The streets were fuller than Chapton had ever seen them. Revellers in a colourful array of masks strolled every which way. Crowds clustered around musicians and entertainers, the more adventurous citizens already dancing. Every corner held a bonfire, or a cluster of stalls selling hot food and sweetmeats.
This Festival of Masks would be one to remember.
Chapton cut another chunk from the To-Foe ooze, and set it roasting on the brazier. The ooze went back to wheeling in circles in its pen, seemingly unaware of the injury.
They still weren’t sure if these things were alive or not.
Someone was waving a copper coin at him “Two pieces of To-Fro — Toe-Foot —” the customer laughed. “Toof-ooze or whatever. Two of it.”
Chapton skewered two hot chunks and swapped them for the coins. “Here you go. Take a pamphlet, too.”
They weren’t making money on the ooze, but that wasn’t the point. Everyone was out to enjoy the festival, and there was nothing wrong with helping that along with some good-value food. More importantly, everyone was anonymous. In his griffon mask, Chapton could have been any one of his supporters; and that made the “Achievements of the High Magistrate” pamphlet so much more convincing.
She had to be somewhere in this crowd. Wildflower had been up and down the Travel District: the competitions, the stalls of fresh food, the conga line weaving through nearly every street. Everyone in a different mask.
One of them had to be the High Priestess of Esdore. There was no way she could have gone to ground for an entire month; not and miss the whole festival.
That dancer in a geometrically blank triangle mask, maybe?
The dancer gestured for Wildflower to join them.
The wrestler shook their head, and looked away. Maybe it was time to look in the Forge District?
The customer in the domino mask ignored the question. “I have come to warn you. Warn you of Impending Doom!”
“What do you mean? Do you have any more details about this ‘doom’?”
“I do! Here, take this pamphlet.”
Vinnie rolled his eyes inside his eagle mask. The pamphlet was cheaply printed, with big, flashy headlines — METEORS, GIANT FISH!!, ZOMBIES, COMET — and not much information.
“What’s this about a giant fish?”
“I had a vision! A vision of Doom; of things rising from the seas!” The customer looked at their feet. “I can’t remember much more than what’s in there.”
“I see.” Vinnie pocketed the bit of paper. “Would you like one of our pamphlets?”
The celebrations had started early in the Joy District. Jethan had been listening to music for some time, before they sought out this vendor for a stick of marshmallows.
As they finished toasting the last marshmallow over the street-corner bonfire, there was a loud sniff behind them. Jethan looked up. Draca Procrusta lowered her handkerchief, and frowned at the celebration in general.
Jethan wasn’t wearing Kasita’s mask. This mask was white, featureless from a distance, and eerily patterned up close. More importantly, it was anonymous.
They slipped a hot, sticky marshmallow off their stick and flung it at Draca’s face. It flew straight: the gooey mess splattered into her hair. Draca turned slowly.
Another sugary object splattered on the back of her head. She pulled a candied date off her bun, and spun back to face a horned-lizard mask. The wearer met her eyes, and held the stare. Slowly, deliberately, they raised another piece of fruit.
Two marshmallows flew alongside the second date. Then there were five, then countless pieces flying from up and down the street. Draca wrapped her cloak around her head and dashed into an alley.
Jethan wasn’t the only one to cheer.
Under an awning across the street, someone coughed into their mask. It didn’t look like a festival mask: a white rectangle of cloth, tied with two cords behind the ears. The wearer shuffled a few steps, and coughed again.
“Are you alright?”
They looked up at Wildflower, and took a step into the shadow of the wall. “Not so well. You remember a few months ago, there was that outbreak of ‘flu?” A look away. “Most of them got better. I didn’t.”
“Could I help you with anything?”
“Actually, I was looking for the bathysphere that went into the ocean last week.” Another cough. “They say it might help to get close to something sea-touched.”
Wildflower narrowed their eyes under the mask, but spoke politely. “It’s in one of the navy yards in the Docks quarter. South and across the bridge. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks.” The cougher shuffled southward.
