The Price of Independence (First Draft)

THE PRICE OF INDEPENDENCE - FIRST DRAFT

by Gordon S. McLeod

 

The student wrote furiously, the scratching of the copper stylus drowning out the outside world.

Around him, other students were likewise absorbed in their scribblings. The blaring cry of a steam whistle rang out; the air filled with the sense of frustration as the quiet writing ceased, but not a student grumbled or groaned.

“Quills away!” barked the Academy intendant, hard eyes scanning the rings of students for any sign of deceit. “Remain where you are seated. Ms. Sulin will collect your exams presently. There will be no talking, no fidgeting, no leaving. Once all of the exams have been accounted for, you may return to your rooms.”

Altman Dolet smiled, copper-sheathed quill neatly set to the side of the exam paper he’d just finished. He’d long since mastered the routine of exams at the Academy; he knew to the second how long they had, and always made sure he knew the material well enough to get the most detail down possible without going over time.

A low impatient murmur arose from the room while Ms. Sulin and several assistants made the rounds, collecting papers with cursory examinations. Most of the student body were impatient to get themselves to the sporting fields where the house semi-finals were due to start, but Altman felt only relief that the exam was complete.

As the last of the students were filing out of the hall, Altman pocketed the copper quill, took a final look around the exam hall, then stood and followed them out.

<>

The lab was quiet save for the bubbling of exotic solutions and the grinding of mortar and pestle as Altman continued his work. He was a final-term student of the geosciences—a graduated student now, he reminded himself. Save for the formalities, at least.

He worked with the chemicals and energy and minerals of the earth, a rich field of promising discoveries for the past century and which showed no end in sight. His particular study was focused on extracting usable energy from rare earth minerals, and he had managed to acquire samples of a particularly rare type. It was so rare, indeed, that Altman was beginning to believe his particular sample might be unique in the literature.

He started, jolted back to reality as the lab door abruptly opened.

“Can you believe it? I thought that would never end.” Deman Buxton strode in, wearing that look of relief so common to those who’ve just escaped an ordeal. “Shall we go? The game will be starting any moment.”

Altman just looked at him askance until Deman shook his head ruefully. “Of course, of course, what was I thinking? I imagine you have a book you must read, or perhaps it’s one of these experiments that has entrapped your attention?”

“You know me so well, Dem. As a matter of fact I do have some mineralogical solutions to attend to. My uncl—”

“Altman! Your whole life revolves around science! Where’s the rest of it? We’re done now, free by seconds, not yet out of the exam hall, and already your mind is back to work. If you won’t come to the game, at least come with me down to the pub to celebrate properly, will you?”

Altman sighed. “And I trust you won’t leave me a moment’s peace until I agree, will you?”

“Would you expect any less?”

“No, of course not. Alright, let’s go. But only the one, else my experiments will be ruined.”

<>

The pub was loud and hot with the crowding of many bodies despite the crisp chill of the autumn air outdoors. Deman lead them to a small beer-stained table in the quietest corner, though “quietest” was entirely relative. The bar was crowded with regulars and students alike, the latter drinking their celebrations or drowning the sorrows, and the noise was fantastic.

Gesturing to the serving maid for a pair of mugs, Deman seated himself with a sigh of pure pleasure. “Getting you out of your head may be difficult, but at least you have some taste when you do give up on stubbornness.”

Altman accepted the the mugs from the pretty girl absently, sliding a couple of heavy coins her way. Deman watched the exchange critically. “Dem, I swear I don’t know what you’re talking about. Am I really so bad as all that?”

“The fact that you have to ask at all is answer enough! Here, let me ask a question in return. What did you think of her?”

Altman stared at him blankly for a moment. “Her? Who—”

Exactly my point! The serving wench you just took our beer from, the one you gave up your money to! Did you not see the look she was giving you? It could’ve warmed a frozen man on the coldest winter night!”

Altman gaped in confusion for a moment. “Surely you—”

“Altman, you can’t live your whole life in the metaphorical ivory tower. Academics are all well and good, but you really must start paying attention to the finer things in life. And for the record, she is a fine thing, indeed!”

He felt a flush creeping up his face, and he coughed even as he glanced around the crowded room. Their server was nowhere to be seen. “I don’t know about all that, Dem. It’s worked well enough so far. Hasn’t it?”

Dem’s face became uncharacteristically serious. “Has it? Has it really worked so well for you? You have the best results in our year, for certain, but what else do you have? Who else are you, Al?”

Altman started to retort that he was a student, a scholar, a scientist, but found to his surprise that he could think of nothing else to say.

<> 

Altman strode back to the Academy towers, mind a whirl of introspection. He barely noticed the people in the street around him as he navigated the broad streets, avoiding huge, wide wagons and the horses that pulled them, three abreast in front of each one.

Upon entering the huge Academy gates, he headed automatically toward the science labs, there to check on his experiments’ progress. Young men surrounded him, and some young women, all relaxed and cheerful in their freedom, bunched in groups, huddling around braziers filled with burning embers, staving off the late autumn cold.

He pulled open the heavy iron door to the lab, fingers chilling fast on the cold metal. He slipped inside, noting with relief the warmth that still filled the room. The coals were banked low, and he’d feared the room’s temperature might drop too far before his return.

All was as he’d left it. The great fire burned low, heating both the room and the iron and bronze pots placed at carefully measured distances from the fire. Wooden shelves filled with leather and cloth bound books covered the far wall, the walls between occupied by standing desks and work tables, surfaces obscured with the accoutrements of the scientist. A particularly large book sat open on a table at the center of the room, neat hand-written notes describing in intricate detail various minerals and the experiments the author had attempted.

He strode to the fire and inspected the contents of the pots, then pulled a curious apparatus from a large drawer in the nearest desk. It was large and awkward, an ornate wood and brass box with a handle at one end, a pair of antennas on the other, and several dials and gauges on the front face. He adjusted the knobs and brought the antennas near each pot, taking careful note of the gauge’s motions in each case and listening intently to a resonant ticking. It got louder and faster the closer he brought it to the pot; he frowned and backed off, setting the instrument on the table, eyes straying to a set of heavy, lead-lined aprons near the door.

He fastened the nearest of the aprons to himself, checking the coverage, then fitted himself with a heavy and uncomfortable mask and an ungainly set of gloves. So equipped, he was about to resume work when a deep knock sounded from the door behind him. With a sigh of exasperation, he stripped off the gloves and mask once more and opened it, expecting Deman and another assault on his work.

What he saw instead was an elderly gentleman with pale blue eyes, sharper than his age suggested they should be. He was dressed in dark grey, scholarly robes, with a matching cap perched on his nearly-bald head. Embroidered on the robe and the cap in darker grey thread, subtle but still possible to see, was a symbol. It featured a central circle crossed by a lightning bolt. Surrounding this arrangement lay 3 overlapping ovals centered on the circle and crossing each other, looking like a 6-pointed star. Instructor Calland, Altman’s favorite teacher of the geosciences.

