Amates 20, 1277. Evening. In the middle of way too much trouble.
It was getting to be a very long night.
The baron gestured to the white canvas cot behind me before he reached for the sole chair in the tent.
“Please, have a seat.”
I scowled and stayed right where I was.
Lord Marius hesitated, then shrugged.
“Or we can stand, if you prefer.” He clasped his hands behind his back while he considered me for a moment. “Well, now you have a piece of the Automatic Crystal, and most of the notes. If reputation is anything, being a Windtracer, you’ve done your own studies. So, I doubt you need anything we have other than that portion of the device.”
My eyes flicked to the front of the tent, then back to the baron. The guard outside hadn’t moved, but I also wasn’t sure I still saw any shadows. Despite me trying to be subtle, Lord Marius caught the shift in my glance. He arched an eyebrow.
“Don’t worry. No one will interrupt us. Master Vargas is busy. He’s getting his hourly dose of frustration from trying to talk to our mutual inventor friend, Master Mikasi. The guards are also busy. They’re elsewhere looking for your allies because I doubt very much that you’re alone.”
I kept still when he said that, but inside I felt a stab of white-hot panic run through me. Have I led everyone right into a trap? Was I that predictable? Maybe I was. I shoved the thoughts aside. There would be time to worry about that later. I needed to get away and warn the others as fast as I could.
“What do you want?” I asked, my voice low and tight.
Lord Marius chuckled. It wasn’t a pleasant sound.
“Nothing complicated. Unlike Vincent, I prefer diplomacy over brute force.”
“So, you hired Vargas and his mercenaries,” I scoffed. “Nice diplomacy, m’lord.”
“Fair,” he replied with a slight nod.
Lord Marius glanced down at the ground, then at the stained canvas tent walls. I got the idea that he wanted to pace. Ki looked that way when he wanted to do just that while talking about something that was on his mind.
“Hiring Vincent Vargas and his Crimson Company was an unpleasant necessity. Useful, mind you, but despite that, they’re still a blunt object. No, the diplomacy I’m referring to is an arrangement.” He gestured toward me. “An understanding between scholars.”
I didn’t fall off the turnip barge yesterday. This was a stall if I ever heard one. But Lord Marius was only a few feet away from me. If I tried to duck under the wall of the tent, he’d be able to grab me in a second.
Out the front? That was no good. The baron stood right in the way. Even if I made it past him, I wasn’t sure that I believed his story that the entire Crimson Company was out beating the bushes for Ki and the others.
I was caught, or at least I was for right now. My mind raced, trying to pin down some reasonable escape route. There wasn’t a way around it. I had to play along with whatever this was.
“What sort of ‘understanding’?”
Lord Marius shrugged.
“We combine our efforts. A contest for something as rare and ground-breaking as the Automatic Crystal?” He grimaced. “Absurd. Almost offensive. We should work together, m’lady.”
I stared at him, a little dumbfounded, while his words sank in. My thoughts had just become a shattered piece of glass and I couldn’t find all the pieces. After a slow breath, I found my words.
“Join you?” I nodded to the front of the tent. “I doubt your pet mercenaries would like that. We’ve got some bad blood between us.”
The baron raised his eyebrows. A smile wormed up along the edges of his mouth.
“Oh, I’m aware.” His eyes lit with a burning intensity that made me want to fidget ever so slightly. “But isn’t tolerating those brutes a small price to pay for this particular discovery?”
The baron held his hands out in front of him. It was like he was reaching for something in the air or giving a speech.
“This relic is a significant discovery. It would be the greatest turning point in history since the Great Collapse! Together, we could unlock its secrets! I’m sure you’re aware the Automatic Crystal is said to alter light or magic, and possibly even affect thoughts, yes?”
An uneasy feeling was bubbling up in the back of my mind. Lord Marius was going somewhere with this. I just wasn’t sure where. It was a slithering, cold idea of a thing that danced in the shadows of my mind, just out of my sight.
“Yes. There’s some theory about that,” I replied cautiously.
“Pardon my manners and familiarity, but Tela, think of it! It would open the door to creating a new, fully working Automatic Crystal of the Eclipse! A device giving us firm and direct control over the elements, over magic itself.”
Lord Marius clenched his fists.
“With it, we could usher in a new Order! Wars, conflict between cities would end. Magic storms? Soothed and conquered. Even controlled for more productive purposes! Awldor would know peace.”
There it was. That dark, slimy thing had just crawled into the light. I forced down another silent wave of panic with a deep breath while I tried to stay focused.
