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“How did I get here?”
“The guards, Cyrus, you don’t remember? You left plenty on the stairwells, in my hall here, and all over the courtyard. And then there’s the matter of a Battlespire stuck into the southern side of the moon, as if Masser were about to play the flute. But that’s not the real question, Redguard. The question is: why are you here in the first place?”
“Oh, it’s you. Took long enough.”
“You made sure it was loud enough again. And this time you didn’t run.”
“No, I ran. You just have too many guards.”
“Can I really have too many? Get back to the question, please.”
“You know the answer. You got pretty loud yourself.”
“I’m sorry about your friend. I am. Tell me that’s not why you’re really here. He hated you, he said.”
“He did. Things got bad. Doesn’t change anything.”
“Ah. Your famous honor. And here I figured you were going to steal something.”
“Yeah, that’s still part of the plan. Now unlock me. And a sword would be nice.”
“Maybe in a little while, just let me have a word. The way you handled the Altmer was impressive. I could always use a good general these days. Or an admiral, even, if you’re better at sea. According to this, you know all about my admirals.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m not. I would give your honor a better place and this I swear. Mine is the Voice of the Emperor.”
“That’s exactly what I came to steal.”
Tiber Septim’s Sword-Meeting with Cyrus the RestlessEdit
Phynayesteryear 4558 SIY, 3E_____ CIY, all reckonings/refractions in sorted order, en masse obliged in hope, re: the Incident of the Sura-hoon Maneuver in the Masser, and of the treaties broken there and the treaties thereafter having needs to be reinstated with new addenda, namely: the Get Out of His Way lash-tag v.2.4245, recognized now both in ThirdEmpireMen (hereafter TEM) and ThalmorEmissariesMasser (hereafter TEM), unless should there be Opportunity by One or the Other Power to capture/ kill/ interrogate-from-crew (presently, the “Carrick”) without breaking those measures now writ in the aforementioned reworked accords, on threat of annulment from the TEM, and taken from that first voidship present at Incident, these the annals-at-panel of the Alinor Sunbird SMIS Longbow, may they not rest in peace, 187 souls aboard in sum.
The mirror-make of the SMIS Longbow started up, spinning in glass collectors set to catch the sun’s warnings of threat. Its bridge unfolded, and the high elves of its helm folded out from their collective to panel stations, lathered in micro-seconds by their protocolinachs in the filaments of emergency varliance to protect their skins and uniforms from immediate death by aetherfire.
The First of First Mates slotted into his harvester and barked the obvious. “Lower the sun song fifty, or we’ll feel the singe. Rotate our prayers and bring her up. What have we got?”
The Master of Lillandrils-at-Void went to rote, his teeth a cricket quick-click sound, “Helm crew unfolded none have perished give utmost thanks to the filaments solar wings sectored out and pulling towards starboard their ‘ractals math’d and working the bridge is stage set safe for the Aldmerality talk-box if need with the mirror-make uncracked keeping luck where it should be our sunbird is a go.”
“All hands, all hands, this is the First of First Mates, Terror Thought, and we are now at full sail. Salute me and begin. Turn the Mirror and show us.”
The mirror-make’s nymic was pronounced by the helm in unison, going Logician. The Mirror, nautical once more, became pleased with itself, purring. It zoom shunted monocles on to the fifty-plus bridge crew members with its blowgun-like pneumatic brass-glass branches. Those that weren’t ready or properly trained fell screaming or in silence from shards to face or mouth. Terror Thought shook his head. “I will have to fill out forms for that! Ancestry for the fallen, though it does us no favor! Mirror on the deck.”
The Mirror blurred, warbling the Longbow for a moment. A few more were lost to nausea and the filaments ate their glands for restoration. Sectoring out further toward the upper and outer bulkheads, the Mirror made windows. “We are awake and knowing. Void-eyes on. Stare between Oblivion and Aetherius with a purpose. An unknown vessel is detected on the changewinds of our charter.”
“That’s not possible,” typed the Scribe, young by Alinor standards, never-year’d now in this, her first protector ticket across the moons. “Septim promised us no tricks.”
“It’s not Septim. Let the Lillandris bring it up on Mirror.”
Another warbling and it was spotted, the vessel that woke the sun threats at the start. Terror Thought looked, thought, and then said aloud: “What the hell is that? It looks like... Scribe, describe it for the record and then suggest.”
“Permission to talk without sense for the moment, but the vessel is mundrial, sir, wood with canvas sails, no void stones to engine it out here at all. It’s only seaworthy by every account and yet their course seems set for Masser.”
The Mirror shunted again, retracting off the monocles of those that needed to say a prayer to keep their belief-of-self intact. “What should really trouble you, Terror Thought, is that they are waving at us.”
The Scribe lightly coughed for effect and cocked her head. “I don’t understand how they’re doing it, sir, but they’re sailing through the void and flying their colors on a wind that they seem to have brought from Mundus. And by waving at us, the Mirror means their flag. It bears a strange mark, seemingly scribbled in a language I can’t translate, but I infer it’s intended for Longbow. In short, they want to be seen by us, sir.”
