The Songstone sprung to life again in Ashliel’s hands. What came out wasn’t the normal speech Nicandros was used to, but the clipped mishmash language the Alohym had taught their human soldiers. It was where terms like ‘flath’ had originated. The speech was terrible for conveying complex information, abstract ideas, or anything resembling artistry. It was, however, ideally suited for relaying hard data concisely.
In this case, it took the speaker on the other end just fifteen words to inform Ashliel that another squad, a group of three men, had fallen off the song in the same general area as the last five. Squads were preparing to cut off the streets leading into and out of that area, and the soldiers were already starting to search the homes along those blocks to try and flush out the aggressor. Skimmers were en route to begin patrolling the skies above the block to locate any sign of Poz from above.
“He is just a single being, yet he’s already killed eight. This is not some half-dragon or man clad in plate. It is a cave-sucking grub-eater.” The words came out in a hiss from Ashliel’s mandibles, and she whirled to face Nicandros. “Stars forsake us, what is happening?”
Nicandros didn’t look at her directly, instead scanning the ground around them. They were in a courtyard, and with the break of dawn people had begun to spill out into the streets. They all gave the Alohym soldiers a wide berth and curious gazes, but they were still present. Edgeminster was a large enough city that the presence of this many soldiers was not cause for alarm – at least, not yet. “We have to get the civilians out of here,” he growled.
“That’s impossible,” Ashliel said with a dismissive wave of her hands. “A city this large, at this time of day? We’d have to put the entire place under Quarantine.”
“Then put it on Quarantine,” Nicandros said.
“Nicandros, I know you’re new to our way of doing things, but right now no one can leave the city. These people might hide your little friend, but he cannot escape the city. The moment we enforce quarantine, we are going to be faced with possible riots. He could use the chaos to escape – and more importantly, we’ll lose our biggest advantage.”
Nicandros’s eyebrows furrowed. “Advantage?”
Ashliel nodded. “Surely you’ve noticed. Your resistance – apologies, your former resistance – relies heavily on support from the populace. Whenever their action results in the deaths of civilians, it reflects poorly on them. Their allies begin to withdraw. Their support begins to dry up. In the meantime, if we enforce quarantine, we are labeled as tyrants and dictators. By allowing the population to engage in normal activities, we are seen as the reasonable actors. If people die…it doesn’t make us look like the antagonistic force.”
If Ashliel had not been so potentially dangerous, if Nicandros hadn’t needed her so badly, he would have tried to drive his blade through her chest just for that sentence. “So you put people’s lives at risk to win a popularity contest?”
“Yes.” The word was as blunt as it was direct. “Revolutions aren’t won on battlefields or in back alleys. They are won in the hearts and minds of the people. And, by the same token, that’s also where they are lost.”
Nicandros clenched his fingers into fists for a moment, then forced himself to loosen them. “Girl, the normal rules don’t apply here. Poz has eaten manflesh. He was not exaggerating when he said he was the smartest being on the planet currently. The more things there are out there for him to work with, the greater the risk to us. He can exploit any loophole we leave him to grab ahold of. If he has to, he’ll kill thousands of people – morality means very little to him right now.”
“I’m not interested in questions of morality,” Ashliel buzzed the words harshly. “Nicandros, it’s very important you pay attention here. These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter, in this entire city, are myself, you, and the Underfolk. There are millions to replace even the thousands that might die here. This isn’t a police action to protect the citizens, and I swear by my Father’s Holy name, if I must burn every living being in this city to ash to achieve victory, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”
Nicandros did look at her now, fixing her with a glare that carried the full force of his rage. “You…”
“Want nothing more than you do, Nicandros,” Ashliel said, her voice now smooth as silk. “Tomah returned to us. We don’t get what we want if the Underfolk escapes. What was it you said when you were brought before my father?” One of her segmented fingers came up to her chin, and she tapped the space between her mandibles as if in thought. Something in the motion told Nicandros is was a mockery, that she knew exactly what he had said and was merely trying to score some kind of petty point. “I believe it was…yes. ‘Burn the resistance, burn the princess, burn my very soul to ash if you have to. I know you offered her father if she served you. Give me back my son, and I’ll be your creature until my last breath.’ Does that sound familiar?”
Nicandros turned away and began to scan the crowd again. The words hit him like a blow to the stomach. He’d been drunk at the time, drunk and desperate with grief and fury. He hadn’t even known it was Daemryon he’d been speaking to – just that he’d been hauled before an Alohym and thrown on the floor. He’d expected death, and had intended to go out with one final shout of defiance…but then he’d remembered the offer the Alohym had made to Tythel. The rebirth of Karjon. If they could give her that, couldn’t they also give him the same?
“So please, Nicandros, spare me your morality. We both want Tomah. We will have him. But spare me your pitiful attempts to convince me that the methods of conquest that have served the Alohym on a dozen worlds will not work here because you want to keep your hands clean. You will not budge me.”
Nicandros slammed his fist into a wall. Don’t argue. Get her moving, get her acting. That’s how you save these people. “Fine. Then we need to find Poz. Even with his intelligence enhanced the way it is, he’ll want to seek something comfortable to think. Send your soldiers into cellars, send them into sewers. The Underfolk like the dark places of the world, and we’ll either find him or some trace of him when we-”
Nicandros didn’t get to finish the thought. There, on the bell tower.
He’d been so very wrong. Poz had gone to the last place Nicandros would have dared to suspect – the very place where Ashliel and Nicandros had just been. The same place he’d left his cocoon. It had been so long since he’d last seen Poz in Manflesh, he’d forgotten what it looked like. The Underfolk stood tall and straight, his back almost painfully rigid. His frame rippled with muscles – not the thick cords of a soldier, but thin and lean.
It was the eyes that Nicandros could never forget. Black as pitch and unyielding as stone. There was no familiarity in that gaze, no comradery. No friendship.
Poz slapped something against the side of the bell and leapt away. It detonated afterwards and sent the immense iron bell ringing as it was propelled from the tower by the force. “Move!” Nicandros shouted, lunging for Ashliel.
It was too late. The bell was heavy, and the tower wasn’t built for that kind of strain. As the slab of iron flew through the air, it began to pull the tower down to the side, chunks of masonry flying along with its arc to rain down towards Ashliel and Nicandros.
Ashliel didn’t budge at Nicandros’s shove. Instead, she wrapped one arm around him and drew him close, extending her free arm over her head. The arm began to widen and lengthen, going from a simple appendage to a disc that stretched out and anchored itself to the ground on chitinous tendrils. At the same time her skin pulled away from her face and the arm around Nicandros’s back, revealing a second layer of skin beneath it. Skin that had gone pallid with lack of sunlight, but nonetheless was human skin.
Stone crashed into the barrier Ashliel had erected. It drove the struts of her shield into the stone around them, but not enough to push the full weight of the stone on top of either of them.
Ashliel looked at Nicandros with eyes that were unmistakably human and, equally unmistakably, were in pain. “Why?” Nicandros asked. “You could have flown and-”
“Tomah…would never forgive me…if I let anything happen to you…” the words came out in harsh gasps, like her breathing was labored. Most of her carapace had pulled away to form the barrier, and what human bits of her Nicandros could see were weak and frail. “I can…get us free. But…you need to tell me how to beat…what we’re dealing with.”
Nicandros nodded, and his mind worked furiously as Ashliel’s armor moved like a mass of liquid stone to pull away layers of debris.
Right now, however, he was running terribly short of options.