It was two days later when Isabella Hemlock came calling at Greytower.
Her arrival had been expected, the wards raising only a brief challenge before allowing her to cross the threshold. As she stepped into the front hall, a burst of wind came howling from within, carrying a spherical drone down from above. It made a beeline straight for her, stopping just inside a respectable distance to hover in the air.
“Hi, are you Nic’s girlfriend?”
Isabella’s brow shot up in surprise, considering the construct in detail. It didn’t seem to mind, continuing to bob back and forth like a child awaiting a promised cookie.
“Nosy thing, aren’t you?” Isabella said.
“That’s not a no!” the little sprite said, executing a little flip of glee. Isabella scoffed at the display, smiling despite herself.
“No, I am not Nic’s girlfriend.”
“Oh,” the drone sank in disappointment. “…are you sure?”
Isabella rolled her eyes, chuckling again. “Do you have a name, little one?”
“I’m Zephyr. And even if you’re not, do you think you could ask Nic to stop being such a spoilsport? He’d probably listen to you, and he’d be so much more fun if-”
The sprite stopped mid-sentence, stilling and settling before his guest.
“Orry says I have to bring you up now, but think about what I said? Please?”
Isabella smiled, gently patting the sprite as she approached. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Yaaaaaay!” Zephyr exclaimed, doing another flip before zipping back towards the stairs. “Okay, this way!”
Together they ascended the tower, Zephyr leading the way and talking ceaselessly for every step. Isabella held her peace, an amused smile painting her lips as she listened to the interesting tales he spun from the barest threads of truth. It was hard to say who was more disappointed when they reached their destination on the third floor.
Stepping from the landing, the pair emerged into the spacious interior of Greytower’s main workshop. Machines whirred and clicked all around, swarms of robots flitting about like fireflies, monitoring and adjusting things as needed. At their heart sat Master Orlin, casually scrolling through his omnipresent screens as he directed whatever project he was engaged in. He pushed them all aside when Isabella entered, though did not bother to rise from his seat.
“Good day, Miss Hemlock,” he said.
“Master Greytower,” Isabella replied, giving a polite curtsy. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
“Not at all.”
“We’re not busy today!” Zephyr added helpfully.
“What!?” the little sprite asked, genuinely confused. “We’re not!”
Master Orlin shot him a glare, making a cutting gesture to silence his infernal chattering. “My apologies, he’s not usually this churlish.”
“It’s quite alright.”
Zephyr started bobbing around the room in a circle, strutting around like a peacock that had just won first prize. Master Orlin rolled his eyes before turning back to his guest.
“So, may I hazard a guess that it’s not my company you’re after today?”
Isabella nodded. “I’m afraid not. Is Nic here?”
Master Orlin chuckled. “I certainly hope so.”
“I, beg your pardon?”
“Let’s just say that if he’s not upstairs, then I have no idea what’s been banging around in my tower the last few days.”
Before he could be questioned further, the elder techne made another gesture. Spellcode vibrated through the air, briefly encircling Isabella before fading back into nothing.
“I’ve given you guest permissions to proceed further,” he said. “Zephyr will show you the way.”
Isabella gave another curtsy. “My thanks Master Greytower.”
“Oh, don’t thank me yet,” he said, the ghost of a smile playing across his face. “Good luck.”
His ominous words delivered, Master Orlin returned to his screens, leaving Isabella to her own baffled devices. Deciding against pushing the issue, she turned to follow Zephyr as he zipped back to the stairwell. He remained strangely quiet for the trip up, his gag order apparently holding as they ascended two more levels.
This time they exited into a short hallway, the diffused light soft against the white walls. The only other feature in the space was the door at the far end, recessed into a metal frame. A small pile of trays sat on the ground next to it, each containing the discarded remnants of a meal devoured with great haste and little care. The topmost sat entirely untouched, the food stone cold and forgotten.
