Nearly ten years had passed since Aiden had set foot in Finnevar, and the placed seemed utterly alien. Each step he took seemed to distance himself from the group, as if he were a sailor who’d been at sea too long and couldn’t quite walk on land.
It was hard to put a finger on exactly what set him off. Perhaps his endless amount of sleep-deprived hours were finally extracting their toll—he certainly had the symptoms for it. His head felt like someone had forced a bunch of stale air into it, and his eyes had that dry, scratchy sensation of being open too long. The hallway’s lighting bled in his vision. Sound came to him through a tube.
When he spoke, it was getting harder and harder to control what he said. Their conversation slipped between English and Lurian without missing a beat.
But sleep deprivation hardly explained his reaction to the building.
Finnevar had been designed with great care—an amalgamation that blended modern, Mersetzdeitz architecture with the minimalist fluidity of Lurian’s most iconic buildings. Any mage who’d spent their formative years in a Lurian metropolis would experience at least a passing nostalgia in Finnevar, especially when they ran into the few, carefully-preserved artifacts that had made through the Transition.
Having nearly graduated university before the transition, the building was definitely familiar to him.
That, he thought, might be the problem.
Aiden wasn’t much for Lurian society. His move to Lyarne had been deliberate: keep Lur and its politics at arms-length while he did some good in the world.
Now, he was only steps away from the Council’s chambers, and all but surrounded by mages.
“A lot has happened since you left.” Les Amerand walked ahead of them, but cut a glance back to the group. “Since you both left.”
Gobardon shuffled behind him. Their flight hadn’t done much for his recovery, and Aiden could see just how much his recent magic use had taken its toll. Hunting and fighting his father had taken a lot of energy. Asking him to move a mountain’s worth of rubble after that, and then dig a tunnel?
Aiden was surprised he’d even bothered to stand up during the fight.
“I haven’t been gone long,” Gobardon said.
“According to my sources, you’ve been gone since October,” Les Amerand said. “Did you ever find your father?”
Gobardon’s eyes sharpened. The man hadn’t relaxed since they’d left the ship. At first, Aiden had written it off as exhaustion—but there was a subtle tension to Gobardon’s movements. Both he and Kitty had been uncharacteristically quiet in the car ride to Finnevar.
“My father is dead,” Gobardon said.
Les Amerand didn’t miss a beat. “Did you kill him?”
“A pity—all that work, lost. I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what you plan to do, now that you’re back in my city?”
“I don’t suppose I will,” Gobardon said.
“Another pity. Aiden, tell me, what plans did you have, once you’d escaped Lyarne’s surrender? I hope they’re less clandestine than our friend’s?”
Aeryn, walking ahead and to his right, slipped him a look he didn’t quite comprehend. His sister had kept close to his side for the journey, tight-lipped and alert, fencing the occasional question in the car. By her behavior, Aiden got the feeling that he’d missed a great deal in the month he’d spent away from his news feeds.
“I’d hoped to put Mieshka through some formal training. Ivern indicated there might be some opportunity for her. I—”
“When did you last speak with Ivern?” Les interrupted.
Something about the mage’s voice made Aiden pause. His sister shot him another look, eyes sharp with warning.
Clearly, something had happened.
“About a month ago,” Aiden said. “Why? Was he wrong?”
“No, no—he wasn’t wrong. Tell me about your fire elemental. How’s she faring? Any abnormalities?”
“She’s following an atypical development pattern. I think the Phoenix tips her power scale,” Aiden said carefully.
“Can she use spells?”
Les Amerand’s tone was light, but Aiden caught a hint of danger in it. Suddenly, he was aware of more sets of eyes on him—as if their entire escort had just locked him in their sights.
His sister’s grip tightened on his hand. Fingernails dug into his skin.
“Not that I’ve seen,” Aiden said. “She’s exploded twice when threatened, but that’s fairly normal for a fire element.”
For a second, all he heard was the squeak and tramp of boots on the floor. The hallway bent up ahead, curving into a set of floor-length windows that were black. A reception area cut free of the wall on the right-hand side, empty except for the cleaning cart parked near its inside door.
