Part 14 of 20 in Ethereum

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Bang! Thump, crunch, tinkle. “Ow! Owowowow!”

 

Railgun opened a bleary eye. Her roommate was lying against a shelf, surrounded by scattered books and shards of porcelain and glass, twitching. On the opposite wall were a wide scorch mark and spiderweb cracks.

 

Are you alright, Sabrina?” Railgun yawned. This happened one morning in every five or six.

 

Sabrina looked up, then winced as she pulled her neck. “Yes – ow – fine, just thought I’d try something and it, uh, kind of got away from me.” She touched the pieces of glass and ceramic lying around her, and they fused back into their original vase and glass maneki neko. “Sorry I woke you, Rails. Don’t worry about this, I’ll clean it up. You should have breakfast.”

 

The Naughty Corner was widely agreed to be the least liveable octant, avoided by the rest of the Magic Kingdom and home to only a handful of stragglers. Croakamancers honestly weren’t that bad, just kind of creepy, but whoever had thought it was a good idea to try to put twenty plus Shockmancers in close quarters with nobody supervising had had a screw loose. Possibly the idea was simply to keep them quarantined from everyone else.

 

Railgun had taken one look when she first entered the Magic Kingdom, turned around, and never gone back. Sabrina, an adept Changemancer, had let her share her little dorm among the Change Rooms in the upmarket Stuffamancy octant. Changemancers rarely got along well with each other, although they were fine with other disciplines; Railgun suspected that Sabrina had hoped she would intimidate her more obnoxious neighbours into leaving her alone. If so, it had worked.

 

Railgun turned around and found a tray balanced on her bedstead. Sabrina liked to add a little something to her breakfast while she slept in, brushing off Railgun’s refusals and insisting she was happy to help. “Experiment gone wrong?”

 

It went right, actually. I’ve been working on my Hat Magic.”

 

Railgun nodded, swallowing a mouthful of sweet rice. She wasn’t really clear on the difference between Dollamancy and Hat Magic, because as far as she could tell they did the exact same thing except one specifically made things worn on the head, but their classifications were somehow radically different, practitioners were vague but emphatic that they were nothing alike, and Hat Magicians made a lot more money.

 

Sabrina crawled over to the damaged wall, repaired it, and retrieved a triangular hat made of crinkled, shiny metal. “I bought this tinfoil hat from Dora. It blocks almost all magical information, in and out. Theoretically, I think I should be able to emulate most Hat Magic with Changemancy, so I was testing how it affected my senses and, uh, yes, I can confirm that I can’t tell how explosive Matter is when I’m wearing it.”

 

It occurred to Railgun to ask her roommate to refrain from making bombs in their bedroom while she was sleeping in it, please, but honestly the main problem was loss of sleep. Sabrina could be scatterbrained sometimes, it usually didn’t even occur to her that her experiments could explode in her face, but she had the sense to keep from doing anything lethal; the blast had only knocked off one hit. Between that, Railgun’s damage reduction bonus, and their emergency Healomancy scroll, she wasn’t too worried.

 

You’re trying to multiclass to Stagemancy too?” she asked instead.

 

Who, me?” Sabrina said innocently. She stroked the glass cat statuette, and it began singing. Right; Changemancers could cover music. Just one of their unfairly huge grab-bag of powers.

 

Railgun nodded. “I’d better head out soon. The Bank wants me there early today.”

 

Wasn’t there some sort of riot yesterday?” Sabrina asked.

 

Eh, that’s exaggerated. A lot of people are angry, but there wasn’t any violence after … well, never mind.” There had been, actually, at Portal Park. Someone had thrown a hoboken at her; she’d blocked it easily, and then lied and said she saw the person who threw it disappear into a portal. No need to be vindictive. Besides, she couldn’t blame whoever it was; she’d acted out of mercy, her magic was cleaner and less painful than a barrage of sloppy hobokens, but she couldn’t expect a non-Shockmancer to realise that. “But they don’t want to take chances.”

 

True. Be careful,” Sabrina said without irony, as she set the tinfoil hat back on her head, sat on her heels, and began conjuring another bomb. “Honeyblob. Banananananana.”

 

Railgun finished her breakfast, donned her uniform, pulled her stylish veil-busting goggles atop her forehead, and set out.

 

There was no formal rule against casters living in cross-class octants, but there was a strong culture of it. Stuffamancers were polite to Railgun’s face (people generally were to Shockmancers) but she could tell that they didn’t really approve of her being there, even if they liked her in general terms. The smiles got more sincere as she passed through Portal Park and finally into the Clevermancy octant.

 

She gave a wave to the run-down Pius Ascle’s Great Hospital (a Signamancer had creatively vandalised its sign to read ‘Flee: Heck’s Gate Hospital!’; she suppressed a snigger) as she passed. She paused as she passed a brown-leafed tree. Someone had carved a very rough image into its bark, just four lines but unmistakable: a base, stem, bowl, and wavy surface. A tilted goblet sloshing with juice.

 

She pressed on and reached Knocks Bank. A Moneymancer was waiting, whom Railgun tentatively recognised as Peso Ruble; Knocks rostered someone low-ranking on whenever she went off-duty and gave them a pack of Shockmancy scrolls. Railgun sincerely doubted how useful this could be, if she were a criminal she’d consider robbing him just for the resale on the scrolls, but she had to sleep sometime and the bank couldn’t find another Shockmancer likelier to protect than rob them.

 

Good morning,” she said.

 

He greeted her in return. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said in his oddly stilted accent. “There’ve been so many Luckamancers around. Be careful.”

 

I will,” she promised, keeping her face neutral until he was inside, then making a face. One thing she couldn’t stand about Moneymancers and Healomancers was how badly they bullied the Luckamancers, who mostly lived in the Carnyvale just to get away from them, the few who could make upkeep at all. It wasn’t like, say, the Great Minds, who were generally happy to help out their fellow Eyemancers, and had a very prosperous octant as a result.

 

Knocks claimed to offer loans to free casters, but rarely did in practice, because a caster who can’t make upkeep now probably can’t in the future and will never repay their debt. Most of the time it dealt with capital sides, loaning them enough money for mercenaries or promotions for a critical battle in return for their next few turns’ revenue, because even if a side lost the battle, they would still be capable of paying the debt; it wasn’t the Bank’s problem if this made them lose the next few battles too.

 

It was also a common target for would-be thieves, as casters who had more money than their purses could hold could have the excess converted to gems and stored in the vault, which was rumoured to contain millions of shmuckers’ worth. Every few tenturns, some new gang would come up with a brilliant new scheme to lift it from right under the Moneymancers’ noses, and Railgun would have to spend the entire day dismantling cardboard quackodiles and invisible jack-in-the-boxes with laser eyes.

 

She had learnt that the best way to tell would-be master criminals from legitimate customers was that they usually looked either very shifty or too bright and friendly, whereas anyone who actually needed to borrow money was usually tense and sullen. When the fourth person of the day approached, a man in a well-pressed suit with sided livery and what looked like a portable golem for a hat, his expression told her he wasn’t looking to steal anything. She smiled and motioned for him to enter the bank.

 

Hoboken!”

 

I guess you never can be sure. She took a half-step back and caught the blast bare-handed. She took a moment to analyse its composition – an unstable blob of juice mashed together like a poorly-packed snowball, he obviously wasn’t a real Shockmancer – before injecting a dash of her own juice to blow it apart. She pulled her goggles down; no veiled accomplices or flash attacks.

 

Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. “We can call it a draw if you want.”

 

Do what?” he asked, indignant.

 

Fight me. Um, if you want training, I can recommend someone …”

 

This was apparently the wrong thing to say. “I don’t want you to train me, I want you to pay attention, do your job, and find my junior caster, like you’re supposed to have already done!”

 

She’d had run-ins with Chief Casters before, although thankfully not many because they usually delegated, or demanded to see her boss right away. They tended to assume they were the most important person in the room and that they could get away with whatever they wanted if they browbeat her enough. She was happy to disabuse them of this notion, but this one sounded like he already had something to complain about.

 

Start from the beginning, sir,” she said, lifting her goggles back up. “Someone’s gone missing? They’re not a member of your side any more, your ruler can’t sense them?”

 

He glared at her. “Yes, obviously.” Obviously.

 

And you want me to find them,” she said patiently. “Okay. What can you tell me? Their name, discipline, when did you lose track of them, do you know who they were with or what they were doing or where …”

 

Patricia-Ella,” he said. “She’s our new Healomancer, she popped four turns ago, and so I took her on a tour of the Magic Kingdom. She disappeared the night before last.”

 

I see. Where were you at the time?”

 

In my bedroom, asleep, of course. I said it happened at night.”

 

I see,” she said again. Why were horrible and stupid so often found together? There was a reason so many rulers forbade their casters from entering the Magic Kingdom without permission, and it wasn’t just pique. “Do you have any idea where she would have gone? Places she seemed particularly interested in while you were together, anything she said?”

