I never thought that I would fear anyone’s battle prowess when compared to Jenna…but Naph is making me have second thoughts. Perhaps Nadine didn’t choose him…perhaps the ancient Abravian Technologers have finally come out of hiding, and have decided to infiltrate our team in order to prevent the dragons from escaping the Arcos and ushering in the apocalypse, unbeknownst to the rest of us…well, besides me, anyway. They’ll find it hard to sneak anything by on my watch. According to legend, their primary focus was to build aqueducts for the migration of desert birds across the mountains. I’m sure it was a façade to keep us from knowing their true nature. But if Naph’s on my side, all the better.
Nadine led us into Laaris in a rush. She darted around corners and down alleys towards the western side of the city, occasionally stopping to inquire this or that from a shop keep or passerby. When she finally found our destination, it was a nondescript building, about three stories tall. We went inside.
“I’m going upstairs,” Nadine said. Jenna and M’rya-Blythe both asked her if we could come with her, but Nadine’s only response was to glance back and shrug, then continue up the stairs. After a moments pause followed by a chaotic tousle of Atoms at the bottom of the stairs, Jenna won the lead, taking the stairs three at a time to catch up with Nadine. The rest of us followed at her heels.
We entered a room on the third floor; an Atom sat behind a large desk, which a small marker on his desk that read “Judge A1”. His Atom was in far better condition than any Atom I’d ever seen. There were no visible dents, scratches, or tarnished marks…only gleaming metal surrounded by the familiar blue glow of his image. He was old, with a white beard and a thinning hairline, but he carried himself with an air of one who was familiar with expensive comforts.
Judge A1 spoke in a gentle voice, “Greetings, Nadine. It has been some time."
“It has, Judge. It’s good to see you.”
“Likewise. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Nadine frowned, “Nothing that I would call pleasurable. The plague is back, sir. South of here, near the Arcos, it’s spreading around a nomadic tribe called Agnora. We happened to be passing through, and obtained for them some curative distilled from Kedil. We were at the Research…”
Judge A1 frowned back, interrupting Nadine. “What is the meaning of this, Nadine? To speak so blatantly of the plague in front of the uninitiated…there are protocols in place for their protection and ours!”
“I understand, Judge. But the time for caution is over. Our hope of never reawakening the plague has been snuffed out.”
“Do you have proof?”
“Only our word. We visited the Research Facility in the north to obtain the override key for Nin Arco C, which needs repairs. My hope was that I had misread the signs…but I and my team have been doing research on the plague. The symptoms are unmistakably the same as the original plague. It’s returned.”
Sitting back down at his desk, Judge A1 pulled out a small terminal and began keying in commands. “Did you see any evidence of its reemergence in the north?”
Nadine shook her head.
“Then I will have trusted Atoms monitor all traffic into Laaris, especially from the south. Anyone with symptoms will immediately be quarantined.”
“There’s also a store of Kedil that my team uncovered at the Research Facility. I suggest sending harvesters now – if they move quickly, they should be able to return in only a few days with enough Kedil to begin refinement.”
Judge A1 finished keying commands, and closed the terminal. “Thank you, Nadine. I will do so.”
Nadine seemed about ready to go, and for a moment I sorely missed Yafeth. He has a knack for pulling useful resources out of situations like this, but I hadn’t had much experience. I had to try.
“We are travelling back south to check on the other human settlements…our team was almost killed by conios on our trip to the Research Facility, and it’s important that we move quickly.”
“Then take these, with my blessing.” He walked over to the side of the room, opened a drawer, and pulled out a small stack of papers. Nadine took them from his hand, thanking him.
It looked as if Naph was going to say something, but at that point Nadine grabbed Naph’s arm and half dragged him back into the hallway. The meeting was clearly over.
“Nadine!” Naph whined. “He might have been able to help us more.”
“He’s helped us much more than you know,” Nadine grinned. “Zeet, you crazy boy, this is fantastic. All of you – follow me!”
Back outside, Nadine took off at a brisk pace for several blocks, turning occasionally. She stopped at a stall marked with a handsomely wrought metal sign, reading “Smithy.” She approached the human behind the counter, handing him the tickets. His eyebrows rose and a grin spread across his face. “What can I get for you?”
Nadine turn around. “Those tickets are for any one magnet stone item you want. Just tell him what you need.”
M’rya-Blythe started digging around her pack. “I only have one dagger…but I want a better sling,” she said to no one in particular.
“I have some extra daggers,” I said. I pulled out two daggers, one of them a magnet stone dagger that Tern had made for me.
“Thanks!” M’rya-Blythe exclaimed. She went up to the smithy and ordered a magnet stone sling. He also threw in a bag of magnet stone bullets. M’rya-Blythe started to say something about selling her old sling to him, but he’d already moved on to Naph.