The First of First Mates then cocked his own head, his eyes flitting bird-like from one window to another, scanning them, moving inside his own known senses.
“Hold! I see its reflection now. Give me another salute, for we are about to make history.”
“That’s a wonderful thought, sir,” the Scribe typed. “I never thought I would live to see a chapter mark. Priming the cannon; our sunbeam is already up. I will footnote now my request: your consideration for breeding with me after our triumph.”
The bridge moved across plates so that all still alive could witness the answer to the engagement. The talk-box erupted with excited chatter and the placement of bets in the engine room. Terror Thought sighed and pressed his heel, moving the plates back to their proper panels. Monocles socketed back in.
“I recognize the language of their rags, everyone. It’s a Yoku dare: ‘May the Devil Take the Hindmost.’ Very well, all other Thalmoric prism mandates go into crystal for the moment. Hit the solar twelvewind and give chase. We have ourselves some pirates!”
“That wasn’t funny, Coyle,” Cyrus said, folding his telescope. The rest of the Carrickers were at their stations, ready to scramble at moment’s notice. The young Yokudan glanced over at his captain, smiling.
“Fornower’s idea, really,” he said. “And we had spare paint. I wonder if they notice that our flag is an Imga cape.”
Cyrus stared at him hard. “You see their sunbeam? You can’t miss it, Coyle, spyglass or not. I’m still seeing double. That thing can--”
“Good. Then you won’t know which Coyle to punch. C’mon, cap, it’s Old Mary. They’re no better at catching us here than they were in the Divide.”
Cyrus grabbed his vest from the rail, shaking his head while buttoning it. He laughed a little.
“You’re an idiot, boy” he said. “But you’re probably right. And it was smart to have them follow us.”
“Don’t get cocky. Go on and have the men beat the sloadbags. We need the speed. You’ve given me an idea.”
Coyle made motion and joined the scramble himself, taking up the cattle-prods that Gar had reworked with enchantments. The crew carefully speared the fleshy spores attached to the sides of the Carrick and hissing sounds followed.
Thras gas steered them into a new wake, and Cyrus watched his men with something akin to pride on his face. It lasted but a moment, when the sunbeam of Longbow fired, a length of fire splitting the void behind him. Thorpe moved to look for scorches.
“M’sorry, Cy, the lads were just having their fun. It’s your own fault, you know, getting them all riled up and fearless, their eyes on a prize you challenged them to be impossible.”
There’s a fine line between madhouse and mutiny, Cyrus thought, but this isn’t one of them. The old scrub was right. I wonder if I’ve been with them too long now, changing their heads like this over and over again.
“Tobias,” he said. Thorpe heard him, thinking it a call for order, realizing it wasn’t. The captain was acting right weird these days, but some might just argue it was the void. It had a tendency to drive men to questioning.
Ach, get out from there, laddie. You’re under the cat’s clamdesk again. Thorpe’s just near the same out in the alley. Chamberpotted him to wake up, so I’ve got none for you. We need to move. Dunmereth’s a long way from here and I’ve decided not to use the Pass. We’re going through it up the gut instead. I’m not taking any chances, even if it means lizards.
“I remember Tobias when he made a mistake in front of all of us,” Cyrus said to Thorpe, “I left him then, thinking him old, and, worse, over. What am I talking about?”
“Nothing, sir, you was just askin’ if the timbers were blackened and none are so no worry.”
“Right. Thank you, Thorpe.”
Cyrus then undid the buttons again, noting how most of his vest’s velvet filigree had long gone into the way of leathered smudge.
“Cy, find your head. Look at them, the apes you’ve made that love you. Now, look at that beast that follows, its crew o’ wrong-eyed alien murderthirst that we’ll never understand.”
Cyrus looked up, tongued the tooth that was still moveable since he and Borden disagreed on this journey and its end heist. “Nord had knuckles, I’ll give him that,” he said.
Thorpe tossed his sponge and Cyrus caught it without thinking. The scrub was angry. “Lookee now, I remember Tobias, too, but which set of knuckles are ye talkin’ yer teeth about here?”
“My whole life is a fight--”
“Some of them didn’t stay, some of ‘em looked on ya like ye were gone too mad, but yet-so get over it. If ye start to forget why we’re here, beatin’ mast to make the moon, we’ll shipwreck on a whim of yours made under blue an’ proper skies.”
All right, people, some of them didn’t stay. It’s Morrowind, after all. But eyes to the sand. Look. Best as I can make, this is their layout. It’s a bug-camp, though, so expect it to be wrong when we get in. Timbalt, you and your boys are shoot duty. Itu, Naddock, Mal, Thorpe? You’re with me. Frigar, you’re watching those hornet-riders; memorize their patterns if they got one, shout ‘em down if you figure we’re in there fighting, it’ll be obvious. Cyrus, the cats are held captive here, here, there, and most likely there, too. They look thin, but they’re jits, so they’ll come out fighting if this all comes to trouble. And that would be a mistake.