 

The Hospital, obviously,” he said.

 

Railgun doubted this, because that wouldn’t explain why she’d left the side. “Have you checked there?”

 

Of course I have, I’m not stupid. That’s why I came here to you. You’re in charge of protecting the Clevermancers, and she’s a Clevermancer. Ergo, it’s your responsibility.”

 

Railgun was in fact paid to protect Knocks Bank and, if she had time, the surrounding octant; she was only supposed to care about this Pat if she had been attacked within the octant, which was unlikely. “I see. Here’s what we’ll do. You’ll go to the Hospital and see if Pat’s gone there, and wait there if she hasn’t. I’m going to go and find somebody who’ll know. I’ll call you as soon as I find her.”

 

You’d better!” he said. “Her name’s Patricia-Ella, but mine is Dash Bosh.”

 

He said this as though it was supposed to mean something to her. “Um, and I’m Railgun Ampère, pleased to meet you …?”

 

Bosh,” he repeated. “Of the House of Bosh.”

 

Oh!” she said, because sided casters always got offended when free casters didn’t recognise them. “The House of Bosh. I’ve heard of that side.”

 

It’s the tribe name, not the side,” Dash said, getting angry again. A swing and a miss. “You know, the mighty Bob, legendary tamer of wild beasts?”

 

Oh, right, Bob Bosh!” Railgun said enthusiastically, almost saying she was a huge fan of Date-a-mancy but stopping short when she remembered warlords could do that too, and she’d never heard the name before so he likely wasn’t a caster.

 

And, of course, Thaki,” Dash said smugly. “The unbeatable Shockmancer. So you’d better.”

 

She’d never heard of him either, so realistically he was probably at most a three or four who’d been fed his levels, and who’d never entered the Magic Kingdom and therefore had no experience fighting other Shockmancers, assuming he existed at all. “Of course, sir. Go on ahead; I need to let the Bank know where I’m going.” It wasn’t going to be a fun day for Peso, apparently.

 

If a sided caster vanished, there were three major possibilities. One was that she’d turned or been turned to another side, but that was extremely unlikely: Pat was too young to have Loyalty issues, and Revolver would already be on it. Part of his guild charter was preventing Turnamancy of sided casters; if he failed at that, he’d be in serious hot water.

 

The second and likeliest possibility was that she’d wandered into a rough area, got into a random fight, and taken a crit. It could have been anything from a mugging for her purse to crossfire between two junkies to some sicko who was trying to level. If this was the case, the body was almost certainly depopped by now, and the perpetrators would likely never face justice; it had happened before. The first thing was to confirm whether this was the case.

 

The Stagemancy octant was synonymous with the Carnyvale, a sprawling, garish wonderland of despair, home not only to the tight-knit circle of barbarian Carnymancers but also a broad cross-section of the Magic Kingdom. In an economy in which over ninety percent of all income went to ten percent of the population and had to trickle down to the remainder, it was a nexus for those living on the margins, where all manner of services could be found for a single rand. Railgun detested it with a passion.

 

She made her way through the crowds to a vardo wagon. Most were painted bright, eye-catching colours, some with more of those four-line goblets scrawled on, but this one was in greys and black with a little slate blue and chipped white, like it was trying not to attract attention, or maybe just not a certain kind of attention. A woman in a black tunic with a red rhinestone-studded sash was dozing out the front, under a sign reading Black Betty and the symbol of a potion. Black Betty (not her real name) yawned as Railgun approached.

 

Hello, Miss Betty,” Railgun said. “I want to buy some wares.”

 

Black Betty blinked owlishly and looked at her for a long moment before actually recognising her, and her expression turned to alarm.

 

Get in!” she hissed, motioning the Shockmancer inside.

 

The inside was cramped, serving as sleeping quarters, inventory, and rudimentary workshop. There were no windows, instead being lit by a flickering powerball Black Betty activated with a wave of her hand. She ran a hand through her hair, trying to wake herself up.

 

You know it’s bad for business to be seen with someone like you,” she said.

 

I do,” said Railgun, helping herself to a relatively uncluttered spot on Betty’s workbench, “but I don’t care, because I keep telling you to clean yourself up, and I can see three things from here that are probably illegal.” She gazed emphatically at the boxes of goods.

 

“‘Clean yourself up,’” Black Betty mimicked. “Like it’s that easy. Those fatcat Moneymancers pay your upkeep every day. Do you know how many people have ever offered to pay mine?”

 

That’s not fair,” Railgun said. “Shockmancers aren’t exactly the best-loved casters here either. I earned my position by honesty and hard work.”

 

I tried those too,” Black Betty replied. “For a while. Calling someone dishonest or lazy might be fair enough on an individual level, but if there are two hundred people and enough honest work for half that, it’s not so convincing. Especially if you go around blasting people who take it,” she added. Railgun said nothing; it was the penance she paid. “Do you know what the Mathamancers say a Croakamancer’s life expectancy is?”

 

I do. That’s why I haven’t shut you down, even though I’m pretty sure an Enforcement Council would order it. Listen, I actually do need you for something.” She produced a rand from her purse. “Your senses tell you everything about every corpse in the Magic Kingdom, right?”

 

Sure. Not who made them, if that’s what you’re after.”

 

Let me worry about that. I want to know whether there were any corpses created the night before last, anywhere in the Magic Kingdom.”

 

Black Betty quirked an eyebrow. “At night? No. Someone disbanded yesterday dawn at the Pier, but nobody at night and nothing that left a corpse.”

 

Could it have been that someone was croaked and the body was disposed of right away?”

 

If there were a disintegration attack, yes, but you wouldn’t need to be asking me if one of those had been used. If there were a corpse for even a second, I’d know.”

 

Railgun chewed her knuckle. She’d actually sort of hoped that Pat had been murdered, because this would be very messy. It upgraded the threat level to existential, so, on the bright side, she could bill the Bank for time and expenses.

 

Then someone either turned or abducted her,” she said aloud, handing the rand over. “This could be ugly.”

 

Abducted,” Black Betty repeated. “Are you sure?”

 

Railgun paused, then narrowed her eyes. That had been a little too bland. “You know something.”

 

Huh? Why would you think that?”

 

She raised her hand and flared a drop of juice, making Saint Elmo’s fire outline her body like an Archon, if it weren’t an insult to compare a true Shockmancer to those flying fizzers. “Betty, I’m willing to look the other way about fencing, smuggling, even selling hard Flower Power, but kidnapping is a whole level above that!”

 

Black Betty’s eyes widened. “Whoa, Railgun, calm down, I didn’t do anything. I’ve just heard the rumours about the abductions.”

 

Abductions, plural.”

 

She facepalmed. “I should stop talking now.”

 

You really, really shouldn’t,” Railgun said, throwing off more sparks.

 

Ugh. Fine. But not a word to the Carnies that you got this from me.”

 

Railgun shrugged.

 

It began I think fifteen or twenty turns ago. I don’t know who your girl is, but she’s not the first to go missing. Always barbarians, one every two or three turns at night. Someone new and poor, nobody anyone would miss.”

 

Slavers,” Railgun whispered. Sides were iffy about hiring casters on their terms, but they had more enthusiasm for capturing them to turn, sell, or keep in a tower writing scrolls.

 

Black Betty shrugged.

 

If it’s been going on for so long, why hasn’t anybody asked for help?!”

 

Asked who? The Ringleaders know about it, of course. Doesn’t look like they’ve done too much to stop it, though they’ve been plenty busy keeping it quiet, if you catch my drift.”

 

What, you think they’re behind it?”

 

Black Betty shrugged again. “You’ll never prove it if they are. Maybe they’re just taking money from whoever it is.”

 

That would be safer. “Well, what about me? I’m here right now, aren’t I?”

 

Yeah, I was wondering about that. This last girl, was she sided? Thought so. They’re getting reckless. When one of those vanishes, there’s someone to raise a stink. But if I went and got an outsider to stick their nose in, well, you wouldn’t care. Worse, the Ringleaders wouldn’t be happy with me. A few nights later, I’d be next. No. Nothing else for it but to keep my head down and hope it all blows over. It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to go.”

 

Railgun balled a fist, and a corona of juice crackled around it. “I’m going to fix this. This is an imperfect world, and nothing’s going to change that fact, but as long as it still has people like me in it, it’s going to be a better one than that.”

 

Black Betty gave her an unimpressed look. “How’s it that you still believe that, even though you’re older than me?”

 

Maybe because I’ve spent that extra time proving it. Where have these people been going missing from?”

 

I don’t know and I don’t want to know. But if I were a betting woman, I’d start by looking around the Nightcome Bar. Busy place, you know? Shake the tree there, something’s bound to fall out. Nothing I’d want falling on my head, but if you’re looking for trouble …”

 

The word you’re looking for is ‘hunting,’” Railgun said, standing.

