Amates 31, 1277. Mid-morning. Depths of the Great Chasm, on the way to the Long Deep ruins. Not exactly a walk in the park.
I thanked all the gods of the high tides that the meeting didn’t last long. If one sentinel of the Slate Watch was unnerving, an entire council of them staring at me? That was worse. But it was better than being stared at by a three eyed chicken floating in a jar, so there was that.
They wanted to help after hearing my story. It meant more people looking for the Crimson Company, and better equipment than the Sheldrake to navigate the Great Chasm. It turned out we needed that to catch up.
“They beat us here!” Evi growled.
She slammed a fist against the chest-high, dark tan sandstone rock wall in front of her.
“How are they already here? It’s like they’ve been for days. We were only a half day behind them.”
The constant breeze of the Great Chasm stirred up a gray-brown dust mixed with damp fog, blowing it across our hiding spot. We were nestled four stories up in a crevasse tucked away in one of the Chasm’s rock walls. Ki, off to my right and leaning against the same rocks as Evi, shrugged.
“Exactly. How long have they been here?” Kiyosi asked. “That scaffold in the middle of their camp is bigger than a wagon, even a windwagon. What is that? A siege engine? Are they planning on attacking the ruin?”
I shook my head, then wiped some of the dust from my eyes. Fortunately, I didn’t need my sunshade goggles down in the Chasm. Its heavy fog kept the light bearable for me. I pulled out a spyglass I had purchased in Talabrae’s Deep before we had left, and studied the Crimson Company’s campsite.
The mercenaries had set up in a hollow weathered out of the unforgiving, ancient black lava rocks and ruddy sandstone of the Chasm’s floor. Spindly and twisted yellow-white plants grew in clumps, along with spotted cadaverous gray ferns around the hollow’s edge. Ominous black seed pods writhed in the gray and purple tree leaves. The Chasm’s churning fog gave the impression that the trees were stalking the camp, looking to eat anyone nearby as a meal.
Aside from the gloomy decor, the hollow was a good campsite. It was a green oasis in the middle of the Chasm’s perpetual gray, black and tan desolate terrain. Plants growing along the shoreline of a small pond in the oasis actually looked green and healthy.
The scaffolds Ki referred to squatted in the middle of the campsite. I frowned while I studied them. They were two stories tall at most, with four solid corners. A nest of ropes and rigging stretched between the poles and a set of large buckets big enough to hold a person. Those buckets were constantly on the move, raising and lowering into a dank pit carved out of the dirt.
“A mining rig?” I suggested, not that I was an expert on those. “Maybe they’re digging their way in?”
Mikasi, perched on a makeshift rock stool in our shared hiding place, pulled out his own spyglass to look for himself. After a second, he giggled.
“It’s delightful, is what it is! That’s a mining scaffold all right, but someone has made some interesting alterations to it. There’s so few gears! Did you see? On the right, that’s a type of hydraulis pump I’ve never seen before.”
The inventor looked happy enough to jump up and down. I was glad he didn’t. The sound of his boots against loose rock might have gotten the Crimson Company’s attention. Mikasi lowered his spyglass before he tugged at my sleeve.
“They’re using most of the designs Cesibus invented, but they’ve made some alterations. I saw a water screw to help channel water from that pond to work the waterwheel and the bucket pulleys. There’s even way-stones incorporated into the waterwheel. It’s almost like gears, but I can’t see from here why they would bother.”
Evi let out a deep grunt before she pawed the ground with a hoof in thought. She usually did that when something really caught her attention.
“Way-stones? Like what’s used in a compass?”
Mikasi nodded and brushed the rock dust from his hands.
“The same. But these looked really large.” He raised a hand, palm out. “About like that. The size of a person’s hand.”
I exchanged a glance with Ki.
“A counterbalance system?”
Ki shook his head with a frown.
“Not sure. But really, how did they get here so damn fast and why here? It’s like they knew where to go all along.”
I didn’t know for sure, but I had a guess, and is wasn’t pleasant. Most of that came from what Odro explained to me about Automatic Crystals back in the Tirak Ruins. The rest was from those old alchemist journals I had copied. I looked out at the Crimson Company’s campsite. After a hard sigh, I pulled out a piece of travelcake from a vest pocket, unwrapped it, took a bite, and started sorting through my thoughts.
