The late afternoon sun was surprisingly warm up here. Normally whenever Adree went up into one of the larger skyscrapers, the air temperature dropped quite rapidly due to Nones’ climate, but clad in her gear, designed to be light and warm, and with the sun shining on her red hair and hands, it was very pleasant.

Adree tucked her hair back and leaned over to check the area below her. Glass crunched under her thick gloves as she moved. A single shard was knocked off, to fall, twinkling, out of sight. She was crouching on the near-top floor of what had, in Jayton Ember’s time, been an administrator’s building. Around her, most of the exterior wall had been destroyed. Below was a drop of nearly a hundred feet into the murky greyness of a street choked with rubble.

Someone had planted a bright yellow marker tag in the wall a few years back, with a glowing indicator showing the ambient level of Gating energy. Red would mean an imminent paradigm squall; it was currently a cool blue-green, and according to the indicator that level hadn’t changed in ages. Some buildings, especially those that had come in contact with powerful entities whose Gating prowess was considerable, retained their shape for longer. This building was one of the very few tagged by the Evinthei as safe to visit… if a little disconcerting.

Adree glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, Robbes was busily unpacking the equipment she had asked for, unconcerned about the surroundings, while Rachelle Telcane stared, wide-eyed at the building’s most notable feature. This entire floor had a deep impact through all the walls from this exterior, looking as if someone had punched deep into the building itself. From here, there was an almost concentric view into the centre of the building. The supporting walls had been propped up with heavy jacks, thanks to the attentions of a clearance crew, but they looked like insignificant little toothpicks.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” said Adree to the lieutenant.

“I - I’ve only read about this. It’s incredible to… I -”

“Now you see why I’m so interested in learning how that woman controlled the Librais,” said Adree, standing up and brushing her hands off. Like the others, she was wearing her standard issue scout/clearance crew gear, light but strong padding under a grey camouflage pattern to hide in the street. “Reportedly, all this was caused by a single projectile fired by the Scorpieth. From halfway across the city.”

“ ‘The pinnacle of Ancestor technology’,” said Rachelle faintly, repeating the phrase from their history books.

“And now it’s gone,” said Adree, wanting to bring Rachelle down to earth. “But we’re still here, so snap to and give Robbes a hand.”

Rachelle seemed to come around. “Y-yes, ma’am. Of course, ma’am.” She hurried over to Robbes and knelt down beside him. He had almost finished setting up the little portable transmitter they had been able to bring, thanks to an extra pair of hands.

Adree reached down to her belt and touched the modified radio, checking again that it was there. Her plan was simple: use the elevation and the radio to patch into the city’s old communication systems, and use them to alert the lapidtalos of their presence.

Out in the distance, she could see the Librais Tower looming over the ruins, visible for miles around. Damn the luck. That had once been the best communications tower in Nones; the Zodiac Engine’s parasitical inhabitation had closed it off from outside access. Otherwise it would have been the perfect focal point.

Despite herself, Adree felt her mind drift back to that moment when she had had both men in her sights by the campfire, under the Tower’s shadow. She remembered how the man Dax had blindfolded himself under the constant bombardment of the Tower with lightning.

But Athellus hadn’t. He had sat by the fire, calm and patient with his knife in hand, sharpening it with the attention to detail he had always had. Under the firelight his expression had been gentle, thoughtful.

“Commander Aeslin?” Robbes was standing respectfully before her. “The transmitter’s ready for you.”

Adree carefully stowed the memory away and unclipped the radio. “Okay. Let’s give this a try.”

She checked the frequency - thanks to her research they knew the old frequency once used to command the lapidtalii - took a deep breath and depressed the button on the side. She had spent most of the journey here deciding exactly what message to send it, working out her pitch carefully. They would only have one shot at this… but she was a good sniper.

“My name is Commander Adree Aeslin.” There was a faint metallic echo on the line, as if she could hear all the wires and conduits carrying her voice through the ancient network. “I am an officer of the Evinthei, and a direct descendant of Adrigal Lawley and Jayton Ember.

“I am speaking to the lapidtalos who attacked us at our guard post. I bear no ill will for what you did, because I know my ancestor mistreated you sorely. I wish to speak to you in person, to formally offer our apologies for what happened in the past and accept that we made mistakes. I believe we have much to offer each other.