 

Black Betty reached over, found a bundle of sackcloth, and tossed it to Railgun. “For the Titans’ sake, don’t walk out of here dressed like that. And mind you don’t let them touch you.”

 

Railgun shrugged into the rough cloak, pulled the hood forward, made sure the sleeves covered her arms, and left.

 

The Nightcome Bar was one of the few permanent structures cobbled together from bits of cross-class Changemancy and Dirtamancy, just past a novice Predictamancy stall and Lewis’ Laudable Lotions (“Made from only the finest snake oils!”; she rolled her eyes, feeling pity for whoever had bought his first bottle). Inside was a dim pub, with a thick, cloying smell of booze and stronger and more dangerous chemicals than most Florists would admit to selling. It was already crowded with low-levels drinking their problems away. A funny-looking Rhyme-o-mancer played a jazzy little number in one corner. At least he wasn’t doing that disbanded gum jingle that had been making the rounds through the Magic Kingdom.

 

A few people looked up as she pushed the doors open, but she was hardly the only person in a face-shadowing cloak; respectable casters often dressed that way to avoid a scandal, as well as petty criminals and boring people who wanted to seem mysterious. She weaved her way through the crowd to the bar.

 

The corpulent bartender didn’t blink at the hood. “What’ll it be?” he asked, poor Signamancy dripping off his raspy voice.

 

She produced her expense pocketbook and slid it over the counter, keeping it hidden from the other customers with her arms. “A round, and a talk.”

 

The bartender didn’t bat an eyelid, but instead produced a pen and wrote a moderately inflated number, then pressed it back into Railgun’s hands. She signed it, causing an automagic deduction from her expense account; under the columns for purpose and receipt, she wrote ‘bribe’ and ‘N/A.’ She made a mental note to invoice them for Black Betty’s information, too.

 

Drinks for everyone!” the bartender said, to cheers, and two grateful slaps on Railgun’s back. He took four mugs in one meaty paw, filled them all with a single circular motion, slammed them down on the counter, and slid them along; he repeated this five times. “Make ‘em last and don’t break anything, I’m going out back for a sec.”

 

Railgun vaulted over the counter and followed the bartender into a supply room, one with dirt floor and four barrels. He lit a powerball and set about checking the barrels.

 

So, Railgun, sheriff of Knocks Bank,” he said. “What brings someone like you to my bar?”

 

I’m investigating the recent disappearances,” she said. She pulled her hood down, slipped her goggles on, and looked around; their Lookamancy enchantment was somewhat broader than mere veil-busting, they helped her see in low light too, but there didn’t seem to be much interesting here.

 

Don’t know nothing about any of that,” he replied.

 

Of course not. “Free casters wandering around outside at night, probably tipsy or high, very vulnerable,” she said.

 

Most of my business is at night. Don’t know nothing,” he repeated. “Nothing to do with me.”

 

It wouldn’t be good for business if word got around that people were being taken from here.”

 

Hey,” he said, rounding on her and looking her in the eye for the first time. It emphasised his nauseous Signamancy; bad breath, bad teeth, red-faced, thin hair, threadbare raiment. She was slightly taller but maybe a fifth of his volume, but where she was sleek muscle and curves, he was just a blob of lard. “It’s easy for you to be high and mighty, but life ain’t so easy for us Carnymancers. You want us to follow your precious Qualified laws, don’t go tearing down what we build with our own two hands every time something goes wrong. Okay? The Carnyvale’s where everyone goes who can’t afford one of your pretty little playgrounds. Maybe it ain’t us for once.”

 

He moved to jab her in the ribs; she had been waiting for it, and brought an arm up in a parry, sparks flying. He stopped short.

 

I don’t like being touched,” she said, meaning ‘I don’t like being touched by Carnymancers.’ He scowled but pulled his hand back. “I didn’t say I thought it was you. What I think is that you know something, or heard or saw something or someone. Because if I were the one responsible, I’d stay in your pub, wait until someone tipsy was leaving, and then follow him out and jump him. But I think they drink while they wait, and people who drink talk. If you don’t know exactly who it is, you could take a very good guess, or at least point me in the right direction.”

 

He narrowed his eyes, pursed his lips, and said nothing.

 

This problem isn’t just going to go away,” she pressed. “If you don’t talk to me, I’m going to have to ask everyone else.”

 

You really want to scare ‘em like that, with nothing but stories about people no-one remembers anyway who you think something bad might’ve happened to? This place is the only thing those people have left.”

 

She nodded. “So it’d save everyone a lot of trouble if you just told me directly.”

 

There was a pause.

 

Shame I don’t know nothing,” he said a third and final time. “Time’s up. Put your hood back up. And, Missy? You harass my customers, I’m tossing you out. This ain’t Moneymancer turf.”

 

She scowled but obeyed, and led him back to the bar, where some of the customers had indeed finished their drinks and were waiting for more. She slowly turned in place, noting every face and trying to decide which to harass first, when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned; it was a scrawny little Carnymancer with a jester’s outfit and pink, white, and blue pigtails.

 

“‘Ello there, Mum,” she said, then lowered her voice conspiratorially, although it wasn’t really necessary over the background conversation and music. “I ‘eard you wanted to find something out.”

 

That was fast. Carnymancers couldn’t afford Thinkagrams or message hats; she had no idea how they got their messages around like that. Possibly Black Betty had told them. “Sure. You know something?”

 

I know someone what does. Follow me!” And with that, she darted for the exit.

 

The little Carnymancer bounced from side to side around the side of the Nightcome Bar and between two wagons. Another Carnymancer joined them without a word; Railgun brought her hands to her chest, ready to cast. They went down a slope, leading out of the Carnyvale proper, where another caster joined them, and two a row of trees, one of which had another goblet carved in. Another three were waiting just past them. Railgun recognised the strongest, Rex de Léon, one of the so-called Ringleaders of the Carnyvale; the proper term was Ringmaster, but that only applied to multi-mastery Stagemancers, and since the best Carnymancers were only adepts, they used a made-up honorific to denote their leaders.

 

Rex,” she said. “Are we going to have a problem here?”

 

The other five stacked with him and moved to surround her. She wouldn’t be too worried about them, nobody beat a Shockmancer in direct combat, and she was a veteran warrior where they were all low-level shysters, but there were six of them and one had a miracle pole.

 

That depends on you,” Rex said. He had circle-rimmed sunglasses and stubble, and a soft, mellifluous voice. “I understand that you have been … prying.”

 

Interesting word choice,” she said, mentally choreographing her response if they attacked. Step one would be to cast disintegrate weapon on the miracle pole, followed by an area effect pulse to get some space, Carnymancy required contact for most of its spells … or should she just blitz Rex? With him down, the others might break and run.

 

But not inaccurate,” he said. “The Carnyvale, as the name suggests, is under the jurisdiction of the Carnymancers, such as, aha, yours truly. Intervention by outside forces is … frowned upon. After all, I’m sure your employers would not be happy with an influx of Carnymancers to their octant, now would they?”

 

Railgun shrugged. “They’ll cope. My job is to protect the people.”

 

He shook his head. “It’s a question of respect, my dear Railgun. The Clevermancy octant is their territory; it is theirs to deal with as they wish. One of their rules is that my people keep their distance; it is inconvenient, but we respect it; that is the way of things. But the Carnyvale is our territory. We deal with our problems as we wish. And so, you must in turn respect this.”

 

Railgun had the sensation of someone sneaking up behind her, and she side-stepped and did a half-turn, but there was no-one there. She passed it off, badly, as stretching out a kink in her thigh. “It’s not that simple. A problem anywhere in the Magic Kingdom is a problem for all free casters. We have the right to go where we like in safety, and it’s important that sided casters do too.”

 

Ah, but of course, it is more complicated than even you describe. Where are your rules when my people are disbanding for want of upkeep? If you expect your rules to apply here, your rights must too. When my people enjoy the same security and quality of life as those of your illustrious bankers, then we will consider your demands. Until then? The people who live here have chosen by whose protocols they wish to abide, and they have not chosen Knocks Bank or her representatives.”

 

I see. But have they made an informed decision?”

 

Rex spread his hands. “If anyone is unaware of common knowledge, I hardly see that I am at fault. But again, dear Railgun, I must beg some common courtesy of you. After all, if one were to spread rumours without proof, that would be slander, and all civilised people frown upon such things.”

 

She frowned. Even if he wasn’t taking kickbacks, he couldn’t afford to let her meddle; it would undermine his authority too much. Carnymancers were tight-knit when outsiders were involved, but prone to backbiting and power plays amongst themselves, and shows of weakness were suicide. Sometimes literally.

 

True,” she said grudgingly. “Are you sure that you don’t need help, you can deal with this on your own?”

 

I give you my personal guarantee,” Rex said, with a mocking bow.

