I perched atop a widower tree, half a centimeter from a tangle of razorvines.
Sometimes the best place to hide is where anyone else would be foolish to follow. Not even a niffle ape, with their preternatural wilderness senses, would be up here. Sometimes preternatural wilderness senses come second to common sense.
I didn’t have common sense, or I wouldn’t have taken this job.
It’s hard to miss a battle between Archons. Sure, there’s the screaming, the chaos, the clash of swords and the hissing of a hundred different kinds of ray gun – but this is the Crucible. That kind of nonsense happens all the time. It’s easy enough to find if you want it. I don’t. No, what really sets these things apart is the spectators.
Some of them come in person (or in energy-cloud, or in spirit, or in whatever-corporeal-or-incorporeal-embodiment they call their own). They set up their picnic mats or gambling booths, and, maybe, if it looks like they’re about to get vaporized, move out of the way. But most vaultheads watch from afar, where the only (admittedly, considerable) danger is the postgame riots.
Anywhere would have been safer than here.
Before I’d left Hub City, I had not waited for the head of my shadowguild to find out what I was up to. I went to her office, tucked inside an old æmbrew warehouse, to tell her myself. Better that she heard it from me.
“You accepted a contract against Ponderous Url.” The first sign of danger was that she was already showing her markedly chilly elvish smile. “The Archon.”
“No other Ponderous Urls,” I replied.
She said, “You could have found a simpler way to announce you had a death wish.”
“I’m not afraid of Archons,” I said. Fear would mean that I had something, anything, I wanted to hold onto.
“You’re new to the Crucible,” she said. “You don’t understand.” Everyone knew Archons couldn’t get killed. But I didn’t believe in immortality.
I looked her squarely in the eyes. “I understand.”
“Then telling me this of your own free will is just as suicidal,” she said. “I can’t countenance this bringing attention back upon us.”
The death threats had come out before I’d even told her that it was a demon of Dis who’d offered me the contract.
She tried to kill me, of course.
It was all expected, all pro forma. It was polite, even in an assassins’ guild, for an employee who had announced they were leaving to stay for an exit interview. I had just given my interview and would have been a fool to go in there without my escape route set. Her blade swept through empty air as the dazzling lights of my stolen Star Alliance teleporter swept over me.
“It would have been a mercy,” she said, as I dematerialized.
It had not been the first time I’d given up everything, but it was the first time I had done so by choice. It almost felt good.
For two hours now, the spectator drones had been swarming above the widower trees, dodging the lashing razorvines. I figured the vaultheads knew something I didn’t. I was right.
Sudden movement focused my attention. An azure halo of plasma fire crowned the foliage. Widower trees screamed as they caught fire.
Opening salvo in the contest.
Judging from the tenor of the screams – not all from the trees – first blood as well. As one, the drones flocked toward the chaos.
I braced for impact, and dropped. My widower tree, somehow stirring from the botanical soporific I’d administered, shrieked. It lashed a razorvine at me.
Panic, dull and distant, coursed through me. The other widowers’ screams must have jarred it awake. I landed, rolled, and sidestepped, but too late. The razorvine struck through my boot sole. A crimson flash of pain lashed through my foot.
I ran, hobbled and bleeding. I’d been lucky. I’d lost, at most, a toe. It could have been a foot, an Achilles tendon, or worse. My sense of balance compensated with elvish alacrity, keeping me nimble in spite of it all.
I’m what most beings on the Crucible would call a Svarr elf. I had the ears, the gold eyes, and the conniving, at least, to blend in among the assortment of gangs and thieves’ guilds who called themselves Shadows. But blending in isn’t the same as fitting in.
I didn’t come from the same world as anyone else in my guild. I’d been ripped from my home. Years ago, in a flash of alien magics, my city had been transported from my world and reappeared in the Crucible – another victim of whatever power was stitching the Crucible together out of patchworks of stolen worlds.
Things made sense where I came from. I knew what I was. I was Vira Tirandel Agrulikhan – executioner, enforcer, third niece of the Lord Mayor, and god-aunt of the heir to the city. After we arrived on the Crucible, my people and I tried to hold to our center. But the Crucible might have been better named Centrifuge. It’ll rip you apart. Nothing you had before can last. No belief, no ideal, no self-conception.
