Cameron and Tiejo appeared in an alley not far from the Jasmine Dragon, and made plans to meet back there in two hours. Cameron checked in with LandOrder, and then headed to Evan's estate. Tiejo was less certain of where to go for his own business, but he decided to start at the spot where he'd met the Vole and his friends. Being only about First Five, he didn't really expect to find anyone out and about, but with street rats, you never knew. It's not like they had schedules to keep, and many of them actually preferred the night.
To his great surprise, the first two people he encountered were his old friends, Talon and Perryh. "Tiejo!" they exclaimed when they saw him scampering toward them. Talon continued, "What are you doing here? Last we heard, you were a prisoner in Near Port."
"And last I was hearing- or seeing, actually- you were being in Shanty. What you are doing in Triscot?"
"Well, a few days after we saw you, Arnold contacted us, and gave us some pointers on organizing Shanty's rats. He thought dock rats would be of the best use there, so he encouraged us to encourage as many street rats as we could to come here, and work with Triscot's street rats. Arnold told us this village's rats were being organized by the Vole, who we'd actually met several years ago, in the course of our travels."
"In fact," said Perryh, "if memory serves, we met him not long after the last time we saw you. I mean, before the new last time we saw you, a few months ago. It's funny, isn't it? When you saw us in Shanty, you were surprised we weren't in Triscot, and now that you see us in Triscot, you're surprised we're not in Shanty."
"Hmmm, yes, humor I am seeing in this, I supposings. But now anyways, my friends and I just rescued have been."
"Ooh, a jail break! I love those," said Perryh.
"Actually more of a secret dungeon break."
"So much the better," said Talon. "But do go on."
"Right, well, oh and also I must to be telling you, my master also was rescued, along with us." Before they could respond to that, Tiejo hurried to add, "But not important right now, that is being. What is being important is master and friends are flying this way now; should to being here about dawn, I am thinking."
"So then, you didn't mean just rescued," said Talon.
"Um, yes. Are being transported in super fast transport thing. Which is also invisible."
"I love super fast invisible transports!" exclaimed Perryh.
"If I believed in them, I might love them, too," said Talon.
"Anyways, believing or not, it will be here. But... our enemies also are having one of these transports, and fearing we are that they could catch up. So translocated I was by Cameron, my Sorreter friend. He is off contacting certain peoples, and I am off contacting certain other peoples. Looking for the Vole, I was. Can you telling me where to find him? Help my friends may be needing, quite soon."
"Um... well, he moves around a lot," said Perryh. "Only those closest to him know where to find him, at any given time. I mean, unless we're actually meeting with him. Which we're obviously not, at the moment."
"But we have red t-mail bubbles, provided by Arnold," said Talon, taking one from a pocket. "I can't call the Vole directly, but I could call one of his inner circle." Holding the bubble up to his mouth, he said, "Open. Talon Streetrat for Tulo Streetrat."
A centhour later, there was a reply. "Yes, Talon, what is it? This better be important, at this hour."
"Sorry to wake you. I need to get a message to the Vole, as quickly as possible. I'm standing here with Tiejo Streetrat-"
"I know, he should be in a dungeon, but apparently he and his friends have been rescued, and he was translocated here by a Sorreter, while the rest of his friends are flying to Triscot. He expects them to get here by dawn, but he says they may be pursued by enemies- the Army, I suppose- and he wants us to gather our allies to defend his friends."
There was a brief pause before Tulo asked, "Is the Sorreter still with him?"
"No, he's gone off to contact other allies. So I don't imagine we'll be alone in the fight, which is good, right?"
"Indeed. Very well, I'll contact the Vole immediately, and we'll join you. Where are you now?"
"Seventeenth Street, not far from the usual hangout."
Talon pocked his t-mail bubble, and Tiejo said axiously, "I hope they are not being long."
"Relax," said Talon, "you said your friends would be here about dawn. That's still nearly two hours away. Tulo and the Vole will be here much sooner than that. And it won't take long to mobilize their allies."
"Still, not so much liking to wait. I feel like I should be doing something, but waiting... seems to preclude that."
"You could go look for other rats," said Perryh, "and we could wait here without you."
"No. Needing to be here, I am. It is I who am asking for favors, not you."
About half an hour later, Tulo arrived.
"Where's the Vole?" asked Talon.
"He'll be here any centhour."
Looking past Tulo, Tiejo said, "Thinking I see him coming, now," as an indistinct figure approached in the darkness.
A moment later, Tiejo, Talon, and Perryh were all grabbed from behind. They tried to turn on their captors, but were held tight. The approaching figure now stepped into the light cast by a nearby streetlamp, and it clearly wasn't the Vole.
Tiejo narrowed his eyes and said, "I am knowing you. Macen. A long time, it has been."
"Indeed. In fact, I didn't imagine I'd ever see you again, after the last time we met. And especially after you were imprisoned, a few months ago. A turn of events in which I played some small part, by the way. So I was rather disappointed when I got a call from my friend here, informing me that you'd escaped."
Talon glared at Tulo. "You work for this blackguard? Does the Vole know about this?"
"Naturally not," said Tulo. "If anyone knew my true loyalties, my services would be rather useless to Mr. Illustri, wouldn't they? Fine spy I'd make, if everyone knew I was a spy."
"But... now we know," said Perryh. "So... doesn't that mean your services are no longer useful to him?"
"Think about it, Perryh," said Talon.
Perryh thought about it, then looked at Tulo's employer and asked, "You're going to kill us, aren't you?"
Macen grinned and replied, "Not me, personally. I'll leave that to the lads who are currently restraining you. At least you two random street rats. Your blood is not worthy of staining my sword."
"Oy, who you callin' 'random'?" demanded Perryh.
Tulo rolled his eyes. He asked Macen, "Boss, if you don't need me for anything else, you know how tedious I find executions. Besides, no doubt I'll have a busy day, so I'd like a few more hours of sleep."
"Quite alright. I look forward to hearing how the other rats take the news of the death of these three."
Tulo smiled. "I'll let you know."
As Tulo departed, Macen turned back to his captives. "Now then, before you all die, I'm going to have a little chat with my old friend Tiejo."
