Bracing for a battle is difficult to do well. The natural tendency for most people is to stiffen up, physically and mentally. Watch an experienced fighter before they step into the ring though. They don’t go in clenched and rigid. To weather both physical and psychological blows it’s much better to stay loose. Part of the reason is because being able to roll with a punch can take away a lot of its force. Even more than that though is the fact that when we freeze up we’re directing our energy against ourselves. The strength we use to hold ourselves rigid is wasted and turned against us when we take a hit.
I reminded myself of all that and breathed out slowly to force myself to relax.
“What do you mean Guy McIntyre never existed?” I asked Kari.
“I went over my original notes and then did some checking. ‘Guy McIntyre’ has set up dozens of redevelopment deals like this. He’s a great philanthropist too. ‘He’ always works through his secretaries and lawyers though. No one’s ever met the man.” she said.
“Why is that surprising?” Way asked. “We knew he was reclusive.”
“When I say ‘no one has met him’, that includes the teachers at the school he is listed as graduating from, the doctor of the small town he was supposedly born in, and Steven McIntyre, his supposedly older brother.” Kari said.
“How did you find all that out?” I asked.
“It wasn’t easy. The records on him are mostly hidden. I had to use ‘verbal hypnosis’ to get people to talk. Plus I’m pretty sure I tripped a lot of alarms just looking into it.” she said. I knew her ‘verbal hypnosis’ was probably backed with a fair amount of dream magic and almost certainly strained the heck out of Earth Glass’ tolerance for ‘magic-like’ effects. If it got us information we needed though I wasn’t going to complain.
“What do you mean?” Way asked.
“I think someone setup fake records in order to ‘create him’. They needed a proxy they could act through who wouldn’t attract attention. The records were there in case anyone started snooping too hard. It was something for a detective to find that would buy McIntyre’s inventor time to get away.”
“What kind of ‘alarms’ were there?” I asked.
“Social ones. The people who worked at the places the records were kept all used the same phrase: ‘Do you need the records on Guy or Greg McIntyre?’ Once or twice could have been coincidence, but this was over a dozen sites.” she said.
I had a flash of purely natural insight.
“The Scribes!” I said.
“Who?” Way asked.
“When I was captured by the Brotherhood, Cranston Smythe kept me alive so he could interrogate me about the ‘Scribes’. As best I can guess, they’re another secret society, probably dedicated to stamping out people like the Brotherhood.” I said.
I saw a light bulb go one over Way’s head.
“The Night Warder was one of the Scribes too. That’s why they captured her.” she said.
“Yeah, I think that fits well.” I agreed.
“The question is: what was the Night Warder doing at the apartment that was rented in Guy McIntyre’s name?” Kari asked.
“Oh, sorry, the Night Warder is Madelaine Deckard. I saw her out of her mask when I broke into his apartment.” I said. They both frowned at me in disbelief. I shrugged. I had a head wound and a throbbing headache so forgetting to mention a few key details like that seemed like a forgivable lapse.
“That explains things. Very well in fact.” Kari said. I could see her gaze going distant, seeking out answers somewhere beyond the world or within herself.
“So we have two secret societies who are war with one another. Madelaine Deckard is part of one of them and was using ‘Guy McIntyre’ as a persona to do her business dealings. Why would she need to do that though?” Way asked.
“A couple of reasons I can think of. First women have less social position and power here. People don’t take them as seriously as men. Yet. ‘Guy McIntyre’ may have been the mask she needed to be able to play in world of high finance.” I said.
“That doesn’t make sense to me, but I’ve seen enough of things here to believe it.” Kari said. The world she hailed from was a marvel of gender equality for a number of reasons, one of which being that spellcasting didn’t care what sort of chromosomes you had. Trying to tell a mage who could level a city that she was a second class citizen because of her gender wasn’t likely to end well for the misogynist in question.
“The other advantage would be what Kari ran into. Anyone looking to strike at ‘Guy McIntyre’s’ work would go after him and ignore his ‘secretary’. We know the Brotherhood’s not shy about using assassins. Having them waste their time searching for a non-existent target would give Deckard the chance to strike back as the Night Warder.” I said.
