Author Topic: Chapter 45  (Read 2093 times)

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Online Daen

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Chapter 45
« on: April 12, 2022, 01:41:19 AM »
Chapter 45

“Well, damn!” Trias spoke after a moment, breaking the long silence. They’d all finished the letter at the same time, but as usual he was the first person to respond. Brashly, of course. “Boss-man,” he looked at Halseus with concern, “what are we gonna do here?”

Diesh smacked a closed fist against the wall. “I don’t believe it. We’ve been watching Jaas ever since she got here. There’s no way she’d do anything like this. She’s not capable of it! It’s gotta be a trick of some kind!”

“I don’t know,” Trias answered quietly. “The links only show us what she’s been up to since she got here. We have no idea what she saw on the Outside. For all we know she’s done worse out there! And besides,” he continued grimly, “she’s right! If Arico dies, the movement will most likely end without further bloodshed. Or at least be delayed for another few decades!”

There was a mark at the bottom of the parchment, Untos noted distantly, as he thought about what the letter meant. It looked like Halseus had spilled some ink there, in a nearly oval shape. Or Jaas had. Halseus’ hands were far too steady to spill anything, so the error must have been hers, and he just duplicated it.

Her handwriting was pretty good, considering the earlier injury, and the fact that she’d written it blindfolded. The parchment she’d used had miniscule lines on it to indicate where one line ended and the next began. Bumps that she could feel as she wrote. That was how she’d kept the letter steady as she’d written it.

Halseus remained quiet, but Untos turned his attention back to the portal. He reversed Jaas’ link again, going even further back in time. “Well, part of her letter can be proven at least. It looks like she did steal one of the poison vials from Endu’s lab.” He froze the image right as Jaas was slipping the vial into her bag. “That stuff would kill him in seconds, even if it was diluted.”

“We have to warn him!” Trias said urgently. “We have to stop her—get that poison away from her at the very least. He’s a sitting duck without us!”

“We can’t do anything without revealing our involvement,” Untos reminded him. “Are we ready for the dwarves to know that the great Cartwright is backing Arico? They might assume he’s willing to back them up as well! How will that affect their movement?”

“We don’t have to tell them it came from us,” Trias said hotly. He seemed to be taking this whole thing just as personally as Diesh was. It wasn’t surprising, really. All of the acolytes had been watching recent events through the portal with a great deal of interest. Naturally some of them had become attached to the major players in this revolution.

“We could use an intermediary—we’ve done it before.” Trias continued in a slightly calmer tone. “Besides, this isn’t just about Arico’s importance to the boss. I still don’t know why you want him and his sister to stay so safe, sir,” he said to Halseus with a little more respect, “but this is also about Arico himself! He’s a good man, trying to do the right thing! We’ve seen what he tells those stra’tchi patches. About their history, about the crimes of their leaders. He shows them how to communicate across the threads, how to read and write! That wasn’t part of the Hauld’s original plan—that was all Arico’s idea! We can’t just let him die!”

Trias had always been an admirer of Arico, even back when Arico was just a child, but Untos had to admit, he was making some good points despite that bias. It wasn’t up to him though, or even Untos, to determine what happened next. That decision was Halseus’ alone.

Untos didn’t know why his leader was so fixated on Arico and his sister either, but he had a few theories. Apparently, Halseus’ resolve was about to be sorely tested.


Closing his eyes briefly, Berilo tried to regain the peace he’d had before the meeting had started. It was the closest thing to sleep he could get these days. Behind him, the other Councilors continued to bicker and berate each other, like children in a schoolyard. His son was forgotten already. Apparently the scant weeks since the funeral had been all it had taken for them to very easily put the whole incident behind them.

“That’s enough,” he ordered firmly, turning around to face them, and they quieted down a little. At least he still had the ability to cut through their petty arguing when he needed to. “We can hold an open discussion when everyone has had the chance to report. Lord Weaver, please continue.”