Tiejo spat. "I am having nothing to say to you."
"That's quite alright, you can just listen. I was really planning on more of a one-sided rant than a conversation, anyway. Well, after Tulo contacted me, I called Colonel Woodman, whom I believe you've met. He informed me that not only had your accomplices in the Chaos been rescued by the traitorous Colonel Supprus, but also your old master... whom I also had a hand in imprisoning, all those years ago. So again, disappointment. But Woodman's forces were already in pursuit of your friends, by the time I reached him. You're right to be concerned, for they will be caught. And there will be no street rats coming to their aid, I'm afraid."
"Is no doubt talking with LandOrder at this very moment, pleading for their help. Alas, they are presently preoccupied with their little war against InterGang, and are likely worried also about how much of a threat these 'Illuminati' upstarts may prove. So I doubt they'll be very receptive to the pleas of a would-be rebel whose closest allies have proven themselves so utterly inept. Honestly, even if LandOrder weren't busy with more immediate problems of their own, what incentive would they have to maintain an alliance with you people? What could possibly be in it for them? Your friends are obviously losers. And they're all alone. They bring nothing to the table. Piper's ex-Sorreter friends aren't going to gamble on the likes of them. The pirates Lonewander contacted would be easily beaten by the Navy, if they allied themselves with rebels. The street rats are essentially beneath contempt. I'm sure they could be of some help, if properly organized... and Tulo tells me they've gotten more organized than I ever could have anticipated. But even so, they're no match for the Army, particularly considering I'm already aware of their every move, thanks to agents such as Tulo. And even assuming Supprus has more supporters among his regiment than those currently in his company, they're still vastly outnumbered by those loyal to General Middlebury. And once Suppus is killed- which should happen within an hour or two- anyone who was secretly on his side would quickly abandon any notion of rising up for his cause. So again... your people have no allies, and no hope."
"But... Cameron may still find us, and stop you. You and your people are being no match for a Sorreter."
"I wouldn't necessarily say that's true, but just in case... I've brought one of my own." As he said that, another figure emerged from the shadows. "You know, I'm not quite sure if you've met my friend, Zeke Sanguine."
"I don't think he has," said Zeke. "But I feel like I've met him, considering how much you used to talk about him and his master, back in the day. And more immediately, because of personally watching him and his friends, throughout their journey to Near Port, a few months back. I gotta say, he seemed pretty harmless. Annoying, perhaps, but I don't see why you've always felt so contemptuous of him."
"No?" Macen nodded at the henchman who was holding Tiejo and said, "Let him go, Parke. In fact, I don't think I'll be needing your services any more this morning; I'll handle Tiejo myself." Parke released Tiejo, turned, and left. Macen said, "Calvert, Rocco, don't worry. I'm sure it won't be long before you can head home, yourselves."
When Tiejo was released, he began rubbing his arms. He cautiously moved closer to Macen and Zeke, before suddenly bolting into the darkness from which they'd both come, to look for Cameron. Macen shouted, "It's useless, you know. If you come back now, your friends live that much longer. If you keep running, they die. And Zeke will catch you before you get far."
Tiejo stopped to consider this, and after a moment, began to turn back. Before he took a single step, someone grabbed his arm from behind, and Tiejo froze in his tracks. He thought of whirling to attack whoever had grabbed him, but immediately it dawned on him that if Macen was expecting him to return of his own accord, then whoever this was must not be on Macen's side. So he simply stood where he was, waiting for the person holding his arm to say or do something.
An unseen face moved closer to his, and whispered, "Sanguine has a pocket watch. Get it. But don't let him know you have it." With that, his arm was released, and Tiejo immediately sprinted back toward the light.
"Ah, there's a clever lad," said Macen. Turning to Zeke, he said, "You see, he knows what's best for him, and he's loyal to his friends. He may know they're going to die, anyway, but the longer they live, the greater chance there is they might somehow escape. Even if they don't... a few extra centhours of life are better than nothing."
"Doesn't exactly take a genius to see that," said Zeke.
"True, but I never said he was a genius. Just clever. I base my estimation of his intelligence on what I observed of him in the past. And I assure you, he's always had more potential than he perhaps realizes. Or rather, I think he does know his own potential, and simply doesn't care. He aspires to be nothing more than a street rat. Which is why I can't stand him. He accepts his lot, even embraces it."
Turning to Tiejo, Macen continued, "By contrast, Tulo uses his status as a tool, to achieve higher goals. He easily could have lived out his life without any meaning, or hope of advancement, just like any other street rat. Most of them simply have no potential, but even those that do may fail to realize it, or be too lazy to even try to make use of that potential. Whereas Tulo has made the best of his potential. He's no longer truly a street rat, in spite of the appearance he maintains for the purpose of his job.
"You know, Tiejo, you remind me of Adam. True, he had a higher station than you, but he still refused to accept the possibility of using that power for his own betterment. He easily could have supported the Coming rather than opposing it, and become Chief Councillor of Triscot, maybe even a High Councillor, and someday King. But no, he preferred to look at everyone as equals, regardless of station, and wanted no part of a system that would change that. I think it wasn't until I met you that I fully understood why Father hated him so much. I always thought he should appreciate Adam's disinterest in political advancement, since it meant he was just one less rival for Father to worry about. Besides which, it's not like Adam had been born into money, as Father was. He worked hard to achieve his position in society, so it's clear he had ambition. And he could perhaps be forgiven for settling for achieving what he'd set out to achieve in life. I mean, 'settling' isn't even the right word, is it? Most people never achieve much of anything, or at the very least, I could call their goals modest. So even if they do achieve those goals... meh. No big deal. Adam's goals were lofty enough, and difficult enough, so it's impressive that he succeeded. And there's nothing really wrong with being content with that, as long as one doesn't become complacent. He continued to run his business, and care for his family. I'm sure he had high hopes for his children to continue his legacy, and achieve great things of their own.