“I’m sorry, Thorpe, you mistake me. We’re not being chased like you think. I was trying to say--”
“Hell we’re not, and now yer actin’ nostalgic, an’ getting’ yer brawls past and present all mixed up. Making peace with your old captain is yer own lug-weight, Cy, and now’s not really the proper clock.”
“Shut up, Thorpe, that’s not you talking. It’s this sail. And call it a whim one more time and I’ll have you. Now watch if you won’t listen. See our chaser’s cannon all moved out and forward? They’re about to fire and I haven’t set to order our move to change course.”
I told you, Frigar had the hornets! Ach, look, cat, I appreciate the help but I’ve got this. Cyrus, stop staring at the sky and look at me. At which point did you decide to change course? Change course? That hornet had you pinned. Is that your view from the top, now, laddie? I was staying my head down and waiting for our shooters. No, this was a fight and I just won it for you. When I’m down, you get to make that call. Looked plenty down to me. That jaw just won’t stop now, will it? We’ll collect our drake and be done with it. I’m through protecting you. You never did, Tobias. You just had the boat and a face I remembered.
Cyrus looked to Thorpe. “Wait for it.”
And the cricket-click went: “Sunbeam charge reroute to main engine move to intercept the remains of our prey they are glass’d for cannon fire what was that eruption report”
The Carrickers hit the deck when the SMIS Longbow exploded, a small warp of the Lords of Misrule clamoring for the creatia they might claim for their own. Daedric servitorslips blinked into view around the Alinor Sunbird’s last moment. A small Oblivion war happened in the space that was not.
Cyrus looked at Thorpe, who was on the floor in brave panic. “There. Is everyone’s head on straight yet? Should be, because look at that.”
A massive shape moved across the silver disc of Masser on the fore. Gar started to shake some magic from his hands, but Fornower put them down. “It won’t help. That’s the Imperials.”
Cyrus heard this from high up and nodded. “Yes,” he called to the crew. “Yes, it is. Now I’ve only seen these on blueprints and in books, but it’s one of their void-castles. It’s them that fired. That’s why we’re still sailing. Stay good.”
Thorpe, eyeing the shape, a collection of towers on a upturned crag of rock, immense in its entire, red loops shining like earrings along its flanks, cooling from the blast they sent towards the Altmer ‘bird, and said, “A Battlespire. Godsblood, Cy, I see now why Borden set to knock you on yer head.”
Cyrus was smiling. “Borden was short-sighted. So are you. The prize we seek is just behind that beast, on those lunar breaks you can make out just there. See?”
“You just started a war, dummy. That’s all I see.”
“No, I just made sure the elves chased us too far. There’s a treaty out here on the edge of nothing between men and mer, just like back home. The Carrick, she’s a Wayrest boat, easy on their eyes and less threatening to boot. We were just the bait. And now we switched.”
Thorpe made a sound through his lips. “We’ve got bleedin’ sload bumps for gas and a sphere o’ anti-madness that’s barely held, cap. What exactly did we switch up to?”
To Provisional Governor of the Reach, Contested High Rock, Titus Alorius, Knight-Commander of the Estates, Duke of Esteem in unified Colovia, Blade-Seneschal of the Emperor Tiber Septim, etc., etc., etc.
Whereas the Master of the TEM Battlespire Honor Before Glory, Celeus Fallbright, Knight-Commander of the Ruby Armada, Admiral of the Dragon Banner at Void and Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Vessels employed and to be employed in the Lanes Aetherial & Mnemolic, etc., etc., etc.,
--is now dead without recourse to doctrined revivication, set out by the Elder Council, the Congress of the Eight, and the Chamberlains of the College of Imperial Magic--
You are now appointed as the new commander of the TEM Battlespire Utmost Triumph to secure in irons real and unreal, the vagrant Redguard terror Sura-do-Hega, 'Cyrus' in the Cyrodilic, 'The Maverick King of the Alk'r' in quarters vulgar, base, and tavern-fanciful--
--and all hands of his vessel the Carrick, for questioning by an appointed emissary of White-Gold, and to do so without delay.
Be advised, if reports are true, the Carrick and its captain have destroyed both the TEM Honor Before Glory and TEM Longbow, Sunbird of Alinor. While vox-enabled memospores seem to indicate that the TEM Longbow was taken unawares and easily bested, defeat of the TEM Honor Before Glory appears to have been the work of subterfuge. Proof-transmission follows:
Archimandrite-at-Ready: “Hailing the captain of the vessel flying the Imga cape. We can’t hear you. We see you cupping your hands. Please try to yell louder.”
Cyrus: “Get out of my way!”
Archimandrite-at-Ready: “Halt and present yourselves for inspection. We apologize for the Altmeri transgression. This is friendly void.”
Cyrus: “Last chance!”