 

That was that. There was no way she’d get anywhere with him stonewalling her. “I’ll give you three turns,” she said. “I’ll trust you for that long, but if I hear about any more incidents after that, I won’t have any choice but to get involved.”

 

But of course,” he said, clearly planning out how to make that stretch. “If that is all …?”

 

That’s all. Good luck, Ringleader. I’m counting on you.”

 

One Carnymancer tailed her out of the Carnyvale and to the Clevermancy octant at a respectful distance, close enough to let Railgun know she was being followed, not close enough for her to justify picking a fight over it. He stayed outside the octant’s threshold when she crossed and returned to Knocks.

 

Oh, thank the Titans you’re back,” Peso said when he saw her. “There are so many Luckamancers today, I think they’re getting angrier, and they keep looking at me, I’ve been waiting for you to get back all day so I can go back inside and –”

 

Sorry, Peso,” she said, with an apologetic smile, “but I’ve been having a really bad day, I’ve got into” she counted “four arguments and it’s barely noon. I’m calling sick leave. I’m going to go home and unwind.”

 

But,” he said, and her heart twanged at how his eyes looked up at her sorrowfully. He wasn’t even wrong. Miles and Akira had framed Tom as a champion of the poor, back when they could still visit freely; Railgun still couldn’t decide whether he was making things better or worse, but he had hired a lot of poor casters, and she as a representative of the guilds had just fired on one, so the underclass was firmly on Team Ethereum.

 

Sorry, Peso,” she said again. “Don’t worry, you’ve got this, okay?” She looked away without meeting his eyes.

 

To her irritation but not surprise, the Carnymancer was still there waiting for her when she reached the edge of the octant. She let him tail her until she crossed the threshold of the Stuffamancy octant, where she knew he would get no sympathy, then rounded on him.

 

Will you quit following me?!” she snapped.

 

Hmm? You’re mistaken, my lady, I was merely going in the same direction as you,” he said, less smoothly than he probably would have liked.

 

Yeah? What’s a Carnymancer want around here?”

 

A friend asked me to meet them.”

 

A passing Dittomancer, Gemma, slowed her walk to intervene. “Railgun, is this guy bothering you?”

 

No, no, this is just a misunderstanding,” said the Carnymancer.

 

Kind of, yeah,” said Railgun.

 

Well, if you need a witness …” Gemma said, making a pistol with one hand.

 

All just a misunderstanding,” the Carnymancer said, making an about-face and not-quite running for it.

 

Thanks for the help,” Railgun told Gemma.

 

No problem, we’ve all got to do our part keeping this place clean. Hey, are you free tonight? Pollock’s hosting a dinner party. He’s still doing that one-upmanship thing with Jas and Dora, he’s booked about forty jivers this time. It’s going to be crazy.”

 

Because casters of wealthy disciplines could make their upkeep many times over in one turn and had no real use for the surplus, there was a culture of conspicuous consumption, where they would spend money hiring poorer casters as entertainers, nicknamed jivers, or buy spells with high monetary components, like Tyrian raiment. Railgun always felt deeply uncomfortable at such events, because she saw too many people living in poverty to ever throw money away like that. Besides, the host would always make some ‘clever’ crack about how they could look forward to her offerings of château rien when it came her turn, and the other guests would titter because they weren’t really happy with a Shockmancer being there as a guest. Not being at the bottom of the pecking order doesn’t mean things are perfect.

 

Sorry, not tonight,” Railgun said, then, reluctantly, because she knew it was going to suck, “I have an appointment in the Hippiemancers’ Glade.” Gemma grinned; Railgun went pink. “N-not that sort of appointment!”

 

Course not,” Gemma said, her grin staying in place. “Well, try to make it one of these days. Pollock’s found this one Healomancer who can do things that’ll make your toes curl.” She waved off.

 

Sabrina was out; she’d left a note saying she’d gone to visit a Predictamancer about something to do with feathers. That was convenient. Railgun searched the building until she found the tinfoil hat in Sabrina’s workshop. She swapped it for a note.

 

Need to use this until tomorrow. Back late. Really sorry. Will cover use + inconvenience.

 

She tore a page out of her pocketbook, signed it carte blanche, and left it on the note, then folded the hat under her jacket. She locked up and headed over to the Hippiemancers.

 

The Carnyvale was directly between the Stuffamancy and Hippiemancy octants; normally she would have cut across it, but she’d be sure to pick up another tail if she did that, so instead she took a detour through Portal Park. She was only a few paces into the overgrown Hippiemancy octant when she stumbled upon two boys cuddling against a tree. They looked up at her, and their contented smiles vanished in an instant.

 

Look, it’s a suit,” said one.

 

What’ll it be today?” said the other. “Breaking someone’s legs because they won’t let you steal their last shmucker, or are you skipping all that and just croaking them?”

 

Her eye twitched. “Trying to keep this place safe for ingrates like you, actually. Apparently there are problems you can’t solve by getting high. Who knew?”

 

We don’t need the kind of ‘safety’ where you get shot down by The Woman just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said the first Hippie. “We can manage just fine on our own, thanks.”

 

Yeah, you probably can. Not like anyone would bother making trouble over such useless casters.” Hippiemancers would be even easier to grab given how high they usually were and their lack of combat instincts, but she doubted anybody would pay much for one. Warlords had little time for casters of peace.

 

Oh, because it’s so useful to have someone going around croaking people,” said the second. “So much better than peace and understanding and love.”

 

Tell you what, see if you can understand my missing Healomancer back to her side. I’ll be happy to take the rest of the day off if some of you pull your weight for a change. No? Guess I’d better get back to those legs then.” She flounced off, ignoring the jeering that followed her and the four-line goblet drawn onto a tree just past them.

 

She really, really hated having to visit the Hippiemancy octant. They had an ideological hatred of Naughtymancy that transcended all rationality, insisting that there was nothing that peace couldn’t achieve, even when the topic of discussion was literally people making war on them. They were the only casters who disliked her more than other Shockmancers; where normal people preferred fair-minded enforcers to petty vandals, they considered her belief in justice to be bullying. She caught a lot of flak for working for Knocks Bank, too, as though it would help anyone if the only sources of credit were friends and loan sharks. It was particularly galling to be criticised by people who did nothing but make and take party favours when there was actual work to be done.

 

She didn’t normally mind their disapproval because they rarely left their forest, but right now it was a nuisance because it meant she couldn’t ask for directions, and it wasn’t like they had a nice orderly grid layout like the Dirtamancers insisted the Change Rooms follow. It took her most of an hour to find her target: Ozec Shéol, master Signamancer. He was reclining in a little clearing with a curvy Date-a-mancer on one arm and a novice Signamancer on the other. The girls looked up at her with distaste.

 

Maître Ozec Shéol,” she said with a nod of greeting.

 

Railgun Ampère,” he replied with clipped politeness. As befitted his discipline and rank, he was gorgeous, immaculately groomed and dressed and radiating confidence and masculine attractiveness. She felt her cheeks heat a little. “I hope there’s no trouble?”

 

No. Not here, anyway,” cathartic though it would be. “I actually wanted a makeover.”

 

The Date-a-mancer tittered; the Signamancer girl murmured something catty under her breath. Ozec’s expression remained smooth. “For a Shockmancer? It’s unusual for one of your kind to have business with us. But your time is wasted; there’s nothing to be done. Why would anyone be less than content with your natural Signamancy?” As he spoke, he gave the Signamancer a tug, pulling her flush against his body with a minor anatomical deformation.

 

Railgun had healthy Signamancy borne of an active and fulfilling life, but it was the lean athletic physique of a fighter, and she was aware that she was less voluptuous and attractive than most Hippiemancers, those two girls being cases in point. By ‘your time is wasted’ he meant ‘I’m not going to help a Shockmancer when I already have two girls here’ or, more succinctly, ‘prance off.’

 

This isn’t just any makeover,” she said. “I want to change my entire look for tonight. I’m going to a party.”

 

He gave a lazy blink, catching her hidden meaning. “I see. Of course, image is paramount at social events. I trust that this isn’t just some picayune little get-together?”

 

It’s going to be the biggest night of the hundredturn,” Railgun said.

 

Is that so. How big is that, exactly?”

 

She moved forward, knelt down, and gently but firmly shoved the Date-a-mancer off him so that she could whisper in his ear; the other girl went sprawling with a squeak. “I’m going undercover to take down a slaver gang. There are five or ten free casters to rescue.” She moved back and spoke aloud. “You’ll get full credit when my début’s a success, and it’s a work event, so money is no object.”

 

Ozec considered this.

 

There’s a catch,” he said.

 

Railgun produced the tinfoil hat and handed it over. “It needs to hold up with me wearing this. It’ll block all magical senses of me, but I think it also blocks information coming from me. To make something work around it will take a miracle or a genius. Probably both.”