Les Amerand returned his attention to the hall in front of them. His hand slipped behind his back, linking together in what Aiden recognized as an army-rest position.
Aeryn’s hand relaxed. A barely-noticed tension slipped from the air.
“Yes, that is normal. Quite normal. Reminds me of my own development. You ever set things on fire?”
“Nothing I’ll admit to,” Aiden said.
Aeryn snorted. “Tell that to our math teacher. That test grade didn’t burn itself up.”
“You melted my goslock figures.”
“You were too old to be playing with dolls. It was time to move on.”
“They weren’t dolls. Dolls is a Terran term. No one played with dolls in Lur.”
“You can argue linguistic semantics all you like, but they were still dolls.”
Aeryn dropped his hand. She looked small beside him—the black uniform slimmed her. Combined with the sharp angles of her face, she gave off an aire of smart, practiced efficiency.
Which was why her earlier looks had been so unnerving. If Aeryn was trying to warn him about something, trying to protect him, then something big must have happened.
Perhaps something big enough to disable all Lost Tech comms units in the city.
“I’m sure we can find a place for your elemental,” Les Amerand said. “There aren’t many enrolled in our school at the moment, but I can have some textbooks sent over. Did Ivern indicate what he’d planned?”
“Only that he would plan,” Aiden said. “We hadn’t gotten to the particulars—Mieshka only started training last week.”
A few seconds of silence followed his statement. Les Amerand’s boots tapped quietly against the linoleum.
Beside him, Aeryn frowned. “Last week?”
Aiden braced himself. “Yes.”
“Isn’t that a bit…late? Did her powers not return until then? No—” Aeryn shook her head, seemingly to herself. “—we had reports of her last month. Aiden, did something happen?”
He gritted his teeth together. This was not going to be pleasant.
“I was busy,” he said. “The shield—”
“You were tbusy?” Aeryn stopped walking, pulling him up short. “Aedynan, she’s a fire elemental.”
He winced. “She was fine. The shield was the priority. I couldn’t let—”
“Fine?” Aeryn’s jaw slackened. “She was fine?”
Ahead, Les Amerand had stopped. The expression on his face was not hard to read.
“Aiden Tergunan,” he said. “Are you a moron?”
The saferoom had cream-colored walls, subdued lighting, and a stale smell to the air. Two matching double beds sat against one wall, stripped to the mattresses. Two sets of bedding, neatly folded, took up the neighboring couch.
Aeryn smacked him the second they were inside. “You are an idiot.”
Aiden stumbled back. His sister was a tightly-coiled bundle of energy. Annoyance pinched her sharp features into a frown.
“Look,” he said. “About Mieshka—”
“No, not that.” She pushed past his shoulder, launching into a circuit of the room. Fire runes flickered briefly across her skin as she paced. Her element smelled like the sun. Her frown deepened as she reached the far end of the room. “Have you heard nothing about what’s happened?”
Gobardon, who’d been standing by the door, slipped in past Aiden and sank down on the edge of the nearest bed. “Sounds like something major happened.”
They’d switched to Lurian the second they’d entered the room. Aiden suspected Les had only kept their walk mostly in English for the benefit of the soldiers—some of those faces had seemed too young to have grown up on Lur.
“You never should have come here,” Aeryn said. “You should have stayed away. Amerand’s got the place locked down tighter than a splineirin.”
Splineirin. A vacuum-box. Aiden grinned despite himself. Aeryn had a way with words.
“Why?” Gobardon asked. His eyes darted around the room. “Can we talk about it here, or does his spineirin include bugs in the room.”
“I just disabled them. We’ve got a few minutes before they reactivate.”
“Won’t that get you in trouble?” Gobardon asked.
“I’m going to blame it on you. Sorry.”
Aeryn didn’t look sorry. Gobardon’s dark eyes narrowed on her track of the room. A long finger tapped against the edge of the bedframe. “They’ll believe you?”
“Your reputation is convenient,” she said.
The earth mage said nothing else, but his eyes narrowed further. In the brief silence, the room’s ventilation system clicked on with a whir.
“Aeryn,” he asked. “What happened?”