“Mr. Dolet, it’s a pleasure to see you again. I trust I’m not interrupting?” The man’s voice was cultured and just a touch crinkled with age, worn, with years of lecturing behind it.

“Nothing I can’t delay, sir. Were you looking for me?”

“I’m afraid so, Mr. Dolet.” His eyes cast downward a moment, a shadow of sadness crossing his face. “It’s not good news. I received a letter today, as did you. Both are from your uncle, Mr. Eldrid Tremaine. I know not what he had to say to you, but the news he had for me is grave. I’ll say no more until you’ve read yours.” He pulled a sealed letter from his robes.

Taking the letter with curiosity, his eyes narrowed briefly in thought. “Eldrid Tremaine, you say? Tremaine is certainly a name I know. I’ve aunts and uncles and cousins who bear it, but I don’t know of an uncle named Eldrid.”

The old man looked surprised. “Really! Why, I had assumed you were acquainted. He certainly knows of you and your work here, Mr. Dolet, and he does follow your work closely.”

“You know him, then?” Altman asked, curiosity piqued further.

“I certainly do, yes. Eldrid has been a friend for a long time … a long time. He used to teach here, much as I do, but years ago he decided the academic life held no further appeal. He retired. ‘To the country,’ he said, but I visited once and if you ask me, it’s no country at all, just a house in the wilderness. But it suits him, and that’s what matters, I suppose.”

This set Altman’s mind at ease, for while he still failed to recognize the name, it did ring a distant bell of memory in his mind, of a relation who had retired to what seemed the middle of nowhere when he was very young. It had been the talk of the family for years, at least among certain elements of the family. He’d never paid it much mind.

He looked down at the envelope, a folded sheet of fine parchment with a wax seal. So his uncle was a man of means then. His name, Altman Dolet, was written in large, sure script. He broke the seal and unfolded the letter.

My dear great-nephew Altman, 

This letter will undoubtedly come as a surprise to you. It’s likely you don’t know me, as I haven’t laid eyes on you since you were a babe, but it is indeed true that we are family. I am your maternal grandfather’s brother.

I haven’t been close to my family for a very long time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that there is no ill will involved; the requirements of my research have deemed it necessary for me to separate myself from Holdswaine, the Academy, the Conclave, and yes, even my family, much as it pains me.

It is this research that concerns you, young Altman. I’ve been in correspondence with Instructor Calland for many years, and of late he has kept me abreast of your studies, at my request. He tells me you have a most promising mind, a real talent for the sciences of the earth.

It is likely that you should receive this shortly after your graduation. I have a great request to make of you, one which I know I have no right to make. If you have any commitments to the Academy or to the Conclave for purposes of employment, I ask that you set them aside temporarily. Delay them, if you must. Instead, travel to my home, to my laboratories. If you are half the scientist I believe you to be, you will find the trip well worth your time.

I do beg of you to hurry though, nephew Altman. My time grows short as age and illness have their way with me, while my work grows long.

His great-uncle’s signature occupied the bottom of the letter, but it was not alone. A small but detailed map of the land sat opposed to it, showing Holdswaine, the city he now stood in, and the Southern Road that lead through unclaimed regions to more great cities further south.

Noted on the map was a route that followed the Southern Road for a time but veered off to the west after what looked to be several days’ journey. More days of travel through uninhabited distant woodlands were indicated, and finally a valley was marked as the destination.

“He is dying, then?” Altman asked, a mix of emotions welling up in him; sadness for the immanent passing of this relative he’d barely known he had, curiosity about this work Tremaine was so concerned about, concern for his own plans, for he had indeed intended to begin almost immediately at a position in the Conclave’s new research complex not far from the Academy itself.

“I am afraid so, yes. But are not we all? In the end, we all have our time. He has informed me of his request that you visit him, Altman. The decision is yours, but your absence won’t be held against you under the circumstances.” The man’s voice held a compassionate warmth.

“Thank you, Instructor.”

They chatted for a time and Calland asked after Altman’s experiments, which he was only too happy to show off and explain at length. After saying their farewells, Altman replaced his equipment and began a list of the things he’d need for the journey.

He was two hours into his preparations—mostly shutting down the experiments, as they wouldn’t keep until he got back—when Deman arrived. With astonishing speed and accuracy, he spotted the preparation list. “Altman! We’re going on a trip, and you didn’t tell me? I am astonished and appalled!” Altman couldn’t tell if Dem was serious or being flippant, but there was a certain aggrieved tone to his voice.

“This isn’t a trip to the pub, Dem. It’s a personal matter of family, and a trip of indefinite length. You don’t have to come this time.” Altman’s smile was a touch sad.

Deman looked at his friend and his expression turned sober. “Nonsense. We may as well be family, and the least I can do is see you off. If you don’t return with me, so be it, but I insist on at least making the trip down there with you.”

Altman looked at him for a long moment, then sighed in acceptance. “Company along the way would be welcome. But you do know there won’t be any pubs don’t you?”

“Well. Then we’ll just have to bring our own along, won’t we?” And with that, the matter was settled. The rest was simply the province of detail.

<>

Deman tied the last bag to his horse’s saddle and looked about in satisfaction while Altman shuffled notes and papers in a leather folio. “We’re all set. You’ll never regret this, Altman. Just wait until you see what you’ve been missing all this time!”

Altman glanced up, finger marking his place. “What? Oh, yes, of course. Are you ready?”

Dem rolled his eyes, sighing ruefully, and swung himself up on his horse. He’d already packed Altman’s horse for the journey, knowing if he didn’t do it, it would never get done. “Indeed, my friend. If you’d just get your nose out of your work for a moment, we can be off.”

They rode out the massive stone and iron gates of Holdswaine at dawn. The chill autumn air hinted at snows to come and turned their breath to mist while they gazed at the blaze of the season’s colors in the trees. The road was broad and empty as they made their way south and west toward the valley described in Eldrid Tremaine’s letter.

Over the first two days, they would pass Holdswaine guard posts, reassuring small wood and stone towers and filled with armed men who kept banditry to a minimum. The distance between the towers increased steadily beyond that point, and by the fourth day they’d long passed the last of them.

The road took on a somewhat more sinister aspect after that, and the two were grateful when they passed through the occasional small village. Altman found himself jumping at shadows over the long stretches of unoccupied road; every rustle of wind brought an imaginary bandit raid from the thick forests the pair rode through.

“I wish we’d thought to bring an arms-man along,” Altman commented wearily on the fourth night as they made camp just off the road.

“And I wish we’d brought a whole troop of them, but sadly we are not wealthy men. We’ll have to do without. Though I should say it’s just as well we aren’t wealthy, as we’re not a terribly tempting prize, now are we? Barely graduated scholars out on a journey to a run-down cottage in an obscure valley with little more than the clothes on our backs?”

The comment was offhand, but put in that light, it did ease Altman’s mind and soon the pair slept.

Days passed uneventfully as the pair made their way along the Southern Road. The last of the guard towers were long past the day before when the road began to turn gradually to the east. Altman checked the map on the letter carefully. “I think this is it. We should turn west here.”