"In fact, his son- your friend, Darius- had an academic rivalry with my own little brother. And I was grateful for that, because I worried that Benj might not work so hard if he was only competing with the lazy, doltish, unmotivated progeny of the other noble clans in town. But Darius kept Benj on his toes, helped inspire him to live up to his own amazing potential. I was actually sorry when Adam and his clan were killed, just because it seemed to rob Darius of his drive, and he basically gave up on making anything of himself. I worried that that would cause Benj to relax in his own studies, but... he didn't. He's done well for himself, and I have no doubt that he will continue to advance his career, to great heights. I wouldn't be surprised if, say twenty years from now, he was King. So I damn well don't intend to let your friends' ludicrous notion of rebellion eliminate the very position of monarch, before he gets his chance.
"...But I digress. The point I was getting to is, when I met you... I soon saw that you had potential, perhaps just as much as Tulo had. And by then, I'd already come to respect him not only for his intelligence, but his ambition. So when I realized that in spite of your intelligence- and granted, with the way you talk, it's easy to overlook- when I realized that in spite of that, you had no ambition to become more than you were... I found it disgusting. I'm sure that even if your friends set themselves up as the new rulers of the world, and offered you any position you wanted, all you'd want would be to go on living as a street rat. It was the fact that you had no appreciation for your own potential that made me understand that Father was right to hate Adam. How much or how little money either of you had was irrelevant; you both lacked ambition appropriate to your respective potentials. He could have had all the power in the world, and you... could at the very least have had a home. But you chose to remain nothing, and he... well, in the end he died for his ridiculous beliefs, which makes him less than nothing. But even if he'd lived, regardless of his wealth, his beliefs meant that he'd never truly be anything more than a peasant."
Tiejo suddenly drew a knife and lashed at Macen, cutting his arm. "Don't be disrespecting the memory of my friend's father!"
Zeke immediately moved to grab Tiejo, and the two of them struggled briefly, before Zeke managed to knock his knife away and restrain him. Zeke looked to Macen with a devilish grin and asked, "You want I should bathe him in flame?"
Macen inspected his arm, and found the cut wasn't too deep, though it certainly stung. "No no, my intent from the beginning has been to kill him myself, and his little outburst has done nothing to diminish that desire. On the contrary."
"Awwww!" Zeke exclaimed with obvious disappointment.
"Sorry, I know how you love playing with fire. Perhaps you can have the other two; I'm sure my men won't mind, will you?" He looked at the men restraining Talon and Perryh, and they shook their heads. "See? You can still have some fun. Meanwhile, it wouldn't hurt to even things up, if I'm to have a fair duel with Tiejo."
Zeke took his meaning, and created a fireball that he used to burn Tiejo's arm in approximately the same spot as the cut on Macen's arm.
"Thank you kindly," said Macen. "Now, please release him and give him your sword."
Zeke did as instructed, but he asked, "Not that I doubt your skills or anything, but just for the sake of argument, what should I do if he beats you?"
"Well, obviously, then you could kill him."
"Just checking," he said with a smile.
Macen drew his own sword, and pointed it at Tiejo. "Just so you know, in spite of my ranting about how much you disgust me, my true rivalry has always been with your master. Colonel Woodman knows this, and he promised me that if at all possible, he'll keep Vallus alive, so that I can kill him myself. And before I do, I'll let him know about your own death. Killing you is really little more than a warm up. But you should take some pride in knowing I've killed men before whose deaths were nothing more than a warm up. So you're at least semi-special."
Tiejo pointed his own sword at Macen and declared, "I will not letting you get anywhere near my master!" And with that, he charged.
After a few centhours of watching the spymaster and street rat put on a display of well-matched swordsmanship, the man holding Talon's arms behind his back inclined his head toward the man holding Perryh's arms behind his back, and said, "Shame no one's recording this, huh, Roc? It'd look really cool on a big bubble-screen."
Perryh said, "I know, right?!"
"He was talking to me!" said Rocco, before turning to Calvert and saying, "But, uh, what he said."
Talon just rolled his eyes and groaned.
The fight went on for a few more centhours before Tiejo suddenly pierced Macen's heart. The latter fell to his knees, and looked up at Tiejo with surprise in his eyes. He breathed, "Dis...appointing," and collapsed.
There was a scream of "Noooo!" from the shadows, and a young man ran to Macen. He dropped to his knees, took the dead man in his arms, and began weeping.
"What the hell?" said Zeke, approaching the three of them. As Zeke neared, Tiejo backed away.
The newcomer looked up with tears in his eyes, and Zeke said, "Benj? What are you doing here?"
"I... I happened to overhear the call he made to you, telling you to meet him here. That the Chaos had escaped, and he intended to deal with them, permanently. So... I followed him, secretly. I hoped to talk some sense into him. Of course I'm against the Chaos, but I don't think they deserve to die, and I'm sure that was his intention. Hell, what else could he be planning, if he called you, instead of some other Sorreter in his employ? I was surprised to see he was actually only confronting a few street rats, so I decided to hang back and see what was going on. I never expected... he'd end up getting killed, himself."
"But if you didn't want him killing anyone else, why didn't you try to stop the fight?"
"What, and distract him? Once the fight was under way, if I suddenly showed up and started shouting, that could have given his opponent an opening to strike." He glared up at Tiejo, who was standing not far away. "I guess I shouldn't have worried about that, though."
Tiejo said, "I... I... you are being the brother he spoke of? I'm sorry. I didn't want-"
"Oh, I don't blame you. I mean, I kind of do, of course. But you had no choice. You didn't start the fight, you were just defending yourself." He laid his brother back down, gently, and stood up. Then he drew his own sword, and turned toward Zeke. "I blame you. If you hadn't poisoned his mind, all those years ago, he never would have become what he was. And this never would have happened. It's your fault my brother is dead!"
He slowly backed Zeke toward a nearby building as he spoke, and pinned him against the wall with his sword. Zeke had been grinning the whole time, and now he laughed. "You do know I can translocate away quicker than you can deliver a killing blow, right?"
Benj smirked and asked, "Can you?"
Zeke stuck a hand in his coat pocket and found it empty. He frowned. "Where-?" Before he could finish his question, Benj's sword was in his heart.
Benj withdrew his sword from Zeke's chest, turned, and pointed it at Macen's men. "Will anyone be paying you to kill those street rats, now that my brother is dead?"
