I took a deep breath. “‘Punched to death’ isn’t exactly how I’d describe it. The griffon had smashed the aura cart, and was rampaging across the field. The sidhe who was riding it had used the wand he was carrying on Sir Bliss, and I was checking to see how bad Bliss was when the griffon came back for me. I remember…” I closed my eyes, trying to put things in the right order. “It picked me up and tossed me through the air, and then came after me and latched on to my leg.”
Irandrya raised a finger. “When you say ‘latched on’, do you mean that it bit you? Or that it gripped you with its feet?”
I could see the thing in my memory, the shield-sized eye staring at me as the beak snapped shut around my calf. “No, it definitely bit me.”
“And were-” Irandrya looked over at the two philosophers. “I am sorry to interrupt, but I’ve heard several refer to the beast that the sidhe leader rode as a ‘griffon’ and I’m not sure what the creature is that they’ve given that name to.”
“Ah,” said Mercus. “Well, in his Bestiary, Caurus described the griffon as a-”
“‘A great beast of the high places,'” Irandrya interrupted, “‘who goes on his four feet and also on his wings. The men of those places say that he is like the eagle in the head and wings and like a lion in his other parts. They say it is the flesh of horses he likes the best to eat, but he will eat a man or an ox if he likes, and he collects the gold and gems and shining things for his nest as the crow does.’ Yes, I’ve read it. Your colleague Piet gave me a copy of the Bestiary back in Etrenium, after I expressed my confusion at the terms ‘elf’ and ‘sidhe’.”
She frowned. “And I understand what an ‘eagle’ and a ‘lion’ are, I believe, but the trouble is that I can think of at least three different beasts from Fae lands that might fit the physical description, depending on details, and I’ve only narrowed it that far by eliminating anything that couldn’t pick up a man the size of this soldier in its mouth.”
Mercus looked down at the table. “I misunderstood your confusion. My apologies, Miss. I did not mean to offend.”
Irandrya shook her head. “No offense was committed, or none greater than my own.” She gestured to me. “May I?”
Mercus looked back up at her, and nodded. “By all means, miss; You’ll likely ask better questions than I or Appius would know to.”
She inclined her head a little in assent, and then turned back to me. “So, when the ‘griffon’ attacked you, did it grasp with its beak or stab with it?”
I looked down at my leg. “It grasped, the beak was hooked like an eagle’s beak, not pointed like a heron’s. But there were teeth in the mouth as well.”
“Teeth?” Irandrya put a finger to her lips in thought. “That narrows things somewhat. But it had cat-like feet, like paws?”
I closed my eyes again. “No, not paws. The feet were like an eagles’, as well.”
“All four feet?”
I thought for a moment, and then shrugged, shaking my head. “I’m not sure. The front legs, certainly, but I don’t remember much about the hindlegs.”
“Hmm.” The elf tapped a finger on the tabletop. “What about the tail? Broad like a bird’s?”
“No,” I said, looking back up at her, “It was narrow, and moved like a cat’s tail. But there were feathers down the top of it, all the way down its back, and a little fan of them at the tip, I think.”
“Ah!” Irandrya nodded, smiling a little. “That would make sense, and the down could easily look like fur.” She scribbled a note on one of the parchments in front of her with a narrow stick of charcoal. “I believe the creature you fought is the one we call a tilithcrei, one of a number of four-legged bird-serpents native to the…” She paused for a moment, as if searching for a word. “They come from the same lands that those Fae you call the sidhe hail from. It was a tradition among some of those Fae to raise and train tilithcrei for battle, so it’s reasonable that one might have summoned one for that purpose here.” She bowed her head toward me. “Thank you, soldier Mason.”
“You think they summoned the beast in response to the attack?” Appius asked her.
“I do. Feeding a tilithcrei‘s hunger would have been no small task, and as far as I’ve been told no one has found a pile of half-eaten animal carcasses near the keep.” She gestured to the philosophers. “Again, my apologies for the interruption. Continue.”
Mercus turned back to me. “As you said, the creature took your leg in its mouth. What happened next?”
I cleared my throat. “It started to drag me across the ground, through the wreckage of the aura cart, and I grabbed the… the metal ball, the coil I think Ceyx called it, the part of the cart that made the lodestone aura. I grabbed that, and hit the thing in the face with it, and the thing acted like it hurt it so I just… did it again, and kept doing it until the creature disappeared.”
Appius leaned in. “How many times did you hit it?”
“I… I’m not sure. A dozen? Maybe more?”
“And did it… did each strike feel the same? Like you were hurting it a little each time?”
“Sort of.” I remembered the shudder in my arm as every blow connected, the leather-wrapped wires slapping against my shoulder, the gritting of my teeth as I held its head to the ground with my bleeding leg. “The final blow felt different, like a stone finally breaking in half once you’ve hammered the wedge in deep enough.”
Appius and Mercus looked at each other. “He reconnected it,” Mercus said.
Appius nodded at him. “Must have. Or bridged it himself.”
I looked at the two men. “I’m sorry, what did I do?”
Mercus glanced over at me. “No, not you. Ceyx.”
