All things considered, the landing was not as rough as it might have been. By some metrics, the aftermath was the greater chaos.
Much to TJ’s consternation, no one in the group was willing to fully believe his claims about Welkin until they were confirmed, and no one seemed to have the necessary skills to do so. At least, not at first. No one questioned Chelsea when she passed the ship’s set of tools off to Kami and headed off into the desert with a promise to be back in a few hours.
When she returned, she was grim-faced: less the wielder of a wrench, and more the wielder of a gavel. Welkin was sitting in the middle of everyone else, in a damaged section of the ship’s hull that TJ had deemed sufficiently roomlike for shielding.Txori held out her hands, and everyone made contact to swear that they would answer all questions truthfully. The group fell silent as Chelsea looked Welkin over.
“Well, Captain, she said in a voice dripping with irony, “here’s my diagnosis. You are not possessed…” –and here she held up a hand to preemptively silence TJ’s inevitable protest. “But there’s a demonic connection stuck on you. You have been passing them information recently, and it would be easy for them to use that connection again.”
She raised an eyebrow and looked at him evenly. “You know, I was starting to feel bad that I never properly expressed my gratitude for your taking me in after I left that Yozi cult. It seemed like such a risky thing for you to do! And I was so surprised when there was so little pursuit. But I can see now they never needed to chase me. They have you…Captain.”
She cast a glance over the rest of the crew. “The rest of you are clean, incidentally.”
“With one glaring exception!” Welkin snapped at her. “Look, every single one of us has someone they’re in trouble with. All of us went behind the Sidereals’ backs to get ahold of that trinket. TJ’s only here because he’s on the lam from them, Sam’s got his sights on the Scarlet Throne of all places, and you and Blake have Hell knows what on your tails. And where has Txori been running off to? You can’t claim it was Yozi action when any one of a dozen groups has it in for us for any one of those reasons! It could have even been one of these people you’re all so eager to trust–”
“What.” Hunter glared, and Kami put a hand on his shoulder.
Sam stepped between them and Welkin. “Given the choice between some people we don’t know who have been trustworthy so far, one of whom is known for always telling the truth and two of whom just brought me back from the brink of death, and someone who was the one who almost got me killed and has been making deals behind everyone’s back…well, the choice is pretty obvious. As to planting a bomb to pressure us, that sounds more like something you would do than something these new people would do.”
Welkin glared at him. “You do realize I was right there in the room when it happened?”
“Yes, but you completely shrugged it off,” Txori pointed out. “Not all of us are that sturdy! Grey would have been disintegrated if I hadn’t been there.”
Chelsea cast an eye over the stream of wreckage from the ship. “I don’t see any of your grenade residue. There are traces of demonic magic scattered around the blast site.”
“How much of that is yours?” Welkin asked.
Chelsea leaned in, her voice laced with disdain. “My work is precise, well-ordered, and, more to the point, Pyrian. What’s scattered around this ballistics case study smells like Malfean destruction and chaos. It’s not mine.”
Welkin tried to shift his weight where he was sitting, only to realize some invisible force was holding him in place. …Of course. Chelsea’s telekinesis.
“And you’re the expert in that, aren’t you? You’ve been awfully smug about this whole thing. How can you stand there and lecture me about dealing with demons when you–you must have sold off your entire soul at once, didn’t you? Your mark isn’t even Solar anymore!”
“Wha–” Kami made a noise of surprise, and Welkin latched onto it.
“It’s something I don’t recognize. Like an eye with a flame.” The visitors shifted, trying to hide their recognition, so Welkin pressed them on it. “Do you know what that means? ‘Cause Chelsea’s never told us.”
“I recognize the description,” Olivia answered, carefully heading off any tangent along that mystery. “And I think your guess about how she got it is not far off. But we’ve seen that people once employed by Neverborn do not always stay with them,” she said, with a nod to Hunter, “so I wouldn’t be surprised if the same were true of those employed by Yozis. In any case, she seems not to have done the ship or its crew any harm. At least, not while we’ve been here.”
Sam sighed. “At this point, you know too much and cannot be trusted. Something drastic has to be done, and I don’t think you’ve left us with many options.”
Welkin snarled and strained against the invisible grip holding him. “Great! Just great! I doubt I’m the first ‘drastic measure’ you’ll be taking on the way to the Scarlet Throne! Since you started off not mentioning you were even in the running in the first place!”
