"They must be warned," I said definitively. "They need to evacuate the city, taking all the valuables and supplies they can possibly transport. With proper warning and time to act, this might not be quite as bad as Nearton's Bend."
"Was it like this when Nearton's Bend was wiped out?" Skids asked, indicating the sea of markers on dro's scryer.
"Er... now that you mention it, no," I said, realising that this did not fit with what I knew about that dreadful day. "That began with one demon, then more slowly joined over many hours, and then many more when the citizens put up resistance. This is a whole mob of unprovoked demons. They organised into a group without interacting with the city at all."
"Or were organised," Skids suggested, dro's voice close to a growl.
"Do you think mages might be behind this?"
"No, we wouldn't do this. Perhaps they're under the control of someone or something else."
"Are you sure about that?"
Skids carefully reached for the scryer, which was still attached to the ancient relic. "I can check. A project at Ganayanda hive could have gone terribly wrong, I suppose. But I don't see how it could do anything like this."
I realised that determining the cause and laying blame was not actually helpful, not unless the mages also had some way of stopping the onslaught of demons. Warning Deepbloom had to be our top priority. Yes, this demon attack had nothing to do with me, but I knew I could not live with the decision to pretend it was not happening. "Sente, how long do we have before the demons reach the city?"
"Hmm, I would approximate it at four hours. Perhaps more, depending on how they handle the terrain. It is unlikely that they could do it in less," the older man said in his deep voice. There was a quiet strength to Sente. He made me think of the clerics, because of how distinct he was from them.
"I think we can get there in under two," I guessed. "That is enough time to matter. If we can get anyone to listen to us. Given how the last few days have gone, we might not get close enough to get a word in before they use us for target practice."
"That is indeed a problem," Sente said, sounding thoughtful. "But you might find the people of Deepbloom more willing to listen than you expect. Where are you from, Miss...?"
"Charity Wilison, from Forrester's Crossing. I apologise for not properly introducing myself sooner."
Sente's eyes widened, and his wrinkles shifted into a broad smile. "Ahh, another young Wilison. I remember many years ago meeting a certain Robert James Wilison."
"Oh! Yes, my father was exiled for a few weeks, long before I was even born. He never spoke of meeting anyone." Actually, he had hardly spoken of it at all. Being put into exile was not a popular topic for any of the Pure, especially any who wished to be seen as devout. At this point in the conversation, I noticed that Skids had moved a few paces away with the scryer.
"Well I certainly remember him. Showed a lot of promise, that one did. But there were a lot of decisions and grief weighing on him."
I tried to fit that with what I knew of my father's past. "Yes, he had recently lost his father to a bad wave of the fever. I do not know what he was trying to decide though."
"If I remember correctly — and I dare say I am quite good at remembering — he was trying to decide who to marry," Sente said.
"That can't be right! His father would have chosen."
"His father had told him of a choice, but had not made it official yet. Robert was left as the head of his household, and another young woman had caught his attention. He told me he thought she might be a better match, but his father had not considered her due to some irregularity in her family history. He was uncertain whether he should follow his father's path for him, or if he was free to choose for himself."
"He spoke to you about that?"
"Yes. The question had driven him to distraction, which was what had caused his exile. He was very confused and sought my guidance. I asked him some questions to help reduce his confusion."
I was startled by this revelation. The very idea that my father could have chosen a different bride, or had considered defying his father's wishes... Could that really be my father? How different would my life be if he had taken such a drastic step? Would he be a very different person? Would I be? "Do you remember her name? The other woman he was thinking of marrying?" Perhaps I had met her, or even knew her children.
"Yes, I remember. He said she was named after the commander of your Great Maker's messengers. Bellona."
Oh. That was not what I had expected to hear. "You are certain? Bellona Flora Aviga?"
"That's the one."
He had actually done it. "She... is my mother. He did go against his father's wishes." I had wondered who my father might be if he had made that choice. In fact, my father was the man who had made that choice. "I..." I really didn't know what to think or say about this. "We should talk about Deepbloom. You were saying...?"
"Yes, Deepbloom! I have found in my many years of travel and trade that some of the Pure cities are more welcoming of outside ideas and people than others. In particular, Makerslight, Lenston and Deepbloom are somewhat more... lax, in their enforcement of certain regulations and restrictions. I have a few trading partners in Deepbloom who I believe could be convinced to take action on information from a... forbidden source."
This was as world-shaking as my new knowledge of my father. "We'll need to—"
"Hey, how goes the planning?" Skids interjected. I hadn't noticed drome returning.
"Sente knows some people in Deepbloom who might listen to us," I said. "Do you have news from the hive? Can they do anything to help?"
"Something weird's going on with those demons, but we're sure it's not us," Skids said, sounding quite certain. "There's nothing we can do, sorry."
"Thanks for trying. I really appreciate it," I said, and I meant it.
"So it's up to us to ride back to Deepbloom again and warn them, right?" Skids asked, already understanding that there was no chance I would do anything less.
"Right. Are the spinnerbikes really ready to ride, or were you bluffing for the raiders?"
"They're ready," Skids said.
That was one less thing to worry about. "Good. Sente, who do we talk to?"
"It's not that simple," Sente said. "Yes I do know some people, but I doubt they would accept you merely on the basis of mentioning my name."
"Could you send a letter of introduction with us?" I suggested. "I have paper."
"I've only dealt with them in person. They may be a little more open minded than most of the Pure, but they're not going to go to the effort of determining whether a letter is truly from a trader leader or not, if they even could prove its authenticity."