Weaver nodded at him. “As I was saying,” he said with that air of wounded pride he did so well, “the whispers of dissent since the Laentana have started to affect productivity in my territory as well. My clerks composed a… short list of the areas affected,” he pulled out a not-so-short roll of parchment and deposited it on the table between them. “In summation, my lords—my liege-, we need to do something about these rumors soon, or we may end up facing a full-scale rebellion!”

Half a dozen other lords nodded or spoke up with agreement, and the rest seemed inclined to agree as well. Nothing he hadn’t expected. “It was that business with Tellek patch,” Miller put in sourly. “It was handled badly, word got out, and here we are cleaning up the mess.”

The room went dead silent. Miller had never been known for being patient or particularly diplomatic, but to say such a thing in open council…

“Are you making some sort of accusation, Lord Miller?” Berilo kept his voice mild, but everyone in the room could feel the danger. Previous Lord Ascendants had kept soldiers nearby, perfectly willing to call them in and have them murder whichever House Head had offended them. Berilo preferred a more subtle approach, but everyone here knew he was perfectly capable of exacting whatever vengeance he felt appropriate, should he choose to.

Miller’s face had turned a noticeable shade lighter in the lingering silence. “Not at all, my liege,” his voice was admirably smooth. “Merely an observation. A means, if you will… of smoothing the road ahead of us all.”

Now there was diplomacy. Carefully chosen words meant to defend himself and soothe others, in the wake of his near-disastrous comments. “I’m glad to hear it. Thank you for clarifying your position, my Lord.” Berilo eased his tone in response, and the other lords looked visibly relieved at the averted confrontation. For once, Berilo actually missed the Clarion’s input at these meetings. He was back at the manor tending to Hazra, but Berilo made a mental note to require his presence at the next meeting.

“Has there been any progress tracking down the heretic or his followers, my liege?” Lord Grover asked tentatively, possibly to fill the silence. “Have the Beast attacks triggered any kind of response yet?”

Inwardly, Berilo glared at him. Outwardly though, he was the image of poise and control. “Efforts are ongoing in both areas, my lord. The Ascendants continue to run down any reports of sightings, all over the city. In both stra’tchi and Sustained territory,” he added pointedly. It couldn’t hurt to remind his oh-so-loyal lords that they themselves weren’t above suspicion. As he spoke, a servant came in through the side door and silently left a folded piece of paper in front of him. “I can tell you that two days ago there was an ambush in Yeggin patch which may have eliminated the heretic and one or two of his followers.”

“An ambush, my liege? By whom? The Ascendants certainly would have informed the Council if it had been them.” Tanner’s voice was equal parts curiosity and worry.

“That information is privileged,” Berilo said smoothly. “Details on the attack itself are still unavailable, but I assure you when I know more, you will too.”

“For all we know it was you, Tanner!” Weaver said wearily. “It would be just like you to have taken care of the threat yourselves and not told anyone, while the rest of us suffer the results of these rumors!”

Tanner immediately retorted, and Berilo sat back and let them continue bickering as he read the note. It was another report from the Ascendants. The latest sighting had apparently been a false alarm. Oh, well. He had plenty of other things to think about, anyway. Hazra had only gotten back yesterday, injured. The news she’d brought along with her had been, well, nonsensical at best. She was clearly hysterical: making nonsense claims about having a twin brother.

She had been unconscious in the heretic’s custody for more than a day: more than enough time for them to come up with a convincing story to spin for her. And she was just a woman—she’d believe anything if it was told well enough. Most likely the heretic was just toying with her, trying to get her to pass disinformation along to Berilo. Probably on the Hauld’s orders, too.

Still… the heretic had spared her life. Even though she was Heartbane—the assassin who had terrified the whole city for more than a year now. Did he think he could turn her against her own father? If he did, it was a bold move, and a risky one. Berilo shook his head. He’d have to put more thought into this. When he had the time to spare, that was.


