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It was a cold and limp thing, Charlie's hand. It felt like stiff dough, lightly dusted in flour. It did not move on its own. Not a twitch.
The hand was the only part of his body that Lilith had ever seen, and that only glimpsed for the second it had taken for it to cover her eyes. Fifinella adjusted the hand's position a bit, and the last little bit of light went out for the naked Archon upon the slab.
So Charlie could not move. He was incapacitated physically. She'd always wondered.
Her learning this thing, her seeing even his hand, meant that her life was forfeit and would soon be over. Charlie had no intentions of turning Lilith back to Charlescomm. He'd accept no deal for her release. She was a puzzle box for him to pry open. Her only Duty now was to be tough to crack, to do Mistress Wanda proud.
It wouldn't be boring, at least.
She said nothing more. Centering her mind, she thought of her life's path. She was glad now that she'd been netted at Spacerock, instead of dusted. This was good. Even though it was the end, it was good. This was a better way to go than her Decrypted sisters'd got. Some of them had still loved Charlie, she suspected. They would've come here and begged to be taken back into the company, and he'd have stripped them for parts just the same. Better it be her, to face him.
Sisters, I have been touched by the man himself, the very thing we shared all our whispered fantasies about. It is no big whoop.
Charlie also spared no more words, except for those of the spell he was muttering. His physical voice sounded feeble and congested. She'd also heard the noise of machinery, of cogs and locks. She smelled the aftertang of Shockmancy on Charlie's skin.
She couldn't make out the words of the spell, maybe something like, "Broca, Brodmann, Wernicke…" But then he spoke one word more distinctly and louder, "Trephine."
She was ready for it. She was an Archon, comfortable in thinkspace, and she had rehearsed this many times during her captivity. She made a bastion of herself, formed out of her mindstuff.
She was Castle Lilith.
In all directions, the inky sky rippled and spun with the blue-black wings of countless ravens, or perhaps huge crows. They dived at her soldiers, who stood upon her walls and tower. Her defenders had bright red mail to protect them, cold white steel to beat the crows back. And the birds were not serious. Not yet.
There was no landscape here, no lights but the balls and torches upon her own ramparts. The ten thousand crows circled in a vast but barely visible band of chaos. Their ceaseless caws blended together and formed a single, shrill voice.
"So," screeched the murder of crows conversationally. "How do you work?"
Castle Lilith lanced a bolt of Shockmancy out into the vast and circling flock, aimed more or less at random. A few birds, not many, fell like flakes of ash upon her battlements.
"Like that," said Castle Lilith, to the blue-black sky.
"I see," said the birds, somehow combining the raucous calling of crows with the detached tone of a scholar. And what is that, a motor control or an emotional regulation system?" The band of crows tightened their loop around the castle, flying in for a closer look. "I don't have your basic configuration down yet."
Castle Lilith's archers loosed four clean, well-coordinated volleys from the top of the tower. Only a very few crows fell, but the circle scattered, reforming at its former distance after a few moments.
"Keep talking," said the crows. "Keep doing things. I'm learning."---
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By the second hour of the Battle for Castle Lilith, a sense of stalemate had taken hold. Although dozens of red-armored bodies lay upon her ramparts, the walls stood unscathed. The flock, too, had been thinned out a little bit. Only a little, though.
He'd found openings. Window slits not large enough for a man to squeeze through still admitted the Charlie-birds. They flew loose and free through her corridors, seeking her innermost chambers, and the seat of power which was the keyhole to her consciousness. But she slammed doors on them. Her sentinels cornered them and cut them down. They had not penetrated far.
She dared to hope that she might hold out for a whole turn, be thrown into a cell to begin again tomorrow. Maybe she could take up a whole day's worth of Charlie's attention. Rule 16, after all.
Charlie's Rule #16: Of the few things more important than money, Charlie's attention is the most scarce and valuable. Spend it wisely.
Corollary: Being always on Charlie's mind, you are richer than any ruler.
To this she now added, Lilith's Corollary: Consuming the enemy's attention hurts him even more than consuming his money.
"Where is the love?" asked the crows, who hadn't spoken for quite some time. "You're thinking of Rule 16. I can see it." They circled at a distance, fretfully. "I've made more progress than you know. But I want to know where the love went."
On a deeper level than the verbal, something similar to the way she understood an order, she knew what he was asking. He meant her sense of the Arkendish, her love for him. It had been as strong as anyone's, before she'd been popped again. Now it was gone. He missed it.
Castle Lilith actually laughed. "I found someone better than you to love."
"I can see that," cawed the crows, "the foundations of your love for the Arkenpliers, stretching down and away. I'll have to follow them. I think they'll lead somewhere interesting."
Despite her attempt to be calm, Lilith's soldiers struck a sudden pose of defensive attention, all along her battlements and towers. He was speaking of Mistress Wanda, of using Lilith to get at her. She would sooner destroy herself than allow that to happen.
"But I can't find what I'm looking for," said the birds. "The… socket. The broken umbilicus. Whatever once connected us. I'm quite interested in how it can be broken. Any thoughts on that?"
Lilith's archers loosed a defiant volley, but the arrows fell well short of the mass of birds.
With a whoosh of wings that sounded something like a sigh of resignation, more than half of the great flock peeled away from the circling ring. In small groups, they spiraled in for a landing.
The crows went for the walls, but not to engage her soldiers. Instead, they formed clumps of two or three hundred around her fallen, as if to eat the bodies. Lilith had a good command of Signs in thinkspace, but she did not understand what this was meant to accomplish. Were they going to consume them as forage for some kind of resource… attention, juice? It didn't make sense. This was something beyond the ken of an Archon, and she did not know how to defend against it, except to have her fighters charge for the clusters of grounded birds.
The dozen different points of attack here were more than she could concentrate on at once. So it took her a moment to understand, when figures began to appear who stood in the center of the bird-dumps. They wore blue armor.
"One thing I have learned so far," said the birds who were still flying. The voice sounded quieter, more distant, due to the flocks depleted numbers, "is what that configuration you're showing me means. It has everything to do with Croakamancy."
Her soldiers began to engage, scattering the birds into fluttering, clawing black clouds that screened the blue-plated warriors.
"She reformed you," cawed the birds, "in a way that connects you to her will."
Birds littered her walls, as the defenders cut them down. But their bites and scratches took their toll, and some of her units fell to the stone. In places where this happened, the blue units were kneeling over the fresh bodies.
"It's a good trick," rasped the birds in the sky. "The central power of Croakamancy, really. And while I doubt I've learned enough to become a Croakamancer, I can certainly use that trick in here."
The newly-fallen defenders' armor changed from red to blue.They began to climb to their feet.
|On a rampart of Castle Lilith, a knight in blue armor kneels to put a hand to a fallen soldier in red armor. The blue-black Charlie-birds that have scratched and pecked the fallen soldier hold off two other red soldiers trying to approach from the background. In the foreground is the red soldier's fallen sword and a fallen bird pierced by a red-fletched arrow.|||
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