Serial Post: Earthrise, Episode 8

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Earthrise
Her Instruments, Book 1

Episode 8

      The Eldritch lifted a brow.
      “I mean, why don’t we set things up so that it looks like you’re doing some sort of magic with our help, and use that to scare the guard into letting us go?”
      “Do you truly believe we can talk our way out of this cell?”
      Oh, he sounded so certain. Reese folded her arms over her chest. “I’ve talked my way out of worse situations.”
      His face remained maddeningly smooth. She wanted him to sneer or roll his eyes or something. “Have you?”
      “Look, Hirianthial,” she said, “I’m sure I can do this. I know my people can. It’s you I’m not sure of. Can you act? Because if you can’t pull this one off, then it won’t matter that I can do it and the twins and Bryer can do it.”
      “What exactly would you have me pretend?”
      Was it her or was he actually uncomfortable with the idea of lying? Trust her to find the one Eldritch in all the worlds who actually believed in personal honor. In the books she’d read they’d never had a problem abandoning their beliefs to serve the story. “You’d have to pretend to be what everyone believes Eldritch to be. And don’t tell me you don’t know what that is. If you’re out here playing spy, mingling with pirates and slavers, you know very well what Eldritch are supposed to be like.”
      “Supposed to be like,” Hirianthial repeated, and for the first time she heard what she was expecting. Bitterness, maybe. Fatigue. Except he wasn’t looking at her, but at something on the inside of his own eyes. “As if we are expected to fill some void in the universe.”
      In the face of uncertainty, Reese did as she always did. “Look, are you up for this or not? Because unless you have some better idea how to get us out of this hole in the ground, we’re going with my plan.”
      “Had I had a better plan, we would not have met,” the Eldritch said at last.
      “Then let’s get Sascha up. This is how it’s going to go.”

***

      Hirianthial rested his hands on his knees, feeling the guards mill against the edges of his awareness. He could just—just—pick them out past the flares of the people sitting in a semi-circle around him. Where Reese had obtained her ideas about ritual magic he had no clue, but try as he might he couldn’t complain that they lacked dramatics. There was no real magic outside of wild stories of ancient Eldritch mind-mages, of course, and his mental talents couldn’t be intensified by any outside aid, but the concept sounded good and he supposed that was all that counted.
      He’d been many things on Liolesa’s little mission. He’d played instruments he barely remembered learning at a tutor’s side for dinner. He’d washed dishes, scrubbed decks, even bandaged a wound or two. He had not yet played the charlatan. All of it galled. That he’d taken on this role to free himself made it only a hint less bitter. Always, his people wanted something of him he wasn’t made to give; his attempts to fulfill those expectations usually ended in failure. While he wasn’t expecting this to be any different, he hoped for the sake of the aliens grouped around him that it would be.
      The guard pierced his circle of awareness, heading for their cell. “He’s on his way.”
      “All right, people, look calm,” Reese said.
      Irine giggled. “This is too silly.”
      “It’ll work,” Reese said. “Just remember your lines.”
      The Harat-Shar giggled again. Hirianthial opened his eyes and found them all in position facing him. Reese and the two Harat-Shar had copied his stance, palms up on their knees with eyes closed. Bryer, who couldn’t sit cross-legged, kneeled with his hands pressed together at his breast, the feathers splayed from his arms in a decorative fan. One could argue they had the hard part: to remain composed and to seem as if they were concentrating when they knew the farce they were engaged in. Still, Hirianthial hated lying. Obfuscation he could do. Lying wounded him.
      The heavy thump of boots on stone pulled him out of his reverie. Hirianthial set his face. As he’d hoped, Blond stood in front of their cage, staring at their group and playing with the key ring. Spikes of sweaty uncertainty jumped around his aura. He cleared his throat of thick phlegm and said, “What are you people doing?”
      “What does it look like?” Hirianthial asked with just a hint of contempt.
      The guard’s aura flared red. “Don’t you mess with me, pastehead. You’ll be dancing a different set when they put you in real chains.”
      “Oh, I don’t think they’ll be doing that. Not with my new… friends… to help me.”
      The guard’s left boot creaked, then the right. Nervousness gave his colors a green sheen. “Ummm … look, I don’t know what they’re doing, but they should stop it.” He stared at Reese and the others. “What are they doing?”
      Now for the lies. The premise had sounded so ridiculous Hirianthial couldn’t imagine anyone believing it, but Reese had convinced him. He thought of the last time he’d been angry from pit to fingers and summoned up that voice, the deep soft one with the hard edges, the one that made a lie out of his cultured accent. “Channeling power to me… so I can set this building on fire. Or didn’t you hear about the last time?”
      On cue, Sascha began to hum.
      “What the—”
      “The power is flowing to me. I might spare you afterwards. Unlock the door.”
      “I don’t, I…”
      Irine added her mezzosoprano to her brother’s tenor. They started out in harmony and then Sascha dropped his voice until they were only an octave and a quarter tone off. Hirianthial wondered if they realized what they were doing or if they were just tone-deaf. He focused on the man. “Unlock the door. If you do, I’ll give you time to run before I start.”
      Reese added her contralto, filling part of the lower register.
      Blond shifted from foot to foot, books creaking. His fingers played almost spasmodically with the keys. Hirianthial stared him in the eye, willing him to do it.
      “Unlock the door.”
      “I—”
      “Unlock the door.”
      “It’s not—”
      “Unlock the door.
      Bryer broke in with a shrill ululation that skidded up the scale of comfortable human hearing. Blond’s fear shot his aura with actinic sparkles, and the man lunged forward, keying first the field and then the door. The latter beeped its processing tone. A few seconds later, the door opened. Blond stood paralyzed before it, as if unable to believe his actions.
      Gently, Hirianthial said, “Run. Now.”
      Blond stared wildly at him; his eyes flicked to Bryer’s feathers. Then he turned tail and fled.
      “All right!” Reese said, jumping to her feet. “Quick, before it’s too late!”
      The two Harat-Shar dashed out first, striped tails swaying. Bryer loped after. Reese pointed. “Out. I’ll be behind you.”
      Hirianthial rose, and she darted around him, closing the door behind him.
      “Which way!” Sascha yelled back.
      “Left!” Hirianthial called.
      The two tigraines vanished around the corner, and then Irine yowled. He could just see two more people in front of them. “Guards,” he warned.
      “I think they already found them,” Reese said dryly, running up the hall. They turned into the corridor to find Bryer leaping on one of the guards, his bronze claws muted by the red flash of blood. Disoriented, Hirianthial turned toward the smell—blood required two kinds of attention—but a hand grabbed the back of his tunic and yanked. He felt concern and pain and fear and adrenaline like a punch to the spine.
      “This way!” Reese said, pulling him past the two Pelted and the Phoenix, who were doing more than distracting the guards.
      “They’ll die,” Hirianthial said, transfixed by the deflation of the auras under Sascha and Bryer. Old instincts warred with new oaths.
      “Have your crisis of conscience later!” Reese said. “Or have you forgotten what these people have done? Do you want to live your life in chains?”
      He still couldn’t force himself forward. It had been so long since he’d seen blood spilled in violence. It woke demons.
      “Blood on the dust, Hirianthial, MOVE!
      He moved. He couldn’t not move beneath the force of that command. He couldn’t decide if they were wounded or enemies and in the face of that ambivalence he could turn his back on them and leave them to die. Even if he’d wanted to turn back, Reese was at his heels, riding him, herding him. He didn’t want to have to push past her and her cut-glass aura.

***

Surely this is going too well…

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