Sam shook his head. “I kept my lineage a secret for a while, yes. But you found out I was a Dragon-Blood quite a while ago, and if you objected to me on those grounds alone, or even objected to my ambitions of ruling, you’ve had plenty of time to shove me over the side before now.”
Welkin muttered something combining the name “Iselsi” with some nasty-sounding syllables that few in the group recognized, and his rant turned quiet as he tried dredging up more ideas. “Damn it, TJ, I took you in, help me out here–”
TJ held up his hands, clearly showing the starmetal handcuffs still in place. “Welkin, what do you expect me to do? I have no capital whatsoever in Heaven right now. My hands are tied, quite literally, and if you were to untie them, a pack of Celestial Lions would show up to arrest me again. Except they’d smell the same corruption on you that Chelsea does and dispatch Mars-only-knows-what to come after you and half the people in this room just for being listed as Enemies Of Creation. And maybe…” the look on his face slid from exasperated to resigned. “Maybe this many EOCs on the crew would give them enough of a scare to give the Free Man a once-over. Maybe. Maybe that would help my case. But it wouldn’t help yours. Some of my colleagues would kill you on sight just for being a Solar.”
“Are you certain you’re not of two minds about that?” Welkin hissed.
TJ stared back coldly. “Not on how dangerous you are. Whatever happens with me, it won’t help you.”
Outnumbered and surrounded, Welkin was out of ideas. “Damn both of you to Hell!” he yelled. “You all care so much about justice, fine! All of you can have it just like he says–” and with that, he lunged forward in a desperate attempt to release TJ’s cuffs.
But even before he could get that far or anyone else could intervene, something else stopped him. Most of the group just saw him stumble, and put one hand to his head as if in pain. A few heads turned towards Chelsea, expecting that she had done something invisibly, but she shook her head.
“I didn’t–wait. His connection’s active!”
Welkin, mercifully, did not see nor feel exactly what happened in the next few moments.
Less mercifully, he did wake up some hours later, dimly aware that he was still alive, because he’d always envisioned death as a rather cold experience, and all he felt now was hot. There was also a dull numbness in his spine, and hard desert earth beneath him. He opened his eyes, and bright yellow sunlight stabbed into them.
“Ah, you’re awake! Excellent!” said a cheerful, familiar voice. “I’d hate for you to have missed your dramatic and fitting demise.”
“Damn you, Chelsea,” Welkin muttered.
She smiled, though he wasn’t able to see it. “Don’t worry, that’s been taken care of.”
Welkin took a deep breath as his eyes adjusted to the light. “Why can’t I move?” he asked. His wrists were bound with some combination of rope and thick gold-colored wire, but his whole lower half refused all orders to stir the slightest bit.
“Well, that’s an interesting story,” she said lazily, as though she had all the time in the world. “You fought like a rabid blood-ape back there, which makes perfect sense because I’m pretty sure that’s what they put in you. We all hit you until you stopped moving, but we had to be a little careful about it because we were all so close together. So when we checked you afterwards, guess what, you weren’t dead yet. Just paralyzed from some spine injuries.”
She let that sink in a moment, then continued.
“Kami could have fixed you, of course, or you probably would have healed anyway given enough time, what with being a Solar and all. Long story short, it was voted that someone had to give you the coup de grace, and when I said I’d be happy to give you a proper sendoff, they let me go ahead with it.”
“So you’re going to kill me your way, then?” Welkin asked with a flat bitterness.
“No. I’m not going to kill you. Your own patron god is going to kill you.”
In his utter confusion, Welkin finally managed to open his eyes all the way and twist his neck around to see Chelsea, who was lounging on a vaguely hammock-like conjured translucent shape a few yards away.
“Look at where you are, Captain.”
He was in the bottom of a shallow depression in the ground. Just next to him, a tall stone protruded upwards. Its shadow fell along the ground opposite the sun, forming a natural sundial. That shadow was still a few degrees away from him; he’d be partly in the shade in less than an hour.
Something moved at the base of the shadow. There was a hole in the ground beside the rock, and it was clearly home to…
…scorpions. A whole family of them, and perhaps there were more still underground. Each one was as long as one of his hands, black all over, with red markings on its back.
“Aren’t they cute? They’re usually nocturnal, but shake the ground a bit and they wake up. They’d cook themselves if they went in the sun, so they won’t go near you. For now.”
Chelsea waited another moment for Welkin to take this in. “The sun is so reliable in his movements. Shines every day, never speeds up, nor slows down. I wonder if he knows that perfect march will be what kills you, Captain. I wonder if he cares.”
