A steady snowfall was what passed for early spring weather high up on Mount Argivaas in the far northern reaches of Callen. The thin blanket of white nearly hid the facility built into the mountain’s southern face, partly an expansion of an existing cave, partly a ponderous structure supported by struts. It jutted out over the slope just where the first meltwater would start its long journey feed into the Elda Vedrela River far below.
The Elda Vedrela was the primary water source for Callen’s capital, Spinar, and that was the reason why one Maxinuis Farchile constructed it where he did.
Beneath the wooden eaves, amid a nest of iron catwalks and gantries, human and half-elven workers moved back and forth, tending to and stirring the contents of dozens of steel vats each larger than a carriage.
They were all stripped to the waist thanks to the heat rolling up from the vats as burners from below kept the metallic red mixture at a boil. They also wore cloths soaked in herbal salves over their faces to protect them from the fumes bubbling up. Breathing too much in would drive one just as mad as drinking the diluted form of the poison.
Below them, on the level where the burners and heated steel made the air so stifling as to be almost unlivable, a man gave a tentative look upward to ensure that the vat attendants weren’t able to spot him.
He was half-elven, favoring his elvish father’s dark skin and almond-shaped eyes, but with his human mother’s bright green irises, strong chin and well-defined nose. His hair was short and neatly rimmed, as was his mustache and his beard was cut so short as to be a mere shadow upon his chin, but the latter two were hidden by a cloth over his face.
The heat had caused him the remove the heavy, night-gray coat he’d been wearing and toss it over his shoulder, revealing a white, silken dress shirt and dark brown leather vest. Combined with his tailored slacks and it was plain that he was dressed more for a formal party than skulking beneath toxic vats.
Such and observation would be partially correct: he had been at a formal party. Said party was at Farchile’s chalet on the other side of Mount Argivaas. The party was just a means to an end. His real festivities were going to start beneath the poison vats.
Satisfied that no one was watching, he knelt down and toggled hidden switches on his well-made shoes. The soles came off, revealing four stone jars with numbers and tic-marks along the edges of the lids and patches of cloth on the bottoms.
With those in hand, he put his soles back in place and thought back to his briefing.
“Farchile’s compound is highly toxic at all stages of production, I’m afraid, Albion.” Caylus Benustelles, the Order’s Alchemical expert explained not three days earlier. “However, the luck of the One Dice is with us in that it isn’t stable until it brews completely. If you can interrupt the brewing process and drop the temperature significantly, it will be rendered inert.”
Well, explosions would take care of the interruptions. And the cold of the mountainside would take care of the temperature. The man named Albion went to work.
A deft twist of the lid on one of the jars set a clockwork timer in motion. The numbers along the edge gave him ten minutes to get clear—which was plenty. Tearing the cloth from the back of the jar exposed a square of adhesive, which he used to stick the little bomb to one of the vertical beams supporting the roof.
He placed another on a second beam, then started to the far end of the building where large open grates vented the fumes into the open air and ostensibly cooled the huge room down. That’s when the simple job became less so.
“There he is!” Came a bellow from the cave-end of the facility. Immediately after the guard announced himself, there was a booming report and Albion heard something metallic ping off a nearby vat. Two more shots came afterward, both missing hopelessly, but making the space beneath the boilers a deadly place to be thanks to the ricochets.
Albion hunkered down and threw himself around the other side of the nearest support. It was cover, but with more shots sending lead rebounding around the space, it offered only minimal protection. Eventually, he’d be hit by sheer luck if nothing else and all the while the two bombs he’d set were ticking down. He had to move and move quickly.
Not an atypical situation for an agent of the Order in Defense of the Accords, or in the Imperial tongue: Ordo Seiung-Teshur. Sometimes there were crossbow quarrels instead of arrows, sometimes it was a spirit beast threatening to break through a township’s defensive wall or dark ritual in the offing instead of clockwork bombs approaching detonation, but the familiarity remained.
