The Magus Conspiracy

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Chapter Sixteen: Jere.

A sonic boom echoed through the valley then rolled away like distant thunder.

Well, there goes another one,” said Sam, hands on hips, looking into the distance.

High in the air, a shimmering portal refracted the light at its edge, creating a ring of deeper blue against the cloudless sky. A multicolored contrail led from the portal to a huge wheel-shaped craft, speeding towards a distant snow-covered peak.

That’s, what, nine of ‘em now?” said Sam. “Where they all going?”

The craft, now a dot in the distance, decelerated and came to a stop over the peak.

That’s Schliew Unierren; The Iron Mountain,” said Fintan. “They all seem to be heading there.”

As he spoke, the craft descended and disappeared into the top of the mountain.”

“What're they doin' anyways?”

I have no idea, Sam. Maybe a better question would be where are they coming from?”

OK, well I got an even better question: Why the hell are we buildin' an oil pipeline in a place where there ain’t no cars and there’s boojums flyin' around all over the place by magic.”

“Teic, not magic.”

Yeah, well whatever; they don’t need gas, so none of this makes any sense.”

No, it doesn’t, but if building a pipeline from Keher Kuhn-Ridh means I’m out here working every day and not in that cell, then I’m not complaining.”

Yeah, I hear that! What the heck’s over there anyways? Hey Numbnuts!” He called over to the blond guard with the braids.

“It’s Nemnet. What do you want Renstrom?”

Yeah, whatever,” said Sam with a wink at Fintan, “what’s over there where all them boojums is flyin' to?”

“You’ll find out soon enough; that’s where this pipeline is going. Now get your crew back to work or do I have to give you some encouragement?”

Nemnet hefted his spear and an arc of energy crackled along the end.

No boss, that won’t be necessary,” said Sam. “C’mon folks, let’s get back to it. Baby, bring another length of pipe from that wagon, would ya?”

The woman Sam had called Baby stood up and walked over to where he stood grinning at her. She bent down to his level, blonde hair cascading down to her thighs, and placed a hand the size of a serving tray on his shoulder. He wilted under the weight, but kept grinning.

Do you think it’s endearing to get people’s names wrong, Sam?” asked the giantess. “Are you actually that ignorant?”

Oh c'mon, you know I only do it ‘cause I like ya, Baby.”

The giantess grinned back at him, teeth glinting like the snow. “Well, I don’t particularly like you, Sam. You’re a letch and a charmless oaf, and if I wasn’t fettered by this mejrok, I’d pull your arms off.”

“Baby, …”

My name’s Bewienn – as you well know – and if you call me Baby again I’ll see to it no merchant in the city or surrounds will sell you that grain liquor you like so much, understand?”

Sam’s grin didn’t waver a whit. “Sure thing, Baybeen. Anything you say.”

Bewienn sighed and stood up, pushing Sam down as she rose. He grunted under the force and almost cried out as she ground the bones and soft tissue in his shoulder together, but she let go before she did any actual damage. His grin returned as he watched her stride over to where the pipe segments were stacked. Something akin to a mooning schoolboy’s expression appeared on his face as he watched the beautiful woman heft a two-hundred kilo length of pipe and place it over her shoulder.

Sam liked her - that was true - but the real truth was that Sam Renstrom had fallen head over heels in love with Bewienn the Giantess.

Jere the felkynd brushed past Sam to pick up a pick-axe.

{Get your thoughts under control, Sam Renstrom. Your intentions towards Bewienn Mohr are polluting my mind. Put her from your notions, human; she’d snap you in two.}

Sam stepped away from Jere. These tall fur-covered bipeds with their panthers’ heads and their telepathy made him uneasy.

Well, I don’t see how that’s any of your beeswax, Cat,” said Sam from a safe distance. “Go clean out your litter box.”

Jere walked past with the pick-axe over his shoulder and bared his teeth at Sam.

“OK, OK guys,” said Fintan, “let’s get back to work before Nemnet loses his patience.”

They worked on into the late afternoon, clearing snow, rocks and soil, sinking foundations and erecting stanchions for the pipeline just like they had done the day before and countless days before that.

It amazed Fintan they could accomplish so much without optics and heavy machinery. He took on the roles of engineer, surveyor and draftsman and was able to explain his requirements to Jere who took levels with his bare eyes and, amazingly, did the complex calculations in his head. Fintan had taken to calling him ‘The Walking Theodolite.’ Bewienn did the heavy lifting and between them all they did the spadework and the welding of the sections using tiny teic welding rigs. Between them they did more work every day than Fintan would have believed possible.

Just around the time the sun was disappearing behind Schliew Unierren, Nemnet called a halt and a shuttle disc arrived to ferry them the two hundred kilometers back to Keher Kuhn-Ridh. The journey took over an hour and Fintan watched the pipeline they’d spent months building pass beneath them. Sam and Bewienn bantered with flirtatious enmity and Jere sat with his eyes closed, a faint purring coming from his throat. Eventually it got too dark to see and Fintan put his head back and closed his eyes.

He awoke from his doze as the shuttle landed with a crunch on the snow outside Keher Kuhn-Ridh. The lights from the city and the floating globes of teic illuminating the gates glowed through the transparent canopy. A group of guards approached the shuttle to escort them inside. Bewienn and Sam talked quietly to each other, but there was something up with Jere. Normally the felkynd would remain in his meditative state until the canopy opened, but tonight he was sitting bolt upright, his blue-grey fur standing on end and his muzzle pulled back in a silent snarl. He looked around, this way and that, his eyes wide as if sensing a threat. As Nemnet opened the canopy Fintan said, “Jere, what’s wrong?”

Jere sprang from his seat and vaulted out of the shuttle. He ran into the night, his paws leaving big tracks in the snow and was almost out of sight when Nemnet reached into his shirt and touched his mejrok. There was a shriek and a snarl, and Jere fell headlong into the snow and lay still. Nemnet ordered the guard detail to retrieve the felkynd and kept the others at spear-point. The guards dragged Jere back like a rag-doll and threw him in the snow. He snarled weakly and after a couple of attempts stood up, reeling like a drunk. Nemnet grabbed him by the front of his jerkin and snarled into his face, “If you try that again, Stray, I’ll skin you alive, understand?”

