I’d been in bad spots before, so this was nothing new. You could argue that I’d put myself in this situation, but to that I say I have plenty of experience there as well. No, this one I put the blame on me and me alone. Well, the city-dwellers might put some blame on Standard Mana, and normally I’d disagree with them, bunch of anarchists that don’t believe you should have to work for a coin. In this case they may have a bit of a point. The company did build this encampment in the frigid north, too far from civilization for us to escape without their leave, but they give us more food and medicine than we rightfully deserve. I mean, what do we do all day? Drill mana out of the ground? Hardly a job worth much more than bare necessities. It’d be nice if they supplied us with blankets, though… or fresh vegetables, fruit… but no. Luxuries should be paid for with money you earn, not begged off those who had the tenacity to earn their way themselves. Bunch of city-dwelling anarchists putting socialist fantasies in my head just when I get a little hungry and cold. Long live Standard Mana, that’s what I say. My choices are my own, and I’m thankful they’d offer someone like me a job in the first place.
~The final page of the journal of a Standard Mana contractor at the Primeria Bay Company Town, written the day before the plant’s demise.
“A bit of him will remain within us always.”
I didn’t expect to be greeted with such dead stares at the remark. The man was a corpse, after all. Don’t be offended on his behalf. For context, the ash lining the cabinets, the walls, the desk, the very ash that I’d held in my hand and blown into the air, the ash we breathed and coughed before finding the shadow, well… that ash was the corpse.
“That’s cold, Inspector.”
“It is cold, but that’s got nothing to do with him.”
We were at the Standard Mana Company Town located on the northernmost curve of Primeria Bay, that body of water which prevents idle Saloondrians from walking into the clutches of our neutral neighbor, the island nation of Primeria. Though, to correct myself, at this time of year it may well be possible to cross the water in certain areas because of the ice.
The corpse, as I’ve called it, was little more than a shadow painted on the wall behind the desk. The foreman had been blasted with such an extreme spell that his skin, flesh, all but blackened bones had been vaporized and now caked the walls in eerie gray. I lifted one of the charred fingers and it came off in my hand, not so much snapped as melted off of the hand and wrist it had formerly belonged. I squeezed it and the finger shed like charcoal, which it well might have been closer to than bone.
“This Connor’s doing?” one of the deputies asked.
“No,” I asserted. “Not unless he got a very serious upgrade.”
Connor was the one we’d been tracking. A renegade, fueled by revenge. We hadn’t known why this Standard Mana outpost was his next destination, but history had told us it couldn’t be anything good. One of these days we would bring him to justice. But now, witnessing this… perhaps his intentions here were not so far aligned with ours after all. Connor Copperhead was an angry, vengeful spirit, but so far as I have been able to tell, not evil. This prey he tracks may well be of greater interest to us.
“And quite the upgrade it would be,” a gruff voice echoed from the hallway behind us.
The deputies materialized their weapons from their trickdraw gloves. I sensed their fear, and shared it, I must admit.
“Please, no guns, I’m unarmed,” the figure said, stepping into the flickering light of the room. “Well, singularly armed.”
“Hands in the air!” one of the deputies cried out sheepishly.
“Pensive,” Connor complimented him. “And there they remain, unless your captain has a moment to hear me out?"
“He’s gearing to kill us all,” another deputy yelled. “His arm can shoot fire!”
“It can’t do that,” Connor sighed.
“He’s a vigilante, Captain,” the deputy reminded desperately.
“Only because the law refuses to do what it must,” Connor retorted.
“We can’t trust him,” I agreed. “But we can’t refuse an anonymous tip, either, if one presents itself.”
“Your captain is wise. If she’s the future of your department, vigilantism may go out of fashion. I won’t get my hopes up, though.”
“The tip, Connor. And be gone.”
“Star Gazer Knights.”
The room was quiet now. The deputies had run out of quips, it seemed.
“There’s no such—”
“Drop the act, Captain, and investigate your clues. I can’t say how they’ve returned, or yet what they’re capable of, but the stench of this place is unforgivablely their doing. You haven’t had a look around yet, have you? Started with the foreman’s office, of course. Lapdogs go straight to the heels of their masters. I’ve my own beef with Standard Mana, but I’ve no quarrel with the sad fools who work these wells. Take a look around for yourselves. There are no corpses, you hear me? There are no corpses. They’ve stolen their flesh. I may be a monster in your eyes, in all of your eyes. But what do monsters fear, I ask you this? What do monsters fear enough that they climb their way back into the light to warn their hunters? The Star Gazer Knights, Captain. The Start Gazer Knights.”
Not one of us dared speak. If the cult was climbing out of the shadows, and if it was capable of this, if what Connor said was true of the other thousand inhabitants of this mana well… There were no words worth speaking.
Rumor can not be trusted at face value, but it can be dissected for clues. The rumor on the Knights had been growing in the last few months. Armored civilians in Hatbrim, Barrelmouth, making futile attacks on government buildings, large company offices, mana refineries. At first, these attacks seemed random, the acts of crazy individuals. But gossipers gossip, and conspiracists began to draw their connections. Because while none of the attacks were particularly successful, they had one important thing in common. The attacks were done with magic, but not commoner magic, manaless magic, old magic. The kind of magic that brings floodgates down. The kind of magic that sows Plague.
And one name began to surface. The Star Gazer Knights. We laughed. Power had not been drawn from the moon and stars for some dozen generations. And now, a ragtag cult of armored fanatics… it had been difficult to take the rumors more seriously than the joke they were most likely to be. That was before the attack.
Standard Mana, the most powerful company in Saloondria, this fact can not be denied, whose company office in Barrelmouth is less penetrable than Hatbrim Keep, a right fortress overlooking the Barrelmouth undercity… ransacked as if it were a farmer’s hut. The first son of the Dragon Baron stolen under the guard of fifty battlemages, dismembered and returned the following day to the smoldering remains of the Baron’s company mansion…
“I can tell you one more thing,” Connor said eventually, “because I got here as the barracks was still burning their last. I managed to get the information you’ll be too late to find. Their eyes are set on another company sympathizer. The Star Gazer Knights are coming to Trickdraw Junction.”
We must have looked a motley crew. Clueless investigators, and the man outside the law, the man we investigated, staring blankly at one another, completely silent as the snow began to fall outside. There would be no arrests this morning. There would be a silent ride back to where we had come, as fast as we could manage. To warn of the coming of a thing that could not be prevented. But until that time, we would silently stare at one another in this room, contemplating the absurdity, the fantasy, the morality of it all. I knew what the sheriff would say, but he always strayed toward law over justice. A good man, but just that. I knew what he would demand of us. That we bring the renegade in, no matter the cost. That we disregard his lies, his fairytales, his deceptions. I did not look forward to facing the sheriff.
“A single man doing what he believes is necessary to preserve a bit of the good in this world, or a cult of sociopaths remaking the world into their own image.”
I’m not sure if it was Connor who said that before he disappeared into the morning snowfall, or if I had, to justify what I was going to do next. To justify what I had already done.