He used to be afraid when this happened, especially when he was caught dressed for infiltration and subterfuge rather than battle. After five years in the clandestine service, dedicating his life to keeping the world’s fragile and relative peace from back-sliding into a second Age of Tragedies, he merely shrugged on his coat to free up his hands and prepared himself.
His first obstacle were the guards and their rifles. At the chalet, he’d noted that Farchile, like many wealthy folk funding a private army, had gone for low-cost, breech-loading rifles of an older make. The things were quite frightening, impressively loud, and simple to maintain, but the paper cartridges they used and spellcrafted brass rods that ignited them on command were highly prone to misfires and inaccurate even at medium range. The close quarters and rampant ricochet opportunities mitigated some of this, but it was still something he could work with.
He waited until the next volley of fire filled the air once more with flying metal, and broke cover, dashing between two of the vats before scrambling up one of the maintenance ladders to the rows of catwalks where the workers tending to the vats stood.
Judging by the number of shots fired, Albion counted st least six guards down on the lower level.
“Up here!” Someone shouted, unwittingly signaling for Albion to cut to his right and duck just before they fired. There was less for bullets to bounce off of topside, but the workers started screaming when they realized that the shots were now on their level.
One of them, a wide-bodied human of middling height and more than middling muscle, took the initiative and stepped up to block Albion’s route. For his part, Albion slowed just enough for the man to make a grab for him, stepped into his guard and trapped his arm with his own. Then with a step and a turn, he used the other’s momentum and mass against him, propelling him to the side and over the gantry’s safety railing.
The worker’s shout of surprised was cut off as his head hit the lip of the vat below with brutal force. He didn’t land in the vat, but by the way he crashed limply to the floor below, Albion knew he’d be troubling him no more.
Two more shots tore the air, one striking the metal vents at the rear of the structure while the other actually kicked sparks off the railing next to Albion. At least one of Farchile’s guards knew how to compensate for his inferior weapon.
Dodging around another worker, who wisely decided not to challenge him, Albion took temporary refuge behind a bin filled with some red-stemmed plant the workers had been adding to the vats. He paused just long enough to grab one of the broad-leafed plants and stuff it into his coat. Caylus would be interested in the ingredients of Farchile’s toxin.
By the sound of their heavy boots on the ladders, some of the guards from below were climbing up topside to join the chase. Albion only hopped they were too concerned with him to notice the bombs.
He didn’t tarry behind cover, only taking the time to lift up his left pant leg to access the concealed holster beneath. The Order didn’t cut corners or cost when outfitting their agents; Albion was armed with a custom Molenkko three-shot pistol with a machine-rifled barrel and brass-jacketed cartridges. It wasn’t as cheap or easy to load, but in the hands of a good marksman, those three initial shots were worth a dozen from the guards’ rifles. And Albion il Raza was an excellent marksman—that’s why he was known in the Order as Griffinseye.
The tromp of boots drew closer and Albion waited until the nearest guard was at optimum rage before acting. He reached up and grabbed a hand full of the plants in the bin, flinging them into the air. Just as expected, the guards opened fire on the sudden, violent motion and in the next moment, Albion stood.
One hand gripped the pistol while the other cupped it from below, keeping it steady. He caught the nearest guard in the middle of reloading and squeezed the trigger. The Molenkko barked once, sending a lead slug into the guard’s chest. The boiled leather armor the man wore was no help; the bullet punched through it and into the man’s heart.
Blood welled up out of the wound in messy spurts as the guard went down. Albion glanced at him to make sure he wasn’t going to rise again before turning to train the Molenkko on the second nearest guard. Just as he was about to fire, something struck him about the shoulders, sending the shot wide and making him stumble forward against the bin.
Albion was forced to use his steadying hand to grab the edge to keep his balance. The moment he found equilibrium, he pushed off and turned to find out what struck him.