Jere threw his head back and shrieked a howl of anger toward the stars, but he held both fore-paws out before him, crossed, with the pads upwards in a gesture of submission. Satisfied, Nemnet indicated to the guard detail to take the four prisoners into the city.

Jere, what’s the matter?” said Fintan quietly as they walked. ”I’ve never seen you like this.”

{A terrible thing, Øsul McHewell. Many of my kynd brothers and sisters crying out in great fear somewhere nearby.}

“Why didn’t you explain to Nemnet, rather than letting him zap you?”

{Alas, we cannot communicate with any of Kuhn-Ridh’s guards. Their mejroks block out our thoughts. They fear us being able to overpower them mentally.}

“And could you?”

{Were they not wearing those accursed stones, certainly. But whilst they do, they cannot hear our thoughts and we cannot hear theirs. That is how they capture felkynd in the first place; we are not aware of their approach.}

But surely you can hear them, even if you can’t sense their thoughts.”

Jere’s eyes drifted towards a bend in the western road. Fintan became aware of a distant mewling sound, like many people keening quietly. The cries increased in volume until a prison transport – a large cage on a floating platform – came into view, accompanied by a group of guards. In the cage were felkynd of all ages, some sitting, some standing, but all staring out with large terrified eyes. Their mental cacophony filled Fintan’s mind:

{Help us!}


{Where are we?}


{What is going to happen to us?}

{Help us!}

Jere stood with his eyes wide and his teeth bared. Fintan could feel the waves of telepathic frustration and anger emanating from him. Nemnet shouted over,” Hey, you lot; keep moving toward the city.”

One of the guards pushed Fintan and Jere in the back. The felkynd snarled and stood his ground. Fintan pulled on Jere’s arm.

“C’mon, don’t give them an excuse to hurt you again.”

That’s it, McHewell; get that maggot-ridden stray moving before he earns you all half-rations for the next week.”

“I’m doing my best, boss. He’s just concerned about his people. What do you want with them, anyway?”

Nemnet walked over and placed the tip of his spear under Fintan’s chin.

You ask a lot of questions, McHewell, but I’ll tell you anyway. All the chieftains have been ordered to double their efforts to track down the Lebor Stara, and Kuhn-Ridh wants to be the one to find it.”

Nemnet turned to Jere with gleeful contempt. “He’s going to perform a taghairm.”

At the word ‘taghairm’, the felkynd in the cage started screaming and pulling at the bars. Jere snarled and his mind screamed {NO!} He leaped onto Nemnet knocking him onto his back and sank his fangs into his shoulder. Nemnet screamed and struggled beneath Jere, but the felkynd held on and tore at Nemnet's belly with his rear claws. Fortunately for Nemnet, his leather armor took most of the damage and he managed to get his arm free and reach for his spear. He brought the spear up to Jere’s face and discharged it. There was an explosive crackle of energy, and Jere fell back in the snow and lay still.

The smell of burned fur and flesh filled their nostrils and a wisp of smoke rose from the charred ruin of Jere’s left eye socket into the chill night air.

Later that night, as Bewienn tended to Jere’s wounds, Sam hissed across to Fintan, “What'n the hell’s a taghairm?”

Fintan stood at the front of his cell facing Sam’s, gripping the bars and looking over at Jere and Bewienn. “I have no idea,” he whispered, “but whatever it is, it scared the bejesus out of Jere and his people.”

{Why are you whispering, humans?} Jere’s thought-voice filled their heads. {Do you forget I hear your every thought?}

“Sorry, Jere,” said Fintan. “No offense intended. Humans have a tendency to whisper around people who are injured or being tended. How are you doing over there, anyway?”

{I let my emotions get the better of me, Øsul. The fear and pain of my kynd, and the taunts of that accursed guardsman caused me to lose my control. My temper has cost me my eye.}

Jere hissed inwards as Bewienn placed the poultice Fintan had traded his useless iPhone for on Jere’s face.

I’m sorry, Jere,” she said as she tended the wounded felkynd through the bars that separated their cells. “I’m doing my best not to hurt you, but this wound is grave, and I need to remove the remains of your eye lest it fester.”

{I thank you deeply Bewienn Mohr. The giants and the felkynd have not always been the best of allies, but you are a great ambassador for your people.}

“Thank you. Now lie still. I don’t want to make this any worse.”

The felkynd lay back while Bewienn continued her treatment. Unbidden, he said,

{A taghairm is a divination ritual. It is a cruel and brutal rite used to raise daemons.}

But why? And what does it have to do with cats?” asked Sam.

{In a taghairm, thirteen felkynd are roasted alive, one after the other.}

Bewienn gasped and her hand went to her mouth. Jere sat up and looked over at Fintan and Sam.

{As each felkynd suffers, the energy of his mental screams is captured in a device called a føtta. If it is timed properly, as the thirteenth felkynd dies, his final scream merges with the others and the mental resonance invokes a fire-daemon that becomes trapped in the føtta. The daemon cannot return to Iofrin until it answers a single question truthfully. If the divination works, Kuhn-Ridh will ask the daemon where the Lebor Stara is. And then we are all lost.}

“What’s the Lebor Stara?”

{An ancient artifact. A book of great power. Kuhn-Ridh wants it badly enough to torture thirteen of my kynd to death for it.}

Oh Jesus,” said Fintan. “That is appalling. When will this happen?”

{At the feast of Sauwan. In twenty-one days.}

“Does he have enough felkynd to do this? How many were in the transport?”

Jere lay back and closed his remaining eye. He gave no answer for a moment then said,

{There were twelve.}

Sam was about to knock on the door of Mug-Ruit’s office when he heard raised voices inside. Ignoring the glare of his guard chaperone, he leaned closer to the door and listened.

Are you crazy, Nemnet? Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find felkynd with engineering skills and that are susceptible to obedience patterns on their mejrok? In the last fifty-five raids we’ve caught exactly one. And now you want to put him in a taghairm?”

