seen walking off through the Black Gate under their own volition.”

“Now, add to this a breakdown in communication networks of any kind within the city and I see a picture I don’t like.”

“When Miranda told me that our Supernumerary Sergeant Major was in the brig, I thought I’d come down for a frank discussion of current events with one of our few remaining members with any kind of leadership ability.”

 She gave a nod. “The city is under attack, it’s the people that have been disappearing for the last year, they’ve been turned into Alchemical drones.”

“Drones? With whom in control?”

“Knox of the White, he as much admitted it. The Duke’s Own are the only defenders the city has.”

“Knox of the White?” Prospero sounded incredulous. “He’s a pariah, even among the Alchemists. It’s an open secret that he’ll be of the White until the sun burns out.”

“Unless he steps in and bravely saves a city from the forces of Necromancy,” she said with a significant expression.

“Surely not.”

“Think about it. The Alchemists have been looking for more power in Senak since The Dust War. They thought they had it for a while with Duke Penhold, but he became… unreliable. If Knox swooped in and saved the city, what would their reaction be?”

Prospero’s leather face grew suddenly still. “The Alchemists may be fractious, but they always protect their own,” he said quietly.

“We need to mobilize Duke’s Own now.”

Prospero nodded slowly in agreement. “I agree. Here we come to the problem though. I am a Watchworker, and you know very well how a good number of the biological members feel about taking orders from the likes of us.”

Aleph sighed and nodded, there was no point in arguing, no matter how much she wished it wasn’t so. Prospero might be able to command, but only two-thirds of the force would obey on a good day, and of those, many would resent taking orders from a construct. If fighting broke out…

 “Then there’s yourself,” Prospero continued, “and forgive me for pointing it out, but you are unwilling to give orders.”

“Unable,” she put in.

“Unable, then. Between the two of us we have, an unconfirmed story that puts us at odds with the Alchemists, a number of crows, the other watchworkers, and strong language at our disposal.”

“I’ve never heard you curse.”

“I thought you might be able to cover that for the both of us, ma’am.”

“I can help,” Dimitri spoke up. “I can swear like a motherfuck.”

“And no biologicals of rank, except the Assistant Commissioner?” Aleph asked, shooting a quelling look at Dimitri.

“Inspector Viscounti has locked herself in her office, beyond that Corporals and Sergeants. Either way, there’s nothing to be done until the Assistant Commissioner gives the order.”

“Or until he’s no longer the ranking member of the Duke’s Own.”

Prospero eyed her silently.

“It’s a good thing the Assistant Commissioner just got a dose of Panacea,” Said Aleph, clasping and unclasping sigil-inscribed bracelet in her hands. “Without that, he might be just as vulnerable as the others who have been disappearing.” She closed the bracelet with what she hoped was a telling snap.

Prospero looked down at the bracelet and slowly nodded.

“Is there any chance the Assistant Commissioner might be available to talk with me? The slanderous things I’ve been saying really should be put to a stop.”

“Yes, I see your point. Very unprofessional of you, ma’am. Insubordination is bad,” he said sternly. “You should know better.”

“Insubordination is bad?” she asked, feeling a lopsided grin spread across her mouth.

“Yes, very, very bad. You should stop it. Immediately.”

Prospero turned on a heel and began walking back down the corridor.

“Ah, my ears, I can hear no more of your treasonous libel,” he said blandly, before exiting.

“What just happened?” Dimitri demanded.

“I’ll explain it to him,” said Sam.

It took fewer than five minutes for the sound of the key turning in the lock to be heard again. Nigel Peters entered the corridor with a face as red and snarling as a redhead’s hairdo in a convertible. The door slammed shut behind him with a boom that echoed throughout the corridor.

Aleph remained on her bench and rolled her eyes as his footsteps approached. How such a drama queen had made it so high in the ranks she could never fathom.

“How much worse are you trying to make this for yourself?” he hissed at her, coming right up to the bars of her cell. “Prospero told me what you said. If you insist on continuing this battle, I will make it my mission to have each and every one of your followers exterminated. I will leave you powerless and alone while the tiny handful that remains curse your name. Now, you keep your mouth shut, or by God, I will make you wish you had.”