Deman inspected the map himself, uncertainty written on his features. “Are you sure we haven’t gone too far already? Not that I don’t trust you, my friend, but you haven’t spent all of your time traveling. Are you sure you know how to judge these things?”

Altman sighed. “No, I’m not sure. But the road just started turning to the east, right? Does that not match what we see here?”

“Yes, I could see it that way, I suppose. I was expecting a sharper turning point like we see there,” he said, pointing a touch further down.

They bickered for a bit, then finally agreed to turn off when Altman pointed out they merely had to find a long stream that meandered through the woods and lead to the valley where it disappeared under the hills near the valley’s mouth.

They were only a few hours past the Southern Road, off into the woods on what Altman assumed must be a game trail when a sudden quieting of the woods pricked at his attention. It surprised him, back in the recesses of his attention, just how used to the subtle sounds of the woods you could get even when you’d never spent any time in them in your life. Nothing showed you just how used to it you were until they were suddenly gone. Even the sound of the wind in the trees seemed to have died off.

Altman searched intently ahead of them, trying to see anything that might have spooked the wildlife. Dem looked back the way they’d come.

“You there!” he called. Altman turned his horse awkwardly. It took him a few seconds, but not more than 20 meters back, he thought he saw an off-color shape flitting from tree to tree. His horse edged closer, which he took as a good sign; didn’t horses edge away from danger? If they recognized it as danger, at least?

Dem sat his horse with an air of caution, radiating uncertainty. The rustling in the brush grew louder.

Altman’s horse started forward again, and suddenly a figure melted out of the shadows of the trees.

It was a person, and not an overly tall one. Coarse brown trousers and a dull green hooded travel cloak obscured the figure’s sex, but something in the movement made Altman identify it as a female. She was slight of build and moved with an economy of motion and ease of posture that spoke of experience. Altman was about to speak again when she raised one hand and put a finger to her lips. He bit back the words.

She was armed, he realized; she carried a staff, which was weapon enough itself, but it took him a moment to realize the heavy pole was tipped with a sharp spear point with a cross-guard. He noticed quickly enough when she hefted it point-out and raced right toward them.

It was about this point that Deman noticed her; his first sight that of a spear aimed entirely too close to him. He yelled out as she went by, rearing back, startling his horse. The horse added its own cries of startlement, and then the girl was past, darting through the space between their horses without a whisper of sound. Altman turned to watch her pass, but even so he barely saw her draw the spear back and lunge forward, driving the bladed tip deep into the side of a massive boar they’d been completely unaware of not 5 meters from their location. His mouth dropped open in shock.

With an ear-piercingly loud but brief squeal of pain, the boar tried to lunge at the girl, but it caught on the cross bar of the spear. She held her ground, but it pushed her backwards toward them almost a full meter before it collapsed to the ground. While the two young men sat astride their horses, looking on slack-jawed in shock, she stood over the boar catching her breath. Finally she looked around at them. “You two are from the city, aren’t you.” It wasn’t exactly a question.

“Yes … ah, thank you … Um …” Altman managed, somewhat tongue-tied.

“Kaylene.” A heart-shaped face stared up at him levelly, eyes cool under the hood.

“Altman Dolet, and this is Deman Buxton.”

The woman nodded at each, face not changing expression. Altman cleared his throat. “Erm, well, thank you … We might never have known that boar was there.”

“Oh, you’d have found out quick enough, I think. Another minute ‘r two and it would’ve made sure of that.” She examined them critically. “What’re city folk like you doin’ this far out in the wilderness? It’s clear you sure aren’t hunting.”

“As a matter of fact we are hunting for my uncle’s home.” Altman looked her over more carefully; her cloak was worn and rough at the hem and stained from travel. She used it often and well, and had likely been out for an extended time on this particular trip. “You live in this area then?”

“Not far. Where does this uncle of yours live? I don’t know of anyone else in these parts.” She maintained her expression; Altman was starting to find it a little unnerving.

“He doesn’t live around here, we’re still on the way. He described a valley. We’re looking for a creek that should lead us to the hills around it.”

Finally her expression changed; she looked thoughtful. “You must know Mr. Tremaine.”

“Yes! Eldrid Tremaine. He’s my uncle. Well, my great-uncle, actually. You know him? You know where he lives?”

“Yeah, I know him and where you can find him. Might be willing to show you the way, if you can help me out.”

Deman had been silent the whole time, watching Altman and his reaction to Kaylene. With a smile and not a look at his friend, he chipped in, “Certainly! But what can we city folk do out here for someone as experienced as you?”

She dragged the spear point out of the boar and prodded it. “I wasn’t out here to hunt, but suddenly I find myself with quite a haul. You have horses, and I won’t be getting this guy very far without one. Help me get ‘im home and I’ll help you get where you’re goin’. It’s not out of your way. In fact, it’ll get you closer.”

“Deal.” Deman once again spoke before Altman had a chance. But it was Altman she was looking at when the smile finally broke over her face. A shock ran through him as her eyes became warm and seemed to bore into him for just a fleeting moment.

<>

The next morning the three of them rose, Altman and Deman from their camp, Kaylene from her home, breakfasted and then set off. The boar had been delivered, dressed, preserved and stored in the care of Kaylene’s family in their small home, and had fed them well the night before.

The trip to her home had consumed another couple of hours. “We’ll get this beast taken care of and stay the night, then set off in the mornin’. We should get to your uncle’s home long before sundown,” she’d said.

Altman did his best to keep his nose out of his experiment notes and plans in order to get his horse packed up and succeeded in at least not delaying the others too badly. Deman rolled his eyes and sighed in amused resignation. Kaylene betrayed no reaction beyond a mild interest in his notes.

Finally they were ready. Altman had the letter from Tremaine open and was examining the map at the bottom. “You know where this creek we’re looking for is from here?”

Kaylene smiled. “Yes indeed. You camped right next to it. There’t is right behind you!” He looked from the map to the creek and back again several times, brow furrowed, face screwed up in concentration. Kaylene laughed.

“But … that means we’re almost there already! It looks like it should be farther.”

Kaylene walked her horse up beside his and pulled the map from his hands. She studied the map at the bottom and nodded slowly. “Nope, this is the one. We oughta be there not long past midday.” With that they set off, riding along side the creek through the woods.

By midday the woods had thinned slightly and the way was lighter, the trees a bit younger, and the creek was curving to avoid a rise of the land that suggested they were just about at the hills. “The head of the valley is just ahead,” Kaylene confirmed.

After some time picking their way through the woods once more, they arrived at the head of the valley. Hills rose to either side of them, steep and rocky in places, while the forest was thinner. A faint animal trail wound its way down toward the valley floor, though they couldn’t see that far as the trees grew thicker further down.

“These hills look like they could be susceptible to landslides,” Altman commented, eyeing the slopes. He found his eyes drawn to low areas where many piles of rocks had accumulated, most overgrown but still possible to make out even to his eye.

Kaylene glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. “A city boy like you is suddenly an expert on landslides?”

