The sky was not as Kei remembered it.
The miasma of soul-oppressing brown over the Pangolin Clan’s territory had expanded outwards like midwinter fog, swallowing swathes of what had once been other colours. Despite her best efforts to be loyal to her summons, at times Kei wished her visits would instead take place beneath the even grey of the neighbouring Rat Clan, or better yet, the almost-familiar blues of the coastal clans visible far to the east.
“Keiko! Keiko! You’re back!”
If there was one thing she could count on Pandā for, it was to lighten even the most depressing mood.
Pandā’s tail tapped excitedly on the ground a few times, then he seemed to recall something.
“Hssthl. I, uh, mean, greetings, O Summoner. What is the nature of your business on the Seventh Path today?”
Kei gave him an amused look.
“Yes, well, you can’t blame me for trying to act more mature now I’m being promoted!”
“Congratulations!” Kei was still uncertain as to what passed for a smile among the pangolins, and whether it was any more straightforward than the human equivalent, so instead she gave him an approving nod.
“Thanks, Keiko! It’s all because of you and the Pantokrator’s Eyes!”
“The Pantokrator’s Eyes?”
“You know, the Pantokrator’s Judging Eyes, the ones that watch from the heavens, unmovable and untouchable, and mete out judgement to our sinful foes!”
Ah. “Do you mean the skytowers?”
“Probably,” Pandā conceded. “But that’s a lame name. No offence to you, Keiko, but you humans have terrible naming sense. I mean, you have to have a whole extra name before people can tell what clan you’re from. How ridiculous is that?”
Kei felt she should be offended by this remark, but could not quite pin down why. The pangolin way was distinctly more efficient from an information management perspective, insofar as it combined twice the information in one data point. With that said, she could see deficiencies to the approach—for example, in the unlikely event that one changed clans (obviously, something that summons did not have to worry about), one would have to change one’s name entirely. Not an unknown practice, admittedly, but also not a common one, and a great headache for the Mori and the lesser specialists.
“Do all clans use clan-specific names, then?” she asked, intrigued. “How do you handle the restricted naming pool this must result in?”
“Restricted?” Pandā repeated. “What a weird way of looking at it. It just means that, say, when I introduce myself to a pangolin I’ve never met before, they’ll instantly know I was named after Pandā the Chirurgeon, the only pangolin ever to earn the right to bear both black and white markings. In my case, my father was hoping that I would enter the Medical Corps and bring great prestige to the family, maybe even study under Panasea herself. He was… less than impressed when I got stung by the cultural anthropology ant.”
Pandā looked down and scratched at the plating on his hip. The atmosphere began to grow awkward.
Kei recalled that she was, in fact, here for a purpose, and decided that the admittedly fascinating issues of clan naming and data management could be left for another time.
“Pandā, I would like to solicit your opinion on a hypothetical scenario.”
“You want my opinion?” Pandā’s spine straightened sharply. “I won’t disappoint you, Keiko!”
“Supposing the Pangolin Clan were faced with the opportunity to acquire the power to fly. How do you think your decision-makers would react, given the religious prohibitions against flight?”
“What religious prohibitions? You might as well forbid us to turn back time, or create new Paths, or get Chief Quartermaster Panopurī to sign off on a form less than three days after you hand it in! The Pantokrator wouldn’t do something so pointless,” Pandā said confidently. Then his expression changed.
“Uh, unless an officer who outranks me says different, in which case you should ignore everything I just said. Especially if it’s somebody from the Office of Morale. I don’t want any attention from the Office of Morale.
“Why,” Pandā asked, “have you come up with a way to let pangolins fly?”
“Recall that we are dealing with a purely hypothetical scenario,” Kei reminded him. “It is a common pastime among my team to invent such. Indeed, when on summer evenings we share horror stories around a campfire, Hazō’s contribution traditionally consists of his latest research ideas.”