“Back in the Tirak Ruins, Odro told me that the Automatic Crystal is more than just something that makes magic stronger. It’s also a mirror that can reflect the nature of the person using it.”
I finished my piece of travelcake, then knocked the crumbs off my hands.
“I think I understand what he meant. Those crystals can reflect someone’s desires, not just their inner nature. Maybe.”
“What?” Evi asked. “Like wanting to get another Automatic Crystal?”
“Something like that. Which is why I think the baron is using his Automatic Crystal shard like a compass, letting it to guide him to other crystal shards.” I gestured toward the camp. “If that’s what he’s doing, that would be how they got here so fast. They knew exactly where to go. Any maps from the Obsidian Armory and copies of the same journals I have would just help confirm it for them.”
“So we’ve lost?” Ki asked. “They’re digging down to it right now?”
It was a good question, and I didn’t like it one bit.
Thinking about everything we went through to get here, only to be too late? That left a bitter taste in my mouth. I shook my head while I unclenched my jaw.
“I’m not sure. Something is off about this.”
“Wait,” Mikasi said suddenly, then stared intently at the campsite below. “Mirror. You said a mirror.”
I swapped a confused look with Evi and Ki.
Two long, uncomfortable seconds passed before Mikasi looked at us or did anything but stare at the campsite.
“If he’s following it like that, then this can’t be right.” The Banye inventor frowned at us. “Really, if it’s a mirror showing him what he wants, then this can’t be right. Unless he’s accounting for it being a mirror.”
What he said almost made sense. I squinted at him, then nodded, not sure where he was going with this. Beside me, Evi and Ki looked just as confused as I was.
“Say that again?” Ki asked for all of us.
Mikasi sighed, dug out a pocket mirror and a piece of paper from inside his vest. There was a half-finished diagram on the page. Some sort of idea Mikasi had probably been working through. He held the mirror up against a line of letters, which reflected backwards.
“The crystal reflects what’s inside the baron? What he’s wanting? Like a mirror?” Mikasi held the mirror and paper out toward us.
No one said a word for a solid five seconds. The only noise was from the digging contraption and workers in the campsite. As if on cue, I saw from the corner of my eye Baron Marius leave the largest tent. He held up his crystal shard in front of him before making a series of intricate motions in the air above it with a free hand.
A glittering yellow glow appeared around his hand, and inside the crystal he carried. That glow in the baron’s shard looked just like what happened when lantern light hit Odro’s crystal.
Most of the baron’s spell shone through the crystal and illuminated the dig site. The rest of the magic? That bled off in all directions around the baron.
What caught my attention was the faint, glittering, crystal-shaped ghost that appeared behind the man for a second. The baron smiled, looking satisfied and apparently oblivious to what I saw, then walked toward the dig site.
I glanced between the baron, the dig site, and Mikasi’s little example with a pocket mirror and a piece of paper.
“Aile Shavat, hell and high tides!” I growled under my breath. “They’re digging in the wrong place.”
This time, Ki and Evi stared at me like I’d lost my mind. I silently thanked Odro for taking the time to teach me about Automatic Crystals before I waved a hand at Mikasi’s mirror.
“Odro taught me a lot about an Automatic Crystal in a short time. A good bit of how the crystal reacts comes off the user’s intent, but he also told me it depends on how you hold the thing.”
I dug through my shoulder bag and pulled out my journal. “See? A fully intact Automatic Crystal supposedly has these pegs. That would mean they really are knobs to turn the facets. Like focusing a spyglass.”
Ki’s grin spread from ear to ear. He reached forward and gripped my shoulders.
“He’s got the crystal turned the wrong way!” Ki said. “They are digging in the wrong place!”
Evi chuckled. It was a deep, pleased sound I always heard her make before she headed out to start a fight she expected to win.
“Then where do we need to go?” she asked.
I studied the Crimson Company’s campsite, their dig, and where I saw a magical glimmer appear in the air from the baron’s spell through my spyglass.