Welkin struggled to shuffle away from the shadow, but only managed to rotate, and Chelsea kept on talking.
“Now, it’s kind of traditional to just walk off and leave you at this point, but I did promise the others I’d make sure you were dead, so I’ll skip on that.” She pulled out her journal and began idly writing notes in it.
“What possible good does this do you?” Welkin gasped. His mouth was dry, and the sun wasn’t helping. “What good is it to you whether Sam is emperor or not? Why do you care?”
“Oh, it’ll be a challenge…something fun to do while I run from my angry masters. It’s more challenging than any of his advisors realize.”
“Really.” Welkin managed to shuffle away a little, but the loose sand on the sides of the depression sent him sliding back.
“Really. And the best way I can strike back at the Yozis is to get him over that challenge, even when he has no idea what it is yet.”
Welkin shook his head. “The others are gone. They’ve left me alone with you. Why do you punish me for the very crime you yourself committed?
Her expression changed not a bit. “Because I can.”
Welkin coughed. “You’re a monster.”
“Well, at least I admit it.” She smiled and kept on writing. “I rather like Sam, you know. We have similar callings. We both want to remake the entire world, the way we want, and we can’t do that if it gets ground into pieces first.” She looked up and noted the sun’s position in the sky. “Any last words? You might want to say them before your god abandons you for your misbehavior…as mine did.”
“Remake the world,” Welkin scoffed. “The world’s already in pieces too small to even repair, let alone remake. The best you can do is have enough power to survive.” Welkin started to flex his fingers and shift his wrist around. “Sooner or later the rest of you meet the same fate as me.” Welkin began to laugh as his face twisted into a sinister smile. “You should have done a better job binding me; I only really need an open palm.” Essence began to swirl around Welkin’s empty hand and took on a familiar shape. “There isn’t going to be a ‘later’ for you, Chelsea!”
And yet she still acted as if she had all the time in the world, setting her book aside casually as an equally-familiar sheet of translucent Essence formed between them. As Welkin’s grenade impacted the sheet, the sheet bent slightly, bouncing the grenade back into the bowl of earth beside Welkin.
“And I,” she said smugly, “don’t need my hands at all.”
It was an old habit now: Welkin focused on the principles of invulnerability that had always worked for him in the past. But something was wrong this time. The focus was there, but there was no power behind it. Even in all the time he must have spent sitting here unconscious, he had only enough Essence left to throw the grenade, not to defend himself from the blast.
As the grenade went off he felt a tearing pain in his shoulder, then the impact of several shards of rock against his legs. The sundial-rock crumbled into a dozen pieces, becoming a dozen smaller clocks all over the area. And…that was his left hand on the other side of the bowl, wasn’t it. He closed his eyes against the pain as blood soaked his shirt.
“Not even,” Chelsea continued, “to get a close look at our prisoner’s handcuffs and rig up something that would keep your Essence drained for a few hours. Turns out there was a fair amount of orichalcum in the slag from that table. Enough, at least, to make wires I could attach to your bracers. Where’d you get those, by the way? They’re pretty nice.”
Welkin resolved not to give her the satisfaction of knowing.
The grenade had killed several scorpions, but those that had survived were crawling up from collapsed burrows and scurrying everywhere in a panic, trying to find shade. For several of them, Welkin himself was the best source of it. As they reoriented themselves, they began to realize that the blood pooling on the ground was his, and that the calamity that had ruined their home had at least provided them with dinner.
Before long, the pain in Welkin’s shoulder was forgotten, overshadowed by the bites and stings from the scorpions swarming over him and taking shelter under his clothes. They were not naturally sadistic creatures, but they disliked the risk of being crushed by prey that was still moving, and even a gravely wounded Solar could keep moving for quite some time.
At the bitter end, he no longer had enough breath to yell curses at her. The last was a whisper. “If the Yozis do take me, Chelsea…I’ll be there when they take you too.”
* * *
Chelsea returned to the ship in early afternoon, and set Welkin’s hat and bracers–with the wires removed–on the mess hall table that now served as their meeting area. Sam nodded, and went to gather the others to distribute Welkin’s personal effects.
Seeing Chelsea return, Txori pulled her aside. “An hour, Chelsea!”
“What about it? I was gone longer than that.”
“I heard screaming for an hour!”
Chelsea raised an eyebrow. “Well…next time…you can come with me and watch.”
Welkin: Game Over.