The rooms were near STAR’s Dimensional Analysis Laboratory, and were cold, dark and slightly damp. It was deep underground, and while the laboratories were clean, bright, warm and sterile, beyond the airlocks that led to the rest of the ancient hideaway of the Gone, the stones were slick and water pooled on the floors.
Madrigal paced. He was a tall man, his wild grey hair shot through with a streak of white that apparently went down his face, through his eye – pale blue to his other eye’s dark brown – his moustache and his short beard without seeming to touch his skin.
“What do they want this time?” he muttered, hands buried deep in the pockets of his longcoat.
The reply came from the shadows. “What does who want this time?”
Madrigal whirled around, glaring towards the source of the voice, but his expression softened almost immediately.
“Ah, it’s you, Eve. Gave me a fright.”
Eve, the Gone, smiled slowly, the stitched-together mismatched skin of her lips twitching slightly as her grin widened, displaying a set of teeth that weren’t all taken from the same corpse.
“Doctor. Who are you waiting for?” Her voice was flat, with barely the tiniest hint of affect required to ask a question.
He sighed. “The Steward wants me to, I don’t know, berate the Path and the Shepherd for botching something with one of the latest stray retrievals. He said he’d come and get me, but it’s been half an hour, and this place is huge.”
Eve’s cloudy, grey-green, sunken eyes glittered gleefully, but her voice was still raspy and flat. “Ah, Doctor Hask, what have you done to deserve this.”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
“Well, come, get out of the cold.”
As she led him through winding, dank passages, Madrigal remembered when he had first seen her. It had been shortly after she had started walking on her own, without the jagged armatures that fit into the slots along her spine. Her skin had been smooth, and all the same colour – her current patchwork nature was an affectation, the network of crudely stitched scars part of her ‘aesthetic’. He wasn’t fooled by her limping stride, either. She could move as fast as a viper, should she wish.
“What’s on your mind, Doc?” she asked, over her shoulder.
“Remembering your first face,” he replied.
“Hah, that old thing? Can’t say I was very fond of it, once ol’ Dad had finished with it. Too sculpted. Anyway, the Steward’s set up around here. Just round this corner, c’mon.”
– – –
In the Steward’s dedicated laboratory, large bubbling tanks of green fluid held the shadowy gestating forms of new homunculi. The Steward himself was standing over one of the workbenches, carefully adjusting the flow of effervescent liquids and luminous gases through intricate winding tubes, condensers, and beakers that sprawled across the bench in a translucent thicket. He glanced back as Madrigal and the Gone entered, before returning to his apparatus and pouring a small bottle of dark red, squirming liquid from one of the many taps that dotted the structure, and slipped it into a pocket of his immaculately-brushed suit.
“Madrigal.” He glowered in the direction of the Gone. “Eve, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“And yet here I am. As a council member, it’s my right to listen in on such proceedings.”
The Steward’s great bushy eyebrows lowered into a deeper frown, but he nodded. “Very well. Our quarry in the Library escaped the attentions of the Shepherd and the Path, in the arboreal city known as ‘Foyer’. I have reprimanded the Shepherd, and she has provided some information – the quarry and their captors travelled to the Library’s false Axis, and left the Realm there for places unknown.”
“Mmm. Yes, travelling by Causeway is infinitely more convenient than our methods. Piercing the Void is already done for them.”
“Then,” said Eve, “why in the Heart’s name do we insist on going the slow way.”
The Steward harrumphed. “Absolutely not. The Causeways are an unknown technology created by unknown actors with hidden components we cannot analyse. There is no telling how many of our enemies could track us through them, or could sabotage them.”
“It’s not that unknown, you pretentious tool.” Eve’s expression was a picture of patchwork scorn, but her voice remained flat. “You refuse to learn from the vast swathes of documentation freely available in the Library, in favour of your patron and its arts.”
“The Forge-” began the Steward, before Eve cut him off.
“Nah. You can rave about it all you want, just accept that it doesn’t have all the answers. Creation, destruction and transmutation supposedly cover everything, and yet you have to turn to the non-Forge based arts of the Drowned in order to properly travel between Realms. How’re the Aeons’ Causeways any more forbidden?”
The Steward growled, and took a step towards Eve, who stood her ground, nearly a head taller than him. She cocked her head with an audible crack of vertebrae, and grinned again. Behind the glass plate embedded in the side of her skull, Madrigal could see her brain pulsing gently, suspended in a clear blue-green fluid.
“I do not appreciate your interruptions, Lady Gone. Now, Madrigal, as I stated in my communiqué, I wish to liase with the local government of the Foyan Polity to seek permission to extract our Realmic national. To this end,” he gestured at the tanks of homunculi, “we will need some backup, and I suspect I should also send the Hunter with them – she is the member of the Council best suited to tracking, and the trail is currently cold.”
“Ah yes,” Eve said, before Madrigal could venture his opinion, “sending a bunch of stumbling mooks to assist her’s gonna go really well, isn’t it.”
“She has a point,” Madrigal added.
The Steward sighed. “Yes. However, I have not explained the full plan, as it currently stands.”
“Also,” Madrigal said, “I really doubt the Foyan Polity will really let us do anything.”
“I think I know the right people to bribe.”
“Mmm. Here’s a suggestion – ask Eve to modify your homunculi once they’re birthed, make them tougher, faster and more use to the Hunter. She’ll still be more manoeuvrable, but it’ll narrow the gap a bit.”
The Steward turned to Eve. “And what do you want in return?”
She pretend-pondered for a few seconds before answering. “Say please.”