“On my honour as a daughter of the Evinthei, I swear that if you meet with me, nothing will happen against your will. Just as I am an ambassador for my people, so you are an ambassador for the whole city of Nones. Let us meet as equals.

“Finally, I offer a gift in honour of your great intellect. Come to us at the great building with the Scorpieth’s scar, ask me Avaughnian’s Riddle, and I will give you the answer. Come. Let us make amends for the past, and plans for the future.

“Commander Aeslin, signing off.”

Adree lowered the radio. Robbes nodded once. “It transmitted, commander.”

“Now we just have to wait for a reply.” Adree looked out through the window at the reddening sky. “It could be anywhere in the city. We might have to be patient.”

“I don’t mind being patient if we can stay here,” said Rachelle, her arms tucked around herself. “The ruins always give me the creeps.”

“Good,” Adree told her. “The only ones who are comfortable around here are the dead.”

* * *

Adree took first watch, sitting on the building’s stairs with a light canister on one side of her and a canteen on the other. The building’s elevators had rusted and broken down years ago; the stairs were the only access route. If any Earthborn were hungry enough to climb all the way up here, the first thing they’d eat was a bullet.

Gradually the light dimmed to a warm slate blue, broken by the steady glow of the light canister. Adree didn’t notice. She was deep in that state she had developed over long years of standing guard duty: a level of concentration where she was free to think but totally alert. She kept running over all the things she would say to the lapidtalos when it arrived. She had to be pure Evinthei, but still remain open to negotiation. She had to act like a true leader, and speak as one.

A footstep in the stairwell caught her attention, and then there was Heston Robbes, blinking in the light canister’s glare.

Adree lowered her weapon. “It can’t be the end of my shift already.”

“No, commander. I just wanted to let you know - I finished running a scan of the old network. As far as I can tell, the only active signals out there are ours. If this Dax West is using any communications devices, he’s not online right now.”

“Damn. Place a -”

“I placed a tracking algorithm on the network for you. If any signal without one of our code prefixes comes up, we’ll know about it first.”

Adree smiled. “Thanks, Robbes.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am.” Robbes stood at ease. “By the way… if it’s not too forward, I thought you made an excellent speech to that lapidtalos.”

“Hopefully it wasn’t wasted.” Adree leaned on her hand. “If this mission doesn’t show results soon, the Central Forum might simply pull the plug. They’re likely just waiting for an excuse.”

“Don’t worry about it, commander. You’ve weathered storms before.”

Adree stared into the gloom. “This isn’t a storm, Robbes. It’s hurricane season. First Padrin Telcane, then Arawn Lessinger… and Athellus Borden. My father…”

“Yes?” Robbes asked politely, after a silence.

My father thinks this is all part of something, something momentous. I hate it when he talks about Adrigal Lawley, that look in his eyes… he’s getting older, and he knows it. His religion is becoming so important to him. He dedicated his life to this city, mostly in peacetime, and he wants to know he’s made a difference. Maybe he wants this to be important, for my sake as well as his.

What do I want?

“My father would stop the Central Forum in time,” she said, eventually. “If it finally came to that, I’m sure he would. But is that right? I can’t rely on him forever. I’m myself, not the woman he thinks I am.”

Robbes shifted his feet and said nothing.

Adree stared a moment more, then closed her eyes and sighed. “I’m not built for this, Robbes. I’m not interested in power plays. Being a leader isn’t about playing sides and messing with people’s heads. The Evinthei has to be one purpose, one goal, many voices in one chorus. If I don’t succeed my father… I wonder. I wonder if we’ll be united enough to keep standing.”

“But we -”

Adree suddenly held up a hand. Robbes fell silent at once.

The wind was whistling faintly up the stairwell, and through the Scorpieth’s scar. Adree’s ears strained, and strained, until… there. There it was again. Robbes visibly tensed as the noise etched itself into the darkness. It was a faint metallic scratching, a distant scrabbling noise that echoed softly.

“What is it?” Robbes asked, very softly.

“I don’t know,” Adree replied, getting to her feet. “But whatever it is, it’s coming from the elevator shaft.”

 

 

 

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