“If I’m right, it’s almost the opposite direction from where they’re digging.” I turned toward the nearby jagged gray-tan cliff face of the Great Chasm. There, almost half-buried by ancient landslides, was exactly what I hoped to find.
“Due east of the camp, at the base of the Chasm rock face.” I handed my spyglass around to others who didn’t have one. “Between the two natural rock pillars and past that old landslide, I see something in the shadows there. Like part of a carved archway or door with some lettering. The Crimson Company wouldn’t be able to see it from where they are.”
“Wait,” Ki replied. “If Baron Marius doesn’t know about the mirror effect on his spell, how did he hit you with a spell cast through that shard? Luck?”
I shook my head.
“No. I think he’s working off pieces of information like we all are. I bet all he knows is how to focus a spell through the shard.”
My thoughts were running faster than I could talk, but I managed.
“All right. Here’s the plan.” I pursed my lips. “Evi, go find Tyre and the stonejack we came down here in. Tyre’s had enough time to hide it. After that, track down the Slate Watch sentinels and let those scouts know what we found. Make sure that stonejack is ready to move. We’re going to need a fast way out of here.”
“Will do,” she replied with a nod.
“Ki, head over to that door. See what you can make of those carved letters. You’re better at languages than I am. Mikasi, help him.”
Ki nodded. “What about you?”
I jerked a thumb at the campsite.
“Heading down there.”
Everyone started talking to me at once. With Ki, it was ranting. I shook my head while I held up my hands.
“According to the Slate Watch, Baron Marius is a lich who might have been around since the Great Collapse. The man is deranged and obsessed in a murdery sort of way. He’s also not stupid. He’ll eventually figure out what we know about the crystal shard and the mirror effect.”
I gestured at the Crimson Company camp. “Worse yet? Vargas. Ki and myself know just what Vargas is capable of. He’s a former Windtracer. If anyone can figure out they’re digging in the wrong place, it will be him. If I slip in and sabotage their digging scaffold, that should buy us some time before they realize they are on the wrong path.”
Ki scowled and put his hands on his hips.
“Or, it could get them wondering why they were sabotaged, which could lead them right to that idea they are in the wrong spot.”
“I’ll make it look like an accident,” I countered.
“The plan makes sense to me,” Evi agreed.
Ki threw up his hands.
“I have such a bad feeling about this.”
Mikasi squared his shoulders. “I’m going with you,” he piped up at me.
I shot him a glare.
“No, you’re not. They wanted you in the first place, and I’m sure it’s for what you know about that Ancient Order inventor, Cesibus.” I shook a finger at him. “Like, for example, what you just told us.”
Mikasi folded his arms over his chest.
“Still going with you,” he declared. “Tela, you helped me get away from the Crimson Company, even though it nearly got you killed. Let me help you.”
“Mikasi,” I complained, but he held up a hand.
“Wait, I’m not done. I everyone thinks I’m addled, or have my head in the clouds. That’s fine. But really, do you have the first idea how to wreck those machines in such a way that it looks ‘natural’ how they broke down? If you do it wrong, then what Kiyosi said would come true. They would get suspicious. Between the two of us, we can make it look like a real accident.”
“Once in a while, he makes good sense,” Evi rumbled.
I shot her a perturbed glance, then sighed.
“All right, fine. Miksai comes with me.”
Ki shoved two vials into my hands.
“Here, at least take these with you.”
They were two finger-length vials that held only three or four shot glasses of colored liquid. One was a cherry red color. The other? A deep yellow that churned on its own inside the container. Ki pointed at them.
“I brewed these up last night. The red one is a concentrated healing syrup. Just a drop or two will close up most average wounds. That second? Be careful with that. It’s Helian Fire.”
Mikasi took a small step back. I ignored him while Ki continued.
“You know how it works. Toss it and run. Once it breaks open and that liquid hits the air, it’ll burn on anything, even water, for a long while until someone dumps sand or vinegar on it.”
I knew these potions pretty well. Ki only made them when he was really worried about might happen. I nodded, then tucked them away in a belt pouch.
Ki gripped my hand before we split up.
“So, what’s your plan for when you get down there?” he asked.
I brushed one of the dark, tight braids away from my face.
“I don’t know, I’m making this up as go along.”