11:59 p.m., Newsday, 24th of Golden Peak,

Year 2659 of Epoch of Pious Virtues


“WHO’S THERE? Speak, or I’ll cut you in half with my blade!”

Obadai Bashim knew his words rang hollow. He didn’t have a sword, though he did have a hunting knife stuck in his boot. That was it really. With his lilac eyes, he gazed into the dark shadows of Linden Copse, one of the five large town parks. Only the two crisscrossing main paths were illuminated by tall gaslights, which sent their greenish glow and vapor down sparingly. The rest lay hidden in darkness on this night of the summer solstice. The midnight hour passing would bring them to the last day of the week and of the midyear month.

The Town Watch station wasn’t in hearing distance, but was within running distance, he knew, and he started to back off from the hushed sounds of shrubberies rustling nearby. He wasn’t afraid, but these days it paid to be cautious of things stirring in the shadows.

“Please, help me.” The soft sound came from the bushes on his right, and Obadai peered at the obscured outlines of deciduous trees and other lush vegetation. As on most nights year-round, the fog had rolled in from the chilly Thulian Sea, but in midsummer it was only a thin veil covering the ground, and it did not further impede vision, though it added to the eerie atmosphere.

“Step out into the light where I can see you,” Obadai commanded harshly.

A small shape climbed out of the bushes, nothing more than a silhouette. “Please, don’t hurt me.” The tiny voice cracked. It was a masculine voice, but shaky, scared, and on the verge of tears.

“Who are you? Why were you following me?” Obadai asked just as the midnight bells rang in the Abbey’s clock tower, their deep, gloomy sound echoing throughout the fortress town of Dunbruth. Everyone knew that the chartered town’s name was old Scottish Gaelic. The founder of Larkhall—the old bailey and keep—Sir Ector Macaledon, had been of Scottish descent, a rogue who had been granted this faraway county to rule as an Earl. The initial town name had been longer, Dùnan Bruthach Súmaid, which meant “Small Fortress on a Steep Slope of Waves.” The current form had been abbreviated and twisted by time, wrongly, as it happened. It was supposed to mean “A Fort on Surf Mountain” since the hilltop castle stood on the summit of Surf Mountain—but because the word bruthach didn’t abbreviate correctly, the literal translation was “A Fortress on Pressure.” Considering the crazy times, it had begun to make insane sense.

Of course, all that business with Sir Ector had happened seven hundred years ago and had no bearing on the events of tonight.

The Dunbruth Clocktower chimed for midnight mere moments after the Abbey bells, more melodic and higher in pitch, like a cheerful echo to the prior darker rings.

The boy looked about, wide-eyed with fright at every sight and sound. “I’ve seen you around town. I know you live up in Eldritch Castle. I thought you might get me past the Jackdaws on Stone Maiden Bridge.”

“Why would I do that?” Obadai’s voice had gentled when he saw how young the boy was: surely not older than twenty but possibly as young as fifteen. This one could not take him on, given Obadai’s martial arts training. But he also didn’t know anything about the boy’s motives, so he remained wary.

“Please, I have to get up to the Lofty Lodge,” the boy said, sobbing now and wringing his hands, frightfully nervous.

“Why?” Obadai demanded, suspicious.

The boy’s shoulders slumped, and he wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands. “’Cause if I don’t repair it, it’ll drop out of the sky.”

Now things were starting to make sense, and Obadai quickly discerned the seriousness of the situation and the potential threat in his surroundings. “Who’s looking for you?”

“A ripper, likely from Caligosbury. He already took my Master.”

Obadai swallowed hard. This was bad. “Captured or killed?”

What in the name of the unholy Vice Masters would a ripper be doing here, across the Cloudburst Channel? They had no jurisdiction to operate here in Dunbruth without the express permission of the local constabulary. And they definitely didn’t have the right to capture, torture, or kill sages and inventors of any science, regardless of the current shaky political climate between the D’monican Theocracy and the Five Kingdoms.

“I don’t know. Killed, I think. I hid in the closet. I only heard the racket and saw the flames when…. He screamed so loud…. Then I ran….” The boy’s voice broke, and he swayed in place as if about to fall down, at the end of his rope.

Obadai acted quickly, closed the gap between them, and wrapped his arm around the dizzy boy’s narrow waist. “Shh. It’s all right. I’ll take care of you.” The boy weighed practically nothing; Obadai could have lifted him into his arms with ease.