Archimandrite-at-Ready: “Lanes to Imperial Masser are closed to the citizenry. Turn back or we will fire upon you in majestic ways.”
Cyrus (muffled): “Coyle, pull her up and over eight degrees moon-by-moon-north. Haekele, cut the lashes and launch our slug. Thorpe? On my mark, full spin to stop, and drop cargo. This is why I paid a ransom in salt.”
Visuals can verify that the Carrick was somehow sailing via sload-clusters, barnacled to its sides, but this is common for Abecean liners at mundrial sea. What is most asuredly not common is a fully-grown specimen of Thras held by ropes beneath the beam, and launched like some ad-hoc torpedo.
With the application of salt, the crew initiated hitherto unforeseen peristaltic vibrations within said specimen, propelling it forwards and into a landing bay of the TEM Honor Before Glory. Considerable Thrassian flatulence resulted, sending the incapacitated vessel spiraling towards the side of the moon.
Its impact into the Colony proper was ameliorated by orbital moth-mirage and screening flak, yet its bulk cratered itself nearby, no souls surviving.
P-G Titus Alorius, report to the nearest Weir Gate, show arms, take teleport, and make haste for Masser.
Given on board the TEM Warspore Tiberia,
at aetherial anchor, 26th Last Seed, 3E____
Praeceptor Superior Erramanwe
Fornower was in the ropes, using a trumpet from Pyandonea to sound the moonfall.
“Prepare for landing! Everyone in their suits and everyone watching the others. If one of us can’t remember how, another of us grabs their straps and buckles ‘em tight. We’re the Carrickers and none forget.”
Dust washed across the eyelets of their helmets and the keel made a sound that Cyrus frowned at, but his ship set even well enough, its crew pushing the sloadbags down by pole-struts to serve as landing bladders. Haekele grabbed at the glimmerwelts that rose up, and the captain had no heart to tell him that these things were a compost of a sort and nothing to make one rich.
“On my lead,” Cyrus said, jumping over the side, “I’ve been here before.”
Those in the reaving party jumped, too, no nations now in their tatter-suits, leaping in arcs for the youngest or the wild, or careful hops into the silver dust for those between both, and all of them looking around through the eyelets of their helmets which were bulging out now with breath, like speckled, half-dumb tubers taking the measure, and fat-fingered gloves pointing up from the south towards the Imperial walls of the Colony.
Cyrus started running. Coyle hit beside him already at full gait, saying “For you, cap! For Hayle!” before leaping again off a lip of a crater to disappear behind the small dust plume of his own making. The boy let go the flag-cape of the Imga which he had re-stolen just for this moment and it raised up to hang in the air and his shipmates saw the dare.
And Chemli remembered her nation then, shouting, “SPRINT!” and blowing off the front of her helmet off with power. She panicked for a second, but Fornower landed beside her, his hair tangled in glimmerwelt (he couldn’t figure out the pockets of his suit) and he had left his helmet long behind.
“It’s okay, we can breathe here! Just learn how!” Evidently, for some, it was by licorice straw; Fornower was using one as a reed. His hair, what was left of it, it still was left, and she could imagine it combed, but stop thinking about that and run.
“Quit being stupid,” Cyrus grunted, nearing the crater’s edge.
“Right,” barked a voice, which issued from the suit that was marked as Haekele’s, and was prancing, “Hearken to your captain! Here be dragons! Let no Devil--”
A tuber floated slow, then hit the surface with certitude. Cyrus sheathed his saber, having none of the strain the others did with the tatter bulk. When Haekele’s suit fell, it leaked gems. Then the scamp showed itself, its mouth sewn shut so that the voice just heard became a wonder, and Cyrus shook his head. An arrow found the scamp’s eye, and Jill, one of the cautious, refolded her bone bow eighteen paces back.
“What was that, Sura?” someone asked. Not many were running now.
The gems were Haekele’s favorite prize from Cold Harbour. The scamp was just a letter sent by its master. Cyrus wouldn’t take his helmet off to answer Jill. She just might see Borden in his eye. Hell, she might even see S’rathra.
“We’re being chased,” he said by way of explanation. “Enemies front and behind now. Don’t despair.”
“That’s no answer, Cap.”
“What did I miss?” This yelled from Coyle, on the other edge of the crater, the Colony barely framed behind him, its description changing as the moths remade it according to some Imperial command.
Dumb to let him keep those, if you don’t mind me saying. My boat, Borden, and they make him happy. Well, yeah, all shiny from the dwimmerdark makes ye happy, sir, but that’s the point. Just tell the boy to sell ‘em when next we make port. Let a merchant deal with, y’know, Him. No. They’re Haekele’s spoils, and he won them fair. He won them fair from Molag Bal! Shh. They can hear their names, Borden. Wait, yer lettin’ on to him that this is a raga thing, aren’t you? No. Not really. But you are! You are! And what a raga wins, a raga deals with, am I right? Just... just grab the maps, Borden, and plan with me the job. Hell no, yer makin’ us all bait! I’ll have none for it! Put the sword down and get serious. Not a chance. Put. The. Sword. Everybody get down here, they’re killing each other!