They looked at each other, then back at him, and shook their heads.
"Then I suppose you have no reason to do so." He took out a handkerchief, wiped the blood off his sword, and returned it to its sheath. He tossed the handkerchief behind him, and it landed on Zeke's corpse. "I'm certain you share my grief over Macen's death, but I can't help wondering if you were fond of Mr. Sanguine."
Calvert said, "Uh... actually, I didn't know him well, but... he always seemed pretty scary."
"Yeah," said Rocco, "the guy was crazy. Even when he was being friendly, you couldn't help feeling like he'd just as soon cut or kick or burn you. Even kill you, if the mood struck. I don't know if he ever did kill anyone on his own side, but I wouldn't be surprised."
"Nor would I, and I expect I knew him better than either of you. So I suppose you'll agree that I've done the world a service." They nodded. "Good, then there's no reason to tell anyone who killed him, is there?" They shook their heads. "Then go home, get some sleep, if you can. And don't let anyone tell you dawn is too early to be getting drunk, if need be."
They released Talon and Perryh, and ran off.
Benj turned to Tiejo, who was still holding his sword. "As for you-"
"I'm... knowing you say... you're not blaming me... but still...."
"Just... give me Sanguine's watch."
Tiejo dropped his sword, and fished in his pocket for the watch he'd taken. He handed it nervously to Benj. "What... what for did you want me to take it?"
"Funny thing about Zeke. Translocation was too complicated for him to do as quickly as most Sorreters. Not that I'm casting aspersions; I'm frankly amazed at the ability of anyone to translocate, given the complexity of the spell, let alone do it quickly. And I barely begin to understand what goes into it. I certainly couldn't do it myself, not having any magical training at all. Still, I long ago overheard him telling Macen that, in spite of his normal bravado, he's always been ashamed of the fact that he just can't do the necessary computations in his head the way the others can. Of course, all Sorreters must imbue an object with... oh, I don't understand it, precisely, but it's something like a copy of their own molecular makeup, which they translocate ahead of them just before translocating themselves, so that the object can serve as a beacon which attracts and reassembles their body at the destination. Obviously when they're just molecules, their minds have no way of reassembling themselves."
"If you are saying so. I am knowing nothing of the workings of magic."
"The thing is, most Sorreters can imbue an object with this data in virtually an instant, but Zeke couldn't. It took him at least a few centhours. So he always carried an object with him which he'd previously imprinted with his data. The one he favored was this watch. I never heard the story of exactly how he came by it, but apparently he'd stolen it from someone about two years before he met Macen. Anyway, I told you to relieve him of it so that he couldn't translocate. At the time, I just thought it would give you a chance to escape, if you had to try again, later. But the theft came in handy for my own purposes, given the way... events played out." In an aside, he added, "Idiot apparently forgot he could have just cast a force field to protect himself."
He stood gazing at the watch, which he held before his eyes for a few more seconds before shaking his head, and putting it in a pocket. "Anyway, I'd like to keep it... as a trophy, I suppose. Or rather... a memento of why my brother died." He turned, and slowly walked back to examine Zeke's body. After staring down at it for a few moments, he said to himself, "Huh... I guess that's what that meant."
"What's what what meant?" asked Tiejo.
Benj shook his head again. "It's not important." Turning back to Tiejo, he said, "Now get out of here, before I change my mind about not blaming you."
"Yes. Of course. Sorry. Thank you." He turned to his friends and said, "Find the Vole, or someone else in his circle. Or even just round up people you have been knowing long enough to trusting. Gather as many as you can, and head north of Triscot."
"Where exactly are we going?" asked Talon.
"Just north. You'll knowing when you get there. Finding Cameron now, I must be." And with that, he ran off.
The passengers of the Super Sonic Transport sat in silence for some time, after the escaped prisoners had been provided with sustenance. Darius had some thoughts he wanted to share, but he felt it better to wait until he was safely home. There was a corner of his mind that worried this rescue might be a trick to get him to finally admit he'd been planning a rebellion. He told himself that was just his paranoia, particularly since there's no way Vallus would be involved in such a deception. On the other hand, they were still technically in the custody of the Army. The whole argument between Stavros and Woodman could have been an act, and 'Vallus' could just be someone wearing a glamour. But then, how would Taryn's street rats have figured into it? He shook his head and thought, Better safe than sorry.
Everyone else refrained from talking because they could feel the tension between Stavros and Alecstar. Both of them were keenly aware of Stavros's promise to explain things, but neither of them seemed ready yet to address the issue.
It was a few hours after they'd left Near Port that Darius suddenly said, "Pardon me, Colonel, but, um... I don't think I ever actually thanked you for freeing us. So, thanks."
"Yeah, thanks," echoed Alecstar, with unmistakable bitterness, sarcasm, and mistrust.
Ginger exclaimed, "Ugh, enough of this! Both of you! I don't know what the hell happened between you two, but you can't just sit there brooding. Colonel, you promised to give Star some kind of explanation, and frankly, I want one, too. But more importantly, I want the air cleared so we can all stop being so damned uncomfortable. The flight should be over in a half hour or so, so just get on with it."
Stavros said, "Star?"
Alecstar rolled his eyes. "You know damned well I've been calling myself Alecstar."
"Alec...sand? Huh." He sighed. " But anyway, your friend is right. I said I'd explain once we were in the air, and I'd better do so before we land. Well... it all goes back to an idea I had shortly before the final battle of the war. You remember the plan the Protestant Sorreters had to disappear, if it became apparent final defeat was imminent? Well, that and the plan for Adam's clan go into hiding made me realize there was at least one other person the Order would absolutely not let live, even if he survived the battle."
"Me," said Vallus.
"So I came up with the idea of faking his death on the battlefield, so that he could escape. He didn't like the idea, but after our Sorreter allies disappeared, he reluctantly agreed. I was a damned fool not to have talked to you about this first, but it had been your idea to build the escape tunnels for Adam's family, and of course, you were the superior officer, even though until the war, we'd been equals, friends."
"We were still friends. Or so I thought."
"But not equals. I just wanted to prove that I could... do things myself. Have my own ideas."