The fighting had been brief but fierce. Twenty Thornes dressed in Ascendant colors had taken control of the fields in Vettra patch. Surprise had allowed them to not only win, but to do so bloodlessly. Ornos had insisted as much, in fact. Ta’anu’s half dozen men had assaulted the Ascendant barracks on the far side at the same time, just as bloodlessly.

Twelve navigator guards had been knocked out, most of them with Ta’anu’s special darts. He grew the sedatives in his own patch, and had recently started training his people in purifying the plants into a liquid and applying it to anything from shortsword blades to arrowheads. Even a scratch from one such weapon could knock out a grown man in seconds. As a result they had plenty of prisoners, including the workers who’d surrendered without a fight, cordoned off in one of the warehouses in the patch corner. Ta’anu made sure they were properly restrained before heading back to the patch’s underground reservoir on the north end. Velya, Ornos and Boska were gathered there waiting for him, along with half a dozen more.

Even Velya seemed happy with the speed and efficiency of the attack. She shook her head in wonder. “How did you find this place anyway, Ta’anu?”

“It was simple enough,” he said as modestly as he could feign it. “There are only so many places the Council could plant a crop like this in secret. It was just a matter of searching them all. I was lucky, and found the fields early during my search.” He carefully omitted any reference to Tre’cah’s recklessness. Tre’cah was still in the doghouse for his stupidity, but if any of Ta’anu’s Thorne friends found out he’d been searching without their permission… well, it was an option he didn’t want to explore. As a result, Tre’cah’s mistake would have to be kept secret for the time being.

“Well, however you did it, what matters is the Ascendants won’t be poisoning any more innocents for a while,” Ornos said, and Ta’anu swore he could hear the slightest note of approval in his dour voice. Somberly, he pulled open the reservoir ceiling and looked down. Green ripples spread out from the slight motion, criss-crossing the wide reservoir base and eventually rebounding upon themselves. The tank was more than three-quarters full.

Ornos gave a low whistle as they all peered into the reservoir. Ta’anu felt a kind of dull shock at the sight. He’d expected a few barrels of the stuff, maybe. Perhaps even a cart or two, but not this much! This could change… a great deal.

“This isn’t just a deterrent,” he said slowly, his voice echoing slightly into the reservoir. “No one stores this much poison just to handle one dissident patch.”

“You’re right,” Velya said in a dead-sounding voice. “I did some estimates back when Tellek was poisoned. The Ascendants would have had to dilute the substance quite a bit so that no one would notice the color or taste. They wouldn’t have needed much to do it. However, with this much…” Velya trailed off.

Ornos gave her a sharp look. “How many patches could they poison with this much?”

She didn’t answer at first. The other Thornes had gathered around while they’d been talking, trying to get a look as well. “It’s only a rough guess, but I’d say… two hundred. Maybe two-fifty? If they finish this crop too, they might have enough to wipe out every stra’tchi patch in the city.”

“Shemra’s Blight!” Boska swore quietly. That was a little shocking too, given his usual piety.

They all stood in silence for a minute, staring down into the pool of death. They were so quiet they could hear the slight breeze coming from the threads. As always, a patch’s reservoir was either connected to the threads through an aqueduct—like in most stra’tchi patches—or built right next to the threads for easy transport.

Ornos was the first to speak. “Ladies and gentlemen… I think we’re looking at the Lord Ascendant’s failsafe plan here. Tellek patch was a lie to most of the city, and a warning to those of us who weren’t stupid enough to buy into that lie. He wanted us to know what he’s capable of.” He dropped a small rock into the reservoir, and everyone watched more ripples of greenish liquid spread back and forth.

He let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “This is more than just a warning, though. I think that this… concoction is his last solution—pardon the pun—to the stra’tchi problem. To be used only if Arico is successful and a full-scale stra’tchi uprising begins.”

Ta’anu spun around, glaring at the others who’d gathered to look into the reservoir. “Don’t you all have work to do? Get the torches and start lighting up that field already! Off you go!” Ornos was right, of course. There was no other reason for them to store so much poison in one place. They didn’t have time to sit around talking about it, though—more Ascendants could drop by at any moment.