Until we arrived, my people had thought we were alone in the universe. Just coming here was violence enough to us. But that had been just the start. We’d materialized on the border of martian territory. It hadn’t taken the martians long to sense our disorientation and weakness. In hard-fought battles, we turned away their saucers and tripod walkers, but not a single one of our buildings was left standing. By the time the Brobnar decided to hold one of their (literal) death concerts atop the rubble, we scattered.
It’s been years since I’ve seen anyone from home. I’m not sure we would recognize each other if we did.
A flock of silverwings erupted in the far distance, and fled skyward. Silverwings were deaf birds, apparently evolved on a world awash in tremendous thunder. The foliage would have hidden movement. Those birds would have budged for one thing only: vibration. Big, ground-churning, root-snapping vibration.
Ponderous Url was a mammoth of an Archon – an adamantium-skinned golem even heavier than he looked. Ponderous Url was not reputed to employ any Brobnar giants or other creatures that could shake the earth. I had to gamble that Ponderous Url’s opponent didn’t, either – or that they themselves weren’t as large as Ponderous Url.
Everything’s a gamble when it comes to Archons. The Archons can be small as a faerie, or so big as to be mistaken for some dead king’s vainglorious monument. But they have a few things in common:
One – they’re all interested in cracking open vaults of ancient knowledge, treasures, and secrets left behind by the Crucible’s even-more-mysterious Architects. They will fight each other, and recruit retinues of the Crucible’s inhabitants to help them, for the privilege of opening a vault. Two – Archons all have the power to take care of their private armies. They heal traumas. They raise the fallen. But bystanders, let alone infiltrators like me, get no such guarantees. Sure, sometimes you’ll get lucky with a do-gooder Archon who will expend their precious energy resurrecting those caught in the crossfire. But Ponderous Url wasn’t that type of Archon.
Three – they never explain where they came from, their relationship to the Crucible’s Architects and what they ultimately want. Not under any level of duress. Most people believe that they are, somehow, related to the Architects, but they will never say so.
The bulk of the fighting seemed to have shifted up a shallow crater ridge, where an ironwood forest bordered the widower grove. Ironwood was one of the few species of tree strong enough to resist the widowers. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone planted them here to contain the widowers.
I bolted into the borders of the ironwood forest, ducking the errant swipe of a sentry widower’s razorvine. The razorvine gouged a hole in the soil behind me. Plasma smoke and the coppery scent of spent æmber rolled down the ridge. The pain in my leg had faded to a background scream.
My elvish instincts took over. I leapt from a boulder to an ironwood branch to a trunk bent at just enough of an angle to offer good footing. I was moving too fast, counting on the chaos of the battle to protect me.
A sword cleaved into the trunk just behind me.
I was already mid-leap. In the fraction of a second of instinctive panic, I jabbed my good foot out and smashed into the helm of an armored knight.
Smoke curled from the ironwood’s trunk. The knight’s sword flared like a sun. The wood glowed red-hot. But all that power wasn’t enough to saw through ironwood. I bounced off the knight, flailed through the air, and landed hard on my bad foot. But, even stumbling, I still moved faster than the knight could free his sword. I left him snarling some very unchivalric curses behind me.
Ponderous Url employed a mix of untamed barbarians, martian soldiers, and a handful of demons. The knight had to belong to Ponderous Url’s competitor. The two Archons’ armies had been drawn from every corner of the Crucible. Good. More chaos. The more chaos, the more opportunities. The only thing you can trust on the Crucible is chaos. Something will happen, but you can never predict what.
I don’t think creatures like us are capable of understanding the Crucible. We’re bacteria flattened underneath a microscope slide. We don’t have the tools to process what’s happening to us.
I have no place here. I don’t want a place here. Everything I had is gone. There’s no ground – no stable ground, anyway – worth standing on. For years, ever since I’d arrived on the Crucible, even the brightest colors only render for me in shades of gray and ash.
That was why I’d taken the contract.
The towering, silver-eyed demon who’d offered me the contract on Ponderous Url’s life hadn’t given me any information about it. It had just handed me the page.
Glimmerings of shadowy magics whorled over the lettering. Contracts like these have power beyond their wording. I had no guarantee the demon was even acting of its own accord – though I couldn’t think that anyone would trust delivery to a demon.
I couldn’t find any loopholes. I signed. It was what I wanted, anyway.
The Crucible’s Architects need to pay for ripping me, and so many others, out of their homes. But they’re beyond my reach. The next nearest thing to them are the Archons.