“We examined his body after we arrived,” Appius said, “as we prepared his bones to be sent back to Etrenium. He’d been well preserved by the snow, so we could see that he’d been badly burned by the acid from the current cells, but there were also burns on his hands that didn’t look like acid.”
“But,” Mercus added, “if he wasn’t immediately killed by the acid, if he was still alive when the monster attacked you, and if he saw what you were hitting it with and connected the wires to one of the cells that was still intact, holding them there long enough for you to strike a single time with an active lodestone current, that would explain just about everything.”
“Including the tilithcrei vanishing as it was killed,” Irandrya added, “a detail that I had found perplexing.”
I swallowed, feeling my stomach stir uncomfortably. “Was it the current that killed Ceyx? Did he…” Did another man die because of something I’d done?
Appius looked at me, confused, but then I saw him realize what I was asking and he shook his head, raising a hand toward me. “No, no, it was nothing like that. No heroic sacrifice. Ceyx’s burns were severe; the acid would have killed him regardless. But he spent his final moment doing what he could to help save as many as he could, and now that we know that, we’ll make sure his deed is known and remembered.”
Mercus nodded sagely. “Thank you, Mason. You’ve helped us give a man the honor the Fates know he deserved.”
I swallowed again and nodded back, trying to push the feeling in my stomach back down. You didn’t kill him. “Of course.”
Appius made a note on a scrap of parchment, which he folded and tucked into the front of his robe. “Well, then,” he said, dabbing his forehead with a sleeve, “I think that’s all we needed, unless you have any questions for us?”
“No,” I said, taking a deep breath to steady myself and lifting up the tail of my tunic to wipe my own sweating face. I pushed my chair back away from the table, but as I leaned forward to stand I remembered something Bat had said to me the day I’d woken up. Well beyond my understanding, lad. You’d have to ask a fox-face. “Actually, I do have one thing to ask you, Miss Irandrya.” I forced myself to look at her, to meet her golden eyes with my own. “If that’s all right?”
She stared back at me for a moment, and then nodded. “Of course, young soldier.”
“If… that is, in Etrenium, you said that the lodestone aura kept out magic, and since the till… tilic…”
Irandrya held up a hand. “‘Griffon’ is fine, if you prefer. We both know what you’re referring to.”
“All right,” I said. “Since the griffon was able to enter the aura, that means it wasn’t magical, but then you said that you thought the sidhe made it with the summoning plate, and that it made sense that it disappeared when the lodestone struck it, so was it magic after all, some sort of spell that isn’t effected by the lodestone?”
“Well…” Irandrya looked down and away from me for a moment, and then met my gaze again. “A full and accurate explanation of that would require an understanding of magical theory that would be impossible to impart in a single conversation, but…” She picked up the stick of charcoal from the table in front of her, breaking off one end and holding it in her hand. “The purpose of the summoning plate isn’t to create things out of nothing, but to move objects across great distances very quickly.”
She held up the charcoal in an open palm. “Back in the… the place the Fae come from, there is something like a great storehouse where many, many things are kept, ready to be sent on a moment’s notice.” She held up her other hand next to the first, palm up. “When someone needs something from that storehouse, they can ask the summoning plate to fetch it, the plate sends a message back, a path is opened between the storehouse and the plate, and then the object moves along that path and arrives at the plate.”
She closed her hand around the piece of charcoal. “But, in order to be sent, the object is, let us say, disassembled first.” She moved the fingers of her closed hand together, rubbing them against her palm, and then moved the closed hand above the open one and let a fine stream of charcoal dust fall from the closed fist into the open hand. When the last of it had fallen, she opened the fist again, showing it to be smeared with charcoal but otherwise empty.
“When the pieces arrive, the summoning plate puts them back together, using a kind of magical substrate to connect all the pieces back to each other, like… well, like a scaffold holding up a wall.” She made a motion with her empty hand above the little pile of coal dust, and I saw the dust stir, twisting in and over itself. As I watched, the dust seemed to press itself together, forming after a moment into a hard, black cube smaller than one of the Fae woman’s fingernails. She set the little block on the table between us.
“After a short while, the natural forces that normally bind the object together reassert themselves and the magic fades, but for a while after the summoning the object is reliant on that magical structure to keep its form. I believe your ‘griffon’ was initially held together by its own natural life force, despite the magic-weakening effect of the aura. But, when you struck it directly with the active lodestone, the combined disruption of both the creature’s magical form and its natural one was enough to cause a cascading failure of both.” She tapped the cube on the tabletop with a single finger, and it instantly crumbled, dissolving back into charcoal dust.
The room was silent for a moment, and then Appius cleared his throat. “I hope you don’t mind my saying, Miss, but that is…”
“Horrific,” Mercus finished for him.
Irandrya looked at them, and nodded gravely. “Indeed it is, though I expect the creature suffered more from the initial blows than from the final one. Still,” she added, sweeping the dust off the table into her hand, “the Fae only ever use the plates to transport objects and animals. Never other Fae, and with good reason.”
She looked back over at me, apology in her eyes. “Does that answer your question?”
I nodded my head, muttered my thanks, and left the tower as quickly as my leg would let me.
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