“What would you do with it, if you had it?”
“What you won’t.”
“That’s too broad a view, Cyrus. And it smacks of desperation.”
“I’m chained to a wall. Thought the tone might fit.”
“Ah, then tones it is. Hear mine: WULDVOKEIN!”
“Quit... talking in hurricane.”
“Your ears are bleeding. And I swore to us both no torture. You’ve made me change my mind. I do that.”
“How long did Tobias last against this?”
“I am the future, Redguard. And you’re still blaming me for it.”
“Yeah, well, probably. I do that. But you’re forgetting something. You always do.”
“And what would that be? I really am listening.”
“Your past. Our past. You shout so far forward that your own history has to be rewritten.”
“In my mind, this conversation wasn’t so tiresome. In the end, you are nothing more than a terrorist. I should not have to walk you through your dead. Your ransack of the Colossus Halls. The whole of the Renewed All Flags Navy in the Set only three years past. The mock-duel with your wife that ended the Rift and gave her a grave of snow. Proud yet? Pride is something I can admire and have done, but I don’t let boys paint it for me and then run under guns they don’t understand.”
“Keep talking. It works. They said it would. Was hoping it did.”
“Dragging the Lame Cat of Wayrest to the docks while he was still on fire, one of your own make when you found he had finally sold your name? ‘Come at the Alik’r, you best not miss, boys.’ Those were your words, then, yes?”
“More or less. Yeah.”
There was a shiver, from one the veterans. Cyrus shifted, making the chains clank to cover more noise, and glanced sideways. I swore I taught them better. They’d kept hidden in the three-flu marshes for days, and with less threat than now. Remember your cover, people, or he shouts for real. The Emperor kept to his admonishments, though, and gave no glance.
“And the Hist now twice shamed, though I suppose I should thank you for that, at least. The one version of this place where you did cut the atomos to make my friend look foolish? You don’t even remember that because I had to make it right again. I am tired of always standing against breakers of worlds with a grudge to fulfill. You are not a myth. You are not a story.”
“True. And that’s what needs a good rewrite. Everyone ready? Go.”
The chains fell. Cyrus caught his saber with his left hand. Jill’s stomach made a sound; she’d been eating the dead again as in the way of the Green-Sap. Those Carrickers that had survived, they had the Emperor already in ropes and gagged with glimmerwelt. Fornower shook the rest of the compost from his hair. Tiber Septim remained stoic.
Thorpe, straightened to a tallness he hadn’t possessed since Tear, and said, “Fine, so it worked.”
Gar was saying, “Who always appears as a great bearded king, had powers innumerable and echoing.”
Jill said, “What now? Mind if I find His Majesty’s other throne? Swallowed a jaw, I think.”
Cyrus tongued his tooth again. “Go ahead, there’s no one else here. Just stop eating everyone. Give us some room.”
The Carrickers moved back, and Cyrus sabered the ropes. He let its edge linger a bit too long on the Emperor’s left eye. It had always been a good sword, this one.
“Cy, stop,” Thorpe reminded him. “Fair fight or we don’t win.”
“Winning is relative.”
“When did you decide to change course, Cy, am I right? No more time for that. Here, boy, hand it over.”
“No more time. Take it.”
“Good, thanks. Now everyone get a bit better back.”
“What, no one’s gonna mention that, for once, his mouth is actually full of--”
Gar was saying, “He was grim and dark and the most silent of the invading chieftains, though when he spoke villages were uplifted and thrown into the sea.”
“Fornower, we get the joke. Go ahead and spit, Tiber, we’re almost done.” The Emperor coughed the compost from his mouth. Three windows were blasted into the courtyard as he rose. Someone heard a thunderclap just before Cyrus elbowed him in the throat.
Gar was saying, “The Hoon Ding fought him unarmed, grabbing the Dragon's roars by hand until Ysmir's power throat bled.”
“No more time,” he said again. “Fight’s on. And quit calling me that.”
Gar was saying, “These roars were given to Gar to bind into an ebony listening frame, which the warrior-poet placed on Ysmir's face and ears to drive him mad and drive him away.”
Chemli said, “Listening frame. Did we forget that bit?”
Gar put his book away and took Haekele’s helmet out, tossing it to the captain.
“Nope. We’re the Carrickers and none forget.”
You’re letting him actually beat you. I have a bag around my head with your enchantments still swirling about, Bal. No, I get that, but I mean he’s actually beating on you while you’re talking to me. I’m wearing the Word, it doesn’t hurt all that much, but I need you out of my eyes, you already have the boy. I had the boy the moment the Sura-Hoon made his bargain. You have nothing to really offer, until you do. Until I do. Until you do. You took his shape? Yes. And you did nothing but make a joke? Slow day. He’s not big time like you are. Granted, he’s whipping you across the jail bars, case you didn’t notice. What do you want? Doesn’t work that way. I always want. I’ll give you ten years under my name, but not this skin. Deal. That skin is looking pretty haggard, anyway. Now get up and fight, dummy, we’re all counting on you. Thank you, Bal, I won’t forget this.