Her nails bit into her palms, and she did her best to keep the rage off her face. Aleph made her way to the bars, trying for all she was worth to fix an expression of desperation on her face. It didn’t look like it worked because the Assistant Commissioner took an unconscious half pace back. Still, she must have got it partly right because he stood his ground, red-faced and nearly vibrating in fury. If he had known what kind of emotions gripped her at that moment he would have taken more than a single pace back.

“But Assistant Commissioner,” she said with a hint of panic in her voice, clutching at the bars. “You can’t do that!”

Her words had the desired effect. Nigel stood straighter and squared his shoulders. “You are not in any position to tell me what I can, or cannot do! You are nothing, you are the last casualty of a defeated nation that was rightfully wiped from the face of the Aether.”

Aleph seemed to cower before him, and as she hoped he would, he took that half-pace forward. Thank whatever hoary ancient god had deemed fit to create the male ego. She struck. Her arm flickered out from between the bars, seized the front of his uniform jacket and jerked him forward. His head smacked into the bars with a resonant bong that she found deeply satisfying.

In the time it took a quick breath, she’d pulled his arm through the bars and snapped her bracelet around his wrist. It was a poor fit, her wrist was much more slender than his, and she had to squeeze tightly to make the clasp catch. He let out a gasp of pain as the two ends came together. She found that part satisfying as well.

As the Assistant Commissioner was cut off from magic, Aleph caught the look of horror that flashed across his face. If he hadn’t guessed what she was up to before, he knew it now, he was cut off from the healing Panacea in his blood, and he knew it.

She pulled his stunned face close to hers until the bars began to push into his flesh.
“You will not so much as look in the direction of my children,” she said, tracing a sharp black fingernail around the edge of his eyelid until it just broke the skin. “If you do, or if I find you have interfered with them in any way, I will make sure their beaks tearing out your eyes are the last thing you see as you are staked to the ground for them to feast on. Do I make myself understood?”

Nigel nodded as best he could held up against the bars, his eyes bulging.

She balled up the front of his jacket tightly in her fist and shoved him roughly back out into the hallway. He staggered back with a cry of surprise before she pulled the material and whiplashed him into the bars of her cell with a shout of rage. His head made a loud, much more satisfying crack this time as it hit the bars, and she let his limp body collapse to the floor of a corridor. The bars hummed a fading note on a tuning fork from the impact. She might have to come back and record the sound as a ringtone. It was a sound she found to her liking.

“Did you kill him?” Sam asked, aghast.

“Probably not,” Aleph replied indifferently. “I wouldn’t be sad to see him off though, some people just need killing.” She looked critically at the crumpled body. Nobody threatens my children,” she growled, seating herself on her bench again.

It didn’t take long for Prospero to come back, this time Miranda came with him. On seeing the Assistant Commissioner’s collapsed form, she came sprinting forward. It never ceased to amaze Aleph how fast a watchworker was able to move when it had a mind to. Miranda skidded to a stop, sliding on her knees for the last fifteen feet before coming to a rest beside Nigel. She carefully rolled him over to discover two dark vertical welts each running straight down from his forehead and down over his cheeks. The skin on his temple was partly abraded and there was a small trickle of blood running up into his hairline.

Miranda began to thoroughly check him over, running her hands over his limbs and torso looking for additional injuries.

“Assistant Commissioner! Can you hear me, sir!” she shouted this in his ear to no response.

“He came in here and just ran right into the bars!” said Dimitri.

Miranda turned her head and eyed them, an expression of incredulity easily recognizable through the round glass lenses of her eyes.

“It was like watching one of those nature documentaries about mountain sheep,” said Sam, doubling down on the stupid and smacking his hands together to illustrate.

Dimitri nodded his emphatic agreement. “Just like mountain sheep.”

Neither of them would be winning an Oscar for their performance, thankfully Prospero wasn’t looking for one.

“Oh my goodness,” said Prospero in an expressionless voice. “How very clumsy of him.”

At his words, Miranda turned her expression to her Sergeant Major. “Sir…” she began, then stopped. Her fingers had found something. She pulled back the sleeve of his black uniform jacket and found the bracelet clamped around his wrist. The hand beneath the bracelet was beginning to turn a shade of dark purple from where the band of metal had cut off the blood supply. She looked up at Prospero questioningly.