 

He examined it. “Sundown is in three hours,” he said, then sprang to his feet, dumping the Signamancer girl to the ground too. “There’s not a moment to lose! To the salon!”

 

Appearances were governed by several different disciplines in subtly different ways. Foolamancers could of course do anything, but a veil would fizzle if she was jostled. Thinkamancers could manipulate individual targets’ perceptions, but that wouldn’t work in a large room. Changemancers dabbled, as they did with everything, but they couldn’t do the kind of precision work Railgun needed. Dollamancers could make disguises, but Railgun was too well-known to bare her face.

 

Signamancy, natural or otherwise, controls the information revealed by appearances on the most fundamental level,” Ozec explained as he vigorously shampooed Railgun’s hair in his fastidiously neat shop. “This can be modified by Foolamancy, seen by Lookamancy, and interpreted by more Signamancy. The simplest way to seem other than what you truly are is therefore to Foolamancy atop yourself, but that is also the most fragile and can be swept away by a cantrip. The correct way is by Signamancy, for that comes from within and will last as long as you do. To truly seem like this mild-mannered persona you wish to adopt, you must be that person.”

 

I can’t turn into a level one Hat Magician,” Railgun said.

 

Ozec rolled his eyes. “Not your body, no, she is unmistakably that of a warrior, not an artisan. Nothing anyone can do will change that. You must change yourself inside. When your mind is that of a wide-eyed young girl, the Signs will follow. Coming from within, neither this wretched hat nor any adversaries will ever be able to defeat it. What I provide is the knowledge of how to do this, the bearing, the attitude. These little tweaks” he plunked a pair of Kent glasses with flat lenses atop her face “are mere accoutrements, reminders for you. When I am done with you, you could strut through Portal Park dressed as you were and not a soul would recognise you, I promise.”

 

This sounded inconvenient; she’d spent a long time building up a reputation for a reason.

 

Now go to that wardrobe and tell me the scarf you’ll wear. Not like that!” he exclaimed before she’d gone two steps. “You’re walking like a Shockmancer, any blind idiot could see what you are.”

 

Um,” said Railgun.

 

Your feet are widely spaced, you’re putting your weight on the balls of your feet, your eyes are shifting from side to side in counterpoint to your arms. It’s like you expect to be engaged at any moment. Keep your feet together, don’t take up so much space, walk on your heels – for the Titans’ sake, straighten your knees, girl, you’re impossible – fix your eyes forward, stop twisting your neck. Tilt your head forward, don’t make eye contact, walk on your heels. That’s better. We’ll come back to that. Which scarf do you wear? Wrong, you wear one that covers your neck. You are timid, girl, you aren’t going to show off skin like that.”

 

If I’m timid, shouldn’t I want as much mobility as possible?”

 

He facepalmed. “You are timid because you are not Railgun Ampère, a high-level Shockmancer who can defeat any caster in the Magic Kingdom in single combat! You are Trilly Broad, a level one Hat Magician who has never so much as slapped another unit because the very thought of physical violence is nauseous. When you chose your raiment, you never even considered the possibility of a fight breaking out. Stop thinking about it now! Do not even think your name. What you thought about was that there are scary people in this world and you don’t want them to see you. Think like an imbecile Foolamancer. This scarf is your veil against the world. I ask you again, which scarf do you wear?” She picked out a thicker one. “The style is good, but white?! You don’t want something that catches the eye.”

 

I sort of do.”

 

He slapped her upside the head, not very hard because he wasn’t insane, and began applying a cosmetic spell. “Your other Signs will bait your trap. Tilt your head forward, let your bangs shadow your face. Don’t make eye contact for more than an instant, no exceptions. And don’t even think of backchatting. Let me hear you stutter.”

 

What?”

 

He huffed. “You have no self-confidence, Trilly, you doubt everything you say even as it leaves your mouth, so act like it! Stutter!”

 

L-like this?”

 

Don’t force it, be it. You are a novice and wish to please this master doing you a very great personal favour. How can you ever repay that? You can’t. So what do you say?”

 

Th-thank you?”

 

Are you asking me or telling me?”

 

Telling!”

 

Wrong!”

 

He was right: growing her bangs out and applying the other cosmetic magic to change the lines of her face was fast enough, finding a suitably oversized turtleneck and long skirt was straightforward, and changing her apparent stats was a moment’s work, but coaching her to look like a shy, retiring wallflower took hours. It looked like she was going to have another late night.

 

One last time,” he said. “Stand up.”

 

She swung her legs around, keeping her knees together, and straightened, tottering a little on her unaccustomed heels. She glanced back at the chair, then minced around behind it and pushed it in, glancing at Ozec to make sure she was doing it right and wincing as it scraped along the floor.

 

He pursed his lips. Like any great artist, he was never content with his work. “One day isn’t enough for more than an amateurish attempt, but in poor light and if the watchers are inebriated and there are no true Signamancers, it might hold up.”

 

U-um, I don’t think there will be,” she said, wincing as he looked at her directly. “Signamancers d-don’t usually leave the Hippiemancy glades, do they? So, um …”

 

He frowned, but nodded. “Go, Trilly. Do me proud.”

 

Th-thank you, sir!” She bowed, pulled the hat onto her head, and rushed to leave, her heels clacking on the salon floor.

 

Being deep in character as such a different personality was weird, and not at all pleasant.

 

It was dark outside, lit only by ambient light from the other districts, such as the plentiful powerballs around the Eyemancy octant or the gently flickering glow of the Naughty Corner breaking out into another Shockmancer free-for-all. She stumbled along the forest path, the dark and her unnatural gait throwing her.

 

Hey there, cutie,” said a Date-a-mancer, ghosting out from behind a tree and slipping a hand up her jumper.

 

Railgun probably would have locked up at the best of times. She brought both hands down and in defensively. “I – um – uh – I-I’m sorry!” And she ran for it.

 

It took a while to reach the octant’s edge and the familiar glow of Portal Park. As so often, fireworks shot up and detonated into multicoloured sparks over the Carnyvale, the perfect thing to attract a lost Hat Magician. She huddled into her jumper and hurried over, keeping her distance from the passers-by.

 

The Carnyvale had seemed lifeless during the day, but it came alive at night. Sword-eaters and fire-breathers showed off from their wagons, while others shouted for suckers to play rigged games of chance and skill. She shrank into her too-large clothes whenever anyone accosted her, and turned in circles as she walked through the grounds, trying to see everything. After a loop of the grounds, her path happened to take her outside the Nightcome Bar. She glanced around, saw a burly Carnymancer with a prodigious moustache coming her way, squeaked, and darted inside.

 

A repressed part of her mind noted how humiliating this would be if anyone ever found out it was her, and resolved to burn the outfit the moment she was done with it.

 

The bar came alive at night, too. It was packed and deafening; the Rhyme-o-mancer was playing louder than anything, and was now accompanied by a dancing girl with less than the regulation amount of clothing; the bartender had an assistant, and both were flat out; the air was thick and hot with fumes. Someone shouted something about the door at her; she squeaked again and ducked away, and it swung shut behind her.

 

She looked around for somewhere a little less cramped and tried to make her way through the crowd without touching anyone, both of which she failed at miserably. She was halfway past the bar when someone pulled her onto a seat. It was another shifty-looking Carnymancer, this one wearing a frilly outfit with very long shoes, and he wrapped an arm around her and leant in close to talk into her ear.

 

You look lost, love. First time here?”

 

She stammered and glanced around, flustered. As she approached, everyone had glanced at her, as normal people do. Now, she seemed to have become veiled.

 

Um, um, I …”

 

It’s okay,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Say, that’s an interesting hat you have there.” He reached to take it off her head and look at it.

 

She shied away and raised her hands to hold it in place. “Ah! I mean, I’m sorry! I-I have to keep it on, I can’t let it off for a moment.”

 

He raised his hands in pacification, then put his arm back around her. She looked down, shying away from his gaze. “Oh? I’ll bet there’s a story behind that.” He motioned to the bartender with his free hand; a moment later, a tankard was set down before her.

 

Ah. Well – you see, it stops Thinkamancy from working on me. My s-side has a master-class Thinkamancer, and th-they’re going to try to get me back. I, uh, I ran away. It, um, it wasn’t a good side.”

 

Say no more, my friend,” he said, with a knowing smile. “We’ve all had experiences like that, after all. It’s a fascinating hat, though, it looks very well-made. Who gave it to you?” Before she could answer, he pulled her tankard closer to her. “Take a drink, it’ll calm your nerves. Looks like you need it, eh?”

 

She took a sip. It actually wasn’t half bad, and she took another larger one. “I, actually I fabricated it myself. It took a while to do, but … yeah.”

 

Really!” he said, feigning surprise. “You’re a Hat Magician? My friend, you have a rare talent.”

 

She blushed and stared into her drink. “I’m nobody special.” Then she took another mouthful.