Look,” said Nemnet, “he’s a troublemaker. He tried to escape last evening and when I restrained him he almost disemboweled me.”

So you were able to subdue an unarmed fettered felkynd with your spear.” Mug-Ruit’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Good for you.”

Hardly unarmed; they have claws and teeth. Anyone would think you were on the cat’s side.”

I don’t have sides in this. I just want a safe and peaceful city for everyone. And I know what you’re like, Nemnet; always taunting the prisoners and harassing the maidens – my daughter among them. You have a nasty streak and it’s a mile wide. You didn’t need to tell Jere his people were being used for a taghairm. You didn’t need to do anything but keep your mouth shut and make sure the prisoners made it back to their cells.”

“They need to be …”

Shut up, Nemnet. Just shut up and get out of my sight. Jere is too valuable as a teicnoir on the pipeline. He’s not to be put in the taghairm, and that’s the end of it.”

“But he’s half blind now; what good is he?”

“You’re clutching at straws; he’ll be perfectly fine working on the pipeline with one eye. Now get out and organize another raid. Find me another felkynd for the taghairm.”

The door was wrenched open. Sam jumped back and Nemnet strode out gritting his teeth. He saw Sam standing there looking guilty and shook his head in disgust.

Aliens! You’re as bad as that cat. Too useful on the pipeline, my arse-rag! Let’s see how useful he is when he loses the other eye.”

I heard that,” shouted Mug-Ruit. “Ah Renstrom, there you are. Come in, come in.”

Nemnet stomped down the tower stairs. Sam’s chaperone stood to attention and cleared his throat.

I have to report that this prisoner was eavesdropping at the door, Tieschach.”

Sam started to bluster and profess innocence, but Mug-Ruit looked pained and waved his hand at the guard. “Yes, yes; terrible behavior. The whole tír's going to the dogs, now shut that door and wait outside until Mr. Renstrom is ready to go back to his cell.”

The guard gave Sam a dirty look and swung the door closed.

And no eavesdropping,” called Mug-Ruit.

There was an embarrassed cough from outside the door and a shuffling of boots as the guard sidled away.

“Now Renstrom, how are you doing today?”

“’Bout the same as usual, I guess. What was all that about?”

Oh, this taghairm that Kuhn-Ridh wants. Frightful business. Nemnet has some grudge against Jere and wants me to put him in as the thirteenth felkynd.”

Mug-Ruit walked over to the window. Far below in the courtyard, an area had been fenced off where the teicnoiri were erecting the gantry for the føtta.

Well, I ain’t so fond of him myself,” said Sam. “He’s kinda hoity-toity, and not particularly friendly.”

“Is he indeed? I find him quite pleasant to deal with. Have you had dealings with any other felkynd?”

Well no, I guess I haven’t.”

They’re certainly more reserved than your average human, I’ll give you that, but they’re smart and hard-working, and honest to a fault. Jere is actually one of the more approachable of them.”

Jeez. Well I hope I never meet a real unsociable one.”

“Perhaps you should try and get to know Jere better. He really is quite an extraordinary fellow.”

“I don’t get it. Why do you have such a soft spot him?”

Mug-Ruit looked in the distance for a moment. When he spoke his voice was quiet and carried the weight of distant memories:

“He saved my life once.”

Sam look startled. “He saved your life? When?”

Oh, a long time ago. When I was quite a different man. Well, look, fascinating as this all is, it’s not why I asked you up here. I need to make a report upstairs. How is progress on the pipeline?”

Sam wanted to ask more about Mug-Ruit’s past with Jere but the security chief fixed him with a look that stated in no uncertain terms that the topic was off limits. Reluctantly, Sam let it go.

Er, pretty good, I guess,” he said. “We’re managing a major section every two weeks now, so if the sections stay the same length we should be at Schliew Unierren in about three months.”

Mug-Ruit looked askance at Sam. “Who told you the pipeline is going to Schliew Unierren?”

Sam shifted uneasily. “Nemnet mentioned it yesterday. Are we not supposed to know?”

No, you’re not supposed to know; as evidenced by the fact that I’ve never told you.” Mug-Ruit sighed. “Oh well, we were going to have to tell you sooner or later, I suppose. Still, damn that Nemnet and his big mouth. Kuhn-Ridh has already given me a carpeting for other security leaks. If he hears about this, he’ll flay me.”

Mug-Ruit looked out the window, his brow furrowed. Sam cleared his throat.

Can I, er… can I ask you a question?”

Well, I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, I suppose. Ask away.”

“Far as I can see, you’re opening these holes in my universe and using them to steal oil and bring it back here, right?”

You make it sound so iniquitous, but that’s about the size of it, yes.”

“Well, if you can open holes anywhere you like, why do you need a pipeline? Why not just open the hole on this side exactly where you need it?”

Mug-Ruit looked at Sam with admiration.

That is indeed an excellent question. I never thought you’d have the nous to come up with that. Well, I’ll tell you what I know, but the underlying technical hocus-pocus is a bit beyond me, I’m afraid. It’s to do with the spatial geometry of sidhs that link our respective tírs. The natural laws of your tír are framed within what you call physics. The corresponding discipline here is called teic; somewhat of a superset of your physics. Think of physics, throw in higher-order mathematics and add a good dash of what you call magic and that’s Teic in a nutshell.

But to answer your question, there are teic laws governing how sidhs are opened between tírs, and what can pass through them. The prime governing factor seems to be gravity. For example, within certain geometrical constraints, it’s possible to open a sidh from this tír to anywhere in your tír, but if the sidh on your side is far within the gravity well of a massive object such as a planet or a star, living creatures cannot pass through it from here to there. I believe it used to be possible to open sidhs to your side with impunity and all manner of creatures used to travel over there, but the laws were rewritten to prevent it a long time ago.”

Huh? You mean the laws of physics here can be rewritten just like criminal law back home?”