“Right,” Pandā said uncertainly. “Well, I reckon after seeing the Pantokrator’s Eyes in action, the high-ups would do anything to expand on that power. I mean, we’re already halfway into Hyena Clan territory, and that’s while we’re still tunnel-squeezed by the number of technicians who’ve been trained how to use seals. But supposing pangolins could fly for real…
“For a start, that would take away the beakfaces’ only advantage. They’re weaker and stupider than pangolins in every possible way. We would finally end them and reclaim our ancestral home. After that, you wouldn’t even need to hunt down the Condor scroll, because it would just be a piece of paper. ‘The Condor Summoner used the Summoning Technique against Mori Keiko… but nobody came.’ Hilarious, right?
“As for the Hyena Clan and the Leopard Clan and such, I guess we could just enslave them. I mean, they’re our sworn enemies, but because they’ve always been our sworn enemies, at least they’ve never betrayed us. Once we wipe out their military, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a benevolent use for the civilians.
“Oh, but if we’re not careful, then other enemies might band together against us, like what happened to the Raptor Clan. But I’m sure our strategists will figure it out. Maybe we can settle for ruling the region for now.”
Kei nodded slowly. “Useful information. Thank you. So then the military would pay dearly for such an advantage?”
“You could pretty much name your price.”
“Good. Of course, this is all a completely theoretical discussion, and you would only be wasting your superiors’ time if you were to report something so irrelevant to them in the context of any debriefing session.”
“I, uh, see,” Pandā said carefully. “It’s only a hypothetical. Not important at all. Let’s talk about something else now.”
“Very well. The next item on my agenda is paying the Naraka Rollers a visit.”
“So about those flying pangolins…”
“Good day,” Kei greeted her, bowing to a suitable depth.
“Summoner,” Panchipāma acknowledged. “And the runt.”
Pandā endeavoured to make himself seem even smaller in response.
“Where is everyone?” Kei asked.
“Haven’t you heard? There’s a lull while the hyenas are negotiating an armistice, and the top junior officers from that campaign are receiving their breeding licenses today.”
“What does that… oh.” Kei hoped that since pangolins did not blush, Panchipāma would be unable to read her reaction.
“Yet I note that you are still here,” she observed.
Panchipāma gave her an inexplicably hostile look. “That’s none of your business, Summoner.”
“I apologise.” Apologies were a very reliable conflict resolution technique, at least as long as the offended party did not ask Kei what she was apologising for. Often, she had no idea what she had done to cause offence, but asking would only inflame the other person’s anger. People were so unreasonable at times.
“Hmph,” Panchipāma snorted. “I’ll let that one go. You earned a fair bit of goodwill with your display last time. You showed proper respect, and you apologised according to our traditions. I’ve heard that a lot of summoners don’t make that kind of effort.
“I’m prepared to give you another chance. Prove to me that you’re strong enough to be a member of the Naraka Rollers, and show me a good blood-boiling shell-hammering time worthy of The Panchipāma, and you might just have yourself a contract. But no Pantokrator-damned abominations. Never again.”
“An impressive battle in which I can demonstrate my true abilities? Yes, I believe something can be arranged,” Kei said, thinking of the war to come, and the rivers of blood due to flood the continent as her team stood in the heavens, calmly handing out weapons while keeping their own feet dry.
Paneru was late. Half an hour had elapsed since their appointed meeting time, with no trace of the pangolin anywhere. Was punctuality truly so difficult a concept to grasp? At the Mori compound it had been taken for granted not merely that students attend lessons on time (that much was a given even at the Academy, at least for those who did not enjoy corporal punishment), but that they be able to measure their progress at solving puzzles in minutes and seconds, without the aid of a clock. Granted, it was unreasonable to judge an outsider by Mori standards, but surely military personnel should at least be capable of minimal timekeeping competence?
“My apologies, Summoner,” the pangolin, short and stout with dark green patterns of paint swirling across her body, said quietly. “I was at prayer.”
Kei bit back her retort, concerning the prioritisation of personal religious practices over one’s practical duties.
“I did not realise pangolins followed religious practices,” she instead observed neutrally.
Paneru seemed incredulous. “Why wouldn’t we? Every tiniest fragment of ourselves and of the Seventh Path bears the symbol? Indication? The stamp of the Pantokrator’s will. Look what’s happening to our enemies because they don’t have the Pantokrator’s blessing. Granted, most of our clan aren't quite as devoted as I am, but we all serve the Pantokrator in our own ways.