“My specialty at the Academy was in the geosciences. I may never have done any fieldwork myself, but I’ve been well trained in what to expect, and what to look for.” His earnest, serious expression was too much for her, and peals of laughter rang out. “I don’t see what’s so funny,” he complained.

“No no, I didn’t mean that! So Mr. Learned Man, what else can you tell me about these hills?” she managed to say coherently after a few moments to compose herself.

He dismounted, Deman and Kaylene following suit. “Yes, Alt, show us what more you know of rocks and stones and metals!” Deman glanced over at Kaylene and winked. “All through our time at the Academy, I never was able to distract him from his work long enough to get a good idea of what exactly it was he was learning.”

Altman started toward the southern hills, scanning exposed rock surfaces and inspecting foliage. There was a lot of low-laying ground cover so the pace was slow. “And what did you study there, Deman?”

“I,” he said with a certain self-importance, “was studying administration. SOMEONE has to keep these science types in check, wouldn’t you say? One day you’ll be reporting to me, Altman!” he called ahead. Altman, still engrossed in the rocks, made some sort of vague affirmation. “Probably didn’t hear a word I said, the poor guy. Where would he be without me?”

“You’re a good friend to take such an interest in him,” she said with a cool smile. He was about to reply when Altman’s voice rang out.

“Ah-hah!”

Deman looked over his way, then back at Kaylene. “He’s probably already forgotten us. We’d better go collect him.” She just shook her head and followed after.

“Here, you see? These greenish spots. There aren’t many, but that’s copper.” He didn’t even look up as they arrived, just traced his fingers over the rock, inspecting it closely.

“Looks like moss to me, are you sure?” Deman demanded, bending in close to look.

“Of course I’m sure, Dem. This is what I’ve been trained for! And here … There’s even less of it in this area, but these reddish brown streaks. There’s iron in these hills.”

“Impressive, city boy, you do know what you’re talking about at least.” Kaylene watched the two with one hand on her hip, the other holding her spear.

“Of course, of course …” Altman worked his way across the exposed rock absently. Deman straightened up.

“You almost sound like you know what he’s talking about yourself,” he observed.

“Me? Only a little. I help ‘ol Mr. Tremaine out once in a while and he’s talked about his work. Can’t say I understand most of it but I know he’s talked about iron and copper in the area before.”

“Huh, well I’ll be,” Deman said, considering. “But not much of either, then?”

“That I couldn’t tell you,” she said with a disinterested frown.

“… and here … here … what have we here? It can’t be …” Altman had reached the edge of the exposed rock face and was examining not the rock, but a small dark patch of foliage at the bordering edge.

“Well I’ll be,” Altman said, stunned.

“What is it, Alt?” Deman closed the distance and stood looking at the scene uncomprehendingly. “All I see is some dying grass.” Kaylene came up beside him, the hood of her cloak passing into the beams of sunlight shining down and casting the patch into shade.

“Kaylene, you’re …” Altman started to protest. “You’re … in the perfect spot. Don’t move, please!” He leaned in a little closer, then drew back. “Do you see it? Tell me you can see it.” There was definitely a small—tiny, really—mineral patch within the rock that was casting the faintest blue glow, barely visible in Kaylene’s shadow.

“I … think so. It’s glowing isn’t it?” she asked uncertainly.

“By the Council, I think you’re right,” Deman said. “But what does it mean? That’s no iron or copper I’ve ever heard of.”

“Unless I’m very mistaken, I think this is electrite.” Altman’s voice was hushed, almost awed. “It’s electrite ore!”

Kaylene leaned in closer; Deman rocked back, stunned. Altman ran his fingers along blades of grass near the faint blue glow; they were darker, sickly-looking, and a bit stunted. “Electrite?” Deman’s voice was tight. “That … But that’s incredible! Are you certain? The Conclave would pay a fortune for it!”

“I am certain, but I doubt this would make us rich,” Altman said conclusively. “Even as rare as it is, there’s not nearly enough. It just seems to be this one spot. If there were more in the area, the signs should be visible, and …” He looked around, deeper into the woods, back up the slopes of the hill, “I just don’t see any signs of it.”

Kaylene was puzzled. “Electrite? What is it? Why is it so valuable?”

Altman straightened and brushed dirt and leaves from his cloak. “It’s a rare mineral with some unusual properties that make it very useful in scientific pursuits. The Conclave values it highly, and they own all the mines at every major deposit of electrite that I’ve ever heard of. If we’d discovered a sizable new deposit, well, we could have sold the knowledge of its existence and the claims to it for more wealth than you’d ever dream of. None of us would ever have had to work again.”

“You’re certain there’s no more of it here?” Deman gazed at the small dark spot with disappointment radiating from him in waves.

“I’m afraid I am. Tiny amounts like that aren’t so unusual, but on their own they aren’t terribly useful since they require special handling to avoid harming the carrier. Larger amounts would leave visible marks in the area around them, and I’d certainly know the damage to spot it.” He remounted his horse; Kaylene did likewise. Deman lingered a moment longer, looking back at the near-invisible spot on the rocks.

“Such a shame … So close to such wealth, for want of a little ore.” He remounted and followed after.

The rest of the trip took little enough time. The animal trails through the woods were faint and rough, as though not used often, but were easy enough to follow. Finally a building came into view in the distance, just barely visible through gaps in the trees ahead. It was a large house of an old design, stone-walled, with several wings and multiple storeys.

Altman nudged his horse to pace Kaylene’s. “That’s it there? Why would my uncle choose to live in such a place? Why does a house even exist here?”

“You’ll have to ask him why he chooses to live here. I never asked him. As for the ‘ouse, it’s been here far longer than your uncle. My family’s known of it for years. The way I hear it told, it once belonged to a young lord who thought to win favor by expanding the borders of the kingdom into these unsettled lands, but his ambition outreached his brains and his purse, and after building the house he found he could do no more. He never attracted settlers, never even lived in the house.”

“What a waste,” Altman muttered as the building vanished behind the foliage once more.

“I’ll say,” Kaylene agreed. “At least it wasn’t for nothin’. Your uncle bought the place years back, as I understand it, though why I couldn’t say. Tired of the city, I suppose.”

Altman looked back at Deman, who was bringing up the rear. He was lost in thought, a frown still pasted onto his face. He didn’t appear to have heard a word they’d said.

Before the house grew clearer. It sat on a small rise with a commanding view of the valley floor some distance from the Ralladran river. The trees thinned as they approached; a large area had been cleared around it once, and the woods had only gradually begun eroding the edges of the clearing. Oak dominated these woods, and one single mighty tree remained in the rear yard, so large the foliage was visible over the top of the house itself.

Smoke rose from several chimneys poking upward toward the sky. The slate roof was stone-edged, the ornamental blocks apparently designed to give the look of a castle. Altman frowned; they looked out of place and somewhat jarring. “Looks likely he’s home,” he said, curiosity growing with him.

They dismounted their horses and tied them outside the gate, entering the yard. A broad but shallow stone staircase led them to the main door.

