Arcanum – Of Steamwork and Magic Ch. 20-1

February 22nd, 1886

I was nearly fifteen yards from the entrance of Quintarra before Raven dropped from the trees to land before me. Normally, I would have been impressed by the natural grace of an elf in her element – let alone the beauty of Raven herself. But this was not an ordinary day. Virginia had vanished into her own teleportation spell, leaving me with nothing but her tearful confession and where she would be traveling – but Caladon was nearly four months away by foot. Panic roared through me as Raven held out her hand to stop me.

“Rayburn Cog,” she said, her serious voice soft. “You cannot leave yet.”

“Virginia-” I started, then clenched my teeth. Despite every nerve, every fiber of my being crying out for me to go after Virginia, I knew that it was folly. With her magick, she could step from Quintarra to Caladon. It would take me months at the most, weeks at the minimum, and no matter what I did, I would arrive when I arrived. Spending an hour in Quintarra would not change that. I breathed out through my nose, forcing my hands to open and shut to try and worry some of my tension out. “Yes, Raven? What is it that you wished to speak to me about?”

I sheltered in the politeness. The calm, collected words, I hoped, would reflect back into my soul and calm it as well. It was not as efficacious as I had hoped: I remained deeply unsettled, unable to ever quite catch my breath, nor still my racing heart. Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see that the rest of my companions were looking at me, clearly just as shaken as I was by the sudden departure of Virginia. Even Dogmeat looked ready to sprawl on his belly and whine, his tail remaining stilled and listless.

Raven, if she noticed any of this, gave no sign. Instead, she said: “You must speak with my mother again, Rayburn Cog.”

I took in a deep breath, held it for a beat, then released it. “Very well.”

We stepped onto the elevator that led up to the canopy city of Quintarra. As sunlight flickered in our eyes through the many knotholes of the tree, Raven regarded me, her face still and impassive in the light, dark, light, dark pattern. Softly, she spoke: “Did you meet with M’in Gorand? In the city of T’sen Ang?”

I sighed. “Yes,” I said. “She was the leader of the Dark Elves, as you might have surmised. And their plan is dire indeed. They seek to free their master Arronax from the Void – and have settled on the dwarves of the Black Mountain Mines as their tool for it. By using their technical skill, they’re constructing a device on the far side of the Void to slowly wear down the wards between Arcanum and the Void. Once it is wide enough, Arronax can return and…well…” I shrugged as the elevator came to a rattling stop. Emerging from the darkness of the tree trunk and onto the wicker catwalk that ringed the top of the tree, I saw that Raven was looking thoughtful.

“That…could work,” she said, her voice growing grim. “Then it seems that Arcanum’s fate hangs upon a slender thread.” She looked at me sidelong, her eyes narrowing. “And what of M’in Gorand?”

I coughed. “Well. Virginia put paid to her before we set out. Quite a solid thrust to the heart, I’m afraid.”

Raven’s face grew grim. “Elven souls are reborn into the wilderness when we die of old age. When a elven soul is split from its body via a violent death, the natural world suffers. Knowing this, I cannot condone the death of even one so evil and vile,” she said. Then, slowly, she leaned forward. Her voice was soft as she whispered in my ear. “Good work.” She kissed my cheek, gently, then stepped away – her eyes sparkling and her lips twisted into a smile.

I had to admit.

I was not entirely certain what I thought or felt about that.

The home of the Silver Lady was as we had left it. Just as the last time that I spoke with her, I was the only who was allowed to enter into the central chamber of the mysterious queen of Quintarra. But unlike the last time, the ethereal room and the intricate patterns of the floor and walls held no awe, wonder or mystery for me. I slammed the door behind me as I entered, walking forward towards the cross-legged figure who sat in the center of the room, hovering above the floor with her hair concealing her face. As I strode towards her, her head tilted backwards and her hair flared outwards as if a great wind had struck her face – revealing those beautiful, ageless features and brilliant, endlessly shifting eyes. Her lips were twisted into a wry smile.

“I’m glad to see you returned, traveler,” the Silver Lady said. “It means you have chosen the right path. Well. Right in the way that you see things.” She shrugged languidly, drawing attention to the firmness of her breasts with a slight shift of her arms and her posture. Despite my distraction and my irritation, I felt a trickle of lust sliding along my spine. Fortunately, I was more than able to dampen that lust under irritation and a desire to be gone.