Prospero eyed the bracelet, then looked at Aleph. “That’s no good,” he said gesturing toward it, “we’ll need a bigger one”

Aleph shrugged. “I think it’s alright.”

“Even with a bigger bracelet, won’t seeing the Assistant Commissioner with one of those things on be a bit obvious?” asked Sam hesitantly.

Prospero nodded slowly. “You have a point. We should have thought this through better.”

“I think we’ll be just fine,” said Dimitri with a confident note in his voice.

Prospero turned a questioning glance toward him.

“That one’s only too small for his wrist,” Dimitri explained.

“What do you suggest?”

“We should put it somewhere less noticeable. He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. Prospero wasn’t biting.

He tried again. “Somewhere where they’ll be less likely to look.” He gave Prospero a knowing look.

“His ankle is…” Prospero’s line of thought was brought up short and a look of sick realization fixed itself on his face. “Oh. I see.” He paused and Aleph began to laugh. “Wouldn’t that be, ah, too small?” he asked delicately.

“I thought of that, and it all depends on where we attach it. I hope you guys have latex gloves because someone’s going to have to run interference to get that thing on.”

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Chapter 39, Part One: Assistant Commissioner of the Ring.

Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by to read this week's update! This is the first draft, so expect grammatical errors, dropped plot lines, continuity issues, shifting placenames, and the occasional piece of hackneyed dialogue. It happens, it's mostly unpolished. Also, expect adult situations and language.

If you're alright with that stuff and find you are actually enjoying the story, please consider sharing it with friends.


PS So not to cause confusion, I've decided to change the name of the constructs working for the Duke's Own to Watchworkers.

Aleph listened to the conversation going on in the cell across from hers with half an ear, her mind concentrating on things happening far beyond the walls of her cell.

“People named Nigel have no friends,” Dimitri declared. “It is known.”

“But…” Sam tried to break in.

“Ah!” Dimitri held up a silencing hand. “It is known.”

It had been like this since they arrived. They’d been sitting for an hour, and if their thinly padded bench was anything like hers, their asses were by now completely numb. If time flew, the part of it that was looking after them had missed its connector and was sitting at an empty boarding gate looking confused.

“I mean look at Nigel Longbottom.” Dimitri continued.

“I think you mean Neville. Neville Longbottom.”

“I’m pretty sure it was Nigel. He had no friends.”

“Neville had friends.”

“Nigel, and no he didn’t.”

“Harry and Ron…”

“Barely tolerated him.” Dimitri broke in. “As soon as he got in their way, wham! Petrificus totalis.”
Dimitri settled back against the wall and continued. “Nigel’s whole relationship with his friends,” he said making air quotes around the word, “was based on sympathy.‘Ooh look at me, my parents were tortured, I’m sooo sad.’” He said,  making little waving motions with his wrists.

“Nigels don’t have friends, they just have people that feel sorry for them. If you ever hear of a Nigel getting laid, you can be pretty sure it’s a mercy fuck. Nigels are kings of the mercy fuck.” he added darkly.

Sam looked at him for a long beat. “Why?” It didn’t sound like it was a question about the conversation so much as it was one about Dimitri.

Dimitri turned an incredulous look on him. “Because it is known. Duh. How else do you explain that asshole we met at the front gate.”

“But his name is Nigel,” Sam said, sounding lost.

“Exactly my point.”

“Guys, I know you’re bored and this is just your way of coping, but could you both please shut up for just two minutes? I’m trying to concentrate.”

“On what?” Dimitri asked.

Aleph eyed him darkly.

The flock boiled over the Wandering Market, thirty strong. None of them called out to each other, the only sound was the sound of wind on hard feathers. They beat high into the dark sky until the lights of the market were pinpricks on a glowing grid. They were the fastest, the strongest, the canniest of those remaining; chosen of their goddess, black of wing and sharp of beak. They had left their mates, their young, their families, to join the mob. All across the city their gates had been blocked or guarded. No souls arrived and none of The People left to carry them back. Three attempts had already been made on smaller gateways, this would be the last.

“On getting a message through to Vancouver,” Aleph replied.

“Like, right now?”

“Yes, right now.”

The mob broke southwest past the market and the massive buildings the flightless had built in a sad imitation of flight. All they had accomplished for their efforts was to give The People safe places to roost.