Tiber Septim looked to Cyrus. “Ready now, Redguard.”
Bounding towards the Colony, in that mad rush he can name now if he would let himself:
“You know, cap, this’ll sound funny, but I could swear this crater looks fresher than the rest.”
“You’re a sailor, Coyle, and as far as they go you were always pretty level-headed. Don’t go superstitious on me now. Everything here is dead. Nothing fresh ab--”
The ground tore open before them. A wave of pressurized phlogiston washed over the reaver party, making the air crackle with potential it hadn’t known in ages.
Pretty soon there was no space between the rounds. Sky and floor were the same thing: a bloomfire spread of insect wings and math-flak. “Incoming numer-nomials now!” Gar warned.
“CHEMLI YOU HAD ORDERS!” Cyrus roared, looking for her through possipoints. He had to blink between blinks to get rid of the snapshots.
Chemli was already shouting the warheads down from the firmament whenever she could. The crew couldn’t hear her above the clamor, and every new shelling took a different shape. She almost fell to another sleeved-manticore scream-angling in on some kind of delight-death trajectory with names of its summoners written in cursive. Chemli thought, it’s getting personal to them, and sprint-shouted blind, caught by her captain.
“Good girl,” Cyrus said, nodding, “You’re good now.” Good crew. Stupid, but good. Trench warfare. Been awhile. “Regroup!”
Thorpe landed. “MORE SHELLING, MOVE ‘EM TO A CRATER.”
“What happened?” From Chemli, taking the scrub’s shoulder.
“It’s just him being loud,” Cyrus said, sliding down the crater’s rim. “The Emperor. He’s scared. He can't bend this place to his will. Death doesn’t work right here. Coyle, how is everyone doing?”
“All heads counted, cap, and the Imps, they’re finally reloading. Get a breath and start moving again.”
“Good plan, but where are you?”
Gar pointed to Coyle’s suit up on the further rim above them. It had no midsection.
“Don’t go superstitious on me now,” Coyle said.
“If he talks again, burn him.” Please stay quiet, Coyle. Just this once.
They climbed past the body and moved north.
All right, people, some of them didn’t stay. It’s Masser, after all. But eyes to the dust. Look. Best as I can make, this is their layout. It’s an Imperial Reclaim, though, so expect it to be wrong when we get in. Jill, you’re the only shooter we really have, do the boat proud like. Coyle, Fornower, Gar? You’re with me. Chemli, you’re watching those gun batteries; memorize their patterns if they got one, shout ‘em down as we charge. Thorpe, the Emperor is either here, here, there, and or even there, even if that altitude makes no sense. He looks good on the drake, and the stories are true, so he’ll come out fighting if this all comes to trouble. And that’s no mistake.
Scene: The Womb of the TEM Warspore Tiberia, 30th Last Seed, 3E____ . P-G Titus Alorius, recently ported from Weir Gate fv.4.5, addresses the Morbâd Obesse as they study gel screens held aloft by red silk ribbons. Praeceptor Superior Erramanwe remains silent in sleep throughout the proceedings.
Titus Alorius: No fully supplied ground stations, you say?
The Morbâd Obesse: One way to put it.
Titus Alorius: Put it another way.
The Morbâd Obesse: Well, as far as numbers 'n' statistics go, we're looking at the set of halfway functional Imperial garrisons on that big rock and the set of things that absolutely don't exist. You'll find the two have quite the overlap.
Titus Alorius: Improvise then. Optimize troop distribution. Set course for the surface and drain all available hands from this vessel. Cover as much... ground as possible with as few 'nauts as possible. I don't know where this rover could be headed, but we will make sure he doesn't get there
The Morbâd Obesse: Eh, listen, son. Sir. I don't think you understand. See that little dot down there? Or up there, who knows. That is the Imperial Reclaim of The Greater whatever they call it these days. That is our turf. We got one docking station and the good fortune none of it seems to rust. Seven men, sir. Seven men. Hrolbedamned, we still send the relief in some threadbare hiatopod. There's no provisions for 'spores this size to touch ground there. In one piece, anyway.
Titus Alorius: Poor humor. Still, I'll grant, the logistic status of the Demalion is not exactly as advanced as I was led to believe. I did not expect this.
The Morbâd Obesse: Think I'd have come if I had been properly informed? You'll understand I'm a bit out of the loop here, but allow me to do some guesswork. Postulate one: name's Alorius, right? Big name. Moving up in the world, no doubt. Postulate two: You've been posted about as far from fair Niben as they could throw you, with a big situation on your hands to boot. Ergo: You were in someone's way. Who put your name in? Was it Cormades? All those years and that ruthless bastard is still playing chess with the Empire's finest? It was Cormades, wasn't it?