“That explains the Night Warder identity too then. It wasn’t meant as a general disguise. She specifically needed to avoid the Brotherhood’s notice.” Way said.
“Unfortunately they have her now.” I said.
“And she’s the dreamweaver we were worried about.” Way said.
“And the fate weaving is accelerating.” Kari said. “When I cast it, I used Guy McIntyre as one of the principal anchors for it. Without him there, it’s spinning out of control.”
“Can you ground it out?” I asked.
“Yes, but the events are already moving too fast. If I cut the fateweaving we won’t have any idea where things will go.” Kari said.
“So we ride it out. What other resolutions are there?” Way asked.
“If everyone involved, Smythe, Deckard and Stone, dies the development deal will collapse and things will settle down on their own.” Kari said.
“I don’t like that one. What else do we have?” I asked.
“If Fairbanks burns to the ground, the development deal will go ahead and the Brotherhood will win. That would be a stable condition as well.” Kari said.
“That sucks too. What are the win conditions for Stone and Deckard?” I asked.
“If we decapitate the Brotherhood – take out their leadership and expose them to the world, Stone’s companies will pick up the redevelopment business on a tide of local sentiment. That’s not a stable state, he’ll have more power than he can handle and his criminal empire will grow too big to be ignored. I don’t think he’ll come to a good end and there’ll probably be a lot of people who get hurt along with him, but the world will survive.” she said.
“And Madelaine Deckard?” Way asked.
“She doesn’t have a win condition. She wasn’t bound by the initial fate weaving, she’s just part of the weave that was supposed to have looped around Guy McIntyre. Without him, that side effectively forfeits.” she said.
“So all paths points to losing her?” I asked, turning the problem over in my head.
“I think so. She’s our dreamweaver after all. At this point I don’t know that there’s any chance she’ll stay asleep and once she wakes up…” Kari trailed off.
Once Madelaine Deckard woke up to her powers, she was going to be a danger to the entire world. Our “nicest” option would be to fake her death, kidnap her and never allow her to return to home. The other possibilities were ones I promised myself I wouldn’t allow.
“We need to come at this from another angle.” I said. “The Brotherhood was terrified of the files that Shurman took from them getting out. Maybe if we found those that would provide us with a clue?”
“Here you go!” Way said and pushed the books that were in front of her towards me.
“We found them in the coat check room at the ruins of the Chimera Club.” Kari said.
“It was Tiny’s idea.” Way said. “We were trying to figure out where Shurman would have stashed something that he wasn’t sure was important. Since it wasn’t here, and wasn’t at his apartment, and the only other place we knew he’d been was the Club, Tiny worked out that he might have dropped it with the girl who worked there. Apparently they knew each other.”
“Wow. And they survived the fire too? Talk about a stroke of luck.” I said, sensing Way’s subtle hand at work in arguing that series of events into existence.
“Stone’s got friends everywhere, even the fire department. The building burned, but a lot of it survived. Almost a shame for poor Eddie. The restoration will probably cost more than knocking the building down and putting up a new one.” she said.
A lot of people thought Way was nice. I agreed with them. I also knew that they’d never been on her bad side though. Unless I missed my guess the city’s inspectors were going to find all sort of skeletons in Stone’s burned out closets when they came by to verify the damage that had been done.
“The problem is the books are all in code.” Kari said.
I smiled and threw a small booklet down on the table. It bore the Brotherhood of the Dragon’s logo.
“What is…” Way started to ask and then stopped herself as she caught sight of my grin. “It’s the codebook. You picked up the translation book for the files while the Brotherhood had you.”
“Yep. Met one of their doctors who wasn’t going to be needing it anymore.” I said.
“What did you do to him?” Way asked.
“Gave him a dose of his own medicine. Literally.” I said. “He’d developed a mind control drug, so I hit him with it and, eventually, told him to turn himself in to the police.”
Way grinned back at me and looked like she was about to say something, before she stopped herself again.
“How fast can we translate these?” Kari asked.
“I think I can free read them. I memorized the cipher on the way over.” I said and gave Earth Glass a swift mental kick to prevent it from complaining about the absurdity of that. This was for its own good, which, thankfully, it seemed to agree with.