It took several minutes after knocking at the door before it creaked open a crack and a wizened, cloudy eye appeared. A thin, reedy voice inquired, “Yes? Who’s there? Speak up, I haven’t got all day.”

“Uncle Eldrid? Eldrid Tremaine?” Now that he was here, he was feeling the pangs of trepidation, though he couldn’t put his finger on exactly why. Unease at the circumstances he found himself in, he supposed; visiting long-lost relatives was a new occupation for him after all.

“Altman Dolet? Is that you, boy? I’m pleased you accepted my invitation. Come in, come in!” The door swung open, revealing a short, stooped man, thin not just with age but of build, long grey hair spilling out of a dusty old hat of a fashion that had passed years and years before. He was dressed simply, everything with a faded look about it, from the soft leather slippers on his feet to the brown trousers, vest and light coat worn over his shirt.

They stepped into the foyer and the man—Tremaine—crinkled his eyes in puzzlement. “You didn’t travel alone? No, I suppose you wouldn’t at that. Well let me introduce myself then. I’m Eldrid Tremaine, Altman’s great-uncle.”

“Uncle, I believe you know Kaylene Aynesworth already? And this is my friend and fellow Academy graduate Deman Buxton.”

“Kaylene! Why it’s good to see you again, it’s been months. And Deman, did you say, nephew? It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.” Altman frowned and looked closer at his aged relation; his eyes were more than merely cloudy, he was well on his way to losing his sight to cataracts unless he missed his guess completely. “Come in, come in, is that all of you? Come on in, autumn’s cold may not bother you young folk, but it passes right through my bones, it does. Let’s get some food and drink in you and maybe Kaylene will grace me with the story of how she came to know my most impressive nephew.”

They followed through into the large dining room where Tremaine bid them wait. Seated and warm, they talked for some time while their host puttered about the kitchen, bringing out bread and butter and meats and autumn’s vegetables. At last he disappeared downstairs to what looked to be a cellar near the cloakroom they’d passed on the way in.

The man was slow on his feet; Altman noticed he couldn’t move around very well, and he stopped frequently to catch his breath. But soon enough he returned with a bottle of wine. “Eat up, eat up, you’ve come a long way!”

At last the old man sat down to join them. The conversation was light and spirited, but Tremaine resisted Altman’s subtle attempts to swing it around toward his purpose in inviting him. “Ahh, nephew, that is not a subject for the supper table. We’ll discuss that at some length later so as not to bore your friends. But it’s good that you came when you did; I had feared that you might delay too long, or worse, not come at all.”

After some time, Altman was shocked to see how low the sun had grown in the sky. The food had been eaten, the wine consumed, the fire was starting to burn low and shadows were gathering. “Now then. You’ll all be here the night, so let me just get your rooms prepared.”

“Uncle, don’t you have anyone to help you with these things? You can’t do all this alone, can you?”

“Nonsense, nephew, nonsense,” he said with a hint of huffiness to his tone. “I’ve managed well enough all this time, and aside from that, where am I to find someone, hmmm? I came out here for peace and quiet, and find it I certainly did.”

“Perhaps we—”

“Don’t even suggest it, I won’t hear of it! You are guests and you’ll not lift a finger to work while you’re under this roof. Not at this kind of work, leastwise.” His nearly white eyes glinted as he said the last.

A good hour later, Tremaine was through setting the rooms while the guests talked around the dining table. Tremaine appeared in the doorway. He looked tired, but his voice gave not a clue of that. “Nephew— Altman, if you’d be kind enough to join me in the study? I do believe it’s time we discussed why I brought you out here, if your friends will be kind enough to excuse us?”

They retired to the study and Tremaine shut the door. No sooner had he done that than he let out a long breath, and Altman watched age catch up with the man before his very eyes. With a wan smile, his great-uncle took a seat by the fire.

“I can’t begin to say how grateful I am that you came, Altman. Time is growing shorter by the hour, and I have precious few of those left.”

He rose and moved to a small end table by the couch Altman sat upon. A lamp burned upon it, casting shadows that obscured the contents of the drawer Tremaine opened; he withdrew what looked like a dull gray metal box. Placing it upon the table between them, he unlatched the box and swung the lid over. In the dim light of the study, Altman saw a telltale blue glow. “Is that …”

“Electrite, yes. You know it by sight?” His cataract-covered eyes showed how impressed he was; electrite was rare indeed.

“Yes, I’ve worked with it before … very recently, indeed. I set aside some experiments with it to come here.”

“Then it’s even more appropriate than I realized that I brought you here, and saves considerable time.” His face bore a look of supreme satisfaction; Altman’s curiosity was burning him up from within.

“You brought me here to see this? Where did you get it? I found the tiniest little deposit of it in the hills at the head of the valley, but nowhere near enough to be of interest.”

“Ahh, but the source this came from is much, much closer than that. No more than a quarter-hour’s walk, at least for one as young as you. I’ll show you in the morning where this came from. It’s quite a sizable source, nephew. If the Conclave knew …”

“Why are you telling me this, uncle? We’ve just met, you don’t know me at all. If what you say is true, you’ve been sitting on a fortune for many years and told nobody. You’ve been in contact with the Academy and who knows who else at the Conclave, and obviously you’ve never let on what you have here, or—”

“Yes, yes. Or they’d have swooped in claim faster than a dog scratches flees. And you’re right, Altman. I don’t know you.” His cataract-clouded eyes looked somehow sharp. “But we are family, and there’s no one else. My time here is just about over, and the way I see it, if you do go running to the Conclave, there’s little enough I can do about it and even less reason I should worry about it. It’d be an awful shame for you if you did though.” He closed the lid of the metal box; Altman realized it must be lead, to shield against the radiation of the electrite.

“It’s true you could make a lot of money by letting the Conclave in on this little secret. Frankly, the deposit of electrite we’re talking about is the largest I’ve ever heard of, and for it to exist so close to them, right under their noses … well, they’ll be eager to get their hands into it.” He chuckled a little.

“Why don’t you tell them of it? There’s so much the researchers could learn and do with it. It almost seems a crime to keep it hidden away.”

“And that, young nephew, is exactly why I don’t tell them. What would happen to it if I did tell them, hmmm? They’d lay their claim, they’d build their mines and their roads, they’d dig their ores, they’d poke it and prod it in their labs, and they’d learn their secrets, and … what? And nothing, that’s what. That’s as far as it goes with them.” By the time he finished that tirade, his face was dark with anger.

“Oh I don’t blame Calland or my friends in the Conclave. They’re decent enough men, doing the best they can under the circumstances. But the Conclave council are fond of their secrets, and in my years studying electrite, I can tell you boy, it has some secrets all right. But what good does it do anyone when the secrets are kept hoarded, locked up?”

“It keeps—” Altman started.

“It keeps dangerous knowledge out of the hands of those who don’t know any better, of course. But the question becomes—”

“—Who are they to decide what’s too dangerous,” Altman finished.