It turned out to be another of the workers; a woman this time. She was a head shorter than him, but showed no fear as she took another swing at him with a long stirring pole, trying to bring it down on his gun arm. Albion turned to put his shoulder in harm’s way instead, the force of the blow almost turned him around.
With his free hand, he grabbed hold of the pole, intent on wresting it from the worker’s grasp. The woman, however, had superior leverage and made use of it by trying to thrust the makeshift weapon back into his face. Albion responded by letting go and dodging aside, allowing the thrust to pass harmlessly over his shoulder. In a swift motion, he brought his pistol up and fired at point-blank range.
In his haste, he hadn’t bothered to aim and instead of a neat shot to the heart, he scored a gut shot. The woman staggered and fell back as shock overtook her.
Albion resisted the urge to wince as he stepped over the worker. Gut shots were slow, nasty deaths and under other circumstances, he would have finished his opponent off after inflicting such a wound if only as a small mercy. But he had two timers somewhere behind him ticking down to the mercy-killing of everyone in the facility, so his guilt was assuaged to an extent.
The guards unleashing another volley gave him even more reason not to waste the time or the bullet. He broke into a full run, crossing from one catwalk or gantry to another whenever possible to evade fire and the more combat-minded workers.
The massive metal vents loomed ahead. They took up the entire far wall; gigantic, vertical shutters linked to a drive chain that connected them to a man-sized iron wheel. There were iron chutes stacked nearby, evidently so they could be passed through the fully-open vents once the toxin was complete, funneling it down onto the mountain and ultimately the river and Spinar.
At the moment, the slats were only open by inches, allowing the worst of the fumes and heat to be bled off into the chill air outside. There wasn’t enough for Albion to slip through, so he diverted his course for the iron wheel.
The pain hit him before he even heard the boom of the gunshot. Even as close as the guard charging him was, it was a grazing blow; tearing a ragged slash across the rise of his shoulder blade and staining his coat in red. It also alerted him to the guard; the one he failed to kill earlier.
Too close to justify reloading, the man bellowed and charged Albion, swinging the butt of his rifle like a club.
Albion dodged and brought up the Molenkko. The trigger went back, driving both the hammer and the carousel, but the firing pin only clicked against a spent shell casing. He’d had his three. Cursing the fact that he hadn’t taken the time to reload, he struggled against the burning pain in his shoulder and ducked below the guard’s next swing.
The dodge brought him forward and he came up swinging his pistol into the guard’s jaw, just below the leather mask the man was wearing to protect him from the toxic fumes. The blow was hard enough to knock the mask askew, and for a second, the other man could only stare are Albion in horror.
He dropped the rifle and tried to re-situate the mask, but it was too late. A cough rattled in his chest, and his pupils dilated. Albion had no idea what the stricken man was seeing, but it sent him reeling back until he slammed into the wall, knocking himself down. He struggled to rise, got his feet under him, and fled screaming back the way he’d come.
Another guard had been coming to his aid and now suddenly found himself faced with a wild-eyed madman who gibbered upon seeing him and threw a panicked haymaker at him that nearly toppled both off the catwalk.
“Thanks for the distraction.” Albion said, no longer seeing any reason for being quiet. He could feel blood starting to ooze out of the wound on his back, soaking into his clothing. “Almost makes up for shooting me.”
Once more, he approached the iron wheel. There was a bar wedged between the gear the wheel turned and the wall to keep it from being turned accidentally. Albion kicked it aside and hauled hard on the wheel. Gear teeth engaged, and inch by agonizing inch, the chain drive began to move, in turn pulling the shutters open.
It didn’t take much time or effort for Albion to realize it wasn’t going to work. Even with his leverage augmented by mechanisms, one man couldn’t pull those shutters open in any reasonable amount of time, especially not with people shooting at him or a stinging gash in his back.
Speaking of; while the afflicted man was doing a fine job keeping one guard occupied, two others had been able to move past the two of them and were leveling their rifles.