Titus Alorius: Enough. You are speaking far above your station. I have been thinking. What you are saying does not make sense. The crown nigh emptied the coffers of reunited Cyrodiil to reclaim our holdings here. The pinnacle of the orbital fleet patrols this sector, until recently with unerring efficiency. Why would the Emperor apply all these resources to a domain he shows no interest in?
The Morbâd Obesse: Now you're asking a different question. The Empire has little relevance here. Doesn't have the means to. But the Emperor, well, I think he is rather fond of the place. On a personal sort of level, I mean. As if it's more his than ours. The boys at the station, they joke they see him out there sometimes, you know. Just out and about, strolling. That's the drink talking, of course. That, and staring into the dark too long. The big black puts funny ideas in a man's head. Take no notice.
Titus Alorius: I didn't. Regardless of Septim's opinion of this province, I will have this gaffe dealt with, Cormades be damned. If our own troops do not suffice, then we find help elsewhere. I have been given a lavish budget to stop Sura-hoon and I will not hesitate to use it. Bend time and get to a possipoint close enough to when it happened. Send out a message on all aetherial frequencies, even the deprecated ones. Someone will listen; everything can be negotiated. If you catch a void-fibril, tell the Hist Cyrus is on the loose again. They don't need more convincing. If some cat floats by, tell them we can make their sugar invisible in return for a favor to the Empire. Establish a corridor to Misrule if you must, but mind who you're dealing with. Report to me. Dismissed.
Hist super-liner slip seed stalkstrum builtgrown wash branched out in snapthorn belly bass crawler phloematic thornplex virsliclk-ix-that’ls its thatls riggered out scale calyx critical sepals critical corolla critical stemens engage floodbogmud lignicore pasted drowned thing. It made a sound.
“That what I think it is?” Jill asked, looking up at it, sitting eastward watch between them and the last lunar break to the Colony proper.
“Most like,” Thorpe said. The scrub had been there, had held the Eye for a week as they ran through the stone-stalks, lathered from the flu in skooma.
Cyrus stared. “I think so. But we were all out of our minds then, though. Can’t be them. They never leave the Marsh.”
“Lots of running with you lot,” Chemli said. Her voice was sore.
Thorpe was showing signs of fibril now, throwing off a glove and seeing the roots take twine.
“Outta our minds just about now, boss. It’s them. Give the word and we’ll shake this all.”
“I’m sproutin’ flowers here, make it soon.”
Fornower was glad now he had his glimmerwelt. “I’m fine. Lizards don’t seem to want to lace around my head at all. Now who’s laughing?”
Why aren’t we remembering our dead, Chemli wondered, and then petals. “Petals,” she said.
“It’s all in our heads,” Cyrus said. “Stay good.”
“Oh,” Thorpe smirked, licking a mushroom knuckle, “Forgot about that. Treaties and all. The Hist just broke it, right? Easy enough. Petals.”
They were losing it. Commands were needed.
“You’re losing it, Thorpe,” Cyrus said, “Trees aren’t dumb enough to fall into a sunbird’s wake sitting on the edge of the Accord. Unless.”
“Unless there’s no more Accord,” Gar finished. “Yessir, look, the stars are moving, meaning the constellations went wet again.”
Cyrus started jogging towards the Colony, westward in berth, hoping the others would know best to follow. They did, Thorpe trailing a visible lily scent.
“Went wet? How do you mean?” Jill asked. She ran fast even as she studied the new plant life above her.
“Sorry, I forget you’re young to the Carrick. By ‘wet’ I mean they slid off our maps. Only the Emperor can do that, change which stars mean what. What it really means is that the birth signs are even getting out the way.”
“Yeah, that’s the short version.”
Duadeen wondered if the pirate could give any kind of version at all now. Every time the Emperor shouted, things went violent and awkward. One shout after another. Even the snow looked a different color, gone a bit brown from the dirt stirred up underneath, or the sweat which all of them contributed to, the animals as well, as the horses had never liked it, this shouting and those Imperial aurochs, snorting their bellows-hearted move to go, but all including the moons made to look by the red diamond men and small militia, even Duadeen’s own small contribution, professional scofflaws and hard men of worth; their retainers were exceeding high to the robber-baron of the Way Rest, but probably nothing in contrast, not even worth a spoken well-done, to this new and two-headed crown in at least many ways reborn. I have no idea what this person naming himself the Septim is anymore, Duadeen thought. All my records were roach in their wrong.
He was not stupid, Duadeen. No one this far west could be to get this ahead. He had gambled with gold and bought a gelding enchanted for this night, the catching night, where Tobias Hold-None would be riding with a small but fierce bodyguard that Duadeen had already studied and found battle faults for weakness to the Emperor’s ease; this horse, which had on its ledger a fancy name, and the promissory note that read it would know no fear in violence. It wasn’t a lie, it was just facing, like him, a new, small frantic now with the frame of night gone a bit pink from all the blood. Or maybe it was just the echo in everything’s ears, thundercracked by thoom.