“Oh. Is this some kind of crow thing?” Dimitri asked.

Sam elbowed him and gave him a look.

“What? I’m just asking.”

“She asked you to shut up.”

“Yes,” Aleph said between clenched teeth. “This is a crow thing.”

In the space of a hundred wingbeats, they were over the square that spanned the worlds. The one the flightless used to come and go, as though it was the only way in and out. Below them, masses of the flightless were crowded together, slowly shuffling to the edges of the square while more filed through the stone gates, adding to their number. 
On a regular day, they would be able to come and go as they pleased, but the flightless had stopped them, battered them out of the air and crushed them as they tried to leave. Even those arriving with new souls had suffered.
Their goddess had called though, and for their love of Her, they would answer. The mob began a steep spiralling descent toward the stone gate that led back to the cold city by the ocean. They were black feathers against the ever-blackened sky.

“How can you do that? These cells are covered in the same sigils as these bracelets,” Dimitri said pointing at the faint outline of sigils that were only barely visible under the institutional beige paint on the bars. “This is a magical Faraday Cage,” he said, giving the bars a thump with the heel of his palm. “Nothing in, nothing out.”

“Yes, but that only works on mortal magic, Sorcery, Alchemy, and the rest. These weren’t built to hold gods. We work differently.”

“Then why aren’t you out there kicking ass and taking names?”

“It would be pointless. Just because I’m a goddess doesn’t mean I’m all powerful,” she grated. “I could rip these bars apart like paper, but it would be a complete waste of energy.”

Dimitri looked confused.

“I love them to bits,” she said, trying to explain in a way that Dimitri could understand, “but a few hundred thousand crows, no matter how awesome, don’t leave me with a lot of divine gas in the tank.”


“And besides, it’s not allowed,” she added distractedly.


Aleph sighed. “Haven’t you ever wondered why the gods aren’t just tearing things up all around the Aether? We could you know.”

“Not really.”

“I have,” said Sam. They don’t even really answer prayers like they used to.

“Yup, we stopped when we nearly unmade the whole multiverse.”

“I never heard that,” said Dimitri.

“Not surprising, the worlds where it happened mostly aren’t there anymore.”


“Since then, there are a few rules we follow. One of them is that we don't directly interfere with mortals.”

“So it’s kind of like a divine Prime Directive,” said Sam.

“A what?”

“Don’t worry about him. He switches to geek sometimes when he gets excited,” said Dimitri.

“So, if that’s true, how come you’re working for Penhold? Isn’t that against the rules?” asked Dimitri.
“As long as I don’t do anything more for him what any other mortal can, I’m good.”

“So that’s why you didn’t turn Nigel into a pile of dog shit on the spot?”

“Exactly. And it’s why I don’t just walk out of here now.”

“Are we good for right now? I need to look after some stuff.” She closed her eyes in the hopes that it would make the two less likely to disturb her. This was going to get tricky.

Three times around the gate, three uninterrupted circuits and they would be through to deliver the message. Fast as shadows cast by a candle on a windy night, they dropped toward the gate. Whether it was the wind from their passage that gave them away or some unseen alchemy, faces turned up at them when they were still high above the gate. In moments they levelled off and beat their wings furiously, curling around the gate in a funnel. All of their cunning went into avoiding the nets, the grasping hands, and the blasts of buckshot that came up to meet them.
The first of them was swatted from the air, another disappeared in an explosion of feathers and blood as lead pellets tore through her. Still, they spun and whirled, doing all they could to complete the three orbits of the stone gate.
By the time they had completed the first full circle there were only seventeen left able to fly, by the second time around there were six. The ragged remainder flew on. In moments it was finished. Black feathers drifted and settled to the cobbled earth.

In her cell, Aleph shuddered and drew her knees up to her chest. Her children died every day from raccoons, cars, disease, it was to be expected. Grief was the currency the living paid to remain behind. It was a transaction Aleph knew to her bones, she was more intimately familiar with death than nearly any other being in the Aether. To lose so many so quickly though, felt like there was only a cold hollow in her chest where her heart used to be.

“Well? Did you get through?” Dimitri asked.

 Aleph had to unclench her hands to answer. “I don’t know. Once they’re through the gate I can’t feel them anymore, but I lost so many…” She took a deep steadying breath. “We can’t count on it. Whatever we do from here on out, we’re on our own.”