The laws of teic, to be precise, but yes, you have the idea. Apparently, there are artifacts that can do such things. But going back to your original question and how gravity affects things, when we open a sidh between tírs, near, or on, a planet’s surface, we can only specify the exact location on one side or the other, but not both. Sidhs that open from the surface of your world tend to bunch up into smaller areas here. For example, every sidh opened on your side, anywhere on your planet, opens into the island of Eyron on this side. And in fact, every sidh we have that opens from your American continent, opens on this side into an area outside Keher Kuhn-Ridh no bigger than a small village. The gravitational effect is so strong that if surface sidhs on this side were not contained in a very strong teic field, they would drift around within their geometrical parameters and cause havoc.”

But you said living creatures can’t pass through from my side, if the sidh is on the planet’s surface. Ain’t that how I came through?”

Ah, what I actually said was that living creatures can’t pass through from here to there. There’s no law saying they can’t pass through in the opposite direction. They didn’t tighten that one up for some reason.”

Sam looked glum. “So I really am stuck here. There’s no way back.”

Well in theory, if you knew how, you could open a sidh into the space above your planet where the gravity is weak. The laws don’t prevent that. If you had some way of surviving the journey to the surface, you’d be home.”

“Which is another way of saying I’m stuck here.”

Oh come, come, Sam! Is it really so bad? You don’t want for anything, and in a few weeks the pipeline will be completed and you’ll be released from your work contract. You’ll be able to roam the island to your heart’s content, seek adventure, become a bard, or a mercenary, or a farmer – whatever takes your fancy. Or you could stay here and work for us. I’m sure there'll be other pipeline projects.”

Well, it’s not like I got much to go back to anyhow – and there’s another thing; how come you need oil anyways? I ain’t seen no motor vehicles, and all your flying doohickeys seem to run on water.”

Ah, now that would be telling. Some things I really must keep to myself if I’m to retain my job – and my head.”

Sighing, Sam walked over to the window and looked at the activity far below.

“What’s goin' on down there?”

Mug-Ruit stood at his shoulder. “Preparations for the taghairm. See that large cauldron-like thing they’re floating onto the top of that gantry?”

“Yeah, that thing that looks like a huge copper bath?”

Bronze actually, but yes; that thing. That’s the føtta. Quite horrible.”

The føtta was a semi-spherical bronze crucible, big enough for several men to lie end-to-end in, and just about big enough to contain an enraged fire-daemon. Several rods went from the lip of the føtta and converged at a metal ring several meters above it. It looked to Sam like a place to attach a hoist but that clearly wasn’t its purpose given the teicnoiri were maneuvering it on a floating platform. The gantry was surrounded by thirteen evenly-spaced iron cabinets, vaguely humanoid and reminiscent of iron maiden torture devices.

“What are those things standing in a circle around the whatchamacallit?” asked Sam.

Those are called eijen. They’re the ovens the felkynd will be placed in before the ritual. Ghastly devices.”

“How does it all work?”

They’ll place a large crystal lens on the top of the tower here, and another in that ring over the føtta. As the sun rises, the lens on the tower will catch the rays and focus them onto the lens above the føtta. The lenses are cut in such a way that as the sun transits the sky, its rays will be concentrated on each eijen in turn, roasting the poor creature within. It takes hours. Many hours. Absolutely gruesome.

“Well, anyway; I’ve talked enough. Too much probably. It’s good to hear that the pipeline is on schedule. Enjoy your day off, Renstrom. You can go now.”

Sam headed for the door. Yeah, enjoy my day off in captivity in a place I can’t get home from. Gee thanks. He opened the door and went through.

Er, Renstrom?” called Mug-Ruit.

Sam poked his head back around the door.

Don’t share any of what I told you with anyone. It wouldn’t do either of us any good.”

Sam nodded and closed the door behind him. With a heavy heart and his chaperone in tow he headed back down the stairs to his cell.

From his tower window Mug-Ruit watched the progress of the føtta as the teicnoiri guided it into place. One of them took off his helmet and leaned his head back, mopping his brow and neck. He saw Mug-Ruit watching and saluted up at him. Mug-Ruit returned the salute.

That fellow has sharp eyesight. I must be a hundred meters above him and he could see me clearly enough to deliver the correct salute. Extraordinary. He must have the sight of a felkynd. Or at least the sight of a felkynd with two good eyes. Alas Jere. What am I doing to you and your people?

Despite what Mug-Ruit had said to Nemnet, Jere’s future on the pipeline was very much in doubt. A teicnoir needed both eyes to take accurate levels and angles so it was only a matter of time before Jere was terminated on the project.

Not that it would make any difference to his ultimate fate.

Mug-Ruit hadn’t been entirely honest with Sam either. In fact, he was appalled at how glibly he could lie to people these days. He had spoken to Sam about being released from the project and becoming an adventurer or what have you, but that was never going to happen.

Mug-Ruit didn’t like it and in fact he thought it would increase tension among the races, but Kuhn-Ridh had sent down orders that morning that once the pipeline was completed everyone working on it would be executed.

{Øsul, we have to help them}, said Jere. {The youngest is only a cub. It is unthinkable. The others have not explained the taghairm to him, but he can sense the danger. He is frightened beyond fear.}

Fintan gripped the bars of his cell and looked over at Jere. Every erg of the anxiety radiating from Jere was reflected in the lines on Fintan’s forehead. The bitter acid of impotent anger filled his craw.

Bewienn had her arm through the bars holding Jere’s paw. His claws sank into her hand and retracted as he fretted, but she barely felt them break the skin. The tears on her cheek spoke of an empathetic pain that was far more profound than a few puncture wounds.

Sam was lying on his bunk in the dark of his cell drinking Ischkuva and staying quiet.

“How can we help, Jere?” asked Bewienn. “What can we do?”

{We must free them, Bewienn Mohr; free them and get them far away from here.}

But how can we hope to do that? We’re all fettered with mejrok obedience patterns. We can’t act against any of Kuhn-Ridh’s people. Even if we could, there are too few of us. We’d be recaptured or killed in no time.”

{With enough willpower it is possible to overcome the effects of the mejrok for a few moments. I proved that when I almost gutted that vile guardsman yesterday. However, your point about our numbers is well taken. We need reinforcements.}

“Where could we possibly get reinforcements from?” asked Fintan.