“Well, I’m here. But speak quickly – Virginia, as you likely already know is-“

“Gone,” the Silver Lady said, her voice tolling like a bell.

My spine tightened and I took a step forward. “Explain yourself, madam!” I growled, my hands clenching into fists. My fingernails bit into my palms.

The Silver Lady cocked her head as she looked at me. “Virginia is gone, Traveler. You will see an echo of her thrice more…and on the third time, your heart will break, my poor, poor Resh.” She reached out to me, her fingers caressing my cheek. The urge to slap her wrist away hard enough to send this ethereal woman sprawling was so intense that it took a choking effort of will to suppress it. Instead, I stalked away from her, my hands clasped behind my back.

“And what of the Black Mountain Dwarves? Of Arronax?” I snapped. “Do you have any useful pieces of advice about them?”

The Silver Lady chortled. “The answer to that, traveler, is with Nasrudin.”

I stopped dead. I was supposed to be the reincarnation of Nasrudin. Did she mean that the answer lay with me? Was that her advice? That I was simply supposed to…come up with the solution to this? If that was the case, we could have skipped this second meeting. But no. There had to be something more. My brow furrowed as I asked: “What does that mean?”

“You have your answer, traveler,” the Silver Lady said. Her voice grew mirthful as she laughed – laughed at me! She mocked me, her eyes glittering as she beamed at me. “You need merely to find it, Resh Craig. Goodbye.” She bowed her head. “We shall not be speaking again.”

“Listen-” I started.

“Goodbye, Living One,” she said.

And with the startling suddenness of waking from a dream or plunging into ice cold water, I was standing outside – not merely beyond the Silver Lady’s home, but rather, on one of the wicker walkways of Quintarra. I looked around, and saw that there was no sign of the Silver Lady’s abode. Either it had been concealed from my eyes…or the tree-house itself had ceased to be, drawn into whatever realm the Silver Lady called her home. I knew, now, that there were realms beyond Arcanum. The realm of the Void was but one – how many others could exist? And which did this strange, fey being call her true home?

Those worries struck me and left me wishing badly to harm someone.

Raven stepped to me. She did not put her hand upon my shoulder. It was Maggie who did that – well, Maggie took my hand in hers, as her short stature forced her. Quietly, Maggie said: “Don’t worry, sir. We’ll get Virginia back.”

“Right we will!” Gillian said, slapping her palms together as she stepped up to stand before me. “Besides, she’s a clever girl with a great deal of magick power to her. That has to count for a lot.”

I smiled, weakly. “Yeah,” I said, then turned to Raven. “Your mother said that we wouldn’t see each other again. That is, she’s…gone. The Silver Lady, that is.” I coughed, not wanting to say the words that ‘you will never see Virginia again’ had been floated about. It was as if saying them might make them true, changing the world as a magician could. I knew I was a man of science, but after exposure to the Silver Lady, it was easy to second guess myself.

Raven nodded. “My mother will not walk among the lands of the living again,” she said, sounding some place between wistful and sad. She closed her eyes. “I knew it was coming for a long time – she was so very old. But it still hurts.” She breathed slowly in, then slowly out. “No matter. WE must focus on the present. What was the vision she told you?”

“She said that our answers lay with Nasrudin…” I said.

“So, you got the –hic– answers?” Sally asked, prodding the side of my head with her finger. I smacked at her hand – simply because Sally wouldn’t take offense. Hell. Sally Mead Mug could be struck by sizable bullets and not even notice. Sally laughed cheerfully, while I realized something.

“Nasrudin died,” I said.

“Well, yes,” Raven said. “It is rather tricky to be reincarnated without that step first.”

“Where was he buried?” I asked.

Everyone looked thoughtful. I smiled, slowly. “The Caladonian temple of the Panarri religion was their first temple,” I said. “Surely, if anywhere would know the burial site of Nasrudin, it would be there. And if our answers lay with him, surely, they must lay with his bones, no?”

The others nodded. Our goal was set. As if there had ever been doubt.

Raven stepped to stand between me and the horizon. She held out her hand to me. “Let me come with you, Rayburn Cog,” she said, softly. “My duty is to protect the elves of Quintarra. And it is clear that the only way to protect them is to go with you to stop Arronax.”

I took her hand and squeezed it. “It would be my honor, Raven.”