“On that note, I’m told you were the instrument of his will in delivering the Pantokrator’s Judging Eyes to us. Thank you, Summoner. They are truly a marvel of design.”
“Not at all,” Kei said. “The actual concept belongs to one of my teammates. I merely negotiated trading it with the Clan.
“Regarding which,” it occurred to her, “I am told that on the Human Path it is considered the height of poor taste to rename another sealmaster’s seal. Could I prevail on you to use the original name of ‘skytowers’?”
“Skytowers,” Paneru said. “What nonsense. They are quite clearly not towers by any stretch of the imagination, and the pangolins would not use them if they were. Do we look like the Cathedral Termite Clan to you?”
Kei was already developing a dislike for her new summon.
“Trust me,” Paneru went on proudly, “I’m the creator of the Enemy-Killing Threefold Bunker, and I was on the design team for the Devastating Pointy Barricade. I know a thing or two about naming.”
Kei made a private note to have Paneru present when the team sold their various inventions to Jiraiya.
“Anyway, it can’t be helped if you have no naming sense. You are, after all, a human, the Pantokrator’s penultimate flawed creation. I mean, look at you, unstable? Frangible? Frail to the point where one good claw swipe and we’re stuck without a summoner again. Really, it’s lucky you have the Pantokrator’s greatest work on your side to compensate for all your weaknesses.”
“I assure you,” Kei hissed, “I am more than—“
“Then again…” Paneru spoke over her, causing Kei to grit her teeth, “you did come up with the Pantokrator’s Judging Eyes, so maybe I shouldn’t question his wisdom in creating you too much. Certainly, my superiors like you—they told me that after seeing the Eyes’ performance in the field, they’ve decided to waive the weekly fee for my contract.”
“That is very generous of them,” Kei agreed.
“Of course,” Paneru said, “I still have my own expectations out of a pact with you. I want to see human construction with my own eyes. If you can figure out the Eyes, maybe humanity isn’t quite as technologically backward as I’ve been led to believe.”
“I suppose something can be arranged,” Kei said reluctantly.
“Oh, and I understand you have a special bloodline rare even among humans?”
“Yes,” Kei nodded, “the—”
“I’ve been specifically instructed,” Paneru did it again, “not to ask you about your bloodline. Bear that in mind.”
“Good. Now, are we done here? Because Pangramu from Cryptology needs to see you urgently.”
This was a fact Kei would have preferred to know at the beginning of the meeting. But then, what could one expect from somebody who couldn’t even arrive on time?
“What is the matter?”
“We intercepted a Condor Clan message, and I’ve been instructed to pass it on to you immediately. Do you understand what that means? It means without delay!”
Then perhaps Pangramu could deliver it instead of complaining about his inability to do so? Clearly this was not Kei’s day for sensible pangolins.
“I’m listening,” she said pointedly.
“You know how the Capybara Summoner disappeared a few weeks ago? Well, it turns out the humans who have the scroll now are on the other side of that big conflict you’ve got going on, and the Condor Summoner is going to negotiate for it so she can give it to her allies. Obviously, that would be a disaster. If the Capybara Clan and its elite infiltrators throw in with the condors… I don’t even want to think about it. The trouble with being the most honourable of the clans is, well… our counter-intelligence isn’t everything it could be, and this is coming from an expert. That’s where you come in.”
Kei processed this calmly.
“You wish for me to prevent the deal, assassinate the Condor Summoner and retrieve the Capybara scroll.”
“That’s right. We already have a potential summoner in mind.”
“Where and when is the negotiation?”
“We… don’t actually know.”
Kei was speechless.
Pangramu threw up his claws placatingly. “All we have is ‘6 September, Hinago Medical Facility, tip of the northwest border’. It could be anywhere!
"But you're the only one who can act on the Human Path for us. Even if it's like looking for a larva in a mudpool, you have to try. The fate of the entire war effort could rest on it.
"If I have my human calendar right, the meeting’s in only two weeks. Well, what are you waiting for? Go, go, go!"