Naph, as usual, immediately launched into a complicated explanation of his boomerang sword idea; the poor smithy had no idea what he was trying to explain. Naph, nonplused, upended the entire contents of his knapsack onto the counter, spare parts and items rolling everywhere. “Could I trade any of these for magnet stones?”
The smithy picked up a few items until he stumbled upon the strange powder that Nadine had given him ages ago. He gave Naph an odd look, resembling something between disbelief and condescension. He opened his mouth to say something, but Nadine gave a yelp of joy and snatched the bag out of the smithy’s hands. “Naph,” she said excitedly, “Have you been putting this powder on your food as I instructed you?”
Naph nodded. “Of course! I have an excellent memory; even in my dreams, I can…”
Nadine didn’t stop to listen, but grabbed his arm and dragged him around the side of the building, a large grin on her face. Naph stumbled as he tried to regain his footing and follow Nadine before he disappeared around the corner.
The smithy looked confused, but to us, this wasn’t out of the ordinary. Jenna began putting Naph’s items back in his knapsack while I ordered a pair of daggers.
While we were waiting, I tried to ignore the awkward noises coming from the alley. Naph was letting out odd, high pitched squeaks and gasps, and Nadine kept scolding him. “Stop wiggling Naph! This isn’t exactly pleasant for me, either.”
Jenna and M’rya-Blythe headed outside to see what was going on, and I followed. I gasped in disgust at what I saw.
Naph was bent over double, with a panel on his rear end open…and Nadine’s right arm was inside him, occasionally pulling out greasy bits of something I didn’t want to know about. Naph’s eyes kept bugging out while Nadine seemed completely unaffected by what she was doing to Naph. Jenna, M’rya-Blythe and I stared in horror. After some sense began overpowering my horrified fascination, I turned and went back into the stall. I heard Jenna’s parting comments to Nadine, “I hope you’re planning on washing your hands after you’re done, Nadine…”
“You’re too squeamish, dear,” Nadine responded.
The smithy returned from the back with my daggers. Eager to erase the image of…whatever Nadine was doing to Naph that had been seared into my traumatized mind, I polished the new daggers with zeal.
Jenna walked back into the stall, shaking her head. She glanced back towards the entrance to the alley, shuddered, and then turned to the smithy to place her order for some armor. She also placed a separate order for a throwing axe. The armor is bulky and slows her down a little, but it will definitely improve her ability to withstand injury.
Naph moaned as he walked bow-legged back into the stall. In his hands, he carried the greasy bits of…whatever, and without saying anything, went behind the stall and started working on one of the smithy’s refining stations.
Nadine came up behind Jenna, making a show of washing her hands. “Satisfied?”
Jenna grimaced, taking a step back. “Don’t touch me.”
Nadine explained that Naph had been building more magnet stones inside himself with the powder he had sprinkled on his food, but they have to be…harvested…in order to be used. If refined properly, they would be of a much higher quality than would otherwise be available.
Naph’s discomfort didn’t seem to have any impact on his refining abilities, and he pulled out a gleaming lump of magnet stone larger than I’ve ever seen, moving to the shaping station next.
Nadine talked with the smithy about options for what she wanted. With Jenna’s encouragement, she decided to select some armor. The smithy took her measurements, then sighed. There wasn’t anything that would fit Nadine properly, so he’d have to make it. He disappeared into the back to start working.
An hour later, Nadine was wearing gleaming armor that was custom made for her. She was able to move gracefully, and the smithy mentioned that he took particular pride in the quality of this armor. He and Nadine went into the back to help Naph with whatever he was doing.
Things did not go well for the smithy after that. When he finally realized what Naph was trying to do, he offered to help. The first time, he broke the power supply that Naph had painstakingly built. Naph and Nadine were able to repair it, and handed it and the sword back to the smithy, with his assurances that it wouldn’t happen again.
He’s a good liar…very convincing. I thought Naph was going to kill him.
The smithy had broken he power supply beyond the point of repair, so he took Naph into the back to look at some prototype weapons he’d been working on. Naph came out with a gun and a new magnet stone sword. He was still walking with the odd, bowlegged gait.
We wasted no time leaving Laaris and travelled at a brisk pace for several days. During the occasional breaks, M’rya-Blythe and Naph searched the area for rocks they could use.
When we were within range of the second pillar, Nadine pulled out the Arm, and we huddled closely together. After a few hours, Naph turned to Nadine. “I think the pillar is on.”
Nadine paused as if listening to something. “I can’t be sure…but I think you’re right. Will someone…er…test the theory?”
Jenna jumped up eagerly. “I’ll do it!” Besides an odd moment where she either stopped to look a mushroom or tripped on a tree root (it was hard to tell), nothing happened. Nadine nodded. “The second pillar is working again.”