His sister stopped pacing. For a second, she just looked at him, features pinched, arms crossed across her chest. Emotion flickered in her eyes—pain, grief, a little bit of fear, like he’d cut through her professional barriers and caught sight of the turmoil underneath. From where he stood, Aiden could see the muscles of her jaw working. Her shoulders were stiff, tense.
Then, she took a breath. Her hardened mask slid back into place.
“Half the Council’s dead. Someone went in and put a bomb in the chamber.”
Aiden’s blood thinned as shock spread through his body. His breath caught in his throat. When he spoke, it felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach.
“Half?” he said.
Gobardon frowned. “Bombs can’t kill mages.”
“It was a hybrid,” Aeryn said. “Some mix of magic spliced with Terran parts. Councilors Therrin and Riyyen are in critical condition. Enyis died in hospital.”
But Aiden was frowning, too. Gobardon had a point. An entire room of councilors shouldn’t have been razed by a bomb—and, after mashing together and maintaining his shield generator for the past ten years, Aeryn’s explanation felt false to his ears.
Terran technology made magic weaker, not stronger.
But his sister was a soldier, not an engineer. She wouldn’t know that.
“Ivern?” Aiden asked. “Did he—?”
“Presumed dead,” Aeryn said. “We haven’t found his body yet.”
Aiden swallowed back a lump. His hand found the back of a nearby chair. Ivern had been a good friend—and the man had done wonders for the mage democratic community. Following the violence of Norvon Kleina’s reign, Ivern’s had been remarkably peaceful.
Aiden’s conversations with him had always been brief and practical, but that Ivern had even made the time for him? That he’d even offered an evacuation route out of Lyarne?
He’d been light-years ahead of any other politician that Aiden had met.
“His wife is missing,” Aeryn continued. She was pacing again, caught up with the same nervous energy that had set her off before. “Not dead, but missing. Same with Cris—you remember Cris?”
Aiden nodded numbly.
“We caught them both on Kjaran CCTV, right before they blew the hell out of its basement.”
Gobardon’s gaze snapped up. “They blew up Kjaran?”
“Yes. Ruined most of the sub-basement, from what I’ve heard. Lost a lot of Mageguard.”
If Finnevar acted as the mage capital, Kjaran was its military. Officially, the Mageguard acted in collaboration with the Mersetzdeitz military; unofficially, there were a lot of black ops going on between the two. The building itself had been controversial—those on the more pacifistic side disliked such obvious attempts at growing force while those who actively supported a growth in mage-only military decried its limitations. It sat on the Western edge of the city, kept at arms’ length from the government headquarters.
As if distance would help if Kjaran planned an attack.
“Ivern’s wife blew up Kjaran?” Gobardon asked.
Aeryn’s lip curled. “I’m guessing you haven’t heard about her, either.”
“She’s a wind elemental,” Aiden said. He remembered that much.
“She was a wind elemental. Last month, she made a link with a wind spirit—kind of like your girl, except this was a new, Terran spirit.”
“Terra doesn’t have spirits,” Aiden said.
“It has at least one. She faced off the dragon Telemut last month—and won. I’d say she’s a bit more than an elemental now.”
“Telemut?” Gobardon sat up straighter. “The goddess? That Telemut?”
“Yes, that Telemut.”
“Not possible. She should have been trapped—”
Aeryn rolled her eyes. “She got out. The entire fight’s in the local news archives if you don’t believe me.”
Aiden sank into the chair. No wonder the Mageguard had been so quick to shoot at them—they were reeling from accounts on multiple fronts. A strange ship arriving straight into their secret hangar—of course they’d attacked.
“What about the comms?” Aiden asked. “What happened with them?”
“Went down last night,” Aeryn said. “Not sure who’s responsible. Right now, most of us are too busy putting out the fires than finding the persons responsible. There have been a lot of attacks since the council incident. We’ve never been the most peaceful of societies.”
Right. Lurian politics had come a long way since they’d left the old planet, and there were more than enough people whose instincts—and, perhaps, philosophies—reflected the old days. Some mages would have likely been armed up before someone blew up the council chamber, even if they weren’t the instigators.
He’d landed right in the middle of a minefield.
“I should have stayed in Lyarne,” he said.
