At least they didn’t rough us up, I guess, Amar broadcast to Jon, although he was certainly not enjoying the bumpy ride on the horse-drawn car through brick and cobblestone streets.
They’re heroes, Jon responded. His thought carried more annoyance and doubt than he intended. If he was going to be communicating with Amar in this fashion, he would have to get in the habit of better holding back his kneejerk emotions.
Oh, yeah, because heroes never needlessly rough up the so-called villains. Nope. I certainly never had any personal experiences that contradict their claim.
Jon turned his attention from Amar to the steely-eyed man in front of them who eyed them cautiously, ready at a few microseconds’ notice to grab the musket strapped to his back or the rapier in his scabbard. He almost looked like he could read their minds himself. Amar must have had similar paranoia since he was trying his hardest to pretend to be watching the passerby on the streets instead of telepathically chatting with Jon.
So does telepathy exist in Legend of the Steam Cities?, Amar asked while looking as if he was admiring a particularly ugly alleyway.
Not really. There’s the rare magic user, but no natural powers.
Well, at least we’ll know your gem will work once you can do something without worrying about getting a musket shot in your face.
What about you?
Amar coughed and glanced in the direction of the reptilian humanoid named Jakinu, who was driving the horse alongside the woman, Saigh. He’s not a human, so the best I can do is just sense where he is. My mind has a…I guess you’d call it a “compatibility issue” with his brain. Amar began to notice that the once crowded cityscape was beginning to give way to more sparsely populated neighborhoods and even glimpses of unspoiled countryside. And even then, it takes time and effort to shut down a mind I can actually touch, much less two of them at once.
That’s just great.
I’m not all-powerful, you know! Amar hissed in his mind.
Jon flinched in spite of himself and knew their captor must have noticed. Sorry, sorry. Really. I’m just not used to, you know…
Apology accepted. I’ve learned how disconcerting it can be since I got to the First World. But, anyway, we really should start planning—
“You two have been strangely quiet since we restrained you,” their captor, Astavis, remarked.
“Well, you know, we didn’t want to, um, get in trouble,” Jon said off the top of his head. “Like, have you have to go through the whole hassle of bellowing ‘Silence!’ and punching one of us in the stomach.”
For the first time since their fight, Astavis’ stoic expression gave way to what could only be described as concern for Jon’s sanity.
Excellent work not arousing any suspicions, Amar thought at Jon.
Hold on, I have an idea, Jon responded.
Aloud, he asked, “You’re Astavis, right?”
“We’ve crossed paths once before, sorcerer.”
“Um, right. I remember. But I have a question for you.”
“For me? Oh, but we’ll have many questions for you once we cross into the lands of the King of Meneathan-Tirsel.”
“I’m sure. But it’s just something I’m curious about.”
Astavis looked genuinely puzzled, but dispelled it with a derisive laugh. “Fine. What do you want?”
“Okay, you remember that incident where you and the con-artist Binamuna recovered the Lost Book of the Prophetess Ada from those airship pirates in M’pulu.”
Astavis’ expression darkened. “What are you getting at? That was years ago.”
You could at least try to sound like some kind of weird Industrial Age wizard instead of, well, yourself! Amar thought.
I can’t! Even in the video game adaptation, Upesh doesn’t really have a personality!
Ignoring Amar, Jon spoke firmly. And confidently. “You defeated the airship pirates’ captain in a duel and won the loyalty of the rest. So they flew you back to Tenedam with the Lost Book and the evidence that the Grand Duke’s ambassador had been collaborating with the airship pirates before Princess Crios married Count Puntal, but the borderlands were swarming with the Grand Duke’s soldiers.”
“If you really had the airship pirates’ loyalty, why did they just drop you off at Actoria and not at least across the Meneathan-Tirsel border?”
Astavis stammered out, “I—”
I think that actually worked! Jon thought triumphantly at Amar, who could only watch the scene with confusion.
Then, however, Astavis looked thoughtfully up in the sky. “No, I remember. The Grand Duke had made an alliance with the Republic of Belvurie and had some of their combat airships at his disposal. I would have played right into their hands if I had attempted an aerial approach.” Astavis glared at Jon coldly. “I don’t know what kind of misbegotten mind game you were playing at, making me doubt my own memories, but it won’t matter once we drag you whimpering to Meneathan-Tirsel.”
What was the point of that? Amar asked.
I just thought if I pointed out a plot hole big enough this whole…whatever-this-is would just collapse. I mean, the Republic of Belvurie wasn’t even introduced until two books later!
Okay, I admit, that was pretty good, but I think we’re past that point. This may have started out as fiction, but this universe we’re dealing with has become complex enough it can cope with its own inconsistencies.