***

The next three weeks were spent trekking through the Glimmering Forest, through the Hadrian Pass, and across the wilderness between the Stonewall Mountains and the smoke shrouded city of Tarant – where we hoped to catch a fast ship to Caladon. With Raven at our head, we made remarkably good time, finding game paths and passages through the Glimmering that we would have never noticed on our own. Despite this, I felt the anxious bite of every minute, every hour, every day that we spent walking through the forests. Every stop for the night felt like wasted time as I imagined what it could be that would have driven Virginia to flee. What was in her past that would turn her eyes from me?

On the fourth day of travel, I was relieving myself as quickly as I could when I heard the faintest sound of leaves rustling. With the ingrained paranoia of being hunted by the Molochean Hand for more than a year, I spun about, drawing my accelerator pistol with a quick jerk of my hand. But only after I leveled the barrel at Raven did I remember that, of course, the Hand had been turned aside from hunting me and my comrades, now that they realized that they had served true evil, not merely an interested party.

This meant that I, with my member entirely exposed, stood before Raven with a stunned expression on my face for a good half of a minute before I grabbed my leggings and jerked them up. But Raven herself looked something I had never seen in an elf before: Flustered. Her cheeks turned red and she melted back into the woods, not even apologizing. Later that evening, she had been more cool and distant than usual, and when I slept, I put the incident behind me. However, the next day, I noticed that Raven’s glances followed me as we walked.

Her growing interest remained subtle and slow through the Glimmering, but during the passage through the snow choked Hadrian Pass, she took a chance to press to me as we inched along a narrow rocky outcropping. Her lithe body molded to mine and her eyes met mine – and I saw a deep, questioning look in them. At any other time, in any other situation, I would have gladly worked out my frustrations and my lusts upon her, as she was clearly willing. But doing so now? With Virginia in who knows what danger? The very idea was anathema. And so, quietly, I had pushed her back to the bath and followed behind her. Beneath my scarf and woolen cap, my cheeks were flushed.

As we traveled across the temperate forests between the mountains and Tarant, though, Raven made another try – and this one stunning in its brazenness. I opened the tent flap of my home in the wilds on the 10th of March – mentally thanking my foresight for not selling the tents when Virginia had begun to teleport us. There, I stopped, the heat in the tent rapidly escaping as I looked in at my bedroll. Laying on it, as nude as the day she had been born, was Raven. Her firm, high breasts were tipped with the most perfectly shaped, rosy red nipples I had ever seen, and they looked hard and perked enough to cut through cast iron. Her thighs, graceful and lithe, were spread ever so slightly, revealing the hot, wet promise of her elven sex. Her voice was husky. “You…seemed cold on the trail, Rayburn…mayhap I could…warm you?”

And then I realized what the problem was. I had rebuffed her – physically. I had not actually spoken to her – for speaking about such things…it…

It was still my weakness, was it not?

To turn her down would mean explaining why. To explain the depth of my loss, my ache for Virginia. I was as of yet only barely able to articulate my feelings to Virginia, and that only after a year of traveling at her side, battling villainy with her, of sharing our lives more completely than most married couples might. To open so raw an emotional facet to a stranger, even one as lovely and promising as Raven, felt utterly galling. My words choked in my throat – but I forced my eyes away from Raven’s.

“I…I am honored, Miss Raven, I am-“

Raven shifted upon the bedroll. My traitor eyes flicked back to her, and I saw that she had drawn up her knees, her chin resting on them, her arms crossed over her shins. She bit her lip slightly, her face having a most human expression: That of deep concern and confusion. Like a girlchild who wasn’t sure why her posies hadn’t been liked by the boy she had given them too. “I-I thought…from what the others say, you don’t have any reluctance. Is it because I am an elf? I…I know that many elves treat orcs and half-orcs unfairly, but-“

“Oh, no!” I shook my head.

“Then why?” Raven asked, quietly. “Did I offend you some other way?”

“No,” I said, then sighed. “It’s…Virginia.”

Raven’s brow furrowed. “She is not here…should that not make me more tempting? I know how lusts can build.” Her lips quirked. “It comes slower with us elves, but it is no les…intense.”

I shook my head. “No! I…I love her, Raven.” I sagged, then sat down on the hard ground of the tent, feeling a sharp rock prodding one of my buttocks. “I love her more than I can properly say. If she were here, I…I would gladly take you in a most manly fashion.” I sent a wan smile towards the elven beauty. “But with her not here, my heart would never be in it. It would not be fair to you, my beautiful Raven. Nor to Virginia. Nor, now that I think of it, myself.”

