The plans that were confiscated from the girl were an utterly indecipherable mess. There were letters from a language he could not understand and images that appeared to be completely random—a cityscape here, a flower there. And something about the entire thing was…off, enough so that he felt tremendous relief when he looked away. How on earth were these things supposed to add up to the design schema for any kind of machine?
Suppressing the impulse to simply crumple up the plans and throw them in a fire, Grand Duke Ovladt turned to his prisoner, this “Madeline Finch”, again. She looked like she was on the verge of passing out, and indeed would have by now, were she not firmly in the grip of a guard.
He moved the plans to the edge of the table and reached for his quill and a notebook that was already a quarter-filled with the details of the girl’s capture and initial interrogation by the city guard. Ovladt leaned back in the tall leather chair.
“Let us begin. How did you get these?”
“I don’t remember.”
Ovladt did not scoff or become angry. As always in these situations, he was indecipherable. He never believed in being either the determined persecutor or the compassionate inquisitor. Instead he found it best to leave his prisoners teetering on the edges of hope and despair.
“Yet these are the plans for the mystic engine? Not some kind of hoax?”
“How do you know?”
Here she paused and frowned. “I…don’t know. I just do.”
Somehow, though, Ovladt knew that they were indeed the plans to the mystic engine or else some other artifact of similar occult proportion. Nothing had ever made him feel so uneasy just by looking at it.
“Where are you from?” Ovladt resumed, ponderously scribbling down her words and his thoughts.
“Where is that?”
“The United Kingdom.”
Ovladt glanced at the only other person in the room, the apothecary Lacmyr. Cornwall? The United Kingdom? No such places existed anywhere on the island, he knew that much, nor did Cornwall sound like a likely place name from any of the five languages he knew. He hoped to see some recognition from her, since she was more well-traveled than most diplomats and captains he met, but she appeared as confused as he was.
He turned around to Lacmyr. “The herbs you gave her, they’re not compromising her sanity?”
The apothecary Lacmyr was one of the few people he trusted (and that was in no small part because Ovladt’s continued existence was the only thing between her and a judicial execution for some or all of the uncounted murders by poison she was an accomplice to), so he believed her when she replied, “She’ll only be unable to lie or say nothing. There should be no side effects apart from physical exhaustion.”
The name she gave the city guard, “Madeline Finch”, did indeed sound foreign. He had assumed it was Darusean, but perhaps she was from far to the east, from one of the lands of which even scholars knew little more than a name. Whatever the mystery of the mystic engine, she was far more than simply a courier tasked with carrying the plans for the legendary mystic engine to his enemies. Somehow she was inexorably tied to its mysteries as well.
While closing the notebook, he called for the guard. After giving the girl a contemptuous look, he casually asked, “Shall we kill her now, Your Excellency?”
“Hm? Oh, no. On the contrary, take her to a comfortable but windowless room somewhere, and she’s to be allowed to rest and given whatever provisions she needs. Make sure there’s three guards at her door at all times until I say otherwise. Also have they found my court sorcerer yet?”
“No, Your Excellency. But we have sent an airship patrol to the borderlands to try to intercept his kidnappers.”
“It would be just like him to get himself abducted by that little pack of worthless vagabonds just when he can finally be useful for a change. But no matter, the important thing for now is that we have all the pieces of the puzzle in our keeping. We can uncover how to decipher it at our leisure. Now go.”
“Your Excellency,” the guard said with an extravagant bow before departing.
Lacmyr looked at her master curiously. “So you sense it too, then? There is something…off about both those plans and the girl.”
“Yes,” Grand Duke Ovladt said, feeling an involuntary shudder. “As if we are on the cusp of the secrets of Creation itself.”
“This was probably not a good idea,” Amar muttered, more to himself than to Jon as they lay in bed.
“Maybe,” Jon replied, but kissed Amar’s hand regardless. “On the bright side, though, since we’re in a place that doesn’t really exist, maybe it never happened.”
“If we get out of here,” Amar answered. After a few more seconds of resting his head against Jon’s arm, he rose and started to dress. Jon, with a bit of reluctance, followed suit.
Expanding an amount of courage equal to the amount he needed to get through a few life-threatening situations, he asked, “What did you mean, a moment ago?”
“‘This wasn’t a good idea'”.
“‘Probably’, I said.”
“Why is that?”
Amar waved his arms around. “The circumstances, obviously.”
“So, what happens if and when the circumstances change?” Jon couldn’t help but be a bit surprised that he was being more direct than usual with his romantic and sexual partners.
Amar only answered with a quick but sincere kiss.
“Well, speaking of what’s going on, what should we do next?”
“You’re this count or whatever’s court magician, right?”
“Grand Duke and court sorcerer, but yeah.”
Amar sat down in a meditative position. “Well, then, they’re probably looking for you. Let me reach out with my mind and get us caught by the villains.”
It took a few hours, but Amar planted a “spontaneous thought” in the mind of the commander of the guard at the nearest village, who rapidly sent word up the command chain. By that evening, Jon and Amar were being hailed for their harrowing escape from the Grand Duke’s enemies and being sent back to the capital in a luxurious airship that Jon compared to a floating yacht.