He said he wouldn’t resort to this, Duadeen would never remember later. Grammar itself was turning into a landslide.
It was a strange color now, the floor of the earth under this corner of the world, under these trees in the woods of New Falkreath, a mixed color ones of station had only ever seen in the pigments of the more modern painters of Tamriel, proud in their new Era, a real color, they proposed, one that’s antique but avoided for perhaps it was too easy not to think about how hard: the true color of men when they are determined to uncover mysteries at any cost.
“Captain Tobias,” the Emperor said, sitting his bat-horse on a branch of oak jutting from a nearby hill. “I pray thee stop again, this unwillingness on your part, this bleak and farrow insolence. I call you Nord now whatever your mixed ancestry, for I have as like. I call you a man, too, because I’ve seen so little of them. Don’t make me shout again. Not in front of these others.”
When did I think meat-eating bulls would be part of my resume, Duadeen asked himself. No one could ever answer that.
“Hey right, I’ll do that,” the pirate said, crawling to lean with his back turned on a mound of what might be horse meat and toppled tree, with roared metal broken and thrown by voice into shards into all of it. The ambush had been a terrible thing and so utterly sudden that it was hard to remember that all of this had once been a normal woodside pass because it stank now. It stank of gods when as boys, stank of the idea of gangs. Was the tilt of the crown really so endangered as this?
“I’ll do just that once I catch my breath.”
“I need to catch mine, too,” the Emperor said. There were legionnaires that sighed then, Duadeen knowing them each now to have been hand-picked from times in battle where they had already seen the likes as this. Which must mean they knew how these things went. And by sighing, it was clear enough that they were never still with it in heart. No one moves through such a landscape without hoping never to do again.
The pirate put his knees up, using a helmet to prop his broken one, yelling pain with the effort, a caught proud creature against ruin, a caught proud creature knowing ash was come. Like most in these moments, he laughed after yelling, but sunk his head to his chest. “I hate him, too, milord Hjalti,” he snorted, “But you fear him. He would’ve liked that. He will like that. No, no, no.”:
“He’s gone ill-brained,” Duadeen said, glancing at the bat. “I can purchase us another way. I will use my own gold.”
The Emperor looked over and frowned. “One’s illusions are usually more discreet.” Tiber Septim dismounted but no one saw. The next moment he was simply crawling up in the new, cold colors to his prey, a strange beast movement now, and an auroch ate a man. “It’s simple to step aside all of that. Just don’t have any illusions. We don’t, do we, Captain Tobias?”
The pirate took his face from his knees and looked, lips and eyes gone mongrel, his lower left jaw just showing bone and burnt, black attachments. “No, no,” Tobias’ skull tried to say, forcing it finally out, “No. He won’t like it one godsbitten bit, and your monster thought revels in this already. You’re just making us all words to him, you’re thinking. You’ve gone different now, milord, you’ve gone proper insane.”
The Emperor was gutting him with a broken but serviceable dagger, up, left, and to the sternum, but the pirate still talked. “Proper insane in proper redwork. You’ve gone Hircine. You’ve gone and got my belly out. You’ve gone and kept me alive through this all with that devil’s wind of yours in my own lungs, just to anger him.”
“Yes. I prayed you to stop. You wouldn’t. Now I’m working.”
“He set the cat on fire, milord. He was telling you right then that he doesn’t fear you. I’ve hated that bit of him, the cocksure until it kills the rest. But look who’s winning now? Who’s so cocksure that they’re bent like a hagraven at a beggar’s last delight?”
The Emperor stopped the talking, stabbing up until the pirate’s whole dead half-skull was his on a hilt. Duadeen vomited when he saw Septim continue the conversation in two voices.
“You’ve won this one,” the Emperor said as himself.
“I’m a puppet head,” the Emperor said in the imitation of the dead pirate’s voice.
“I’m a puppeteer.”
“You move my head back and forth on this metal stick and talk to yourself as someone you remember.”
“Look, I can make you nod with your own head. You’re starting to rot too fast.”
It was the giggling that made most everyone perish. Torches dropped as the legionnaires stopped in their lives. Snow if it could be called that pounded up when horses hit. The aurochs belched out all of their eating and their gorge made pea-green steam of the world around, buckling down in death, while the Emperor on all fours except for his right hand holding up the pirate’s head to his own giggling out some theatrics that made sense to him alone, saying, “I’ll leave you in ash, sweet Captain, and they’re all dead now save for us.”
Tiber Septim stood up, dropping everything he held. Tobias’ head fell back to his chest, propped up now for a slight by the dagger hilt before lolling to this way and that, for all the mad moving to and fro had broken all his neck bones.
“It looks now like you’ve had a right good fight, maybe even near the victor, as it’s only me now that escaped, an ambush that went nearly wrong, and again my enemies will think me possible to take down, if dangerous to try. And that’s how I will win.”
The Emperor shouted and the whole of the wood forgot what was said.