{From the Ord Kommarlu – the high council of the Felkynd}, Jere replied. {They will not ordinarily interfere in the affairs of humans but if they hear of the taghairm they will besiege this accursed place and lay it low.}

OK, how do we get a message to them? Can you reach them with your mind-voice?”

{No, that is not possible. One must go to the Ord Kommarlu in the flesh to solicit their help. They live in a place where the thoughts of others cannot reach them and from where their thoughts cannot be heard. The gift of mind-voice comes with great responsibility and great consequences and our kynd do not take it lightly.}

So the only way to get help from the felkynd high council is to go there and ask for it. That means some or all of us have to escape. How are we going to manage that? As Bewienn said, we’re all fettered. Perhaps you have the mental capacity to resist the mejrok, but I doubt I do. How about you, Sam?”

{Waste not your time asking Sam Renstrom to help my kynd. He cares nothing for us.}

Sam said nothing for a moment then swung his legs down and shambled to the front of his cell on unsteady feet. His voice was thick with the effects of the Ischkuva.

I don’t know nothin' much about you or your folk, Whiskers, but I know what’s gonna happen to them and that ain’t right; and there’s a kid among them and that sure as hell ain’t right! I don’t like you, but I’ll help you. Ain’t no-one should sit back and let a kid die.”

The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Sam fell to his knees and burst into racking sobs. The open bottle of Ischkuva rolled from his hand and spilled its contents in an arc on the floor. Fintan stood in shocked silence.

Sam, what’s wrong?” asked Bewienn.

Jere made a mewling sound and put his ears back. {Ah, such anguish}, he said. {Sam Renstrom I had no idea you were carrying such a burden, you poor devil.}

“What? What is it?” asked Fintan.

{It is not for me to tell, Øsul. Sam Renstrom must unburden himself if he so chooses.}

Sam looked up, his face a picture of grief. “Tell them. Just tell them, God damn it!”

“Tell us what?” asked Bewienn.

{Much of what I’m seeing is unfamiliar to me but I see Sam Renstrom's mate and their child trapped in a vehicle. He has been ejected from the vehicle and is lying on the thoroughfare. His leg is broken and he cannot get to them.}

Oh my God, your wife and child were injured in a car crash?”

Sam used the bars of the cell to drag himself to his feet. “Killed. They were killed in an auto wreck. I was driving – drunk off my ass. I hit a barrier and spun the car across the other side of the freeway. I got thrown clear ‘cause I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Irony is, I always made sure Bobby was strapped in, and Hayley was in the habit of putting hers on automatically. She was always chewing me out for not wearing mine but I hated it. So I got flung out of the car and they were trapped – go figure. I’m pretty sure Hayley got hers off ‘cause when I came to she was turned around in the car trying to get Bobby out of his. Then an eighteen-wheeler came round the bend and went clean over the top of the car. Bang. Just like that they were gone. Bobby was five years old. God damn it.”

He forced his head against the bars and wept through clenched teeth.

Oh Sam,” said Bewienn. “I do not understand everything you said, but I understand your pain. How awful.”

Fintan was shaking his head in sympathy. “Sam, I had no idea. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Sam wiped his eyes and nose with the backs of his hands. “Yeah, well it was a long time ago and it only comes to the surface when I drink this shit.”

He kicked the bottle on the floor and looked over at Jere. “I’ll help you rescue your kin.”

Jere inclined his head. {I thank you Sam Renstrom.}

Sorry to keep harping on about this, but how are we going to override these mejroks? There’s no escaping as long as we’re wearing them. Even if we could, we’d never make it out of the city.”

Sam cleared his throat and looked out through the bars, his eyes and cheeks glistening.

So we don’t escape when we’re inside the city – we do it when we’re on the chain gang. Listen, tomorrow we’ll switch places in the transport. Just as we’re coming in to land at the pipeline, I’m going to yank the mejrok off Bewienn's neck. That'll free her. She’ll do the same to Jere’s and Fintan’s. Then we’re going to beat the tar out of those two guards, take their spears and make a run for it.”

There was a stunned silence.

Hold up, Sam,” said Fintan. “How can you remove the mejrok from Bewienn's neck? The obedience pattern in yours won’t let you.”

Sam shrugged. “I ain’t fettered.”

There was another long silence.

“What do you mean, Sam?” asked Bewienn.

“Just what I say. I ain’t got no obedience pattern. Don’t know whether it was an oversight or because they knew I had nothing to go back to, but they never fettered me.”

“But, but … why didn’t you escape?”

And go where? When I first got here all I wanted was to go back through that portal and back to my life in Alaska, empty as it was. Then I realized I was probably stuck here and I had to make the best of it. Either way, I figured I was better off sticking around here than going out into the wilds to take my chances with God-knows-what. Then today old Mug-Ruit pretty much confirmed to me there’s no way back. So as things stand, I’m hangin' around a place out of choice where they burn innocent folk alive to raise demons. Well screw that! Tomorrow I’m out of here and you guys are coming with me. We’re going to go see Jere’s high council, bring an army back here and free his people. Then we’re going to string Mug-Ruit and Kuhn-Ridh from that gantry they’ve built down in the yard.”

Oh Sam,” said Bewienn, “it’s a wonderful idea, but I’m afraid neither Jere nor I can go with you.”

“Why the hell not? Don’t you wanna get out of here? Don’t you wanna help Jere’s people?”

“Of course I do, Sam, but you’re not going to be able to take my mejrok off. Look.”

Bewienn unlaced her tunic and opened it down to the top of her breasts. She leaned forward so that Sam and Fintan could see where the leather thong joined the top of the mejrok.

“Jesus!” said Sam. “How did it get under your skin?”

Where the mejrok should have nestled in her cleavage, the thong disappeared into her skin as if grafted there.

This is what happens when you wear a mejrok for a long time. Jere’s is the same. Yours will too after a few years. Haven’t you ever noticed it sticking against your skin?”

Yeah, but I just thought I was allergic or somethin’. It kinda sticks sometimes and leaves a raw patch when I yank at it.” He looked over at Fintan. “Don’t tell me yours is dug in too.”