Raven looked at me in clear confusion. “I…” She paused. “I had heard that humans pair like this. And a few elves in Quintarra engage in the practice. It’s…strange.” She smiled, slightly. “But it clearly means a great deal to you, Rayburn.”

She stood in a lithe, fluid motion – a motion so utterly breathtaking that a part of my soul began to belabor the rest of me with a belt. The movement caused her drum-head taut rump to jiggle ever so slightly, and left me on the same eye-level as the smooth perfection of her utterly hairless cunt. Raven, though, was not looking at me. Instead, she was starting for the door of the tent, careless of the March weather outside. As she walked past, she said: “I can respect it, even if I cannot understand it.” Her lips quirked. “And when we get Virginia back, I will gladly ride you as if you were a prize stallion and it was my role to break you.”

She ducked away – and good, as in that instant, a part of me was already reaching for her, to grab her wrist and drag her back and lose myself in her.

Instead, I slept alone, dreaming of Virginia. But they were not well omened dreams. I tossed and turned and woke in a sweat despite the chill, remembering nothing but a feeling of running through thick sludge towards a destination that retreated every farther from my grasp – never far enough for me to give up hope, never close enough to actually allow me to reach it. I was plagued by those dreams – those nightmares – for the next week until, at last, we arrived at Tarant on the 16th of March.

Tarant during the winter was always the best time to see the city and though we had left the winter behind and spring was beginning to return to Arcanum, it was returning with a sullen slowness this year, as if the whole world was trying to keep me from my desired destination. This meant that the sooty, smokey city was dusted with one final sweeping of snow that left it looking more white than brown. The Hadrian was beginning to thaw, though, and as we walked over the massive bridge that spanned the huge river, I could hear the creak, groan and crunch of the ice flows as they thawed.

“So, Magnus, Gillian,” I said. “Go with Sally and charter us a boat. Raven, I believe we should handle the shopping.”

“Who are they?” Raven asked, pointing at a pair of men in fine red uniforms.

I turned to face the men and immediately recognized the one on the left from somewhere. I had seen him a dozen times or so in the past year. I merely need to place where. It came to me even as he lifted up his hand. “Dr. Cog,” he said, his voice stiff and formal – and yet, still not hiding the low class accent and enunciation that he had been raised with. “Mr. Bates would like ta see ya back t’manor.”

Ah yes. He was one of Mr. Bate’s many private constabulary.

“We’re actually not going to be in Tarant long,” I said, my voice firm. “We’re merely stopping to see the…”

“Mr. Bates told me ta tell you,” the guard said while his comrade shifted his stance and adjusted his arm position in such a way that his red jacket fluttered open, revealing the smoothed stock of a concealed scattergun, cut down to allow easy storage and even easier retrieval from its concealed position within his clothing. “This is not a neg-otiable meetin’, greenie.”

So much for ‘Dr. Cog’, eh?

***

Mr. Bates’ home was as lovely as ever. He even offered me a shot of whiskey as he watched me through his cold, snake eyes. I declined the whiskey, leaving it set right on the patter offered. “Well, Dr. Cog,” Gilbert Bates said. “I have been financing your expeditions and adventures for a whole year now. You have run up a cost of five thousand Tarantian pounds in train tickets, ship passage, ammunition, armor, swords, rations and tents. You have been seen everywhere from Ashbury to Caladon, and have published journals on exploring the depths of three Dwarven clanhomes and the Glimmering Forest.” He cracked his knuckles powerfully, the fingers working against one another with remarkable strength despite his incredible age. His eyes flashed. “And yet, you seem not one iota closer to telling me precisely what happened to the Black Mountain Clan – beyond them being banished by elves. But who? What elves? Why?”

I managed, through a great exertion of will, to control my ire. I worked my jaw, then sighed. And then…I realized something. I could answer those questions.

“The followers of the elf Arronax, known as the Dark Elves,” I said, stepping up to the window and looking outside. The flint gray skies were parting and I could see the snow beginning to melt. From where I stood, I could see the hall of records – the building that had actually directly led to me to the first step on the long path to discovering where T’sen-Ang was located. My brow furrowed as an idea sparked in my mind. I put it aside, turning back to face Mr. Bates. “They needed a clan of dwarves. Any clan. All they needed were dwarves to send into the Void, so that they can bring their master back to the lands of Arcanum.”

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