“You said ‘we’,” I replied.
The baron’s eyes grew a bit brighter.
“I did. Who else could do this, should do this, but us?”
Lord Marius spread his arms wide, his uncomfortable smile in full force. I had seen that look before. It was the smile of someone drunk on dreams of power.
“Tela, I’ve studied your expeditions. Read about them in depth. Memorized them. You are brilliant. Don’t you see that? You’re far beyond the other Windtracers. Together, we would build this New Age! Mold it to our vision!”
I could actually hear the capital letters in most of those words. It had finally happened. After all these years, I found something far more dangerous than Vargas or more terrifying than the worst magic storm. A fanatical baron who had dreams of a ‘new world order’ and the means to make it happen. I needed to find a way out of this mess, and fast.
A heavy silence filled the tent.
“What if they don’t agree with you?” I asked in a soft voice. “Some of the cities and its people?”
“They will,” he replied quickly. “If they don’t, we will bury them in dust and history.”
Lord Marius held out his right hand.
“So? What is your answer? You can’t tell me you’re not tempted.”
I didn’t need a single second to think it over.
The baron’s posture didn’t shift, but his expression turned wooden.
“No? Don’t be hasty, Tela. We could remake the world.”
I took a slow, deep breath to steady my frayed nerves. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out all that well. I still had this tremendous urge to run for the hills, or grab a repeating bow, or both.
“That’s what scares me,” I said. “You’ve talked a lot about bringing ‘peace’ to Awldor. It sounds like along the way, you’ll be leaving it in pieces. So, what? You’ll throw away what won’t fit in your vision? Those are people with lives, m’lord. Not a broken chair.”
The baron let his hand fall to his side. He shook his head slowly.
“I thought that you, out of anyone, would understand my vision. What the Automatic Crystal means if it's in the right hands.”
I’ve been in all sorts of ruins with any manner of twisted, murderous traps, undead, or nameless horrors. They never made me as uncomfortable, or angry, as I was right at that moment. I flexed my grip on the piece of crystal in my hand. The solid mineral felt comforting. It kept me grounded.
“Oh, I understand. That’s the problem,” I replied. A hard tone slipped into my words. “When anyone says ‘in the right hands’ they mean ‘their hands’. All so they can be in control, or at least think they are.”
I shook my head.
“No, Lord Marius. Your hands aren’t ‘right’. Mine aren’t either. That relic,” I stopped myself when I remembered I held a part of that relic in my left hand. “These relics,” I corrected myself, “should be studied by scholars, then placed on display so anyone could learn about them. Yes, these relics might be the path to a better world.”
I fixed a hard, angry gaze on the baron.
“Or they might have caused the Great Collapse. If they did, then it’ll be a cold day in the Last Watery Hell before I let you or anyone else use a fully assembled Automatic Crystal of the Eclipse.”
Lord Marius pursed his lips. The wooden expression melted into something sad, bitter, and harsh. He must have thought this conversation through a dozen times. I suspected, in his mind, it never ended this way.
“I’m disappointed, Tela. Somehow, I thought you had more foresight than this. A shame, really. It would have been easier with you by my side.”
The baron sighed.
“But you’ve made your choice, and choices always have consequences.”
His hand darted to a pouch at his belt. Panic screamed in my mind and I hurled the strongbox at him. The baron ducked to his left, allowing the box to fly past his head to slap the front of the tent.
In one motion, I drew my dagger, then thrust at the man’s chest. It was the fastest I had ever drawn a blade in my life. My aim was accurate. Timing? Perfect. My dagger slammed into the left side of his chest, cutting through cloth and spearing his heart. He grunted from the impact.
Instinctively, I yanked the dagger free while I sidestepped away as far as the tent allowed.
But the baron didn’t move.
He wasn’t surprised, or even in shock. All he did was stand there. Lord Marius just stared at the jagged hole in his chest. I suddenly realized why.
There was no blood.
The baron wasn’t bleeding. I had stabbed him and he wasn’t bleeding.
In place of any blood, there was a faint trickle of what looked like charred dust or gray sand. A wisp of black smoke oozed out from the edges. Lord Marius didn’t seem upset, only frustrated. He glanced at me from under his eyebrows with a look that made my soul shiver.
“Like I said, Tela, choices always have consequences,” he whispered.
I didn’t see him raise his own piece of an Automatic Crystal until it was too late.
There was a flash of light that robbed me of the tent, Lord Marius, and everything in front of me. It felt like a storm howled in my mind while it tried to claw its way out of my skull.
Then, I didn’t remember anything else.