"You've always had ideas. You were the one who planned to start his own newspaper, someday, remember?"
"But the war changed all that. I suppose it was silly of me to feel resentment, but I did. Anyway, it wasn't much of a plan, and it obviously backfired. Captain Charles saw me stab Vallus, and when he came to congratulate me on such a prestigious kill, he saw that Vallus was only wounded. He would have finished the job himself, but I convinced him it would be more fun to keep him alive, as a prisoner, knowing every day for the rest of his life that he'd failed to prevent the Coming from, you know, coming."
"I see. Almost seems like death would have been better."
"On almost any day out of the last nine years, I would have agreed with you," said Vallus.
"But I always intended to free him, eventually. I just needed to come up with a good plan. Needed to figure out the right time. Originally, I thought you'd be able to help with that, but you disappeared before I had a chance to explain any of this to you."
"The thing is, I saw you stab him, too. And I believed you'd killed him. In that instant, I realized you'd betrayed not only Vallus, but me, and all the Protestants. I figured if you'd killed him, you'd surely inform Poss of Adam's whereabouts, if not lead an assault on their hideout yourself, before the battle was even over. I couldn't understand why you'd do this, how I could misjudge you. Granted, we'd both been on the side of the Order originally, but I thought you changed your mind about which side was right, at the same time I did. When I saw you kill Vallus, I knew I must have been wrong. That you'd only pretended to agree with me, to keep tabs on me, see whatever I did to help the Protestants, so you could counter it. That's why I left. I wanted to kill you, then and there, but I couldn't. Not after all our years of friendship. But I also couldn't ever look at you again. And more practically, I knew once the war was over, you'd have no reason not to turn me in as a traitor." He sighed, and rubbed his head. "But now... I can't believe I've wasted all these years, hating you. For no reason."
"I can't believe I made you hate me. Dammit, it all could have been avoided so easily, if not for my foolish pride!"
Emma started to cry. "That's the saddest story I've ever heard!" she sobbed.
Several other people's eyes began welling up, including Darius's. But suddenly, he started laughing. Everyone turned to stare at him. "Sorry. I just suddenly thought, all this reminds me of one of Tooblan's 'comedies of errors.'" He turned to Emma and said, "Ordinarily, I'd hate myself for even thinking that, much less saying it. But I promised not to do that until you're done hating me."
She shook her head and turned away, trying to hide a grin. "You can hate yourself a little."
He smiled and said, "Thanks. Now I'm getting back into my comfort zone."
Just then, the door to the cockpit slid open, and the copilot came out. "Colonel, I've got some bad news and some really bad news. I'd ask which you want first, but I'm not actually sure which is which."
"Then just tell me in whatever order seems best."
"Okay. We just noticed the other SST is approaching our position."
"I hope that's the really bad news."
"The other thing is, our mana batteries will be drained in about a centhour."
"That... could be worse."
Suddenly, the transport was shaken by a blast of some kind.
"Possibly less than a centhour," said the copilot.
"I thought these things didn't have weapons," said Darius.
"They don't. But they can carry Sorreters," said Stavros.
They had no way of returning fire, so all they could do was rely on the pilot to outmaneuver the enemy. He managed to do so for a few centhours, but they took occasional hits. Finally, one blast caused the transport to plummet. The pilot called out, "We're losing altitude!"
"I can feel that, soldier!" shouted Stavros. "Everyone... abandon ship! Get to the escape carpets!"
A few centhours after evacuating the transport, everyone landed safely on the ground. They all gathered together, and looked up into the sky. It was hard to make anything out in the twilight, but they were sure the enemy would land soon, and they'd be surrounded by soldiers. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion in the air. A moment later, Cameron appeared beside them, and raised a force field over the group to make sure none of them were struck by falling debris, which soon began showering around them.
"Cameron!" exclaimed Darius. "What the hell just happened?"
Before Cameron could reply, someone suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and exclaimed, "I'll tell you what he did! He saved me from having to make the hardest choice of my life, that's what!" The newcomer embraced Cameron, and kissed him on the forehead. "I love you so much right now, man!" He released Cameron, and turned to Stavros. "You, too. But since we haven't actually met..."
Ginger asked, "Tino? Where the hell did you come from? What are you doing here?"
Tino smiled widely, walked the few steps it took to reach Ginger, and hugged her tightly. "Ah, Ginj! It is so great to see you!" He took a small step back, and held her face in his hands, gazing lovingly into her eyes. He fought the urge to kiss her on the lips, because he knew what he was about to say would be hard for her to deal with.
After a few seconds, he turned and began pacing, building up the courage to begin. He'd been imagining this moment for the last few months, struggling with a decision he had to make. But he'd had no idea things would turn out this way. The hard part of his decision had been rendered unnecessary both by Cameron's actions just now, and by those of Stavros and his allies, back in Near Port. However, the lesser part of the decision would have meant revealing something about himself, which was by no means easy. He'd always supposed it was something he'd have to reveal eventually, even if Ginger and his other band mates had never gotten involved in the Chaos, and never been imprisoned. He couldn't go on living a lie of omission, as he had been for the last few years. But he'd always told himself it was necessary, at least in the beginning, to withhold the truth, so that they might eventually understand a greater truth, when the time came to tell it. But as time went by, he just felt more and more comfortable with the way things were between him and his friends.
As he paced, the entire group assembled and stood waiting for him to stop pacing and say something.
Finally, he did so. He turned to face the group, took a deep breath, and said, "So, here's the thing. I'm kind of... a spirit."
"What?!" exclaimed Ginger. She wanted very much to say a great deal more, but that was the only coherent word she was able to form.