No, it irritates my skin sometimes, but I can still move it around. Although, if I try to take it off, my arms refuse to work. If you’re planning on cutting it off me, I hope it doesn’t fry my brain or something.”

“God damn it! So only me and Fintan can get these suckers off. Can we cut yours out maybe? I got plenty of alcohol to rub on the wounds.”

Bewienn shook her head and looked at Sam with eyes like pools of regret. “No Sam, once the mejrok is under the skin it sends tiny filaments into the organs and nerves. It’s as much a part of me now as my heart. I am bonded to Kuhn-Ridh until he terminates my contract.”

{It is true, Sam Renstrom. I can tell you and Øsul McHewell how to locate the Ord Kommarlu but you must travel there without us and convince them of the plight of our kynd.}

Ah shoot! OK, well what’s the plan then?”

{We shall adapt your plan, Sam Renstrom, for it is a good one. As we alight at the pipeline tomorrow I shall subdue the accursed Nemnet and relieve him of his spear. At that moment you will remove the mejrok from Øsul McHewell's neck. One of you will then take charge of the spear and dispatch the guards. I do not believe I can overcome the mejrok for long enough to manage that.}

“Then what?”

{Then you will both take to your heels with the spears and not look back. You will find the Ord Kommarlu and return before the feast of Sauwan with an army of felkynd Kommanlak to tear this midden apart and free my kynd.}

But what about you and Bewienn? Won’t you be punished?”

We’ll take care of ourselves, Fintan. You must get away quickly because they’ll send guards after you. We’ll send them in the wrong direction of course, but they’ll eventually pick up your trail.”

Yeah, speakin’ of directions, where is this Ord whatchamacallit anyways?”

{Alas, I do not know, but …}

What? You don’t know? What was all that baloney about goin’ there and bringing them back then?”

{Only enlightened felkynd know where the Ord Kommarlu is, Sam Renstrom, however …}

Well, what the hell’s that mean?”

{You should let me finish, Sam Renstrom. Some felkynd dedicate their lives to Diru; the study of felkynd mind powers. If they attain Worar – the highest degree of Diru - they are eligible to be felkynd leaders. Many of them then assume places in the Ord Kommarlu.}

Do you know of any of these enlightened felkynd, Jere,” asked Fintan.

{I know of one, yes.}

And how do we find him?”

{Her. She lives in an old Diru retreat which was partially destroyed by Midir a long time ago. Only the tower remains, and therein she resides.}

“So what is she, some kinda super witch cat, or somethin'?”

{She is very powerful, but far from a witch. She is my mother.}

Your mother?”

{Yes indeed, Øsul. She attained Worar level three and would have become a great felkynd leader had she not become pregnant with me. She made a great sacrifice to have me. She is the one you must find, but do not speak to her of me or give any indication that it was her son who sent you.}

Why on earth not? We’re going to be two alien humans arriving out of the blue asking for help. Surely she’ll trust us quicker if we tell her we know you.”

{Alas not Øsul; I was a severe disappointment to her and she disavowed me many years ago.}

But you’re her son. I mean, how disappointed can she be? And if it was years ago perhaps she’s gotten over it.”

{There is no getting over it, Øsul. Disavowal is final and irrevocable. We call it ‘basbattak’ – the living death.}

Not that it’s any of my business, but why did she disavow you?”

{Ah, a common quarrel between parents and children, Øsul: She had plans for me; I had other plans for myself. Against her counsel I followed my own path. She was unused to such waywardness and reacted as she would with a recalcitrant Diru acolyte: She expelled me from her life.}

“But it can’t be as irrevocable as you say. Is there no way you could reconcile?”

{It is not possible, Øsul. Basbattak involves a complete psychic disconnection of two felkynd. Even if we wanted to, my mother and I can never communicate with one another again. The connection is cut. You must understand it is not called basbattak merely because the exile is dead to the one who banishes him. When my mother disavowed me, I felt the cut. It was like someone had never existed, yet I still had the memories of a life with them. For her it is better or perhaps worse, as befits your viewpoint: She has no memory of me whatsoever.}

Fintan shook his head and turned away. The unbelievable sadness of Jere’s situation tore at his heart and drove a lump into his throat. Thinking about what the noble cat had suffered at the hands of Nemnet, and the anguish he must be feeling at the potential fate of his kynd made it all the harder to understand how he could cope. As tears stung the corners of Fintan’s eyes and spilled down his cheek, thoughts he had been suppressing for months rose unbidden to his mind. Memories of Bree and Mark flashed through his mind and he gasped as the sense of loss hit him like a hammer blow. He staggered and caught the bars to stop himself falling over.

“Fintan, are you OK, man?” asked Sam.

Fintan looked up, the grief in his throat now a very real pain – like a knife was thrust in there - and saw the others staring at him. With more self-control than he knew he possessed, he forced the lid back on his misery and said, “Yeah, yeah; I’m OK.”

Jere looked over, his one good eye screwed in sympathy.

{That is the first I have ever seen of your family, Øsul. I would never look into your mind, but the sheer force of your recollections tore through my thoughts. You must tell yourself that you will see them again. You must believe it with every fiber of your being, else you are lost.}

“Thanks Jere. Yes, that’s how I keep going; by doing exactly that. I just had a moment of weakness. I don’t know how you manage though. I think your story is one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.”

{It is my lot, Øsul, and mine to bear. It does however have an advantage for you: When you reach my mother, no matter how hard she looks into your minds, she will not be able to see any trace of me.}

“OK, well I still think that’s incredibly sad, but I can see how it helps us. Where is this tower where your mother lives, anyway?”

{It lies far to the north of here. It is called Dewenisch.}

Dewenisch?” said Fintan. “I think I know where that is. Is it on an island in a lake?”

{It is indeed, Øsul. How did you know?}

Because there is an island called ‘Devenish’ in my tír with a round tower on it. It was a place of study and meditation a long time ago. It’s extraordinary how many similarities there are between this tír and the one Sam and I come from.”

{Well, it is fortunate that you know where it is. It will make your journey somewhat easier.}

It will indeed, Jere. What’s her name?”