Yes. They treat the world as children, nephew, children too curious for their own good. I don’t know about you, but I tired of that kind of treatment many years ago.”

Altman found himself nodding. “I have to admit I’d never thought of it in that light, uncle, never gave much thought to what the Conclave’s discoveries might be capable of doing out in the world.”

“Few do, and that’s the problem. Most lack the imagination, though even the imagination would do precious little good without knowledge of what the Conclave holds back. But enough of that, I didn’t call you here to argue Conclave politics. I’ve shown you the electrite, but that’s only half of it.”

Altman’s brows rose; Tremaine slowly got to his feet once more, selecting a book with a well-worn leather cover from a shelf of similar tomes. It was a small book, and thin, but he carried it as though the secrets of the ages were contained therein.

“This,” he said, laying the book down next to the box on the table, “contains all I’ve been able to record of my knowledge of electrite and its properties and effects.” Altman’s eyes widened. “I brought you here, nephew, in the hopes that you would continue my work.”

<>

The next morning was filled with a quiet awkwardness for Altman as he found his mind brimming with thoughts about the electrite and the secrets at his fingertips, uncertainty about what to reveal to his friends, and hovering over it all, sadness at the prospect of losing this incredible uncle he’d just discovered. It was a lot to take in over hot cereal, eggs and fruit.

“Alt, you’ve barely touched your food! You’re going to make your poor uncle think you don’t appreciate his culinary efforts, you ungrateful lout,” Deman observed, stuffing his own face with egg and toast. Kaylene ate impassively.

“Hmmm?” Altman offered, finally eating some of the cereal he’d done little more than stir till then.

“If you’re not going to eat, at least let us in on the big mystery. What was it that brought us all the way out here?”

Altman stared deeply into the depths of his cereal, saying nothing. Deman rolled his eyes apologetically at Kaylene. “He gets this way sometimes. Don’t mind him.”

She nodded. “I did sort of get that impression.” She kept her eyes on Altman, though.

Altman broke the silence suddenly. “I’m sorry, what I heard last night was a lot to take in. I’m not quite ready yet to talk about it.”

Kaylene nodded slowly. Deman couldn’t hide his disgruntlement though; his eyes flashed briefly before his expression blanked. “Fair enough, Alt. Plenty of time for discussing business later, eh? Whatever it is must have been weighty and important to bring you all the way out here to talk about it. It’s only natural you’d need time to think about it.”

“I appreciate that. Thanks.” He felt awful hiding the truth of things, but the fact was he knew full well Deman was greatly looking forward to his position in the ranks of the academy administrators, perhaps one day to start moving up the ranks of the greater Conclave itself. He really didn’t know how his friend would take it when he learned what Altman had heard last night. He wasn’t yet sure what he himself thought about it.

<>

Less than an hour later, Tremaine was as good as his word. With apologies to the others, he and Altman set out beyond the house yard and toward the hills. “I hope our conversation last night didn’t cause you too much stress, nephew. My eyes may be going,” and that was certainly true; their way was slowed considerably as Altman had to help him find his way over the rough forest ground, “but my ears aren’t, and though I tried not to, I heard something of the breakfast conversation.”

“I don’t know my own mind yet, so I certainly can’t know Deman’s mind. We’ve been friends for years, but I have misgivings. He is to start a position as an Academy junior administrator soon.” Altman’s voice was quiet, regretful.

“Overseeing those who perpetuate the agenda of the Conclave, and possibly to join their ranks directly soon.” Tremaine’s voice was low too, but Altman thought it sounded low out of weakness. His uncle’s face was drawn, tired, his pace faltering more. “Are you then coming around to my way of thinking then? You know,” he paused for breath, “you aren’t committed to this path. A life of virtual exile was my decision, for my reasons. You don’t have to make it yours as well.”

Altman considered Tremaine’s words carefully. It was true; his uncle had, on multiple occasions, stressed that complying with his own beliefs was not a prerequisite for assuming the mantle of Tremaine’s work. But Tremaine’s arguments had wormed their way into his mind with a disturbing speed and efficiency, and once there, had planted the seeds of doubt. Who were the Conclave to dictate the pace of innovation in the world? Who were they to proscribe knowledge from those who would know?

They were powerful, and they were dominant, that’s who they were. But Altman could think of no reason that that should entitle them to such power. They were a group of people who had gained their power hundreds of years before in this land and had spread rapidly to other lands besides, and by keeping knowledge and education itself locked away, ensured that nobody questioned why it should be so. Altman couldn’t think of it without something uneasy stirring within him, a sick feeling as though the bottom of the world had opened up and left him over a great abyss. How could he never have seen it before?

That much was easy enough to deduce, he concluded. He’d never bothered thinking about things such as politics or social policies before. He’d been too concerned with absorbing as much information as he could to worry about who else was or was not absorbing it along with him, nor who could or could not do so.

His reverie was interrupted by Tremaine’s sudden “Here we are.” His voice was a little breathless; the walk had been short, but had taken a lot out of him.

They were in the forest a ways from the house, with several small wooden buildings clustered in front of them. They were slightly ramshackle, as if they’d been standing for several years without proper care or even frequent use; the forest had been hard at work reclaiming the ground upon which they were built, and roots were starting to grow under the wall boards while vines snaked up several of the walls. Water and temperature had worked their insidious magic to warp and twist the wood, leaving the smallest of openings here and there for the forest’s footholds.

All looked normal enough, save for the space beyond the buildings. Archerd would have missed it had he not been forewarned by Tremaine’s description of the effects of electrite the night before; just visible beyond the screen was the start of a dead zone, the vegetation having sickened and lost some color. As they moved past the buildings the damage became clear; a depression lay beyond, and within that depression, nothing lived. “And here it is, nephew. The mother lode of electrite if ever there was one.”

The ground was scarred, plant life stunted and dead where the ground lay undisturbed, but a large portion of the depression had been excavated, leaving only bare earth and a rock face that stretched meters back toward the hills. Altman’s eye followed the line of dead and dying plant life but found he couldn’t find the end; the visible sign of the electrite lying not so far under the ground followed ran right back along the exposed ridge and beyond, ending somewhere in the hills ahead. He felt his eyes grow wide, his breathing quicken.

“All of this … it’s all electrite?” The deposit was enormous, containing far more than he’d ever heard of in one location, and there was no telling how much lay hidden deeper under ground where the damage couldn’t be seen.

The excavation showed the site was being worked, as did areas where the rock had obviously been broken relatively recently. “You’ve done all this yourself?”

“Yes, and I’ve barely scratched the surface, if you’ll pardon my choice of words.

Altman looked at the exposed earth and broken stone, then at the frail, elderly body of his uncle. “And you’ve had nobody to help you in all this time?”

“I wasn’t always this weak, Altman. I’ve gotten worse the last few months, and I fear this winter will be the end of me. That’s why I sent for you. I needed you to know of this, and of my work. I won’t be here much longer to work on it, this you know. And you must decide whether to continue that work here, or inform the Conclave of this and continue the work under them. Soon enough all of this,” he waved his hand at the woods, the scarred earth, the electrite that showed the faintest of blue glows where the shadows gathered deep enough, “will be of no concern to me at all.”