The rest of the Thornes started moving again, lighting torches and spreading out. The captives inside the warehouse were far enough away; the flames would never reach them. The smoke was no danger either—nethrit root was only deadly when carefully refined.

“Ta’anu and I will get rid of the poison,” Boska announced firmly. He looked southwards, towards the distant city wall. “It shouldn’t be difficult to navigate it to the far south end of the city, where it’ll flow through the outer threads. Even if a portion of the poison does make it through, it’ll just fall into the ocean where it can’t hurt anyone.” He tilted his head slightly. “Still, with this much to move, it could take a while. We should get started right away.”

“Be careful,” Velya warned. “Nethrit root is usually only deadly if you drink it, but in this concentration even touching it could be just as bad for you.” She produced two pairs of gloves from her pack and tossed them over. “The gloves will make it hard to move that much poison, but it’s the only way to do it safely.”

“Thanks. This may seem like bad timing,” Boska began slowly, “but I had planned a celebration to mark our victory here. My wife has already started on the preparations for a feast, sometime early next week.”

Velya and Ornos exchanged glances. “No, you’re right,” she said after a moment. “The Council put a lot of time and effort into this, and we’re ruining their plans. This is a victory after all. As for your party, I may not be able to make it,” she added thoughtfully, “but most of the others should be able to. We have work to do first, though.”

“Of course. Come on, Ta’anu.” Boska began to climb the narrow stairs down adjacent to the reservoir. In order to transport the liquid, they would both have to be down by the base of the structure. As they left, Ta’anu heard Velya and Ornos move out to join the rest. By the time they were done, there’d be nothing left but cinders in this patch. Ta’anu was careful to keep quiet as they descended. This wasn’t over yet.

When he had brought this information to the Briar meeting and recommended they attack this patch, the others had been predictably hesitant. Even after they’d agreed to move on his information, they had insisted Boska stay at his side, both during the attack and now while disposing of the poison.

Boska had been known for his even temper and his power as a navigator for years now. He was the perfect watchdog to keep an eye on Ta’anu, especially given Ta’anu’s clear anger towards the Council and the Lord Ascendant. They wanted to make sure he didn’t do anything rash.

What they didn’t know was that Boska was actually on his side.

Boska had seen the bodies of the Tellek villagers being threaded. He’d witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Beast attacks still being unleashed all over the city. He’d also seen how the Council had reacted to a dozen or so stra’tchi patch leaders meeting in a neutral location: their first impulse had been to arrest them all, or kill them. He knew the score, and he was willing to do something about it.

Now that they were out of earshot though, he turned to Ta’anu with a worried look. “What are we going to do? We were expecting a few barrels of this stuff at most, not a whole reservoir of it!”

“You’re right, Boska. We underestimated the Council. We had no idea just how big their plans were.” Ta’anu put a hand on his shoulder. “Even so, this doesn’t change our plan at all. We’ll siphon off a few barrels of the nethrit, just like we talked about, and destroy the rest.”

“If the others find out what we’re doing-” Boska paused and looked up at the shaft of sunlight filtering down from above.

“They don’t suspect a thing,” Ta’anu said confidently. “We can still make this work, trust me. All you have to do is act normal and leave the rest to me, all right?”

Boska swallowed hard, and then reluctantly nodded. “The barrels are still in place back at home, but we should hurry. I don’t want to leave them unattended for long.”

Ta’anu clapped him on the back. “That’s the spirit. Come on.” They weren’t far from the reservoir’s underground valve.

The valve was circular, opened by a crank a few spans away. Ta’anu had seen similar devices in several Sustained patches. The longer you pulled on the crank, the wider the valve opened. They’d only need a crack for this, though. He waited until Boska had his gloves on, and had extended his arm through the threads. Once he nodded that he was ready, Ta’anu started pulling.