{Her name is Mieru, but her title is Worara Øsul Mieru-San. If you address her thus and hold your palms up whilst approaching she will be better disposed towards you.}

Fintan nodded. “Thank you, Jere.” He looked around at the group, his lips tight. “OK, tomorrow, if all goes to plan, we set off to find Worara Øsul Mieru-San.

{May your gods and guardian spirits go with you.}

“Amen to that,” said Fintan.

Outside the cell-block door, Nemnet stepped away from his spy-hole and started back up the stairs, his face twisted in fury.

Treacherous bastards! I should report them to Mug-Ruit and have them flayed for their sedition. But no; I’ll deal with the scum myself. Oh, someone is indeed going to get killed tomorrow, but it won’t be me.

“What ‘n the hell is he doin’ here?” growled Sam.

Mug-Ruit smiled at the work gang as the four of them approached the shuttle disc.

“No idea Sam,” said Fintan, “but something’s going on.”

“Good morning, my friends,” said Mug-Ruit. “I trust we are all well today.”

Good morning,” said Fintan. “It’s unusual to see you out here so early. Is there something wrong?”

“No, not at all, not at all,” said Mug-Ruit slapping Fintan on the shoulder. “Sam here was telling me yesterday how well you are getting on with the pipeline and I thought I’d come and see for myself.”

At this Nemnet started and turned to Mug-Ruit with his mouth agape.

“You’re coming with us?”

Yes, indeed I am. It’s been a while since I got away from the city and even longer since I visited Makloklin, the chieftain up there. He has, after all, been kind enough to let us put the pipeline through his kingdom so I should go and offer my gratitude in person.”

“But, but … “

Oh for heaven’s sake, Nemnet! Why is everything such an issue for you? One would swear you didn’t want me along!”

Tieschach, it’s a long boring journey and the lands up there are dangerous. I don’t want to have to be responsible for your security as well as the prisoners.”

Nemnet, might I remind you that I was a mercenary before I was head of security. I am well able to take care of myself. And might I also remind you who fills your coin-purse at the end of the week. No more protestations. I’m coming along.”

Nemnet turned away and muttered under his breath.

“You do far too much of that, Nemnet,” said Mug-Ruit. “Don’t try my patience.”

The four were looking at each other in alarm at this turn of events and Sam approached Mug-Ruit. “Listen Chief, I wouldn’t ordinarily side with old Numbnuts there, but he’s right. You probably don’t want to come on this trip. It’s a hell of a hike.”

Jere came up alongside and nodded his head in agreement.

Mug-Ruit sighed. “If I were of a more sensitive persuasion I might be deeply hurt by all this rejection. No more discussion. Let’s be on our way.”

He turned and climbed into the shuttle, taking a seat at the rear. He stared at Nemnet and the four for a moment then he raised his eyebrows and gestured at the empty seats in front of him.

Come on,” Nemnet growled. “Get in.” He pushed them towards the craft and they started to board. Jere was last and as he stepped into the craft Nemnet thrust his spear into Jere’s side, burning a patch of fur. The felkynd paused and stared into Nemnet’s eyes with his teeth bared. Nemnet leaned into him and hissed, “Today’s the day, Stray. Mug-Ruit or no Mug-Ruit I’m going to skin you alive.” He tapped his finger on the patch over Jere’s eye-socket. “Maybe I’ll take the other one first.”

Jere turned away and stepped into the disc taking his usual seat behind the pilot. Disappointed at the lack of reaction, Nemnet climbed in beside the pilot and closed the canopy.

Jolly good,” said Mug-Ruit from the rear. “Enough dissembling. Let’s be off!”

A few minutes out from their destination Mug-Ruit spoke up. “Jere, you look very uncomfortable up there.” He patted the seat beside him. “Why don’t you come and sit back here with me?”

Jere shook his head and pointed to the floor under his feet, making an I’m quite happy here gesture with his other paw.

No, no; I insist. Come back and sit here.”

Nemnet turned and glanced at Mug-Ruit then eyed Jere with suspicion. Jere looked at Fintan who shrugged and nodded his head. Jere rose, eyeballing Nemnet, and made his way to the back of the craft.

Excellent. You’ll be much happier back here.”

Nemnet continued to scowl back at them. Mug-Ruit waved him away and he turned to face forwards again, muttering.

Jere, I know what you’re planning.

Jere’s heart missed a beat. He narrowed his one good eye and looked sideways at Mug-Ruit.

{I can hear your mind-voice, Tieschach.}

Yes. And I can hear yours. Amazing what’s possible when you have control of the mejroks, isn’t it? Now, as I was saying, I know what you’re up to.

Jere hung his head. A great sadness and sense of futility came over him.

{Is our luck never to change? Tieschach, I implore you; if you stop us you’ll be sentencing my kynd to death.}

My dear Jere, I merely told you that I am aware of your plans. I said nothing about stopping you.

Jere glanced at him again.

{You are toying with me?}

Not so, my friend. I cannot be party to any actual violence against my people but I shall not prevent the escape. Nor will Nemnet and his guards, I shall see to that.

{I am perplexed, Tieschach. Why would you help us?}

Drop the ‘Tieschach’, Jere; we are long past such formalities. I shall help you because I owe you my life, and because that taghairm is an abomination. It cannot go ahead.

{I am very relieved to hear you say so.}

Indeed. However, there are conditions attached to my helping you. Would you hear them?


Very good. Only McHewell and Renstrom can escape. If I report that two aliens were killed in an accident, I don’t have to account for them. You and Bewienn Mohr would present more of a problem.

{It is as we planned it, in any case.}

Indeed. Secondly, I must not be implicated.

{Agreed. We would keep your involvement confidential, even under pain of death.}

Thank you, Jere. Thirdly, and most importantly, when your people come to the city, no harm must come to Keher Kuhn-Ridh, any of her people or to the oil pumping system. Is that clearly understood?

{Then how shall we free my kynd?}

Without violence. McHewell and Renstrom will bring representatives of the Ord Kommarlu and a division of Kommanlak to the gates of the city. I shall convince Kuhn-Ridh that we should come to a diplomatic solution and shall effect the release of your people in that fashion. There is to be no attack or siege of the city. Is that clearly understood?