 

Not at all! You see the fellow with the bagpipes? Even a Rhyme-o-mancer has a place in the Carnyvale, and they’re nothing compared to a Hat Magician. You could easily pay your way by selling hats to Taffaland.”

 

Taffaland?”

 

Ah, fair enough, fair enough,” the Carnymancer said, nodding. “They’re a side I deal with sometimes. They love Stagemancers, but they’re very particular about who deals with them. Say, I have a proposal for you, my good friend. If you’re new here, why don’t I help you get started? I can loan you a place to stay and some basic materials, nothing fancy, and sell whatever you make. We could go into business together! After a few tenturns, we’ll have enough to buy a place like this, and practically have it run itself! What do you say?”

 

I,” she said, recoiling and letting her hair droop forward again. “Well, um, er. A-Are you sure? I mean, I don’t want to be a bother …”

 

Not in the least, this is an opportunity from the Titans themselves! You and me together, we’re going to go places! What do you have to lose?!”

 

Well, uh,” she said. “I guess …”

 

Excellent, excellent, my friend! Finish your drink, waste not want not, and we’ll head out to begin our new destiny! Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life! You and me, Floonit Raspem and … I’m sorry, you said your name but I’ve forgotten already?”

 

She quickly downed it; so much at once burned her throat, but then a light buzz replaced it. “It’s, um, Tilly,” she said, then frowned. Shoot, she’d got it wrong and couldn’t remember what it actually was. “Um, not Tilly. It’s, um. Something like that.” She giggled nervously and held up the tankard. “Wow, I really can’t deal with Boozemancy, heh? Um, Not-Tilly Broad.”

 

Luckily, he seemed to take this as a good Sign. “Well, not to worry, Not-Tilly, you’ll feel better in the morning. The future is bright! Let us seize it!” He grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet and from the bar, waving to the bartender, with whom he probably had a tab.

 

Outside, the temperature had plummeted, and Railgun shivered into her turtleneck. Floonit pulled her only a few paces before they were accosted.

 

Raspem.” It was the Carnymancer girl from before, the one with multicoloured pigtails. Her accent was gone. “Have you no shame?”

 

He flinched. “You – this isn’t fair,” he said plaintively.

 

Um,” she said nervously. “Is – is something not okay?”

 

We were just going,” said Floonit, and he made to pull her along again, but the girl moved to block him.

 

Uh huh. To help this rube make you rich, right?” Floonit tried to protest; she spoke over him. “He told you he knew some special side that he could sell stuff to, right? Yeah, thought so.” She slapped their hands apart. “He does that with every new girl as comes here. I can tell you exactly how much he’ll get for whatever it is you’re making: just not quite enough to cover your upkeep. He’ll take all the rest and loan you enough to keep you alive, ‘just until things get better, which will be only two or three more turns at most, I promise,’ won’t you? This scum’ll live like a king while you slave away all day for scraps.”

 

She turned to Floonit, her eyes going wide. “I-Is that true?”

 

No! Of course not, I’d never do that! I said we’d be in it together, didn’t I? You and me, partners!”

 

Can it, Floonit,” said the new girl. “I’ll take her from here. Unless you want me to take it to Rex.”

 

Floonit’s face twisted into a mask of rage. He stood there shaking for long moments.

 

Now, if you don’t mind,” the Carnymancer girl said, taking her hand and leading her away. “There’s actually a workshop for new Hat Magicians, the Haberdashery, did you know? They’ll help you learn the craft, how to make sales, I bet you never had to worry about that before. For a while, you’ll probably just be providing extra juice, but they’ll pay you fairly for it. If you work hard, even at your level a Hat Magician can pull a thousand shmuckers a turn. They’ll take a cut, maybe two hundred, but that’s still more than enough to live on.”

 

The Carnymancer led her out of the brightly lit Carnyvale proper and down a dark, lonely gravel path, toward some trees. Dim lights glinted in the distance.

 

Sorry about the walk, they like to live a little apart from the Carnyvale. This place is full of scum like Floonit who’d sell out their own mothers, he’d steal the shirt off your back if he got you alone for a second. I’m not asking for money, by the way, I just hate to see a good person have their life ruined by someone like him. I mean, heh, you feel charitable after you get on your feet, I won’t say no, you know what I’m saying, life’s hard for a Carnymancer, we sometimes have to do some pretty scummy things, and what are you idiots waiting for –”

 

Turbopuns!”

 

There was a flash of white and a roar and a sensation of magic burning through her nerves; her own magic reflexively flowed to cancel it out, and she staggered and fell to her knees.

 

What’re you doing, you idiot?”

 

I don’t know, that should’ve been more juice than her body has room for!”

 

Well, do it again, and put her down properly this time!”

 

There was a crunch of gravel, and another flash of white. She fell forward and tumbled to her back. Her ears rang, and her glasses fell off and shattered. The shock had burnt the Hippiemancy out of her, Flower Power and the Signamancy … thing, too. She took stock. Down to four of ten hits. She shut her eyes and listened; there was always at least one song being sung in the Carnyvale, it was just a matter of finding a good one and never missing a beat.

 

What’s wrong with you?!”

 

The gravel crunched again. She took a deep breath, then did a kip-up and flowed into a right cross, pouring juice into it.

 

Magic crashed and exploded as Railgun’s assailant blocked and staggered back. She took the moment to kick off her shoes and tear off her annoying jumper and scarf and size up the situation. The Carnymancer had led her to an isolated area and ambushed her; there were another two casters with her, the Shockmancer who’d zapped her and a short girl with a peekaboo, a scarf over her lower face, and an open jacket over a sarashi, both with livery of a hexagon with a double-strike-through.

 

It’s a trap!” the Carnymancer cried, backing away.

 

Railgun darted forward; the Shockmancer moved to meet her, while the other two casters scattered. He was huge and hypertrophic, his bare chest bursting with muscles, clad only in a liveried loincloth. He wound up a punch, juice crackling around his fist; Railgun stepped diagonally forward, pushed his arm aside, and drove a low kick into his thigh, adding a dash of juice. He grunted and replied with an energy leg aimed at her face; she swayed under it and roundhoused the same part of his thigh, this time rewarded by the crack of a minor fracture.

 

As for all experienced fighters, some part of Railgun’s mind gave her an instinctive understanding without needing to phrase it in Language. Right now, she could tell that this guy was strong, but he had levelled by blasting infantry in the overworld from a distance, and his only experience fighting casters had been one-shot ambushes, and never against another Shockmancer. She, by contrast, had spent a long time battling casters in all manner of conditions and match-ups, including plenty of Shockmancers.

 

He staggered back and reversed stance, putting his wounded leg out of her reach. He wound up, then instead of trying to punch her again, turned it into a bear blast. “Menergy!” A twisting double helix of antiphased energy blazed a path from his hands to her face.

 

She caught it one-handed. It was leagues above a hoboken, a pure incandescent spell that would turn any other unit to chunky salsa. She pushed her own juice against and into it, decohering it into turbulent flows that crackled and cancelled each other out, grounding around her with a thunderous noise and flash but no damage. The earth around her scorched black, but she was untouched. She rolled her shoulders and beckoned him.

 

In a Shockmancer duel, because of their resistance to their own magic and ability to efficiently dispel it, simply trying to nova the opponent was little more than a waste of juice. It was worth it for empowering attacks to overcome the other’s damage reduction, or could patch up a sloppy parry, but blasts were useless; ironically, the best combat casters could do nothing more than fist fight each other.

 

The man threw a jab-cross; she turned it away, juice flaring as their empowered arms met, before stepping back out of range, thinking to draw his wounded leg forward. She mirrored his stance and bounced on the balls of her feet, waiting for an opening, then staggered from another blow to the back of her head. She twisted, seeing a twinkle of shifting light in the shape of the girl (Foolamancy, that had to be how they’d been smuggling their targets out of the Magic Kingdom; but she’d left her veil-buster goggles with Ozec), and blocked another punch from the man, discharging most of her juice to keep it from landing.

 

She let the recoil push them apart, then feinted and stepped back, circling him instead. He played along, staying just out of range of another kick. Even before she’d hit his leg, he hadn’t been as light on his feet as her, and the limp kept him from attacking properly. He was heavy enough for her to easily synchronise her vision of his footsteps with their sound, and therefore pick out the second set of gravel crunches when they closed in.

 

Biribiri!”

 

Tendrils of energy wreathed her and lanced outward in all directions; one tagged the Foolamancer, blew her veil, and dazed her. Seeing this, the Shockmancer man threw another heavy punch at Railgun to distract her; she blocked it with a jump kick, using the recoil to push him back and lunge at the stunned Foolamancer. She landed a right-left-right combo, before delivering an uppercut with a brilliant flash of juice, which roiled and arced across the Foolamancer’s body as she flew into the air and thudded into a tree, mortally incapacitated.