“Yes, you should have.” Aeryn checked her watch. “The disabling spell’s going to wear off soon.”
“What’s the plan?”
“Right now? Who knows. You weren’t an expected part of my day. Would it have killed you to make a phone call, little brother?”
“Sorry,” Aiden said. “Things have just been—”
She made a cutting motion with her hand. “So busy. Yes, I know all about that. Maybe I’ll engrave my name on the phone I buy you tomorrow, just so you’ll remember.”
“Any news on my family?” Gobardon asked. “If any of them are behind the attacks…”
“Your brother left for France last night, where I imagine he’ll stay until all this rides out. Is your father really dead?”
Gobardon’s lips curled up. “Yes, he is really dead.”
“Sophia Artuil is all alone in Lyarne?” Aeryn asked.
“Derek’s there with her,” Aiden said. “Helping her get an off-grid system.”
Aeryn huffed. “So, basically she is all alone there now?”
Gobardon raised an eyebrow. “It’s amazing how little people think of Derek.”
“Derek doesn’t give a shit about leadership. Sophia being alone means there is, at the moment, a huge power vacuum for Lyarne. If people decide to go fight over there, that means less hassle that I have to clean up.”
Gobardon lifted an eyebrow at Aiden. “Has your sister always been so altruistic?”
“She hasn’t changed in thirty years,” Aiden said.
Aeryn shot him a dirty look from across the room. Then, she checked her watch again.
“As much as I love such scathing chat, we’ve got less than a minute until we hit my earliest estimation of when the bugs will trip back on. Time to change topics, gents.”
“Aeryn, do you have a plan?” Aiden said.
“My plan is to spend another half hour in here, then check up on your little fire girl. See that she hasn’t incinerated her untrained sheets.”
“She’s not that out of control—”
“I hear she’s exploded twice in the last week,” Aeryn said. “You don’t call that out of control?”
“And then there was that incident when I met her,” Gobardon cut in smoothly. “If Sophia hadn’t been there…”
“Ah, so she’s nearly exploded three times. Think of the property damage, Aiden. If you hadn’t—shit.” Aeryn fumbled through her pockets as a ringing sound filled the room. She frowned as she read the screen of her phone.
“Trouble?” Gobardon said.
“Probably.” Aeryn’s mouth curled. The ringing stopped as she slid a finger across the screen. “I’ve got to take this.”
Her boots were noiseless on the carpet. As she brushed past him, Aiden felt the air heat a few degrees.
She paused by the door, her hand on the knob. Her head bent over a message on the screen.
“Aeryn?” Aiden said.
She glanced up, the blue in her eyes underlit by the phone’s light.
“Be safe,” he said.
She scowled. “Behave.”
Then, she turned the knob, shoved the door open with her shoulder, and walked out into the hall. Before the door had fully closed, Aiden heard her snap a question to the two Mageguard outside, her tone sharp and professional.
Then, the door clicked shut.
Silence filled the room. Aiden’s head swam. He studied the faint pattern of wallpaper, stared at the faint shadow the wall sconces cast. His back molded to the chair’s cushion. He curled his fingers around, analyzed the blood that smeared the back of his wrist and hand.
Now that he thought about it, he could still taste it on his lips. He’d have to have a shower before he slept. No sense getting blood on the sheets.
And besides, it had been a long time since he’d had a decent shower.
When he looked up, Gobardon was still staring at the door.
“I like your sister,” the earth mage said. “She’s got a good personality. Smart.”
Aiden raised an eyebrow. “You like my sister?”
Gobardon frowned, opened his mouth. Closed it again. The mage looked about as tired as Aiden felt. By the look on his face, and the way his dark eyes rounded on Aiden, he must have realized how his statement had sounded.
“Why don’t we pretend I never said that?”
“Yes, why don’t we.” Aiden pushed himself up from the chair. The room had a second door which he suspected was the bathroom. He didn’t look down as he passed the Gobardon. “I think it’s better that way.”
“Agreed,” the earth mage muttered.
Aiden closed the door behind him. Hopefully, the water ran hot enough that he forget that business.
If he was really lucky, it would run hot enough that he could forget he’d ever decided to come back to Mersetzdeitz in the first place.