{It is. If Kuhn-Ridh frees my people, there will be no bloodshed. However, should you not honor this pledge, I shall not be able to prevent the Kommanlak from laying waste to your city.}

When we have agreed these terms I shall give you my spoken word, as a man in your debt, that I shall keep my bond as long as I am alive to do so. Will you accept it?

{If you offer it, I shall accept it.}

Excellent. Here is the final condition: Since there will be no taghairm and therefore no fire daemon, the Ord Kommarlu must agree to assist us in locating the Lebor Stara.

Jere raised his brow.

{They will never agree to that. The Lebor Stara is lost in time and that is how the Ord Kommarlu wants it. They would never allow Midir to regain it.}

Nevertheless, it is a condition of this bargain. If it makes you happier, you should know that I have no intentions of letting Midir have it either; I want it handed over to me.

{You? What do you want with it?}

Oh come now, Jere. Why would I not want such a powerful book?

{You are asking the Ord Kommarlu for a great deal of trust in taking stewardship of such a thing, however I shall ask Øsul McHewell and Sam Renstrom to present your conditions as you have set them out. I accept your contract.}

Mug-Ruit held out his hand to Jere surreptitiously. Jere gripped it and Mug-Ruit said “Gjällim” under his breath.

Now, our bond is sealed. May the gods of darkness and the gods of light look favorably on our bargain.

{May Bastet and Sekhmet grant it their blessing.}

A shadow loomed over them.

What are you up to, Stray?” Nemnet demanded. “Tieschach, you must know you can’t trust this degenerate.”

Calm down, Nemnet. Jere and I are old friends. There is no issue here with trust. Retake your seat.”

I don’t think you understand, Tieschach. You can’t trust any of them. I overheard them talking last night. They’re planning to kill us and escape. Renstrom isn’t even fettered!”

Oh for heaven’s sake, Nemnet. Do you think you are the only one who eavesdrops? I know everything that goes on; I control the mejroks, you moron!”

Nemnet managed to look simultaneously cowed and provoked.

I’m the head of the City Guard! If you knew about the escape why didn’t you tell me? Why did you let them leave the city today?” A sudden realization - a fervent hope - entered his eyes. “Wait, you’re going to kill them out here, aren’t you? That was my plan too; kill them and say they were trying to escape.”

No-one is going to kill anyone, Nemnet. I want them to escape.”

Nemnet’s jaw dropped. “You want them to …”

Escape, yes. Well, McHewell and Renstrom at least. Look Nemnet, Kuhn-Ridh is making a huge mistake with this taghairm. There are better ways of finding the Lebor Stara than alienating the entire felkynd nation, not to mention invoking a fire-daemon in the middle of a crowded city. I have a practical alternate solution. All you have to do is cooperate and no-one has to get hurt. Are you going to cooperate, Nemnet?”

Nemnet took several steps back looking dazed then he snarled “Traitor!” and raised his weapon. Arcs of teic energy snaked across its blade as it charged. Before Nemnet could fire, Mug-Ruit leaped from his seat and delivered a snap kick to the point of Nemnet’s chin. The others, who had no idea what was going on, looked on in shock. Nemnet flew back and fell across the rows of seats unconscious, but his thumb was on the trigger stud as he landed. The weapon discharged upwards and blew out the center of the canopy. The energy from the discharge flowed out through the hole and wove itself into the teic field surrounding the craft. The pilot cried out as the controls stopped responding and the craft began to lose height. The canopy disintegrated and large chunks of it flew away as the craft hurtled along, angling towards the ground. The occupants clung to their seats, the wind whipping their hair and clothes and threatening to pull them out of the craft.

Look,” shouted the pilot over the wind, “I’m going to bring us in over that lake. Get ready to jump.”

They looked where he was pointing, “We’ll never make it,” shouted Fintan.

The pilot wrestled with the controls. “We will. I have enough power to bring us in shallow over the middle of the lake, but we’ll get only one chance. When she hits she’s going to skip off the surface and go back in hard over the land. We can’t survive that so we’re bailing out over the water. When you go, jump from the rear of the craft; feet first.”

They took positions along the edge of the craft.

“What about Nemnet?” shouted Bewienn.

Leave him,” said Mug-Ruit. “He’s a liability.”

Jere jumped back down into the craft and tried to lift Nemnet clear but the guardsman had slid under one of the seats and his armor was caught. Jere pulled hard on Nemnet’s leg but the straps on the armor wouldn’t give.

The pilot jumped up from his seat and ran for the back of the craft. “That’s it; that’s all I can do,” he shouted. “We’re just over the lake; go as quickly as you can. Danu be with you.” The pilot jumped clear and fell out of sight.

Jere!” screamed Bewienn, “We have to go now!”

Jere gave one last mighty heave on Nemnet’s legs but the armor straps did their job and stayed put.


Jere felt Bewienn’s hand grab the scruff of his neck then he was falling towards the lake surface. He saw Mug-Ruit, Sam and Fintan enter the water below him in quick succession then he crashed through the surface and all went black.

Just as the pilot predicted, the shuttle slammed into the water and skipped up again shedding pieces of fuselage and interior fitting. It soared over the edge of the lake and came back down demolishing a teic generator powering one of the portal ground stations. High in the air, the portal shimmered and wobbled at its edge then shrank to the size of a penny, compressing the energy within it to a super-dense disc. It stayed stable for nanoseconds then exploded into either tír in two horizontally opposed, tightly-focused beams of high-energy particles.

Fintan burst through the surface of the lake gripping the spear weapon he’d grabbed from the disc before he’d jumped. An iridescent beam of light shrieked across the sky and ionized the air around it. On the other side of the portal in Fintan’s home tír, the beam smashed through a gigantic disc shaped craft and the GPS satellite near it, knocking them both out of orbit. Emergency systems kicked in on the craft and a spherical field of energy leapt out from its core, enveloping it and the satellite.

Now locked in a twirling embrace like doomed lovers, the two objects began the long fall to Earth.

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