"I wanted to tell you so many times, but... the time never seemed right. At first... I wanted you to get to know me, without thinking of me first and foremost in that light. I wanted you to be more concerned with who I am than what I am. I know if you'd known, you might have thought of me as a friend, but... all spirit-talkers look at their spirit friends differently than they do their mortal friends. There's a certain degree of reverence, but I figured someone like you could get past that without much trouble. The main problem was... you don't become truly close friends with spirits. We're not people it'd occur to any of you to hang out with on a regular basis, just... rare occasions, and usually for specific reasons. True friends, on the other hand, you'll hang out with not only more often, but also... for no particular reason. And that's what I wanted. And to be completely honest... there was another reason, which I didn't want to admit even to myself, at first. I was aware of it from the first time I met you, but... I did my best to deny it, as long as I possibly could. But eventually, I couldn't do that anymore. I... you know... fell in love. And I knew you could love me, too, but... it would take longer for you. And even if you were able to think of a spirit as an ordinary sort of friend, you wouldn't be able to consider the possibility of a romantic relationship with one... unless you were already in love, and no more able to deny that fact than I was."
"So why didn't you tell me the truth the first time I ever told you I loved you?"
"I... should have. I was just scared. Hell, by then some part of me almost felt like I was human. And if you knew I wasn't... it would have become harder for me to see myself that way. Sorry, I know that's a lame excuse."
"Were you ever going to tell me?"
"I swear, I absolutely would have told you, eventually. I was just... procrastinating. I don't know how long it would have taken, but at the very least I can say I would have told you before doing anything like, you know, getting married. Or whatever."
"Damn right you would have. But... why are you telling me now?"
He sighed. "Yeah, so like... here's the thing. I pretty much could have gotten all of you out of prison at any time."
"Wait... when you said goodbye to me in Triscot... it was like you knew you wouldn't see me for a long time. Did you know we were going to be arrested?"
"It's not like spirits are clairvoyant, or omniscient, as you well know. But I did some... investigating... which led me to make some good guesses about how your attempt to rescue Vallus would turn out."
Tom asked, "So you knew who Tiejo's master was, all along?"
"Not at first. But when I was looking into things, I found out."
Darius demanded, "Why the hell didn't you tell us?"
"Didn't want to spoil Tiejo's surprise."
"Not that! Why didn't you tell us about... well, Woodman, and the Cabal, and everything?"
"Because spirits aren't allowed to interfere in the natural development of mortal worlds," said Ginger. "As I mentioned one day while we were traveling between Tanq and Triscot. I was talking specifically about God, but it applies to all spirits."
Tino nodded. "Which brings me back to what I was saying. I could have broken you out of that dungeon, but it would have meant not only revealing the truth about myself to you all, but more importantly, it would have meant breaking the non-interference directive. And I was on thin enough ice with God, as it was. But I'll explain that in a bit. The thing is, if I'd helped you, I would have... Fallen. It was a huge decision, probably bigger than any mortal being could ever possibly be faced with. So I apologize that it took me so long, while you were all suffering so terribly- especially you, Cameron. Anyway, I was overjoyed when Thew came along with this fellow," he nodded at Stavros, "and his band of soldiers, and rescued you all. It saved me from having to make the decision. But I knew your escape wasn't guaranteed, so I watched over you all, during your flight. And I decided that at the very least, I'd make sure you didn't die, no matter what. Even if I didn't harm your enemies, though, helping you would have constituted a Fall." Looking at Ginger, he added, "Ah, but at least I would've still been with you, and that'd make it worthwhile..."
"If you Fell," she asked, "wouldn't you have gone to, like, Hell, or something?"
"Well, I suspect God would have commuted my sentence. But again, I'll explain that in a bit. I wanted to say, first, that even as I saw you all escape from your ship, the enemy would still be able to catch and/or kill you. I finally made up my mind that I'd accept any punishment, to prevent that. I suppose I could have just translocated you all to safety, but I must admit, I was feeling rather... wrathful. I would have destroyed the enemy transport, and killed everyone on board... but just before I could, I saw Cameron appear, and he did the job for me. So once again... I was spared the need to take an action that would have... been very bad. Cam... what can I say? I am so glad you spent all that time being tortured! ...Ah, no, that came out wrong. What I mean is-"
Cameron laughed. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Don't worry about it, buddy, I'm happy to help."
"Anyway," said Tino, turning back to Ginger, "I may not have needed to take a Fall for the team, but I figured... if I was willing to do that, the least I could do was man up and finally tell you the truth about myself. I know you'll need some time to process it."
She was interrupted by Tom, who said, "Uh, guys... there are a ton of people running our way with swords."
Everyone turned to look in the direction he was pointing. And he was right. But they had no weapons of their own, and there seemed nowhere to run, so they stood and waited. Before the tide of bodies reached them, they could see by the dawn's early light that at the head of the pack was Tiejo. The small army he led began slowing, and came to a full stop right in front of his friends. He said, "Greetings and chaos. The Chaos still does live?" Tom howled with laughter, and Darius chuckled.
"Yeah, we seem to be alright," said Darius. "What's up with you?"
"Um... thinking I was we'd have fighting to do. So bringing a few friends, I did." He looked around. "But... not seeing any enemies." He glanced at Cameron and asked, "Your doing?"
"Guilty. But it's nice of you to join us. Sorry you had to wake up all these fine folks for nothing. But... they could have been necessary."
Darius said, "I'm actually surprised they aren't. But I guess getting our asses saved by street rats twice in one morning would have been a bit much." Raising his voice, he addressed their would-be saviors. "Thanks for coming, everyone. You may very well be needed in the near future, but for now, I think we've got things covered. Sorry."
There was some grumbling from the street rats. Tiejo overheard someone say, "I hate when people change their story" and someone else reply, "Well, it can be impossible to predict how these things will turn out...."
Tiejo turned to the Vole and said, "Sorry I am being. Hopefully there will being no more false alarms. Thinking you can keep peoples willing to help us, if call again we do?"
The Vole sighed. "I'll see what I can do. There's bound to be some resentment, but... eh, it's not like we've got much of anything better to do."
The Vole left with his people, and Tiejo joined his friends. He asked, "Did I missing anything?"
Ginger grinned. "Oh, not much. Tino just told us he's a spirit. And he was about to explain about that in further detail. Maybe we should all sit down and listen."
"Actually," said Stavros, "I really think we should be heading to Triscot."
Ginger waved a hand dismissively. "If street rats got here on foot, it shouldn't take long for us on carpets. I think we can spare a few centhours. But you and your troops can go on ahead, if you like."