 

The other Shockmancer came at her again; she darted to one side, then brought her leg around in a third low kick to the same point on his bad thigh. It shattered; he fell to his knee with a roar. She pivoted and roundhoused him in the head, pouring in the last of her juice with a flash; he did a three-quarter sideways somersault and crunched into the ground, bouncing. Incapacitated, not mortally. She spun to face the Carnymancer girl, who was at the edge of the road.

 

Pax, pax!” said the girl, raising her hands in surrender. “They forced me! I didn’t join in when they attacked you; if I were really one of them, wouldn’t I have done that?”

 

Railgun panted, and took stock. That last knock on her head had been a minor crit; she was down to one hit and feeling distinctly nauseated, now that the adrenaline spike was waning. She was also out of juice, and there were the Titans knew how many more Carnymancers nearby.

 

Okay,” she said. She memorised the girl’s face; she was obviously lying, but no reason she couldn’t come back and arrest her tomorrow. “Sure, that’s fine. I got who I wanted. Go on, get out of here.” The Carnymancer melted into the trees and was gone. Railgun sat down to catch her breath. Not exactly her best fight, but on the other hand, any fight you walk away from is a good one. Now she just had to get them to cells in the Dirtamansion, and then the Great Minds would negotiate with their side to trade them for the abductees.

 

That was definitely outside her responsibility, though. All she had to do was secure them. That might actually be a problem, though; she was in no condition to try to drag two units across the probably-hostile Carnyvale, including the heavy Shockmancer. This called for backup. She shut her eyes and thought at the Great Minds.

 

A minute later, feeling distinctly foolish, she took off the tinfoil hat and tried again. This time she got AV right away.

 

« Railgun? What is it? »

 

« I’ve apprehended two perpetrators of a major crime. I need help carrying them back to a holding area, and Healomancy for one. One’s pretty big; three people to carry him, two for the other. We’re in the Stagemancy octant, just north-west of the Carnyvale proper, I think. »

 

« Roger that. I can see you. The Iyt co-op should have someone on duty, I’ll ―»

 

There was a sound of rapid heavy footsteps, and Railgun spun, too slowly. The Carnymancer girl was close enough to land a touch sneak attack. There was the stomach twist and swoop of unfamiliar magic, and the girl shoved her, sending her sprawling. She scrunched her eyes shut as pain flared through her body. She felt her body leave the ground, someone very strong lifting her like a ragdoll.

 

She opened her eyes a moment later after a few hours. She was lying on a bed in a cosy room with three casters and two rock golems, lit by a powerball; they changed the layout every other day, but it had to be the Dirtamansion.

 

Is that it?” said one of the others.

 

It’s everything Healomancy can do,” replied another, the only man.

 

What’s going on?” Railgun asked. “Who are you?”

 

Huh, weird,” said the first caster.

 

We’re AV Club,” said the third, pointing, “Dunkel Mendit,” he gave a smile and a wave, “and Zoe Iyt.” Zoe nodded politely. “You were just attacked. We brought you back here to the Dirtamansion and healed you.”

 

Thanks,” Railgun said to Dunkel, then blinked. She sat up, before she remembered she had no juice. “Wait. I know all those people. You’re not them.”

 

A Carnymancer cast on you,” said the one claiming to be AV. “It looks like a kind of limited amnesia. You can’t remember faces, and it’ll probably stop memory formation, too. It’s not my kind of magic, but Carnymancy usually only lasts until start of next turn.”

 

Ordinarily, Railgun wouldn’t have trusted this, it would be just like the Carnymancers to try to pull a double scam, but she was quite certain there was nowhere this clean in the Carnyvale. “Huh. Did you catch those two sided casters?”

 

They’re in cells around here,” Zoe assured her. “They’ll both survive.”

 

That’s good. What about the Carnymancer?”

 

AV shook her head. “She was long gone by the time Zoe got there, and I didn’t get a proper look at her, I’m barely a novice at Lookamancy. If she’s a barbarian, I guess she didn’t really care about the other two. Not enough to risk you getting back up and frying her, anyway.”

 

We could go out and catch her now that you’re healed,” said Zoe. “You could come with us, or even just give a description …”

 

There was a delicate silence.

 

Railgun dropped her head back to her pillow with a thump. Carnymancers got away with this sort of thing more often than she liked to admit, but she always caught them eventually. “Next time.”

 

 

AN

 

Delphie once bought an 18,000 shmucker Dirtamancy scroll. Digdoug’s upkeep was 160 per turn. That scroll could therefore provide 110 caster-turns’ upkeep. Subject to a few reasonable asterisks, Dirtamancers alone could feed everyone by selling one such scroll apiece per five turns, and they’re listed with three comparably rich others and a number of lesser but still prosperous disciplines. And yet, free casters regularly starve. Tom’s ideas found traction across a wide cross-section of society for a reason.

 

I’ve written some imbalanced abilities in my time, but nothing I’ve done has anything on miracle poles. Apparently, cheap, mass-produced weapons which are good value in their own right can no-sell an entire discipline. They’re to Shockmancers as stairs were to Daleks before they invented antigravity. (I dislike Thinking Caps for the same reason.) Also, if miracle poles block all Shockmancy while in contact with the ground, and if fall damage is natural Shockmancy that occurs when coming into contact with the ground, then syllogistically it follows that miracle poles cancel fall damage. I don’t feel like explaining either of those away, so instead I fanon that they only block the limited forms of Shockmancy used by Archons and Stanley, and a full Shockmancer has alternatives at his disposal.

Part 14 of 20 in Ethereum

Comments

    • falcore51

      As always twofer I enjoy your writing.

      • Free Radical

        Is the side with the double-crossed hex livery one we've seen before? I'm guessing it isn't just going to be something completely unrelated to Ethereum, so are they somewhere in Ethereum's battlespace? Wow, they make a pretty natural enemy for the Casters-are-great side though, don't they?

        Railgun's Signamancy disguise was pretty neat. I loved the way her mild-mannered disguise was topped off with a pair of "Kent" glasses!

        • Firnagzen

          blink

          I see that cameo!

          • Chef Lurker

            Hmm... this update doesn't seem to have much to do with Ethereum itself, beyond demonstrating that there seems to be something of a civil war brewing in the MK thanks to them.  Then again, maybe it does and we the audience just don't know it yet.  As always, though, this was a joy to read. Railgun is interesting enough in her own right to carry an update, and it was fun finding out more background on how things in the MK actually work (at least, according to this fiction). 

            • lone_war

              Thank you Twofer for another wonderful Update.

              Now I dont feel like Ethereum is so out-matched anymore. With about 70% of the Magic Kingdom in their favor, smuggling, information flows, man-power, and supplies (Paid for by Ethereum, not just given to them) are guaranteed. Now its just about a fair fight and they have changed the fight into a Class Warfare battle instead of the authorities trying to prosecute a crime... Which is EXTREMELY dangerous for the MK leadership. (Visions of the French Revolution come to mind)

              About miracle poles. Just have them neutralize electricity based Shockamancy (Lightning based attacks, Stanley, some Archons, Blue Dragons) but not other forms of Shockamancy (Fire, Cold, Disintegrate, Force, Sonic) (Although these last types, except for force and disintegration, probably require adept or master to be used) 

              Cant wait to see new fights for Pro-Toast cities to see what kind of synergies that you have thought of with Tom's Group =) With the group that Tom has now in his assault force, most cities should just about disintegrate =)

              Oh, I wonder if Looney can temporarily remove the Tower Special from the town building "Tower". That, mass remove flight, mass remove archery and Hidden Barrows is born again... After all, canon does specifically state that the tower of a city is "Special". After all, city is a hostile terrain type and Loony is good with those.

              • DunkelMentat

                So good. Not just because of the shoutout either. Class politics! The ruling 10%! I love it! In fact there is nothing in this update I do not like. I love the grit you added to the MK. You've added noir to the Carnyvale. I love the resentment between caster classes due to material conditions. I'll re-read it tomorrow.

                • thatonesungod

                  Great page, love railgun, BUT DON'T THINK I DONT KNOW WHATS GOING ON AT THE END THERE TWOFER. I READ WORM(most of it anyway), TEMPORARY AMNESIA, 2.5 chapters AFTER THE BONESAW CHAPTER, I KNOW WHAT'S GOING DOWN HERE. 

                  • ArtyD

                    Triple Dent Gum...

                    • Twofer

                      Thanks, everyone!

                      @Radical, Lurker:

                      The slavers aren't from Ethereum's battlespace. The MK has theoretically exiled Ethereum from returning, but I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that plot-related events are going to keep happening there regardless. The MK hadn't really had any development, it was about time to go into its social make-up.

                      @War:

                      The MK is hard to call right now. The guilds and allies would nominally beat Ethereum and allies in a pitched battle, but both have so many schemes and schisms going on at once that it could really go either way. When you have even one person like Lisa whose entire job is "Screw with the enemy's heads," things get very messy very quickly.