Wildflower waited several minutes, then followed them.
Was that their name? Jethan twisted Wildflower’s message ring on their hand, but between the din of music and the cheering party-goers, it was impossible to tell.
Probably just a trick of the background noise.
The coughing person in the blank mask ducked into an alley. Something in their movements seemed off. Wildflower picked up the pace.
They reached the alley just in time to see the cougher shrink into a rat.
The rat ran for a pile of garbage, but Wildflower was next to it in an instant, and reaching out. The rat jinked away at the last moment. The wrestler grabbed again, but the rat scrabbled out of their grasp.
Nothing should be that fast.
No time for gentle movements now. Wildflower’s hand flew like a sling stone, and snapped shut hard on the rat. It was still, now. Motionless, but just barely still breathing.
Even so, it could wake up at any moment. Wildflower snapped a handcuff around the rat, but it wasn’t tight around the creature’s waist. There had to be a better way.
Outside the alley, the street was lined with decorated glass-and-metal lanterns. Wildflower pulled one of these from its pole, blew out the light, and shut the rat inside.
Another stall, another few customers. Vinnie’s agents had spread out all through the city, with three objectives: Sell Tofoozi, keep trouble under control, and insult Draca Procrusta. Each of their masks bore Chapton’s sigil: a lightning bolt.
“No, thank you.” The customer in the black-and-white mask waved a sheaf of other copies of the document. Vinnie nodded, and handed them their two skewers of Tofoozi.
It must have been good; this customer had come back twice for seconds already.
Lots of people put real effort into their masks. A pumpkin, a rabbit in a top hat, the horned lizard from earlier. It nearly made up for Draca Procrusta.
Did the rabbit’s nose just twitch?
Jethan slipped back into the cover of the crowd, and followed it.
The rabbit wasn’t just celebrating. They were working the crowd: speaking to a few people, handing out pamphlets, and moving on.
Jethan picked up a discarded pamphlet, and leafed through it. When the rabbit approached them, they held it up with a querulous eyebrow. “A giant fish? Really?”
The not-a-mask nodded vigorously. “We had a vision. I guarantee you the giant fish is coming for the city.”
“If you say so. Nice mask, by the way.”
“Indeed.” The rabbit slipped back into the crowd.
Something would surely happen tonight, but Chapton would be ready for it.
He whispered his last instruction to the raven statuette. When he opened his hands, a life-sized bird flew up and over the city.
The best place for this rat was the Navy cells.
Wildflower set off downhill. A giant in a face-hiding helmet caught up with them, and matched their stride. “What are you doing with that lantern?”
“You won’t believe me, but …” Wildflower opened the lantern a crack to show the rat inside, and began the explanation.
“I don’t believe you.” The giant tapped their foot, once. “I think you’d better put that lantern back where you got it.”
Really? “Look, I understand this looks weird, but you can trust me. I’m Wildflower.”
Wildflower removed their mask.
“That proves nothing. You could still be anyone under that silk mask.”
A sigh. “How long have you been a guard, officer?”
“A guard?” The giant tapped their own helmet. It rung like terracotta. “I’m just a concerned citizen. But I still think I ought to keep track of you.”
“In that case, if you must, you can come with me. But keep up.”
“I will —”
Wildflower was miles away before they had finished the second word.
Vinnie had to worry about these musicians. The flute-and-singer duo didn’t seem dangerous, as such. Their tune was only an old hymn to Kalagon and the city.
But the new lyrics were very negative on the subject of masked heroes.
The rabbit wasn’t working alone. In a deserted part of the Forge District, Jethan saw them meet up with a red-faced mask with a lightning bolt on the forehead. Not one of Vinnie’s, surely?
A third figure in a domino mask joined the duo, and held up a hand for silence. They checked several of the surrounding buildings before speaking.
Fortunately, Jethan’s hiding place was farther away than they thought to look.