From beyond the door, Isabella heard a great cacophony of sound. Crashes and bangs overtop clicks and clatters, mingled with the snap of electricity and screech of metal upon metal. The sounds of intensive work, though possibly crossed with just a bit of wanton destruction. Below it all, just loud enough to be heard, there lay a voice. Rambling, at its quietest, too low to be understood until one of the sounds prompted a loud bolt of cursing or pained exclamations. After listening for a moment, Isabella turned a questioning look at her guide.
“He’s in there?”
Zephyr bobbed in response, his featureless body seeming to vibrate with excitement and mischief. Isabella briefly considered the implication with amusement before turning to enter, the door dutifully sliding open at her approach.
The room beyond was, in simple terms, chaos. Not merely in physical terms, though the mess it contained more than qualified for such. Equipment, parts, trash, an endless collection of things strewn about by sheer force of entropy. Isabella was able to track where tasks had been started, moved, abandoned, and restarted by the clusters of objects that had sprung up at random. What hadn’t been needed at any given moment had been shunted aside, left to gather like flotsam at the edges of relevancy, good only for concealing that one thing that you never needed but could not find when you did.
A sense of desperation hung over the room, the lingering remnants of late nights and looming deadlines. Isabella crinkled up her nose at the smell of it, a greasy musk of unwashed bodies and stale air that had not seen so much as an open window in far too long. She made a point to breathe through her mouth just to avoid the stench of it.
She was still absorbing the many facets of the scene when a flicker of movement caught her eye. From within the depths of the room, there emerged a shape. Vaguely human, arms, legs, something resembling a head, but all stooped and bent to better suit its environment. Heavy bags clung under bloodshot eyes, a tangle of hair sitting atop a pile of crinkled clothes in desperate need of laundering. So complete was the effect that it took Isabella a moment to recognize it as the same boy she had met not three days ago.
Nic did not notice her in the slightest, all his focus instead directed at the device that sat central to the madness. What Isabella guessed was supposed to be a casting rig, though it was difficult to tell. The thing had been, in the technical sense, disemboweled. A great slew of mechanical guts and circuitry spilled from the device, spread far and wide about its form on every available surface from the floor on up. Nic worked at them with a madman’s diligence, his present task involving a thin soldering torch that burned archaic patterns into the metal. What this was meant to accomplish Isabella couldn’t tell and judging by how often he was cursing, it seemed Nic wasn’t entirely clear on the subject either.
“Come on you stupid, fiddly, little, gah!”
His words lacked the cohesion of a sentence or even a single thought, each a disjointed roller coaster of meaning that mostly pointed in the same general direction. None of them broke his focus, Nic remaining intent on his task, at least until his arm shifted too far and knocked a tool kit from a table.
Fresh cursing joined the clatter of metal and breakable things striking the ground. Nic tried his best to salvage his error but only succeeded in worsening it, sending tools flying even further than before. A can of something escaped the mess entirely, rolling across the floor until it settled against Isabella’s shoe. She bent to pick it up, idly looking it over but mostly keeping her attention on Nic as he salvaged his mess, muttering under his breath the whole time.
“Need some help?” Zephyr asked, reminding the world he existed.
Nic gave a sound half halfway between sigh and growl, refusing to look up from his task.
“Zephyr there is no universe in which I would want your help.” He gathered up the last of the tools and began to stand. “And I told you to stay-”
He froze mid-sentence, his eyes going wide as they finally caught sight of his visitor. Isabella could almost see the gears chugging away in his head as he tried to connect observations with meanings, slowly transitioning from shock to realization and then back to shock again.
“Because I brought help!” Zephyr said, sounding quite pleased with himself.
Nic said nothing, simply continuing with the bug-eyed staring. He opened his mouth several times, attempting speech but only managing to get out half formed sounds. He might have stayed like that forever if he hadn’t dropped the kit again, scattering it across the floor anew. The sound snapped him back to earth, Nic giving one last curse as he set off after his tools once again.
“May I help?” Isabella asked with a chuckle, closing the distance between them.
