PreludeMature

"I don't like it," The Captain said. He didn't turn to face Her Ladyship, keeping his eyes instead on the ranks of Watchmen who were preparing to join the rest of Redhurst's army. "It's dangerous, ill advised, and likely to get you killed. Please, consider what you're doing."

"I have considered this," Her Ladyship assured him. "Marsten is my city as much as it is yours. I have a responsibility to see through. I have to be there when we attack. Besides, I still have what's left of my household guard."

"It doesn't matter who you have or how many of them there are," The Captain argued. "This is likely to be a massacre even if we win. And if by some miracle of the gods we do win we'll be needing every Prince we can lay hands on to help get the city back in order. Speaking candidly I'd much prefer you to any of the others."

"Ever the charmer," she told him with a fond smile. "My dear Captain, if we lose it won't matter whether I die or not. If we win I'll just have to trust you to keep me safe. Besides, I'm not afraid of dying." 

"You should be," he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I know I am."

"Afraid of me getting killed? Or of dying yourself?" 

He spared her a look at last, his eyes meeting hers. "Both," he admitted. 

"Don't be," she said, and took a step closer to him. Reaching out to squeeze his shoulder ever so briefly she said, "We will win this. And now, if you're finished trying to talk me out of my decision to come with you, I have some final business to attend."

"Don't take too long," he told her. "We'll be marching soon and you know I won't wait on your behalf."

 "Wait?" Her Ladyship chuckled. "I expect you to go early just to make a point of leaving me behind."

*******************

The few exoskeletal frames that had been completed were gathered at the airfield, near the Headwind. While the army proper gathered outside Redhurst's front gates the inventors who would operate the frames were going over their new armor with a fine toothed comb, making certain nothing was amiss. 

Esme stood some distance away from them, watching and conversing in low tones with Volker. "I wish we had more," he told her. "Gillead is willing to go with the army proper. Lucan wants to come with me and accompany the frames. I think he still hopes we can save Olian somehow. The others... Elias is just too old. Dasker is still in bad shape, and Ganner isn't much better."

"The Society in Redhurst only has a handful of magic users, and none of a caliber that would help in combat. Thankfully there are still about a half dozen from Marsten I've convinced to march with the army."

"Hmm." Volker sighed. "Better than nothing. Ah, there's Prince Vanora." He pointed the Prince out as she began crossing the airfield towards them. "What did you say she asked you here for?"

"She didn't say," Esme shrugged. "I guess we'll find out in a moment."

When Her Ladyship reached them she presented Esme with a scrap of old, yellowed parchment, upon which was traced traced the intricate lines of a spell rune. Esme took the parchment carefully, eyebrows drawing together as she studied the rune. "What's this?"

"I've done some thinking about melding magic with technology," she admitted. "If these exoframes are any indication the idea has promise. This is a protective sigil that was used by my house long ago. My brother once told me it used the name of a god and our family seal together, though I can barely make out our seal to be honest. I was hoping you could add it to the frames. Even if it does nothing it will mark them as mine, which is just as well."

Esme studied the sigil, turning it over in her hands as she followed the myriad of lines and shapes. At last her eyes widened a little. "The god... did your brother tell you which one?" she asked. Her Ladyship shook her head. 

Volker, who had been looking over Esme's shoulder, raised an eyebrow. "I'm not as fluent in these as you are, apparently. Care to share?"

"The sigil contains Airea's name," Esme revealed. "Or rather, one of the ancient symbols that was used to represent her. Are... are you sure you want this on them?"

"Unless you see a compelling reason not to use it, yes."

"I think I'd be willing to try anything that might help at this point," Volker agreed. 

"Very well," Esme nodded. "You're helping," she told her fellow mage. "Let's get to work."

********************

Infiltrating Marsten was far easier than Noman would have thought possible - he just walked through the front gates. Even when the city had been a trade hub and not a demonic hive those massive gates had been left open. Many had seen it as a symbolic gesture, the city's arms thrown wide to welcome in any who would come to sell their goods. In reality the gates had lost their purpose many years ago, when Marsten's rampant growth had overrun it's protective walls. With nearly a third of the city outside their protection there wasn't much point to things like gates. 

The demons themselves cared little for defenses, but it wasn't their lack of attention that allowed Noman to simply walk into Marsten. It was his Shadows. They were demons themselves, even if they were Airea's tame pets, and none of those in the city looked twice at them. They swarmed around Noman as he walked, a black fog in the night air or an oily surface sliding against him. Wherever they touched him his skin tingled or went numb. The feeling was maddening, though he forced himself to endure it without scratching or rubbing at himself. The last thing he needed was to draw attention, or make it harder for the Shadows to cover him. So he walked slowly, with a carefully measured gait. 

A six legged demon with the torso of a man and the head of an insect scurried down the side of a building nearby, hissing and clacking at him. One of the Shadows clicked back at it and was joined by a chorus of noises from its brethren. Whatever transpired seemed to placate the six legged demon, which let out a tiny high pitched shriek , like an annoyed bird, before dropping to the ground and ambling away. 

The scene repeated itself a dozen times as he moved towards the Ivory Tower. For the most part he and his Shadow guardians were ignored. When they weren't there was a brief exchange of noises before he was left to go his own way unmolested. As odd as it was to think the more he witnessed it the more he thought the demons might have some strange language that they spoke among themselves, something incomprehensible to human ears. What he wouldn't give to know what they were saying. Then again, he wasn't sure if being able to understand them would have eased his nerves or just made it worse, so perhaps it was for the better.

When he came upon the central market square he paused. The demons loitering around the square looked more dangerous than others he had seen. They had moved about at random, going about some mysterious errand that only they knew. The ones near the square, besides being larger, stood still, as if standing guard. The monster closest to him turned it's head to watch as he approached. One of the Shadows hissed in his ear, its nearness turning the side of his face numb. 

"Fine," he whispered as quietly as possible, "Bad idea. I get it."

Still wanting to know what was going on in the market square, Noman made a circle of the area, finally coming upon a three story shop that was near enough to provide him a decent view and mostly devoid of demon activity. He climbed up the side of the building that faced away from the market, finding handholds on window ledges and misaligned bricks. Once atop the roof he crouched on one corner and looked out towards the gathering of demons he'd seen from the Headwind. 

There were a half dozen of them, more humanoid than any other demons he'd run across. One in particular caught his eye - it wore a robe, one he recalled seeing before, and through he couldn't see the face underneath it's upturned hood he knew who it must be. "Olian," he whispered. The demons stood in a rough circle around what looked like an altar, created from loose stone and broken bits of wood. The was also the occasional bone, though he couldn't tell if they were from human or animal. Atop the alter was Airea's anchor, the glowing green shard of stone that cast an eerie light across the entire square. 

The End

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