Altman’s mouth twisted in thought as he stared into the serious, nearly sightless eyes of his uncle.

<>

Deman shifted uncomfortably where he knelt in the dirt inside one of the ramshackle buildings that obscured the electrite deposit from sight. The old man was slow, and hard to hear; it was frustrating beyond belief. Altman was little easier; the poor lad had never had the strongest of voices, but he was just close enough that he could make out what they were saying.

Electrite! Deman had never studied the geosciences as Altman had, but he was well familiar with the rare mineral. It was a subject of great interest to the administrators of the Conclave for its incredible value. Careers had been made over deposits a fraction the size of this monster, and he almost lost track of the conversation he was trying so eagerly to hear as his mind went over calculation after calculation.

Once the old man knocks off this mortal plane, Altman will be rich! And with me to guide him, help him through the process, the bureaucratic nightmare that awaits him when others recognize the value of what he’s reporting, I will be rich too. Maybe even more rich.

Deman’s mouth widened in a predatory grin he wasn’t consciously aware of as the vision spread itself before his mind’s eye.

<>

“What do you mean you’re not sure! Do you have any idea how much money the Conclave will give you for this information? Are you insane?” Altman cringed back from the incredulous venom in Deman’s voice.

Deman had cornered him as soon as the two of them were alone, admitting his eavesdropping easily and without a trace of embarrassment and ready with a generous offer of help. “Haven’t you ever wondered if the Conclave’s policies are really for the best?”

“Don’t tell me you’re buying into that line of thinking. The Conclave is the natural choice to handle this. They know how to handle it safely.” His tone was dismissive, perfunctory.

“So do I. It’s not like it’d be in untrained hands.”

“Hands trained by the Conclave, of course! What, are you going to live here the rest of your life too, toiling in obscurity? If you want to accomplish something real, you need people, resources, money! Where do you think you’re going to get that?”

That was the part that stumped Altman. He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to turn the deposit over to the Conclave, but if he didn’t … the young lord.

Wheels started turning in his mind. Kaylene had told them a story of a young lord who had failed to settle the area. If he had succeeded …

“Dem, this has been a lot to take in, and shouting at me isn’t clearing my mind any faster. You’re absolutely right about resources, people, money. Let me think it over some.” He pinched the bridge of his nose; the shouting was in fact bringing on a headache the likes of which he couldn’t remember ever having suffered before. He needed to talk to Kaylene, and soon.

<>

It turned out Kaylene wasn’t so very far away, and Dem’s raised voice had carried quiet well. “Y’know he’s going to use you to get t’what he wants here.”

“Dem? I’ve known him for years, he wouldn’t do that.” Altman shook his head dismissively.

“Just how sure are you of that? Money and power can do strange things to people. My family didn’t always live out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve seen the things wealth’ll do to a person.”

“But Deman? He could never turn on me like that.”

“You said yourself, you’ve known him for years. I don’ mean to step in between the two of you. I just don’t trust him. Gives me a bit of a creepy kind of feelin’. No offense intended.”

Altman frowned, but nodded. “You don’t know him like I do, so I can’t expect you to understand. He’ll come around.”

She nodded, but her face spoke volumes. He wasn’t sure why he felt such a need to convince her. It’s the eyes, he thought. There was something in her gaze that saw right through you. Maybe she’s seem right through Deman too.

And maybe that’s what I’m really afraid of, he didn’t quite admit to himself.

He spent the rest of that day studying his uncle’s notes with Tremaine. He was astounded by what he read of electrite’s ability to entangle in the most remarkable manner with the most curious things. “I’ll show you something, nephew, something that so far I’m afraid the world won’t see much of for some time. It’s a communications box I invented.”

He pointed a shaky finger at a large box occupying a fair portion of a table’s surface. A curious upright device was attached to it by a cable. “You talk into it here,” he indicated the upright device. “Your voice goes down this wire into the box. Once in the box, I found a way to use the curious entanglement of the electrite to send your voice to another box. It doesn’t seem to have any practical distance limitations—it always sounds like you’re standing next to the person. It is my proudest achievement, m’boy.”

“That’s remarkable! But if you have such a thing, why would the world not see more of it?”

“It’s in the Conclave’s hands, Altman. They possess the only other such box in the world, unless they’ve finally managed to reproduce it themselves. You know how eager they are to share their knowledge.”

“But this isn’t their knowledge, it’s yours. Can’t you share it?”

The old man smiled. “Not in this particular case, I’m afraid. I owe partial credit to Dr. Pottle of their energies research department. Because we share credit for the invention, my hands are tied.”

Altman frowned and felt something settle within him. That was it then. It was likely that this Pottle, a Conclave member, would be unable to share this technology even if he wanted to, even if he agreed with Tremaine. That just felt wrong, so very wrong. Altman wanted nothing to do with it.

“Uncle, I’ve decided. I’ll remain here. Your work is too important not to go on, and I can’t seal myself into the Conclave’s system of closed, hoarded knowledge.”

The old man nodded knowingly and smiled. There was still a light in his eyes, though his sight had been growing worse just in the few days they’d stayed with him. “I had a feeling about you that first night, nephew. I don’t spend a lot of time around people these days, but I was an excellent judge of character in earlier years. And …”

“Deman.” Altman nodded.

“I don’t mean to speak ill of your friend, Altman. He seems a nice enough lad. He’s also the Conclave’s creature through and through, if I’m any judge.” The old man’s voice was tired.

“You’re right. He overheard our conversation about the electrite. He knows of it, though not the full extent of what it’s capable of. He’s sure I’ll come around to his way of thinking in time.”

“You’ll have to be prepared. He could cause a lot of trouble for you if you don’t go along with him. He could bring the whole of the Conclave down on this place, and probably will.”

“I know. It’s a risk I have to take though, Uncle. There’s too much to discover, and too many opportunities, things that could be made better that will never happen otherwise.” Altman tapped the arm of the study’s chair idly, thinking.

<>

Deman groaned and opened his eyes. His head felt like he’d landed on it in a rock pile. As his surroundings slowly came into focus, he realized that that was essentially what had happened. He’d returned to the electrite deposit to try to … to … he shook his head to clear his memory and spent the next several minutes trying not to throw up.

The light was dim and fading; he’d been here for hours, since the early afternoon, and the sun was now rapidly setting. Once his stomach settled, he very slowly drew himself to his feet.

He was sprawled at the bottom of the small ridge. He’d been at the top, working on extracting a chunk of the electrite ore when … the memory stubbornly refused to come, but he felt it was obvious what happened. He must have fallen and quite literally landed on his head. The pain was both colossal and dull.

He patted himself down as carefully as he could. To his relief, nothing seemed to be broken, though he had a curious tingling, burning sensation over large patches of his body. Sunburn, he thought. He’d been unconscious in the sun too long. But I’m fully dressed. That doesn’t make sense. The pain chased the troubling thought away before he could dwell on it too long.