“Yeah, sorry,” Nic said, a light blush creeping up his cheeks. “Zephyr’s been bothering me all day and I thought it was just him again.”
“All day?” Isabella asked. “It’s ten in the morning.”
Nic paused, looking at her with genuine surprise.
“It is?” he asked
Isabella nodded. “How long have you been in here?”
Nic looked around the room, as if seeing it for the first time.
“Uh…what day is it?”
“…okay,” Isabella took the kit from his hands. “Let me do this, you go take a shower.”
Isabella silenced him with a look, pointing at the door. “No buts, go shower, you stink. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Nic left the room without further protest, only stopping to blink several times as he met real sunlight for the first time in what had clearly been days. He recovered quickly, shooting an embarrassed look back over his shoulder before leaving properly, leaving Isabella alone amongst his labours.
“Are you sure you’re not his girlfriend?” Zephyr asked.
Twenty minutes later, Nic looked passably human again. Scrubbed clean, hair wrangled and a fresh set of clothes on his back. It kind of grossed him out how much lighter he felt as a result, but he resolved not to think about that as he returned to the workshop.
Isabella had been busy in his absence. The more obstructive clutter had been cleared, leaving the space around the rig clearly visible in the center of the room. She’d also discovered the room did in fact have windows and flung them open to let in real, outside air. Zephyr helped with the latter task, zipping around the room to keep a steady breeze flowing, a fact that shocked Nic the most. Zephyr did not willingly help with anything, ever, for anyone. Even Master Orlin had trouble with him from time to time. How Isabella had succeeded where so many others had failed, Nic could not fathom.
“Feel better?” Isabella asked without looking up from her examination of his rig.
“Yeah, thanks,” Nic said.
“Good,” She stood, fixing him with a serious look. “Now explain what you’ve done to this poor thing.”
As was becoming his habit around this girl, Nic found himself baffled by the question. He searched Isabella for any sign of humor or double meaning but found none. Her question was dead serious.
“This thing?” Nic asked.
“The rig. What in Sharpe’s name have you done to it?”
“I’m still working on it?” Nic offered, rubbing his neck.
“Is that you call this?” She ran a finger over the rig’s back, tracing the twisting path of the main power conduit as it snaked in and out of the mechanism. Nic was impressed when she didn’t get lost. He hadn’t yet managed to without at least two tries. Eventually she came to rest on a metal disk nestled at the base of the spine.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Power modulator,” Nic said, his voice taking on a defensive edge. “I’m still working on the calibrations.”
The look Isabella gave informed Nic that had been the wrong answer. Without warning, she wrapped her fingers around the device and twisted, the welds cracking like dry twigs as it popped off. He’d known the installation had been bad, the angle making it difficult to work, but he still made a quiet whimper at seeing all his work undone so easily.
“Yeah, you don’t need this,” Isabella said, tossing the modulator aside. “Over-complicates the circuit.”
“But the book said it was regulation,” Nic protested, despite agreeing with her. It earned him a confused look as Isabella turned to face him.
Nic pointed at a workbench, one with a large touch screen built into its surface. Currently it displayed the Code Duello, or at least what remained of it after suffering Nic’s extensive perusal. He’d left it rather mangled over the course of his reading, highlighting, underlining, and notating any passage he thought might help him retain the information. It had done little good, the annotations becoming just as much of an indecipherable mess as the text itself. Whoever had written the thing had clearly never met an adverb they weren’t in deep, unrequited love with. Nic had barely managed to understand individual sentences, never mind the overall point the book was trying to make. Judging by Isabella’s expression, he might not have even managed the former.
“How many times have you read this?” she asked.
“…again, what day is it?”
Isabella sighed and gestured back at his rig.
“Does this thing move?” she asked.
“Good, bring it outside with us.”
Isabella turned towards the door, casting a mischievous smile over her shoulder as she went.
“Well how else am I going to teach you how to duel?”
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