A ray gun bolt sizzled through the air in front of me. I ducked and, trying to dodge, picked a direction at random: the wrong direction. The ray gun hadn’t been aimed at me.
I stumbled directly between two combatants. Now their weapons were aimed at me. The first: some kind of hypertuned Logos massacre-rifle, loaded with scopes, underslung grenade launchers, and stabilizing gyroscopes. The second: a drawn bow and arrow held by a hide-clad barbarian with a beard and mustache so stained with filth I couldn’t even tell what its original color had been.
In the space of an instant, I realized that the only way I would escape would be to pretend to be on one side or the other.
It was no choice. I ducked toward the barbarian.
A fraction of a second after the barbarian released the bowstring, his arrow shimmered. With a pop like a cork flying out of a bottle of æmbrew, and the distinct guano-and-pine-needles stink of druidic magic, the air fractured. Colors spun like a broken kaleidoscope. There were five – no, ten – no, thirty – iron-tipped arrows in the same space.
They struck simultaneously. Even some of the arrows that visibly missed shattered. Quantum entanglement can get a little messy when you’re pulling from parallel universes. But not as messy as the results. The kinetic energy of those dozens and dozens of arrows, and surely more, was focused on a single point in space in this universe.
The simultaneously unleashed energy ripped both the Logos rifle and its wielder apart. A searing hot shockwave knocked me flat on my side. My head struck dirt.
I lost myself for a while.
The first thing to learn about the Crucible is to leave your prejudices at your world of origin. If you see someone facing down military tech with a flint spear – be very afraid of that spear.
The second thing to learn is to keep your thoughts about what’s better than what to yourself, because they will get you killed, expelled, or put on trial by half the factions in the Crucible. The other half will evangelize you until you wish they were killing you. Everybody has their own opinions, and the ones who are sure about them are the worst.
When I take contracts, I don’t ask questions. Sometimes the answers come anyway. “Sanctum Prelate Kyranos betrayed our fortifications to the demons of Dis, and though his death is mandated by justice and righteousness it must be kept quiet.” “Martian Supreme Warcommander Xot, Slayer of a Hundred Thousand Pacifist Protesters, Conqueror of the Seven Broken Cities, has been sneaking through the front lines to attend Brobnar death concerts. He must be made an example.” And so on. They say it for themselves more than me. Those who are more secure with their reasons for hiring an assassin tend not to say anything.
I reassembled my wits fast as I could. The man with the bow still stood above me. He wiped soot from his bow, grinned, offered me a hand. I accepted, and, in exchange, helped him pat out the fire still smoldering somewhere under his beard.
Then I smashed his head into an ironwood trunk. He flopped to the ground, limp as a gorged snufflegator.
No “friends.” No risks. I couldn’t take the chance that he would tell his friends about me and realize I shouldn’t have been there.
No doubt some vaultheads, watching through the drones, were going ballistic right now. But it’s a rule of honor among vaultheads to never interfere with the matches.
The ironwood forest was a safer place than the widower grove, mostly. But it also offered less ground cover. The foliage was thick as sheet rock. The surface layer might as well have been a cave. Nothing besides mold, fungi, and the creatures that fed on them – and the creatures that fed on them – lived down here.
Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that the ironwood trees grew in bundles, their limbs locked together, a frozen frame of a centuries-long battle for dominance as they tried to shove each other out of the way of the sunlight. I could not help but stare as I ran.
More free advice: don’t let yourself get lost in the “grandeur and majesty” of the Crucible. In my moment of distraction, my ankle snapped through an invisibly thin tripwire strung between two trunks. In a burst of stinking druidic magic, I found myself surrounded by a glimmering of faeries.
(Yes, I know the proper collective noun for a group of faeries is a glimmering. I studied plenty of the Crucible’s languages. I said I didn’t fit in here, not that I didn’t try.)
I instinctively reached for my dagger. I could cut a swath through faeries, but there were too many of them. More than dozens. Hundreds. The largest among them was smaller than my palm, but faeries were as ruthless as they were tiny. They could cut me to ribbons.
So I held up my hands, and took a step back. Surrender. Simple mistake. We were all on the same side. Friends, yes?
Their short, but wickedly sharp daggers came out. I laid my hand on my knife’s hilt, but, in the space of another instant, there was a sound like a distant chime of bells.
At once, the faeries scattered. They vanished behind a curtain of whatever magic had summoned them. Before I could take two breaths, I was alone.
There was no sign of whoever, or whatever, had made the sound.