He turned and stumbled in the direction of the house, but a wave of intense dizziness overcame him and he had to hold himself against the ridge to keep from falling once more.

This is Altman’s fault, an irrational part of his brain screamed at him. If he’d dismissed those lunatic notions of defying the Conclave, I might never have come back here!

<>

Tremaine had set the table for another spectacular meal. Altman couldn’t understand how the man did it with nobody to assist him. He was growing visibly weaker by the day and yet his vision was going, and yet he always had food available in quantity, well prepared in a timely manner.

He’d just sat down to eat with Kaylene and Tremaine; they had looked for Deman without success. “He’s probably out taking a walk to cool down,” Kaylene had opined.

“I’m sure you must be right. We’ll save him some food, if there’s any left,” Tremaine had agreed, and Altman gave it no further thought.

They’d just about finished dining and were working on a nicely aged brandy when a crash sounded from the front hall. “Who’s there?” Tremaine called out, his voice suddenly tremulous with fright; the sound of bestial breathing approached as uneven footsteps staggered their way.

Kaylene gasped and Altman bolted up out of his chair as Deman appeared in the doorway, hands on the door frame to keep himself steady, breathing labored and with an ugly, unhinged look in his eye.

He looked horrible; his skin was patched with ugly dark red splotches, like the worst sunburn Altman had ever seen had been allowed to grow worse still. Half of his face was so burned, with welts and large boils and blisters showing everywhere the dark burns appeared. His hands were so burned it was a wonder he could move his fingers. They showed the same boils and blisters that covered his face.

One eye was bloodshot and pink, and horribly discolored, the iris slightly misshapen and several shades lighter in color than it had been. The lid over it was swollen so that it looked like it shouldn’t be able to close properly.

But worse than the deformities was his expression. He stared at Altman, newly mismatched eyes intense with the light of madness. This didn’t look like his friend, he thought. This person barely looked human.

Altman backed away from the table towards the entrance to the kitchen. “Uncle, come with us please,” he said softly. Tremaine couldn’t see Deman, but could hear well enough and complied without a word. Kaylene began circling the table away from Deman and the kitchen alike.

Deman started forward as soon as Altman moved, stumbling dizzily and nearly falling as he crossed the space between the door frame and the nearest chair. He grasped it with one damaged hand, keeping his feet, keeping his eyes locked on Altman. “We … You …” he ground out between labored breaths.

“What happened to you, Dem?” Altman asked, still backing away. The look in the man’s eyes was terrifying. “We looked for you.”

“… led me there … left me there … if you … idiotic nonsense … your fault!” His voice rose to an inarticulate scream with the last, and he lurched toward Altman, hands like claws. Altman backed off into the doorway to the kitchen while Kaylene circled around behind the mad man.

Deman nearly fell with the effort of reaching his friend and snarled, an animal growl of rage and frustration. Altman’s mouth dropped open at the ferocity of it; Kaylene paused in her circling of the table, eyes wide. Altman ducked back into the kitchen quickly.

Deman fumbled clumsily at his belt, grabbing his pistol with his burned, awkward fingers. Kaylene rushed forward, but he lurched ahead of her, bursting into the kitchen and firing several shots with enthusiasm, if not accuracy.

Altman turned when the shots stopped sounding; he’d heard 3 loud cracks and then a solid thump and groan. Kaylene had Deman pinned to the floor and was trying to pry the pistol from his grip when a fourth, final —BANG— sounded.

Altman cried out; the pistol, still held in Deman’s grip, had gone off. Tremaine lay crumpled on the floor by the rear entrance, unmoving. He saw the blood drain from Kaylene’s face, her hand wrapped around Deman’s wrist where she’d tried to take the pistol from him.

Deman didn’t hesitate; with a savage growl he kicked up with his legs, tossing Kaylene behind him. He raised the pistol at Altman. With an inarticulate roar of his own, Altman tackled his friend, one hand wrapping around Deman’s burned throat, the other grabbing for the pistol.

The rolled on the floor, wrestling for the weapon, neither able to gain completely control. Deman was much stronger and fitter, but his burns were severe and hampered is mobility, which Altman took full advantage of.

Kaylene picked herself up off the ground unsteadily; she’d landed on her head after Deman threw her off. Whirling back to the conflict, she piled on, grabbing Deman’s arm and twisting. Between her and Altman, his strength was broken, and the struggle ended abruptly with one more, very final —BANG—.

Altman and Kaylene, faces pale, sat up and back. The pistol had discharged one last time, the projectile catching Deman low in the chest but angled up. His disfigured face stared blankly upward, wearing an expression of enraged surprise, but also of confusion.

It was some time before Altman could move. Kaylene rose and rushed to check on Tremaine; her tear-stained face told the young scientist everything he needed to know about his uncle’s condition.

She slowly walked over to him, placed a hand on his shoulder. “What … What was that?” Her voice was small. The whole encounter had lasted just minutes, and Deman had been too inarticulate to even say what had happened. His eyes moving over his dead friend’s face, Altman read the story in the burns.

“He must have returned to the deposit after overhearing my conversation with my uncle,” he said, voice flat, numb. “He must have been there for hours, in close contact with the electrite. These are radiation burns.”

He rolled up his friend’s sleeve. “Heaviest where the body was unprotected, though regular clothing would have offered almost no protection anyway.”

As he rolled the sleeve back down, a lump in Deman’s jacket pocket caught his attention. He pulled out a lump of electrite ore.

Kaylene gasped and backed away from the ore stone; Altman held it absently, staring at it for several moments. Finally he placed it on a table across the room from them, and away from the wall full of pots and pans and dishes and such things. “Such a small amount won’t cause any harm of note, though it’s better to be safe of course. I’ll contain it properly in due course.”

Kaylene nodded. “So that’s what he was after.”

“No doubt to take back with him to the Academy and Conclave, as proof of his claims.” He covered Deman’s face and unclosing eyes with a handkerchief. “You know, with my life so wrapped up in my studies, I haven’t the faintest idea what rites are appropriate, nor even what either of them believed.”

“A simple burial should be enough I think.”

“Yes. In the hills, but far from the electrite. They’ve had plenty enough of that in life.” He was surprised at how clear-headed he felt, yet how detached, far away from everything. It was as though he was watching himself have a conversation, rather than taking part directly.

“And you? What will you do now?” Her voice was concerned, he noted absently.

“I will stay. There’s nothing else I can do, not after this.” His clarity sharpened as he considered the words. “I’ll continue Eldrid Tremaine’s work, and more than that, the work of the unnamed young lord who built this place. He intended this house to sit within a city; I’ll see his wishes come to life.”

Kaylene smiled. “Such work is going to take a lot of time. I don’t live so very far away; perhaps I’ll stop in to see you now and then. To make sure you’re keeping yourself fed properly.”

Altman abruptly noticed that his hand was inexplicably covering hers, and that she was still smiling. He smiled in return. “From time to time. That would be nice, yes.”

 

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