Skids was still messing with the scryer. "Our aether levels aren't great. I estimate we can only get there an hour and a half ahead of the demons. If we push it too much we might come up short and then we'll be stuck running the rest of the way."
"Don't we have a second aether bottle?" I asked. "The one in the casters' spinnerbike."
"Right, that would let us put on a little more speed. Might buy us ten or fifteen minutes. Ooor..."
"Or we could take both bikes, and bring Sente along. Then he can properly introduce us to his Deepbloom friends."
"At the cost of getting there later. But we might get people moving sooner." This was quite a dilemma.
"If we can do any good at all without Sente. Plus, if we take both bikes, we're not completely stuck if one of them doesn't make it," Skids argued.
"Er, what do you think, Sente? Do you think you can ride a spinnerbike? I don't think I could. I mean, I can ride on one, but..."
"I'm afraid I don't have what it takes to control one of those things, though I could be convinced to sit behind someone else and hold on for dear life, if it would help save a city," Sente said.
"What about Shenks?" Skids suggested. "He was on a pedal-bike when I first saw him."
I was rather impressed by Skids' plan, and was a little upset at myself for not having thought along those lines. It turned out that Shenks had in fact ridden a steam-powered bicycle a couple of times, and was willing to give a spinnerbike a try, if it would help save Deepbloom. Fortunately it did not take him long to figure out the basics, under Skids' instruction. The biggest problem with the plan was attire. Skids declared that the traders' clothing was far from sufficient protection in case of a crash, and would not let Shenks and Sente risk their brains riding without helmets. This forced them into the macabre choice of wearing the riding outfits of the recently deceased Cards and Spire.
I put my prison clothes back on over my riding clothes, and Skids put on some extra robes for warmth. We were all glad for the gloves which kept our hands from freezing, and Shenks required a pair regardless to be able to operate the spinnerbike.
"There's something in the pocket of this shirt," said Shenks, who was wearing the late Cards' clothing.
"Not now," I snapped at him. He might have had a lot worse to complain about, given how pressed we were for time. If the magical fabric had not been remarkably stain-resistant, he might have had to cope with blood stains, for instance. Mage blood stains.
"Can everyone hear me?" Skids said via the ventril — the helmets' magical remote speaking feature, which we had needed to explain to Shenks.
"How do I... Can you hear this?"
"Yes, Shenks," Skids said, a bit weary of having to repeat things to him. "This should be simple. The ground is flat, and we'll reach the rails soon. Follow directly behind me, but not close. Keep my bike in sight, but let the dust disperse so you don't have to breathe it. Stay between the track bed and the embankment. If you have trouble, slow down and let me know."
"Understood," Shenks said.
"Great. Let's go save a city!"
And so we rode into the night, propelled by aether-spun wheels. As we left the encampment of traders behind us, I was almost certain that I heard them start to sing again. After a moment passed, all I could hear was the aetheric whine, the rush of wind, and the crunching of leaves.
We threaded our way through a row of tall trees, and continued parallel to them. "If we keep going straight, we should get to the tracks in a few minutes," Skids said unnecessarily.
"Here we are, rushing in the dark to get back to the tracks," I mused. "Wherever we go, we always end up going back to tracks."
I felt Skids' shoulders shrug. "It does feel that way, doesn't it? Don't worry, not everything has tracks. Chroma, for instance. No tracks there. Goals, yes, but it doesn't matter how you get the ball there. Now, it does matter to a degree which goal you get the ball in. You get extra points for scoring on different opponents. And if a team is scored on by every other team, they're out of the game. And the game might be over, if there's a clear winner on points. If not, they play on until someone else gets excluded, and so on."
"Uhh... I still don't see the point of all this."
"Don't worry, you will. Now remember, the whole point of Chroma is the cooperation between the six roles of mages. So each team has one drone, one carer, one conjurer, one seer, one hexmage, and one caster. The casters are the ones most of the audience care about, but drones have to put in serious work for a team to stay in the game. The others too, but they're more important outside of the matches, in general. Well, hexmages are a special case. Hall're in charge of the... er... mascot."
"The what?" I interjected, barely getting a word in before Skids could jump to a different topic.
"Hmm, how to explain... Well, a mascot is somewhere between a pet and a seventh player. The hexmage is in charge of... Oh, that must be the depot!"
Dro was correct. There was a wooden wall looming ahead of us. This was the end of the line, or the beginning in our case. "Right, and we have probably woken everyone up."
"Woken... You didn't mention that it's occupied!"
Whoops. "No big deal, we should be gone before anyone can get in our way." The ground sloped down, as the end of the railway cutting had been partially filled with earth. The depot loomed even higher before us. We slipped into the space between the right wall of the depot and the embankment beside it, which was barely wide enough.
"Are you good back there?" Skids asked of Shenks.
"I think so! Here we goooooooo!"
I glanced over my shoulder in time to see the second spinnerbike barely miss the corner of the depot. I chose not to comment, as that might distract him at a critical moment. Instead, I glanced back again, right as we passed the end of the depot wall, which let me see inside. "Skids, we should stop," I said, barely managing to keep my voice somewhat calm. I wanted to shout, but it was important not to panic anyone.
Skids slowed the spinnerbike. "What is it?"
"In the depot, they have a steam engine. It's the sprinter! It might be Carlos!"
"Will that get us to Deepbloom any faster?" Skids asked, bringing the bike to a complete stop.
"Perhaps, but it will definitely get us into the city safely."