It was a windy but warm night when they finally arrived back in the city. They were brought into a palace seemingly large enough to encompass a major city’s entire downtown area. Past the museum-like atriums and the shining banquet halls, Amar and Jon were escorted by two guards to an office lit by a few sparse candles.
Sitting behind a ridiculously spacious desk was a tall man with long, curled hair, draped in purple and black robes and jewels. Amar knew nothing about Legend of the Steam Cities apart from what Jon mentioned, but even so, he knew he was face to face with the series’ grand antagonist, the Grand Duke Ovladt. Behind him, almost hidden and sitting against the wall with her face between her arms in a jeans and an Amanda Palmer t-shirt was Madeline Finch.
“There you are,” Ovladt said without even looking Jon in the face. “I was concerned that you would have gotten yourself killed just when you were in a position to provide me with a service other than quasi-accurate prophecies and occasionally effective sigils.”
Saying nothing, Jon bowed. Ovladt made a gesture to one of the guards, who brought a map etched out on dark red parchment. “Decipher this, even if it takes you all night.”
“Your Highness,” Jon muttered as insincerely as he dared. Still, he stared at the map for about five minutes and all he saw was a messy plethora of words and drawings that added together to nothing and everything and that seemed to literally shift before his eyes. Without thinking, he turned to Amar. “I think this might be what we’re after.”
At that, Madeline stirred from her reverie. “What do you…”
The Grand Duke angrily interrupted. “What on earth are you doing, consulting with some servant? And I thought you of all…”
Amar stepped forward. “We don’t have time for this cosplay nonsense.” He snapped his fingers and the guards in the room stepped forward. They looked uncertain, but they still moved like professionals on a job. At that, Ovladt’s face blossomed purple with rage. “Who the hell are you to speak to me like that, you puffed-up little worm? I will have you and your master impaled before the city gates. I will…”
“Guards, this man has been impersonating the Grand Duke for months now,” Amar announced matter-of-factly. “Don’t listen to anything he has to say even when you are far from this room and make sure you give him the worst, dankest accommodations these premises have to offer until we decide what to do with him.”
Without a single word or even a change in their demeanor, the two guards dragged the Grand Duke out of the room, who was ranting about the witchcraft being used against him.
“You know, in the books, it took about 600 pages before he got his ass beat like that,” Jon said, genuinely impressed.
“Well, no offense, but I’m really starting to miss the real world. And besides, I think the real threat is over there.”
Madeline was standing as far away from the two men as possible. She was hungry, exhausted, and nearly broken from being berated by these people that shouldn’t even be real. “Threat? You just put some hoodoo on those guards and I’m the threat?”
“Amar, wait. It’s this…thing.” He showed Amar the parchment. “I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s what’s generating the reality warp.”
Amar shook his head. “It’s just part of it. You were right. Consciously or not, her powers are why this is happening.”
“That can’t be true,” Madeline would have shouted if she had the energy. “I’ve been through hell the past few days. If I was responsible for any of this, why would I put myself through all that?”
“That’s a good point,” Jon answered.
“I couldn’t sense it before, but now that I’m close…in psychic energy terms, she’s like an atomic bomb,” Amar explained. “And there’s something else here, too…”
Amar could sense Madeline’s exhaustion and, during his brief conversation with her and Jon, he had been mentally testing out her psychic defenses, looking for vulnerabilities that would let him overload her consciousness. It was too much of a risk to try to force her to reverse the reality warp, at least if she was fully aware of her powers by this point. A small part of him worried about what Jon would make of such tactics. However, since she had the ability to completely liquefy both of their insides with just a thought and a little concentration, subtlety and kindness were surely liabilities.
However, Amar underestimated Madeline’s instincts. He found himself almost completely locked out of her mind just when he was about to bring his own power to bear. Worse, the walls of the castle were suddenly gone and Amar felt a cold wind at his face. Suddenly, it was no longer nighttime in a capital city. It was a bright afternoon on a snowy mountain.
Jon, who was still holding the plans for the mystic engine, shouted. Literally appearing out of nowhere and bearing down on them with his sword drawn was a furious Astavis.
Without thinking and completely abandoning his efforts to subdue Madeline, Amar leapt and knocked Jon out of the way of Astavas’s rampage. Amar felt the sting of his sword grazing his back. The freezing snow cushioned their fall, but within seconds, they were actually lying against a cobblestone street on a rainy day. The people around them began shouting and running. A couple of guards in uniform and carrying rifles ran toward them. Astavis, however, was still there.
“What are you doing to cause this madness, sorcerer?” he screamed at Jon.
“Believe it or not, I’m a huge fan,” Jon shouted back. “But I can’t believe you think we’re causing this, you moron!”
Amar tried to make his way back inside Madeline’s mind, but by this point, it was like trying to tunnel through a mountain with a tablespoon. Instead he became dimly aware that the terrain had shifted to the most gorgeous and well-manicured garden he had ever seen in his life. Madeline fully stood up and pointed down at Amar like a vengeful god.