The boy looked up from under his brown bangs with hazel eyes, tears streaming from them. “Y-you will…?” Up close, it was clear the young man was older than fifteen, but he was still frail and boyish. The dirt and grime on his face and skin didn’t improve matters. Obadai’s gaze landed on the left side of the boy’s face and neck, tracing the black swirling lines in his skin as they disappeared beneath his collar. These racial attributes, which looked a lot like wavy tattoos, were the unifying physical feature of all Nebulosians—on the left side of their bodies for men, on the right side for women.

“Yes, I will,” Obadai assured the young man. “My name is Obadai Bashim. Now, we need to get you some new clothes. Those rags won’t hold out for long.” The boy had old, torn brown tweed pants and a white button-down shirt, the sleeves and the hem in tatters. He must have been out the door as soon as he’d seen a window of opportunity. He did have a tool belt hanging loose on his narrow hips and a pair of goggles around his neck, but those must have been either an afterthought of the escape or an instinct to grab them and bring them along.

Obadai thought fast, examining possibilities rapidly and dismissing them just as quickly.

The walls of St. Osiric’s Abbey were the closest, just outside the park to the west, across Lantern Lane. But the Cloister Gate to Appletree Orchard, the Abbey hamlet, was likely closed this time of night, and to get into night service, they would have to ring the bell for the warden to come escort them. Also, the Nightflies guarded the entry points with the diligence of religious warriors. And while the absentminded Abbot Enlightened Wisdom would probably be too wrapped up in meditations to notice, Abbess Endless Sparkle would definitely not be pleased with Obadai bringing violence to the church’s doorstep. And… the Abbey was in the opposite direction from the Lofty Lodge, which rose in the northeast, chained to the southern rock face of Surf Mountain.

But if they got undetected past Beech Promenade, the main north-south thoroughfare from the Old Town Gate directly to the Snow Maiden Bridge, they’d be close to the Bath House of the Mystic Lark Inn. And their laundry rooms weren’t far off, so they could nab what they needed from there. But… the popular, classy inn was a hot spot for hustle and bustle, day and night, during all seasons, as it was adjacent the two Old Town marketplaces—Acacia Square and Almondtree Market. And there was a Town Watch station just up the street in one of the Eastern Towers, crawling with vigilant Jackdaws, as the guard officers were commonly called. And… it was the night of the summer solstice, of the Dewdrop Festival, and while typically the townsfolk would be in bed at midnight, on this magical time of blooming fern flowers, the streets would not be entirely empty. Even now lively music, song, and laughter could faintly be heard from the taverns and tea parlors closest to the park. Something as simple as finding clothes could risk people’s lives.

That had probably been the boy’s reasoning as well: to disappear into the festival crowd and hide in plain sight would endanger innocent bystanders.

No, his own cloak would have to do. Obadai let go of the boy, took the deep-black robe he habitually wore, and placed it carefully over the boy’s thin shoulders. That left Obadai with his black leather pants and rebelliously tight black shirt, but it wasn’t cold, so he felt fine. “This’ll have to do until we get you to the Castle. Believe me, Countess Macaledon will want to know about any and all unauthorized ripper activity in her county. She’ll help us.”

The boy frowned, worrying his lower lip. “But the ripper is so powerful. Do you have the breath or the spark?”

“No.” Trying to protect a strange sage boy from the Church’s hunters was bad enough, but confessing that, as a Mystic Witch, he had the seed in him, was a total no-no. Here in County Isleshire, he didn’t have to hide who he was, but it was prudent to be careful who he trusted. He did not have the breath of Air or the spark of Fire magick, both condoned by the Church of the Spirit Gods for religious reasons as they did not conflict with dogma within the Theocracy. Yet, all those possessing the seed of Earth or the drop of Water magick had been driven underground as illegal magick practitioners.

It was mad, but it was life, and there was no refuting it now. Maybe with civil strife cropping up all over the Five Kingdoms, things would change….

The boy shivered, looking resigned. “Without magick, how in the name of the Spirit Gods could we get over the Stone Bridge and past the Town Watch there?” Then he stared at Obadai, half-wary, half-pleading. “Where are we going? I must repair the airship lodge before it comes crashing down.” The desperation in his tone was unmistakable. Commendable as the boy’s sense of duty and loyalty were, for the time being that had to wait.

“You’ll see” was Obadai’s only reply. Oh, how he longed to believe the confidence in his own words.