Liquid immediately began streaming out from the valve, but Boska was ready for it. He immediately threaded it, sending it to his home patch and to the barrels waiting there. Because the flow was regular and steady, he could afford to put his head back into the threads, and then move his hand on the other side when a barrel was full. After a few minutes of this he pulled his head back out and nodded to Ta’anu who pushed the valve closed again.

“They’re full, but I don’t know if anyone is out there watching. We should hurry.”

They switched places, and Ta’anu reached his gloved hands through the threads this time, finding the right spot before pulling his head out and nodding. Boska opened the valve much wider than before, and Ta’anu strained with the effort of threading so much at once. Once he found the right balance, he nodded over at Boska. “Go. I can take care of this on my own. Just get the barrels out of sight.”

Looking relieved, Boska nodded and jumped into the threads. Smiling to himself, Ta’anu settled in for a long wait. It would be worth it in the end, though.


It was time, Halseus realized. Diesh and Trias were in the portal room, as usual. Though officially they were bodyguards, they’d taken on the role of spectators in this… deeply dramatic narrative that was unfolding in front of them. Untos was also somewhere nearby, he was sure. His position held more authority than most of the acolytes, so he no doubt wanted to present an image of composure and reliability to the others. As if he wasn’t just as invested in this situation as anyone else.

Halseus set the portal to Arico’s perspective, and found that he was bracing himself. Arico had received his warning about an hour ago, delivered through a third party as Trias recommended, and had returned to the Enclave. There he’d intercepted Jaas’ letter and read it.

It was clear he was upset by this news. The portal could only show the visual and auditory portion of the links, but Halseus could feel just how ill Arico was feeling right now. His hands would be twitching, if he hadn’t balled them up into fists. Halseus could only guess at how he’d feel in Arico’s shoes.

Jaas had been at his side for more than four months now. He’d saved her life when they’d first met! She’d helped him deal with dozens of stra’tchi patches; she’d been a line of communication between him and the Thornes—though he didn’t know that name just yet. She’d been almost as close to him as Alzhi or Chanul were, and they’d been part of the movement for years!

Still… the letter was damning. She admitted her plans in her own hand. Halseus didn’t know how she’d react when confronted. Whatever else she had done, somehow he doubted she’d be cowardly and try to avoid responsibility for it.

Arico was on his way to her dwelling in the Fishbowl now. He was alone, mercifully. Actually, he hadn’t even told the Hauld yet—or anyone else for that matter. Perhaps like Diesh, he was still wrestling with the possibility that she could be capable of such a betrayal. Well, he would know the truth soon enough. They all would.

Untos entered from behind, somehow sensing the confrontation about to start. He discreetly closed the door behind him, and Halseus smiled. As always, Untos knew just how far to take decorum. Jaas answered the door with a surprised look on her face. “You’re early. I wasn’t expecting you for another hour or so.” She gestured for him to enter, and closed the door behind them.

As expected, Arico cut straight to the chase. “I don’t know how to feel about this—I really don’t. So I’m just gonna ask you straight out.” He lifted her letter, opened. “Is it true?”

Jaas’ friendly expression faded, and her face became deadpan. “How did you get that?” She asked evenly.

“One of Lady Cartwright’s associates warned me in secret!” Arico said angrily. “I didn’t even know it had to do with you at first! They just said I should open your letter package and read the last one. Cartwright must have seen you write it!”

Jaas smiled. “Then it worked.”

Halseus didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t that. He shared a surprised glance with Untos. Through the links, he knew Jaas wasn’t upset, or afraid. Her heartbeat and breathing were normal.

She looked Arico straight in the eye—from their perspective, she was looking right through the portal at them. “I need to explain this to you,” she said softly. “I need you to understand what I’ve done, and why. I also need you to know that I mean you no ill will,” Jaas gave a long pause. “Cartwright.”

At first Halseus didn’t quite register what she’d said. The others seemed just as confused, but she continued. “That’s right, Lord Cartwright. I know that you’re watching, and I’m talking to you now.”