The books which Shurman had stolen from them (and I still had to wonder how he’d managed that) turned out to be what we’d expected. First there was the Brotherhood’s roster, which Smythe hadn’t been concerned with our possessing. At a guess the Scribes probably already knew the Brotherhood’s cult identities and the roster didn’t make a connection between those names and the cultists’ real identities except in the encoded passwords that were unique to each cult member.
Once their password was encoded in the book, the cultists could access Brotherhood resources via their cult name. Should the roster happen to fall into hands like ours, the most we could do would be to attack the cult’s resources. The cultists themselves were still hidden behind a veil of anonymity. Or so they thought. It wouldn’t take much of a fate weaving to power a forensic investigation that could tear that veil to shreds. A halfway clever Federal agent in possession of this roster could probably manage it with just a little push in the right direction in fact.
The other volumes were the usual sort of insanity cults get up to. Worldly power was all well and good, but to make people do truly crazy things, you needed to promise them more. The other books held the details of the cults rituals, past, present, and future. The rituals were keys the cult believed they held to unlimited power.
I’d seen books like the cult’s tomes before. On some worlds they were terrifying because of they could unleash unspeakable, and unstoppable horrors. Well mostly unstoppable, lots of ‘unstoppable’ things needed to find a new description after they met Way.
On Earth Glass though the cult’s rituals were worse than that. There was no magic on Earth Glass. The rituals, the invocations, the summons, all of the spells that the books held. There was nothing to them. They were empty words. No matter how fervently the cultists believed in them. No matter what atrocities they committed, none of it would matter at all.
Which meant that the litany of victims whose demise the books chronicled had all died for nothing more than human stupidity and greed. Name after name. Pictures in some cases. Before and after. Across hundreds of pages and multiple decades.
They were a part of cult’s records of their sacrifices, along with the members who were owed their dues for taking part in the rituals as though each death added something to a ledger they would be free to draw from once their imaginary gods ruled the world.
“Are you ok?” Way asked.
I hadn’t noticed her get up and come over to my side. She put her arm around me and I felt the black rage that had been gathering in my heart subside to a steady burn.
“There are good people here.” I said.
Way nodded. She knew what I was saying. What I needed to remember. Its so easy in the face of real evil to want to eradicate it and everything it’s touched, even if that means burning down the world. For most people, the worst that feeling can do is cause them to hyperfocus on what’s wrong with the world. It can lock them into seeing only the bad and losing themselves to hate.
For me, it could be a lot worse than that. I didn’t have to rail helplessly against the evils of the world.
I could end it if I chose.
On a world like Earth Glass though that would be a tragedy, so I had to remember that despite the horror that people did to each other here, there were things worth preserving as well. There were good people here and they deserved a chance to make their world a better place.
“When is the next ritual taking place?” Kari asked.
“It was supposed to be next month, but it looks like they’ve moved it up to today.” I said.
“It’s the fate weaving at work.” Kari said.
“Yeah. That’s not all either. The ritual calls for thirteen victims. Each has a specific role and is killed in a specific manner. The first to go is called ‘The Enemy on High’ and is supposed to represent the forces that oppose the Brotherhood. They usually get by with a proxy of some sort.” I said.
“This year though they’ve got Madelaine. An actual enemy to use.” Way guessed.
“They’re going to kill her.” Kari said. Her lips formed a tight line.
“They’re going to try. There’s no way she’s going to stay asleep through that though.” I said.
“Where are they? Where will they perform the ritual?” Way asked.
“It says here they perform it ‘atop the clouds, above the seas of earth, below the sea of stars’. That’s gotta mean onboard their airship.” I said.
“Any mention of when?” Kari asked.
“When the brightest star is at its zenith and is cast into darkness.” I translated.
“During an eclipse?” Kari asked.
“No. You can’t move those up. I think it’s metaphorical. They have some chamber designed where they can simulate and eclipse probably.” I said.
I got up and rocked my shoulders. My whole body hurt like I was dipped in pain. This was not going to fun.
“Where are we going?” Kari asked.
“You said there was no win condition for Madelaine Deckard?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Kari agreed.
“Then we’re going to go make one for her.”