Amar and Jon fell silent, even in their own heads, until they noticed the cart was now being driven deep into a forest over a fading, rocky trail.
So should I be completely terrified of this Meneathan-Tirsel place? Jon heard Amar ask in his head.
Probably. Yes. It’s the Grand Duke’s main political rival in Tenedam and kind of the refuge for a lot of the protagonists in the book, especially Astavis.
Amar exhaled slowly and loudly. So if we’re going to escape, it will have to be before they take us there.
“We’re here,” Saigh said as they stopped the horse before a decrepit barn that appeared to have been abandoned for decades. It was only when Amar and Jon were dragged, their hands still tied, to a clearing half a mile behind the barn that they saw a small wooden ship harnessed to a zeppelin-like balloon.
While Saigh, Astavis, and Jakinu discussed where to put their “guests” while leading them on-board, Amar heard Jon mutter “Ul dinea” under his breath as they were talking, activating the gem.
Okay, just wait until one of them goes away. You kick their ass or whatever when you have a chance, I’ll mess up the other one’s nervous system.
Not yet, Jon thought back. Not until they’ve taken off.
Don’t tell me this experience of being beaten and held prisoner in one of your own favorite novels has already driven you insane.
Look, I know these books and the whole geography. They can’t just fly right out in the open to Meneathan-Tirsel or else they’d be discovered and shot down by the Grand Duke’s army or the naval patrols. They always have to fly really low through the Great Moors to stand any chance of making it to the border. It will be our best chance to escape.
Okay. But has anyone escaped that way in any of the books?
Jon’s mind went silent after that question, but a minute later Amar heard Jon’s voice in the back of his head. Would it help your optimism if I said “Yes”?
Eventually they were locked in a small storage room below deck since even a small airship could barely be safely steered with three people on deck. However, Astavis, who locked them in with a look of smug satisfaction, very absent-mindedly dropped the key and “accidentally” kicked it under the door without the slightest notion that he had done so.
“Well, I did my part,” Amar said. “How about you?”
Jon was already halfway done shedding the ropes that had been tied around his hands. “It’s been a long time since I took one of Adu Oginyae’s escape artist workshops, but luckily Astavis apparently wasn’t written to be a great knot tier.”
As Jon busied himself untying Amar’s restraints, Amar reached out to the deck. “They’re all on deck for now. And their memories of the ship showed that there’s a big enough porthole for us to fit through in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the kitchen’s just next to the stairs leading up to the deck. Just our luck.”
Amar cautiously led Jon down the corridor, avoiding the creaking floorboard he also learned about from their enemies’ memories. As soon as they reached the threshold of the kitchen, Amar just caught the thoughts of Astavis and could barely shout out a warning before Astavis was coming at them with his rapier drawn.
“I knew you were up to something, some sort of dark arts trickery,” Astavis growled as Amar and Jon backed up into the kitchen.
Astavis swung his rapier at Jon’s legs, but in a flash, Jon deflected the blow with the nearest weapon he could grab: a chair. With both rage and grace, Astavis rained blows against Jon and the helpless chair. Even with his heightened senses, Jon found himself trapped on the defensive and slowly being backed into a corner by Astavis’ swordsmanship.
“Hey, what’s that on your arm?” Amar shouted in panic.
Feeling an odd crawling sensation, Astavis lowered his guard and looked down to see a fat, furry, and bright-purple spider slowly yet ambitiously making its way from his forearm to his hand. Astavis struck the beast with his fist, only to sense more of the things on his left leg, his stomach, and even in his hair. Paralyzed by more terror than he felt ever since he was a child, Astavis lost all sense of where he was and, screaming, fell to the floor, thrashing and rolling about.
Jon glared at Amar. “Couldn’t you have done something that would involve less shouting?!”
“I don’t innovate well under stress!” Amar protested.
Jon could hear Saigh and Jakinu thundering across the deck toward the stairs. He flew at the porthole with the hacked-up chair in hand and with several frantic strikes still managed to smash the glass. Amar looked outside. Even through the dark night, he could see the pale green marshland below. It was only a matter of relatively few feet, but the ground was moving beneath them almost in a blur.
“Are you sure this is our only option?” he asked.
Jon nodded. “Look, we’re really close to the ground and it’s too soft for them to safely land, anyway. It’s your turn to trust me. Please.”
Amar looked back to see Saigh with Jakinu right behind her, both with daggers drawn. Only concern for their comrade slowed them.
Amar smiled and nodded. “Alright,” he said as he grabbed Jon’s hand.
With that, they jumped through the porthole and into the night, screaming.