The two as-yet unused bombs weighed heavily in Albion’s pockets as he threw himself aside just in time to avoid two bullets that sparked off the iron wheel. “Alright. Plan C then.”
He rolled on his bad shoulder, biting back a roar of pain, then got to his feet and bolted laterally across the rear wall of the building. The shutters were now open approximately three inches—just enough. Albion stowed his pistol in a pocket and took out one of the bombs, ripped off the backing over its adhesive, and turned the lid just a few degrees.
When he passed the next set of shutters, he slapped the bomb into the few inches of space between two of them, then dove as far as he could. The clockwork timer was incremented based on minutes, so he only knew the he’d given himself a few seconds—but not how many.
The bomb touched off before he hit the ground, the shockwave washing over him and making his injury scream. Forces meant to demolish wooden supports mostly just forced the heavy iron shutters apart, but a section about two feet in diameter nearest the epicenter was blasted into a cloud of shrapnel that tore into the two pursuing guards like a ravenous flock of sharshiu orms on a dying ox.
One particular piece punched through one of their leather ammo satchels. The paper cartridges weren’t tightly packed enough to explode on their own, but they did ignite, setting the man carrying them ablaze.
Lacerated and on fire, the man panicked and did the only thing he could think of to alleviate one of those problems: he dove off the gantry into the nearest vat. Either he didn’t know the nature of the substance, or he’d been too far gone to care, as the moment the open flame touched the surface of the liquid, it burst into brilliant, blue flame that roared up in a pillar and set the wooden ceiling ablaze.
Albion watched from where he’d landed as chaos took hold in the facility. Some of the workers with minor magic talent tried desperately to tap flaer and control the flames while the guards shied back from the column of fire, indecisive of which disaster to handle first. Not only were one of the vats and the veiling burning, but there was still an intruder and a two of the shudders had been blown into an open position, letting cold air in.
Forcing himself to stand despite both his back injury and shockwave-battered muscles demanding otherwise, Albion decided to help them make their choice. He pulled out the last bomb and a small, silver whistle.
The former, he put between his lips and blew a long note. The later, he turned the lid on. Less than a minute again, but more than he gave himself last time. With one last look at the doomed facility and its inhabitants, he hurled the bomb into the nearest vat that wasn’t on fire.
Then, still blowing on the whistle for all he was worth, he ran for the open shutters and dove out before the next hail of bullets struck all around him.
Freezing air struck him like a physical blow as he exited the over-heated building and tumbled through the air toward the mountainside. It threatened to steal his breath away, but he put all his concentration into breathing through his nose and exhaling through the whistle in his mouth.
For a few tumultuous seconds, Albion started to curse the Thereos Hesteres, the man who gave him that whistle. He’d been dubious that the tiny thing could be heard over any distance, regardless of so-called ‘peerless hearing’.
But then there was a piercing cry and something large appeared beneath him, matching speed so that he landed softly atop a complex leather saddle. Almost entirely on instinct, he grasped the leather loops that served as reigns and got his feet and legs down into the nest of cables that would keep him in place as the Tresolmi giant bat supplied to him for the mission beat its wings for altitude.
The beast labored in the cold, but soon they were on a smooth course away from the mountain, headed for Spinar.
Behind the agent and his mount, the bomb in the vat ignited, the flames gaining overpressure thanks to the sheer weight of the liquid above it. A blue fireball ripped the vat and the entire front of the building apart, touching off more geysers of flame as other vats were caught by flames in turn. Minutes later, the two earlier bombs went off as well, bringing the roof down atop anything that remained.
In an azure blaze and a rain of ruined steel and wood, Farchile’s plot was left scattered across the mountainside.
Albion il Raza, Servant of the Order in Defense of the Accords, is…
AGENT GRIFFINSEYE in:
SORCERY AND SUBTERFUGE
The first story in the ‘THE GRIFFINSEYE MISSIONS’ series.
A High Fantasy, Spy Thriller
A Tale From The World of Ere