Time seemed to slow down for him. Even as he sensed Arico’s hands unclenching, he realized she was looking through the portal. She couldn’t see through it of course, but she knew he was there, and that was enough. He felt as if he was in a tunnel, and she was at the other end of it. No one else mattered—not even Arico.

“You’re the most powerful being I’ve ever encountered, you know,” she said conversationally. “Your ability to link with people through the threads is… incredible! I’ve never heard of anything like it. Even magic on the Outside couldn’t do anything close to that. If you wanted to, you could end the Council, today, without any effort at all! Or you could crush the movement just as easily. You could make yourself king of the city, forever if you wished.”

“That little minx!” Untos grated out from behind the others. “I don’t believe it! She tricked us!” Trias was staring at the portal openmouthed, while Diesh was as close to smiling as a g’laam could get. Halseus didn’t know just how to feel.

“Bear with me, Arico,” she added thoughtfully. “It’ll all be made clear soon.” Arico nodded, depressing the perspective briefly. Distantly, Halseus made a note of just how understanding that young man could be.

“Arico thought you were a spymaster. He grew up knowing at least some of what you could do, Cartwright, and he made his peace with it,” she continued, still using his fake name for Arico’s benefit, he noted. At least she was keeping that promise. “I’m not so easy-going, though. I had to test your abilities. You told me you could see through my eyes, and by extension, I assumed you could also hear through my ears. But can you access my other senses too? If I taste something, can you taste it? Can you read my mind? The only way I could be sure was by testing you. That’s why I wrote the letter in the first place! I was testing you, and it worked.”

Admiration welled up inside Halseus, and immediately went to war with rage. He should be furious! She’d played him… and it had worked! She was the first person—ever—who’d been able to outwit him! Despite his links, his vastly superior ability to process information, and his dozens of acolytes, she’d still gotten the best of him!

“I don’t know what motivates you,” she added softly, “other than keeping Arico and his sister safe. So I threatened his life. If you could feel what I felt, you’d be able to duplicate the letter,” Jaas paused for a moment, “and you’d know that Arico was in danger. If you really were intent on keeping him safe, you’d have to intervene and warn him. So I know you can feel what I feel.

“But if you could read my mind, you’d also know what I was planning, and you would have known I never had any intention of hurting Arico. So I know you can’t do that.”

By this point Diesh was laughing out loud. “I told you she was on the level! I told you!” Trias only grumbled and pushed him away. Untos was shaking his head in wonderment.

Jaas seemed to be able to read his mind, though. Even as Halseus wondered it, she was already answering his question. “Oh, and just in case you were willing to let Arico die, or weren’t able to read the letter, I left that inkstain on the page on purpose. It’s a hidden message that Lem and I came up with years ago. He knows that if I put that there, I don’t mean a word of what I’ve written. As for the poison, I had to steal it to convince you of my resolve. I’ll return it tonight, with my apologies to Endu. She’ll be able to tell that I didn’t even open it up.”

She lowered her eyes, looking away from Arico as if in shame. “Now I’m talking to you, Arico, and sadly, part of what I wrote was true. This conflict is horrible, and I have to do whatever I can to stop it as soon as possible. But not by killing you. You’re right—the Council is keeping the stra’tchi as slaves right now, and they won’t stop. Not by choice anyway. I’ve known it deep down for a while, but now it’s clear that there never really was a peaceful solution to this. They have to be overthrown, and I’ll help you do that. I’ve even got some ideas that I know you haven’t considered yet.”

Jaas looked back up. “Arico and I both know your secret now, Cartwright. We know how far your powers extend. I won’t tell anyone else, and I’m asking him not to either. I won’t use this information against you, or force you to teach Arico how to use his abilities. I respect your privacy and your desire to stay in the shadows. All I ask in return is that you stay out of this fight. Until the movement ends, or the Council does, don’t help either side.”

“After that,” she added with a slight smile, “all bets are off.”
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 03:04:55 AM by Daen »