“Alright,” said Dimitri, clapping his hands together and getting to his feet. “So what do we do?”

“We wait.”

“We wait?!”

Aleph nodded.

“For what? What do we wait for?”

“For who. Either Nigel realizes that I’m too dangerous to keep here and takes steps, or…” Aleph cocked her head as though listening to something. Sam listened, but couldn’t hear a thing but the hum of the lights.

“Or what?

“Or one of my friends comes through for me.”

At the far end of the room there came the sound of a key in the heavy lock and the click of the door opening followed by heavy footsteps.

Aleph knew those footsteps, but she still rose and joined Dimitri and Sam who were peering out the bars of their own cell to see down the corridor. A watchworker made his way toward them, but this time it wasn’t Miranda. This construct had wider shoulders with a narrow waist and had the rank insignia of a silver crown surrounded in nightshade leaves on his sleeves. It was Prospero.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Chapter 37, Part One: The Armoury

Hi folks, thanks for dropping by to read! The usual caveats apply this week: This is a rough draft so expect errors. This is also a work that includes adult language and situations, so if that kind of thing offends, please read no further.

Finally, if you find yourself enjoying the story, please consider sharing! I'm trying to generate some interest for the happy day this novel is finished and I can begin work on book 2...

There was a gasp from the crowd and people scrambled away opening a clear space around them. Aleph stepped in close to the assailant and delivered an open palm blow under her chin, snapping her head back in the worst case of whiplash Sam had ever witnessed. His gut clenched in sympathy as he heard the muffled crunch of bones. Instead of falling to the ground though, the woman took a single steadying pace back and swung her gun arm back up in Aleph’s direction. Sam couldn’t help but note in sick fascination that her head now wobbling loosely on her neck.

As the gun swung in her direction, Aleph moved her upper body away from the muzzle and, in a move that Sam sensed more than we saw, used one hand to torque the barrel away while the other smashed against the inside of the woman’s forearm. The gun fired again, the report barely louder than a polite clap.

This seemed to enrage Aleph more than anything before had. She grabbed the attacker one-handed by the neck and physically slammed her to the cobblestone ground where she lay still—at least for the time being.

Dimitri, who had been crouched next to Sam for the brief confrontation, darted over to Aristarchus and pulled his uniform jacket open to reveal a bloody white shirt.

“He’s breathing!” His voice sounded higher than Sam remembered.

“Check for an exit wound,” Aleph instructed him, striding over.

Dimitri’s mahogany skin looked ashy as he slid a hand under Aristarchus’ side and pulled it out to show her. It was clean of blood.

“Well, at least we have that going for us. Sam, take over for Dimitri and put pressure on that wound.”

“Why does he need to do it?” asked Dimitri.

“Because I asked fucking nicely.”

Sam felt his throat click as he swallowed and nodded at her. He gingerly placed his hands over the bloody hole in Aristarchus’ side and began pressing down.

He could feel the blood draining from his face, he’d never been good with the sight of blood. It didn’t bother him on an emotional level, but every time he saw more than a few drops something in his hind brain triggered and he began to feel green.

He tried to focus on his breathing but he could already feel his lips beginning to tingle. He tucked his knees to his chest and rested all his weight on his hands. If he did faint, by all the gods his body weight alone would still stop Aristarchus from bleeding out.

Meanwhile, Aleph had taken Dimitri’s phone and had it up to her ear. “I thought you said this thing got reception.”

She tossed it back to him and Dimitri grabbed the phone out of the air. He swiped at the screen and began flicking past menu screens. After a moment there was another chorus of chimes and chirps around them as the notification beeps of other phones and tablets immediately around them sounded.“Dimitri, what’s going on, do I have communication, or don’t I?”

“Working on it.”

“How long.”

“I don’t know, a couple more minutes? I didn’t think they could shut him down to begin with.”


“Me. I meant me.”

“Sure, whatever. It’s too long to wait, we need to move now. Aristarchus can’t wait and we’re a sitting target.”

As if in response to her words, there came the sound of grinding bone. The drone Aleph had struck was beginning to stir and as they watched. She rolled to her hands and knees, her neck drooping at an unnatural angle.