But it was still close enough to read lips. These three were going to group up the humans and elves they’d spoken to, and meet at one of the temples. They didn’t mention why, but Jethan had begun to guess.
Next stop: the Temple of Ienna. Tonight had put a spring in Vinnie’s step; he brushed through the crowds easily.
Or were the crowds getting thinner?
When he looked up, an oval of anxiuos party-goers surrounded him. The one opposite stood straighter, and wore a mask showing a bottle of red liquid. They reached out, then pulled in their hand: a challenge. One hand reached into their cloak.
Vinnie whispered a curse of bad luck. Bottle-mask flicked out their fingers, and he felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. Bad luck to Vinnie as well.
He drew Dawnbreaker.
His opponent pulled out a handful of small vials, and threw them across a wide arc. Each one burst in flight, scattering droplets of brightly coloured liquid. Vinnie ducked, but a spray of blue droplets still hit his face.
The stray flecks on his arms quickly faded into his skin. His face tingled. Green and red light flashed in his peripheral vision. Don’t think about what might have hit the crowd.
He gritted his teeth and charged. Lightning cracked down his arm.
This fist would hit like a thunderbolt.
Bottle-Mask caught it. They slid back an inch, then stood straight against Vinnie’s magic. His rivers of lightning flowed harmlessly into the other person’s skin.
Vinnie leaned forward, putting more power into the bolts. Bottle-mask quivered, then a corona of light limned their fingernails. They couldn’t handle this much lightning. Vinnie pulled back, and let the electricity crackle and burn across their skin.
Bottle-mask quivered, but kept standing.
Vinnie’s vision swam blue, and he moved in for the kill. Dawnbreaker rose, fell, and passed harmlessly through empty air.
An illusion. The real bottle-mask could be anywhere. Vinnie shook the blue haze out of his eyes, and looked around at the crowd. “Get back!”
He drew in a deep breath, closed his fist, and gritted his teeth. Give them a moment to get back far enough, then…
His hand opened. A wave of gold fire rolled out, burning like muscles after a hard run. Vinnie would recover quickly from this. So would the civilians lying on the ground, if they were still alive.
So would the attacker. Vinnie heard a cackle behind him and spun around. Something monstrous, rising from the smoke. He charged and swung. The smoke-creature dissolved into a spray of ash.
Blue anger rose in Vinnie’s throat. He let out a scream of pure violence, and raised his sword…
When the crow returned with its message, Chapton summoned the griffon and flew straight for the Temple of Ienna.
Vinnie had drawn his sword. An expanding circle of citizens surrounded him. He rocked back and forth on his feet, as though about to swing at nothing — or charge anything.
When one of Jethan’s web-arrows flew out of the darkness. Vinnie twisted out of the way, and laughed at it. Something was wrong here.
“Something is wrong here!”
On the steps of the Temple of Ienna, the helmeted giant was making a speech. “We have called you here, to the Temple of Esdore —” a top-hatted rabbit-mask tapped him on the leg. “— at the Temple of Ienna, to warn you of the danger facing Kathrakopolis. Citzens, we speak of IMPENDING DOOM!”
Wildflower sprang up the steps to face the giant. “Now wait a minute! Do you have permits for a public demonstration?”
“Why should we need permits when we are SAVING the CITY?”
The griffon settled in front of the temple steps, and Chapton stood up in the saddle.
“High Magistrate! High Magistrate Chapton!”
He waved the crowd to silence. “How do we know you didn’t hire the person who attacked that citizen there?” He pointed at Vinnie. “How do we know you aren’t behind the criminal who just fled the scene of their crime?”
Vinnie snarled at Chapton’s pointing finger, sprang forward, and slashed at his leg.
That was painful. The giant choked back a laugh, and resumed his tirade.
But Wildflower had used the distraction to get close. The wrestler caught both Vinnie’s arms, and pushed him onto the ground. “I’ve got him, for now.”