When we reached the pillar, Nadine confirmed that it was working, but she didn’t seem happy about it. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I think I know what’s going on…it’s time for me to tell you about Tern.”
We set up camp and got a fire going. While dinner was cooking, Nadine described to us how she had met Tern. She was the woman in the video we saw at the Research Facility…and Tern was the boy who had been crying for his mother.
Nadine had to make a choice on who to save from the plague and who not to. She settled on children, and even took in more children than she had pillars for…but she didn’t take any adults besides herself. Tern knew this, and blamed Nadine for his mother’s death (although Nadine didn’t realize this until much later).
As the years went by, Nadine was forced to place one child after another into pillars because of food shortages and illnesses that popped up. Thankfully the quarantine protected them from the plague. After a decade, she ran out of pillars. She was able to smuggle the children to a nearby Arco, leaving Tern to watch over the children that were in the pillars at the research facility.
There was only one pillar left at the research facility, and Nadine was saving it for Tern. She would watch over the children as long as she could, and then when she died, Tern would use the pillar to keep an eye on the children forever. He was particularly gifted with technology, so Nadine had chosen him specifically. Unfortunately, he didn’t like Nadine’s plan. After studying the control room for nearly a year, he figured out how to physically leave the Research Facility without an Atom. He escaped in the night. When Nadine discovered that he’d disappeared, she jumped into the remaining pillar and chased after him.
Tern had found a pillar one of the Arcos, and after several months of chasing, Nadine finally trapped him. He had an orber battle with her, and used some of the children from the Research Facility to attack her. She defended herself in the only way she could, which was with other children from the research facility. Tern had tried to kill her, and in his attempt had damaged something with her communication module that makes it difficult for her to get a clear signal from her pillar. The effect slowly drives her mad until she is reset, which seems to fix the problem temporarily.
Nadine was able to fight back, and put a restraining bolt on Tern’s Atom, effectively placing him in her control. It took several months for her to recover from the damage he did to her, and by the time she was able to return to the Research Facility, it had been more than a year. There was no hope of her exiting the pillar without dying. So she placed Tern into a state of slumber unless she was having one of her fits, in which case he was only allowed to awaken and reset her.
Naph spoke up. “What does this have to do with this pillar?”
Nadine turned to him. “I think we may have fixed it when we were last here. Remember the healing bots we put charges on after the battle with the conios? They must have fixed the pillar. That would have given Tern a clear communication path to the Research Facility – my theory is that he attacked me in the Control Room, and when he wasn’t successful in dismantling me there, he brought up the video to trigger one of my fits. Since he didn’t immediately fill an Atom near me to reset, then he must no longer be under the control of the restraining bolt.”
Nadine stared into the fire. “He’ll want to kill me…and he knows we have to go back to the Arco to repair the seal breech. I fear that he’ll be waiting for us, and there will be another orber battle.”
“How does an Orber battle work?” I asked.
“All of the nearby Atoms, except for the two orbers, shut down. The orbers each try to populate Atoms around them to fight for them – once overpowered, the winning orber can place a restraining bolt on the losing orber. It becomes a battle of the Orbers’ skills in summoning, combined with their knowledge of APLS of battle-hardened Atoms.”
It was unsettling news, and I was concerned about our ability to defeat Tern. We may have been able to scrap our way through battles with wolves and a few rogue Atoms, but never one with another Orber.
A week later we found our way back to Agnora. Vitna was in charge. There was an urgency in her eyes when she saw us. Nadine handed the Arm back to her. “The plague?”
Vitna shook her head in dismay. “Agnora is cured, but the disease spread to Durn. I sent Empa, our healer, with the little cure we had left to try to help. We have been moving our camp every few days to avoid contact with the hunters from Durn – I cannot risk my people’s lives.”
Nadine nodded. “There are stores of Kedil in the Arco that may help Durn. We fear that one of my old colleagues may be trying to stop us from fixing the Arco and delivering the Kedil – can you help us in any way?”
Vitna pursed her lips, thinking. “I cannot risk my people,” she said finally, “But I can ask them to train you in any skills you need, provided they know of them.”
Nadine thanked Vitna, and Vitna sent couriers to spread the word. We split up, hoping to find training. I found one of the target shooters that Jenna had competed against when we were last here. He taught me to throw my daggers much more effectively. Naph was able to learn how to aim his new gun more effectively. M’rya-Blythe worked on her sling skills. Jenna worked on her axe skills...she is so skilled now that she can learn much more complex maneuvers. Nadine took some training on her shield.
We set out the next day. Nadine asked us if we had any ideas on how to approach the upcoming battle. We finally settled on an ambush, completely avoiding the orber battle. It seemed that the orber battle was too dangerous – if Nadine lost, the rest of us would be easy to pick off. Thankfully, Tern did not know our APLS. He did know others, though.