"That's a good-" but before he could finish, he heard a chorus of coughs from his people. He rolled his eyes and said, "On the other hand, maybe we're interested in hearing more of what your boyfriend has to say."
At that moment, Ginger suddenly understood what God had meant about following her heart, in regard to Tino. But she still wasn't sure about something else he said. "By the way, I talked to God, myself, en route to Near Port. He said you'd never willingly deceive me. But it sounds to me like you were willingly deceiving me."
Tino rubbed the back of his head and looked nervous. "Oh, that... well... yeah, I don't think He was specifically referring to the deception in question, at the moment. It could have been related to that, but... the thing is, I don't suppose He'd be cool with us dating if not for... a particular argument I used at one point, in an ongoing debate we've been having for... well, a very long time, now. Which, actually, is another reason I was reluctant to bring up the fact that I'm a spirit. It would have led to telling you about the debate, but I promised Him a long time ago that I'd never tell anyone the nature of the debate. At least not until we've concluded it, and there's no telling how long that will take. I'm lucky I'm even allowed to tell you the debate exists. I want very badly to explain what it's all about, and you deserve to know... but I can't. So, yeah, probably that's what He meant."
"I'm not sure that constitutes deception, exactly."
"Well... it potentially could, but explaining why would require coming to close to revealing the nature of the debate."
Ginger shrugged. "Okay. Now, there were a couple of things you said earlier you were going to explain..."
"Right. Um, I guess I said I was on 'thin ice' with God... and that's sort of related to the debate itself, and also to an agreement I made with Him at the time I used the particular argument I referred to just now. Which, obviously, I can't elaborate upon. And I said I thought He'd commute my sentence, if I did Fall. That, I think I can explain. But before I begin... and this comes a bit late, but... I want to ask everyone here not to reveal to anyone the fact that I'm a spirit. It's up to each of you- and I trust Ginger and everyone in the Band and the Chaos to keep my secret, but you Army folks... I don't know any of you, and you don't know me. So I can't expect favors, but it means a lot to me to be able to go on living as a human, and if people found out the truth... well, I couldn't do that anymore."
Ginger grinned and asked, "So then, I guess you won't want me submitting any of what you're about to say for the O'Gas?"
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't, but like I said... it's up to you."
"That's alright, I've got a better conversation to submit, anyway."
"I wonder," said Thew suddenly, "if our packs- along with our notebooks- are still in the wagon? And if the wagon is where we left it?"
"Hold on," said Cameron. "I'll check." He translocated away, and reappeared a centhour later. He handed packs to Ginger and Thew. "Amazingly enough, it seems they left the wagon alone, and apparently no one else happened upon it in the last few months."
"Can I pick a good cave, or can't I?" asked Darius with a smirk.
"Anyway," said Tino, "I was going to explain a bit of history. It kind of goes back to the Rebellion. Lucifer's, I mean. He and his followers were the first beings to ever Fall, but for spirits, it's not quite the same as for mortals. Those of us who Fall, do so individually, because of our own choices, whereas with mortal races, an entire world's population Falls collectively, for all time to come, because of one person's choice. Which seems unfair, but... God has His reasons. Which aren't pertinent to the subject of spirits. Um... as you know, every world's Fall differs in nature and severity, and the Punishment always fits the crime. The Fall of Lucifer and his followers was the most severe Fall ever; I mean, obviously it was the first Fall, since no mortal races existed yet. But it would never be equaled. Therefore, they received the worst Punishment ever: Hell. God created it just for them. Though of course, He'd later find other uses for it. Again, not pertinent. Anyway, in the time since the end of the war in Heaven, other spirits have occasionally Fallen, but generally not as badly as Lucifer's group, so however each spirit Fell, they were Punished accordingly. Sometimes that means being sent to Hell, sometimes not.
"Ginger, my love, I should tell you that I asked God some time ago if it would be okay if you and I started dating, and He agreed- partly because of the argument I alluded to, and partly because I agreed to be confined to a single physical form. You know spirits visit various planets, the sentient populations of which can vary widely in form. So of course, we always take on an appearance appropriate to whatever world we're on. But since I started dating you, I can only look human. Which means I can only go to worlds where humans exist. Aside from the Land and Earth, there are a few other worlds where I can reasonably pass for, you know, not a monster or mutant or anything. Normal. There are also plenty of worlds where people from places like Earth travel, being part of an alliance... I'm sure Zeph's talked to you about that. So even if I don't look like a world's native race, I wouldn't be out of place. But still, it has significantly reduced the number of places I can go."
"That's quite a sacrifice," said Ginger. "I hope you don't come to resent me for it."
He shook his head. "No, it's fine, because this is the only place I really want to be. Besides, spirits enjoy visiting other worlds because... well, we don't really have one of our own. Heaven's great, but it's not ours, it's God's. Staying there all the time would be like... spending your whole life living at your parents' house. We actually envy mortals, because they have homeworlds, places that are theirs, y'know? And... I kind of feel like the Land is my home now, even if technically I'm not Landian."
"Wait," said Tom. "If mortals like us never get to leave our homeworld, isn't that like us spending our whole lives in our parents' house?"
Before Tino could reply, Darius said, "No analogy is perfect."
Tino laughed and said, "Yeah, what he said. Anyway, the point I was getting to is... No, no, wait. I forgot to mention Nephilim... Dammit, I was going to do that first. One way some spirits Fell was to marry mortals. Of this, God definitely did not approve. So, they were forced to live forever on whatever world their spouse was from. There have, believe me, been countless myths and theories, on many worlds, about such matters, but even if people once knew the truth firsthand, such knowledge always ends up lost in the mists of antiquity, as it were. Fallen spirits confined to a single world are not only forbidden to tell the natives what they truly are, they are prevented from doing so. Sometimes, their knowledge of their own nature is taken from them. Anyway, Nephilim are the offspring of spirit-mortal couples. They're, uh, not really important to the topic at hand, but... I wanted to mention them, partly because I wanted you to know situations like ours aren't unprecedented, and partly because I've always liked the sound of the word 'Nephilim.' Say it with me! Neph-"
"Uh, sweetie," Ginger interrupted, "did God ever... forgive these Fallen spirits? I mean, if He's willing to let us date..."