It’s a mistake to try to understand the Crucible’s chaos. Looking for reasons for everything that happens to you is how you end up ripping out your hair and marching off to join the Untamed. It’s why the Logos, who did try to understand everything, were so unbalanced. The whole incident still left me unsettled.
There were two more tripwires in my way, taut and humming with faerie magic. I stepped over them. Then, ahead, I caught my first glimpse of something huge, shiny and silver. It was Ponderous Url.
I couldn’t be sure if his skin was organic or artificial. Or both. Ponderous Url’s flesh was shiny and smooth like metal, but supple. Flexible. Muscles rippled under his shoulders. Even after he tromped through this forest, felling widower trees and scraping past gods-know-how-many ironwoods, he was unblemished. No scrapes, no tears, no bruises. Not even any tarnishing. A Star Alliance handscanner might have been able to tell me more, but more likely it would have just raised more questions.
I’d done plenty of research before hunting Ponderous Url. Not even the most dedicated vaultheads could tell me what his body was made of. Archons were reputed to be able to control how they appeared. This was how Ponderous Url wanted to be seen.
Well, he had his secrets, and I had my surprises.
I sucked air through my teeth, picked up speed. All the pain had left me, submerged underneath a tide of adrenaline.
This was the only thing I really chased after now – this cocktail mix of panic and exhilaration. Good and bad chemicals swilling together in my brain. They buried everything else. It wasn’t much to keep me going, but I wasn’t prepared to give it up. It was the last thing I had, and so it was the only thing I couldn’t part with.
I’d seen plenty of people who had given up their last thing. New arrivals who couldn’t handle the culture shock. Adventurers, monks, and mystics who’d learned one secret too many. Logos scientists addled by the Crucible’s absolute refusal to be studied, probed, prodded or understood. Knights who’d betrayed their vows. In some parts of Hub City – the kind my guild trafficked in – you could hardly move without stepping over the wreckage of what used to be a sentient being.
The Crucible is, among other things, a place for people with strong beliefs and high ideals. For the rest of us, well… There’s just this feeling. Adrenaline. Panic. Terror. Exhilaration. All mixed together.
Ponderous Url turned. His eyes were solid white with cherry-red irises and no pupils. No veins, no discoloration. Nothing, anywhere on his face, of the minor asymmetries that marred beings who had grown naturally.
I would have sworn, to any god that was listening, that he looked right at me. And then he turned away again, uninterested.
He must have noticed me. Some of the adrenaline dripped away. The pain came back. He couldn’t have made me any smaller if he’d stepped on me.
A barbarian witch with a flaming red peaked cap stood near him. She held up her hand. Something in her palm glowed gold. Even from this far away, I recognized æmber. There was enough of it there for Ponderous Url to shape into a key, one of the three he needed to unlock his vault.
Was this Ponderous Url’s first key? His third? I had just gotten here, and already I might be too late.
I drew my prism knife.
The flat of the blade gleamed red, then gold, then a hot white-blue, like a sun. Hints of intangible depths swam beneath its surface.
Don’t ask me to explain the prism blade. It was an artifact, stolen from the vaults of a saurian senator who had, until now, been my most challenging target. The saurian left no information about it. The only thing I knew for sure, with a deepness and surety I couldn’t justify, was that it was ancient. The Saurian Republic was the oldest civilization on the Crucible, with a history stretching millions of years.
The knife was the size of a dagger… most of the time. Its edges were indeterminate. It wasn’t an object as much as it was an absence. It was a hole in space, a gateway to other places. It only “rested” in its scabbard because the scabbard was a magnetic field generator, keeping the hilt – the only physically real part of the weapon – suspended.
I recognized the bow-and-arrow’s interdimensional magic because it hadn’t been the first time I’d seen it. The prism knife, too, was a gateway.
Instead of bringing things in, it gated them out. Slice by slice. I didn’t recognize any of the places on the other side, but I had never seen one that looked hospitable.
It did not matter what Ponderous Url’s skin was made of. I was going to pierce it. I was going to make him notice me.
Only a few dozen meters past the Archon, a battle raged. Plasma bolts blasted trunks apart in great clouds of razor-sharp ironwood chips. A four-winged angel hovered over the horizon, almost certainly a magical illusion meant to draw fire (sure enough, a few of those plasma bolts passed harmlessly through it).
I hardly noticed the fight. I had learned my lesson about distractions.