When we got close enough, I did some reconnaissance. Using my invisibility, was able to see that there were five of them, including Tern. I got the impression that one of them was a mage, but I couldn’t tell what kind. Unfortunately one of the branches I was holding on to snapped, and they looked in my direction…but my invisibility held. I just had to hope that they didn’t come searching. I scampered back to the others and explained what I saw.
We decided to break into two groups. Our long-range attacks from M’rya-Blythe and Naph would give us a chance to strike before they knew what was going on. They would focus on the supposed mage to knock out their support. I would stay with them and cast invisibility on them if they got into trouble.
Jenna would take Nadine on the opposite side of the clearing. Nadine would stay hidden and support Jenna as she could, because Jenna wouldn’t stand much of a chance without a healer.
M’rya-Blythe and Naph opened fire, striking the woman I thought was a mage. She stumbled. Only their archer seemed to realize that something was happening, but M’rya-Blythe’s next bullet caught him squarely in the chest, knocking the wind out of him. Naph’s next shot hit the mage in the head, and she crumpled to the ground.
The archer regained his breath and hollered, giving Naph and M’rya-Blythe’s position away. He took aim, but his shot went wild and almost hit Tern in the back. He dove out of the way, landing on the ground.
But suddenly Nadine tumbled out of her hiding spot, landing squarely on her face. Tern saw here and screamed. “DINEEN!” Jenna tore out of the brush and threw an axe into Tern’s back. Oil squirted into the air. The woman farthest from me, who didn’t have a weapon, ran towards Jenna, striking her in the chest with a kick. Jenna stumbled backwards, but seemed unhurt as she regained her footing.
Meanwhile, their knight charged at M’rya-Blythe, slicing her in the side. She cried out. I almost cast invisibility on her, but Nadine was laying completely exposed on the ground, struggling to stand up. The plan was always to protect her first. I trusted in my elevated feet to take care of M’rya-Blythe, and made Nadine invisible first. Then I turned to M’rya-Blythe, who barely escaped from the knight’s second slash. She disappeared as my psionic took effect.
Naph took a shot at Tern, who was frantically back-peddling away from Jenna’s axe, completely leaving his archer defenseless. It didn’t help; Naph’s shot hit him the stomach and he doubled over in pain. The archer responded with an arrow of his own, hitting Naph in the side. Naph kept moving, even as the knight took a second swipe at him, oil flying.
His second shot took Tern out completely. Nadine, who had finally stood up, started calling to the Atoms that were attacking us to stop. The archer lowered his bow. The woman kept her attack on Jenna. The knight tried to take another swipe at Naph, but by that time I had been able to cast invisibility on him.
The invisibility on Nadine wore off, and she called to the knight, “Rog! Stop!” When he spotted Nadine, he moved out of his attack stance.
Only the woman seemed to be unaware that the situation had changed. Rog, the archer, and Nadine were all calling to her to stand down (her name is Omeyla), and even Jenna had taken a defender’s stance to parry any attack coming her way. Omeyla seemed to break out of her battle high, stepping backwards a few steps.
Unfortunately, no one noticed that M’rya-Blythe was still sending bullets everywhere. The knight side stepped her last bullet, smirking as I tackled M’rya-Blythe from behind. She hollered in surprise, and only punched me once before I could convince her that we’d won.
Nadine lost no time asking Jenna and Omeyla for help healing anyone who was bleeding. After the bad wounds were patched, we found an empty Atom for Nadine so that she could resummon the mage, Lyra.
Once Lyra was awake, Nadine introduced the teams to each other. The archer’s name is Caedic. Then she wasted no time in telling everyone what to do.
She told Rog and Caedic to stand guard over Tern’s destroyed Atom while she went to repair breach. It would take her several days depending on how severe the damage was. She turned to M’rya-Blythe. “There’s a port on the western side of the Arco that will be open, and in it will be the Kedil we’ve been collecting recently. The whole team except for Rog and Caedic will go with you – take the Stor, and fill it with as much Kedil as you can. Everyone help get the Kedil to Empa in Durn.”
She turned to Naph, “Find Empa and give her all the information you can about the plague, and help her cure those who are sick. Hurry – every moment matters!”
We upended the Stor and followed M’rya-Blythe around the side of the Arco. Eventually we found the port just as Nadine had said, filled with Kedil. Once the Stor was filled to capacity, we went to Durn. Empa had set up a quarantine, and we all followed her instructions to deliver the Kedil to the ill. Some was eaten immediately, and others Empa took to refine into the cure.
The next few days were a blur. It involved many trips to and from the Arco, bringing more Kedil. Empa and Naph were exhausted but encouraged when there hadn’t been a death or new case reported in two days.
Nadine should be finishing up her repairs on the Arco soon. The plague has been defeated, the dragons are contained, and Tern can’t hurt Nadine. So maybe we’ve earned a little rest – I’m going to take a nap.