"Oh, uh... well, sort of. I mean, the '60s really made Him start rethinking His stance on interracial dating..."
"Sorry, the 1960s. On Earth. Pretty amazing decade, you should've been there..."
"Hey wait," said Darius. "Back at the Boar & Bear, when you said you were in a band in the '90s...?"
Tino laughed. "Oh yeah, that. I meant the 1990s. On Earth. You got me. But, I'd, uh... rather not talk about it. And I probably shouldn't have mentioned the '60s, either. I was... kind of joking. I mean, drawing another imperfect analogy between spirit/mortal dating and... something else, which He never had a problem with. The point I was trying to make is... as I'm sure you're aware, God sometimes makes mistakes. Though when He does, we usually try not to call Him 'wrong.' We say, 'Not right. Ish.' Anyway, it may take Him millennia to realize his mistakes, possibly deriving insight through analogous situations He witnesses in mortal societies. But even if such realization leads Him to forgive an act in and of itself, He generally doesn't forgive the defiance that the act represents. But it would be different for us," he looked at Ginger, "since we got His blessing in advance."
"That's nice, dear," she said. "But you still haven't gotten to the part about commuting your sentence."
"Right. Well, so what I was thinking was... if I broke the non-interference rule, by saving you all... there's no telling what exactly the Punishment would be, since He metes those out on a case-by-case basis anyway... but it's possible He'd send an offending spirit to Hell for that. Heck, if I killed your enemies in the process, I don't think there'd be any doubt of it. Even if I just prevented them from catching or killing you, which may seem a minor infraction, in the grand scheme of things, technically it would be meddling with free will. In a letter-of-the-law kinda way. And that is like the second biggest no-no in the Universe, after active rebellion against God. At least as far as spirits are concerned. Even so... I suspect if no actual killing were involved, I could plead it down to a 'marrying a mortal' charge, and just get sentenced to live on the Land forever."
"But you said He wouldn't hold that against you."
"Spoken like someone who's never watched a legal drama."
"What's a legal drama?"
"Oh, right. You've been in a dungeon the last three months. Well, it's an ancient Terran art form, which has only recently made its way to the Land, since the introduction of bubble-screens. Don't worry... you'll find out soon enough."
"Well," said Stavros, "I think we've delayed here long enough. See that big ball of fire in the sky? It's called the sun, and it's getting higher. Even now, people are drinking coffee and getting ready for a busy day. Some of those people's day's may include looking for all of us. And my intention is to find them first."
"Good idea," said Darius. "Actually, I'm anxious to turn myself in." Everyone looked at him in surprise. He said, "I have every confidence that the police will believe us when we say we're innocent. Or at the very least, they'll be pissed at Colonel Woodman. And if I show that I'm willing to stand trial- publicly- that will only serve to strengthen my case. Of course, I can't ask any of you to come along."
"I'll come," said Vallus. "I think the word of a man who's supposed to be dead will do wonders for your case."
"Meanwhile," said Cameron, "if anyone wants anything else from the wagon, I can make another trip before joining you in Triscot."
Darius asked, "Um, could I come with, have a look see? I know I'd like to get my fedora, since it goes so well with my duster... although, damn... Triscot in Su'yet, kind of too hot for this thing, now. One thing I don't like about supersonic travel is how quickly the climate can change. But... I can't remember if there was anything else I wanted. Have you got enough juice left to translocate me there and back?"
"Man, I've got so much chakra stored up, I've probably used a week's worth already this morning, but that barely scratches the surface."
Tom was the only one to speak up; he asked if they could pick up the carpet he'd bought from Arnold Sullenhest. Darius promised to do so, then asked Vallus to await their return. As everyone else boarded their carpets and took off, Cameron touched Darius's shoulder, and they disappeared.
As he climbed into the back of the wagon, Darius said, "Actually, I mainly wanted to come so I ask you, privately... if there's any chance Vallus is wearing a glamour, or something? I mean... could he not be Vallus?"
"I'd have to be specifically checking for that. But I'll tell you when we get back. After I take a look, if he's him, I'll... say something to him. Something casual. If he's not him, I won't."
"Very spy-like. I don't remember Jasp doing anything like that."
"He wasn't in his element, while he was with us. I was. Remember, I'm a spy too, but a traveling one."
"Oh yeah." He hopped down from the wagon, to stand in front of Cameron, and donned his hat. "Let's go."
"What about Tom's carpet?"
"I'm afraid it was gone."
"Shame, that. I wonder why everything else is still there?"
When they got back, they found Vallus lying on a carpet with his hands laced behind his head. "Hope we didn't keep you waiting too long," said Darius.
Vallus sat up and said, "Reckon time passed the same for me as for you. Didn't seem long, to me. You ready?"
Darius nodded, and he and Cameron joined him on the carpet. When they were all seated, Darius commanded the carpet to take off.
After they'd been in the air for a centhour, Vallus turned to Cameron and asked, "There a reason you're staring at me so hard?"
"I was just thinking... you must have known my sister, Lorraine."
"Oh, you're Lorraine's little brother? She talked about you a lot. How's she doing?"
"Fairly well. Maybe you can see her again sometime."
"I'd like that."
Darius turned to look at Cameron and said, "Um..." but didn't know what else to say.
Cameron grinned and said, "You're probably wondering if my talking to him counts as a code, since he talked to me first, and I had to reply, anyway. We really should have done more planning, but there wasn't much time. Still, it occurs to me that there's no reason to bother with codes, seeing as he is Vallus."
"Who'd you think I was?" asked Vallus.
"Just making sure you weren't an impostor, laying a trap for us. Maybe we'd lead you to my family, and then-"
"Ah, good thinking."
"Anyway, you're sure we can trust Stavros?"
"I believe we can. But you may want to ask Alec what he thinks."
"Ah, good thinking."
A few centhours later, they flew into Triscot. Cameron said, "If you all are heading to the police, I think I'll make myself scarce." Before anyone could reply, he was gone. And Darius took himself and Vallus to the police station, where they found Stavros waiting for them.
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