                      [nods] That's basically what I was thinking. Railgun likes electricity attacks because they have a bonus to non-mortally incapacitate, to the extent that casters think it's her only attack, but she can switch to disintegration or other types as need be.

                      @Dunkel:

                      Thanks! Rich people always consume conspicuously, and the MK has no welfare or social security beyond rare acts of private charity, so it's really not hard to imagine serious class resentment. Then there's the heavily politicised law enforcement and lack of work … it's a pretty dystopian setting when you think about it.

                      Wunsun: Hey, don't look at me, I spent the entire turn in the field. I haven't done surgery on even one single brain, today.

                      • fancylee

                        I have to say I sincerely enjoy that it seems to be in your exposition that Railie's caster sense somewhat includes her fighter's instinct...

                         

                        I had a hard time imagining what Ozec was supposed to look like... His initial tone and description in the forest seemed contradictory to the salon. Help?

                        • thatonesungod

                          "today", it's been 2ish days, and you're adept and you've been working with a changeamancer

                          • Twofer

                            @Fancy:

                            In 'which caster would you want' threads, most people agree that Shockmancy is at the bottom of the list, because it's hot, does only one thing, other casters can emulate it anyway, and there's a number of hard counters. To make it balanced, it therefore has to be really good at that one thing.

                            Ozec is … imagine the Merovingian from the Matrix sequels worked for Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, and maybe add a hint of Sparky Polastri from Bring It On. Tall, handsome, French accent. He has different circumstances; he's a Hippie so less concerned about power, he's not as powerful and therefore less domineering and more willing to work for others, he's surrounded by Hippie girls so more promiscuous. When it comes to his craft, he is an artiste.

                            Sunny: 2ish days … Oh right, you weren't there yesterday, you're still thinking about Shelly. Hey, if it were just Healomancy, the Dunkmeister would've been able to fix it. See? Can't have been me. Besides, me and Charlotte are out east, we passed Ellesstee today.

                            • Mellhurst

                              Yeah, I thought miracle poles were waaaay OP too.

                               Magic is extremely OP, but the poles veer into just stupid. It's like shockamancers and the Arkenhammer are just good for blasting poorly equipped units.

                              Fantastic chapter once again!

                              • Twofer

                                "Oh, cool, it's the caster-popping round. Sweet, I got a Healomancer! You'd both better watch out, because my guys are going to last twice as long now."

                                "They'll want to. I got a Dirtamancer; my cities are going to be twice as tough. Hey, what did you get?"

                                "Me? [the others either have Juggles or can just buy poles from the MK markets for a few hundred apiece] I, uh, I got a Turnamancer. I think I'll keep him safe in my capital for production and prisoners."

                                • thatonesungod

                                  i dont think poles are just a few hundred, we have never seen them before until the juggles

                                  • Twofer

                                    Units can swap weapons, so there's no reason why a Juggle piker couldn't trade his pole for a normal pike plus some money via the MK. The price is (value of a Juggle piker) - (value of a normal piker) + (transaction costs). Nothing indicates that Juggle pikers are significantly more expensive than the baseline (e.g. twice as expensive; my baseline for pikers is 125, and the real value can't be much higher or other sums don't work out), and it's a competitive market so the transaction would likely be the same order as the upkeep of whichever free caster worked as the shopkeeper. A few hundred is reasonable. (For this reason, I consider them imbalanced to the point of being a plot hole, in the same way that longbowmen can't be very powerful when nobody ever uses them.)

                                    • lone_war

                                      Actually Twofer,

                                      It could be reasonable, and Canon, that ONLY Juggle Elves can use the Poles, correctly, to gain the grounding effects. Consider it the Special of the Natural Allies, Juggle Elves. This item, when used by a Juggle Elf (Or someone adopted into the Juggle Elf clan and Trained) allows them to Negate Electricity based Shockamancy. One Juggle Elf can protect one other, Non-Juggle Elf Unit, in the same stack, if that unit is the target. Juggle Elves have the same cost, and upkeep requirements of any other Natural Allies of the same unit type.

                                      Other units, even Pikemen, who attempt to use the Pole, without Training, do NOT receive the Shockamancy Protection, and there is a Chance to Disarm THEMSELVES if used as a standard Pikeman against an Armored Opponent. (They are NOT expecting the pole to try and leap that the Armored Opponent just prior to Impact, and they do NOT Ground the Pole properly for the Shockamancy Immunity (That second part is straight from Canon)).

                                      Also, the secret of making them could also NOT be widely known, and take ingredients as rare as wand Cores to manufacture. (Enough Lodestone to make up the full Head of the Pole, with a wooden shaft that has to be drilled out and a Lodestone Rod, surrounded by copper wire inserted through it and welded to the Head). This item can be make by Twolls, but ONLY if they have seen, and taken one apart previously. This item is ONLY available to purchase via a Side that is Natural Allies to Juggle Elves, or by Juggle Elves themselves.

                                      Miracle Poles do NOT automatically pop with a Juggle Elf unit unless an additional cost is paid for that unit. (Equivalent to a Knight Unit Upgrade cost (for 4 Poles)). Since Juggle Elves, as a Natural Ally, do NOT have a treasury, if a Chieftain has extra funds that would Disappear with the Turn Refresh, can instead be spent on creating Miracle Poles.

                                      Miracle Poles can NOT Critically Hit and ONLY deal a D3-2 damage (0 Damage is possible, but NOT Negative Damage), but they have a Bonus, equal to the Defensive Bonus of Metallic Armor, to Dismount a Riding Unit. And if the Dismount Action is successful, the Riding Unit will take twice the fall damage. (Assuming metallic armor). (The pole end enhances the effects of Shockamancy on ANY unit that is in contact with the Head of the Pole when the Lightning Based Shockamancy hits that Unit).

                                      There, that should make the Titans Awful, totally neutralizing one entire branch of Magic, Poles of Doom a Little More Manageable.

                                      • Twofer

                                        I'd probably put something like "Juggle elf pikers: the chance to dismount is user_power+target_metal_armour_class^2:target_power; Shockmancy attacks to a stack containing one on the ground behave as though they were one level lower; +33% cost." Most Archons only have one rank in Shockmancy, so it blocks those, without completely wiping out elite Archons or true Shockmancers above level one; and the distinction is rare enough that the elf who talked about them might never have seen it come up. They're still a soft counter, but that's fine, every discipline has soft counters, there only needs to be a way to counter back (viz use pikers and outnumber them by 33%).

                                        • Twofer

                                          Status update: I've been working on original fiction (similarish idea, non-copyrighted setting), and didn't get much done on this. The next chapter'll probably be out next week instead.

                                          • Count_to_10

                                            10 hits for a high level combat character seems kind of low when Jillian called a couple of hits doing 1d6 damage each "almost enough to laugh about".  Three hits of 1d6 would almost certainly exceed Railgun's 10 hits, but Jillian wasn't even worried about her gwiphon taking that damage.

                                            • Count_to_10

                                              Oh, and I had assumed that the kidnappings were Ethereum collecting casters for Riley's experiments, and thus we would be treated to Ethereum deploying a hord of Caster golems in the next update.

                                              • Twofer

                                                Do you know, I forgot about that update when deciding my mechanics?

                                                I'm inclined toward thinking that Jillian was being cocky, because a) there've been plenty of times when an arrow has one-shotted someone tough (Jack incapped, dwagon by Artemis, Artemis and two knights, veteran Archons, probably others I've forgotten) and b) Jillian.

                                                Under my mechanics, hits grow slowly and casters are glass cannons, but heavies are designated damage sponges. A level one gwiffon has 12 hits and a good chance to deflect arrows; with a strong commander coordinating screens for the wounded, they're hard to take down. d6 is far too much for one of my basic archers, though. I'll handwave that those were longbow-calibre, being made by a L13 caster, but Jillian always laughs at unsupported archery, even ones doing more damage than usual, because at close range, she can stun-lock them to death.

                                                • DunkelMentat

                                                  I just re-read this and it's so good. I love that in this situation there aren't really any powerful casters that I consider good. The dirtamancers are letting fellow casters disband over a relatively small amount of money and the ringmasters are monstrous in their own way. The only group that isn't terrible to other people are the hippymancers but like all hippies they've mostly withdrawn from the rest of the world and are very inwardly focussed. So good.

                                                  • amnimatchen

                                                    Just read part 9, and I will say it simply - You ruined my day. THis is a most disgusting pice, I actually find it offending!

                                                    You know? I liked the story so far, was one of my favorite, but now I do not want any connection with it.  I will definetly not read any more of it, including current part, because you are clearly a prevet. 

                                                    I think it shoulde be banned, and will say so to the admins.

                                                    • VicSage

                                                      I'm wondering to myself why nobody has commented on how convenient it is that the party she was invited to just happened to have a Healomancer they recently found, immediately after she was hired to find a kidnapped Healomancer.