Aleph let out an impatient noise, walked over to the drone and gave her arm a sideways kick. The elbow bent in sideways with a horrible crunching noise and the drone let out a screech of rage. There was a gasp from the crowd.

“What? I didn’t kill her. She’s still alive,” Aleph said. Gazes fell away as she swept her eyes across them.

“You should all get someplace away from here,” Aleph said, calmly walking around to the other side of the downed woman. “This,” she said gesturing at the growling drone, “is just the start of things. Get out of the Market, go home, lock your doors.”

The crowd began to slowly stir under Aleph’s continued glare.


She punctuated the word by taking out the drone’s other elbow. The crowd scattered and the nearby vendors began shuttering their displays. 

By this time, Sam’s nervous system had decided that it would be best to stay conscious. He wasn’t as dizzy as he had been and his hands were almost finished trembling. For now, he kept his eyes on the dispersing crowd. Any new threat would be coming from that direction and keeping watch gave him a good excuse not to look at the blood that was becoming thick and sticky under the heel of his palm.
Winging above them, there was a veritable tornado of crows wheeling in place. He took real comfort from the sight. After what he’d seen the crows do to the drones at Memorial Park, he was absolutely confident that the flock that size could seriously ruin someone’s day.

Aleph strode to one of the nearby vendors who had a large wheeled cart with a display of cut glass prisms and animals for sale. “I need to borrow your cart.”

With no more discussion than that, she cleared the glass curios off with a sweep of her arm and hauled the cart back to where Aristarchus lay. Behind her, the vendor, a huge walrus of a man, bellowed in indignation, looking at his glittering wares scattered on the cobbled street. After Aleph’s confrontation, Sam wasn’t surprised that blustering was as far as it went.

“Come to the Armoury and fill out a loss form,” she called over her shoulder. “A man’s life is at stake here. Get some perspective!”

“Won’t her elbows just heal?” Dimitri asked, nodding toward the drone.

“Sure, but that takes time and unless they’re set back in place, they’ll heal like they are. She won’t be playing the piano until a doctor sees to those elbows.”

Dimitri looked back at the drone on the street with a sick expression. She was back on her knees and slowly beginning to stand.

Aleph followed his glance. “You still have two good knees,” she growled the drone. “I can have them too.”

The drone didn’t appear to hear. She walked toward them, head askew on her neck and arms hanging uselessly in front of her.

“She’s sort of like the Black Knight,” Sam supplied from where he crouched. “‘Tis but a scratch!”
Aleph sighed, marched up to the drone and snapped a kick out at her kneecap. There was another pop and the drone’s leg went out from under her depositing her back onto the cobblestones.

“You get his legs,” Aleph instructed Dimitri, walking back and working her hands under Aristarchus’ shoulders. “On the count of three.” She counted down and they lifted, Dimitri nearly staggering under the weight. Sam kept his hands pressed firmly on the entrance wound, and between the three of them, they were able to maneuver Aristarchus’ torso on top of the cart, his legs dangling over the side.

“Now move,” Aleph instructed them. “Dimitri, you push, Sam, keep that pressure on. I’ll be on look out. You two spell each other off when the runner gets tired. We need to get him to The Armoury fast.”

Sam nodded, and soon he and Dimitri were trotting along, doing their best to avoid the crowd where they could, Aleph clearing a path for them when they couldn't. Dimitri did his best to keep the cart at a pace that maximized speed without rattling Aristarchus off the display while Sam executed a gimpy sideways shuffle as he attempted to keep pace with the cart and maintain pressure on the gunshot wound.

Despite the makeshift nature of their little ambulance, the bicycle wheels on the cart were doing an admirable job of absorbing most of the jolts and bumps.

They were only at it for a few minutes before the White Bridge, and The Armoury beyond came into view. Sam was pushing now, his violin case bouncing against his back, and Dimitri had taken over the job of keeping Aristarchus’ bleeding to a minimum.

A group of five black-uniformed officers were making their way across the bridge. In the group, Sam spotted Miranda, the watchman from the gate. She was at the rear of the party and judging from her body language, not happy about it. In the lead was a black-uniformed man with a thin face and a beaky nose, his epaulets displaying three golden bars to Aristarchus’ two silver.
“Shit,” Sam heard Aleph say under her breath.