All the Dust that Falls

Chapter 316: We’re Off To See The Wizard

Chapter 316: We’re Off To See The Wizard

As I called time, all the contestants put down their cleaning supplies and stepped back. A moment later, I warmed up my sensors. It was time to judge the window cleaning competition.

I was doing the judging right on the spot for the finalists, but I had a suspicion of who was already going to win. Jared Kay was a jeweler, and his skills at gem polishing had transferred very well over to glass cleaning. He had made it to the finals with very little competition. But washerwoman Willow just might have given him a run for his money. The other six there knew that they really stood no chance and were mostly competing for the lesser prizes and just the pride of being able to clean the best windows in the capital. Though I was proud of them nonetheless.

Still, I remained unbiased. I would look over each of their efforts and judge them fairly, of course. But before I was able to zip down and begin, a messenger ran up to me. The man's face was red, and he was clearly out of breath.

"Lord Void," he panted, dropping to both knees and pressing his forehead to the ground. "The lady, Susan, has asked for you to come at your earliest convenience. Monk. Monkfish. Tibet. Rhinoceros,"

I wiggled with satisfaction at the code I had devised for passing secret messages. It amused me to no end to use the seemingly randomly chosen words for such important matters, but no one else was quite getting the joke. Regardless, it told me that Harold had sent a message that required my attention. It was concerning, but I did have to finish judging.

"Tell her I will be there shortly," I told the messenger, and he ran off once again. I would likely beat him to the palace. Still, in the unlikely event that we had to do a tie-breaking round this season, it would give Susan feedback that I was at least aware of the message.

I went through the contestants from left to right, shining my Sanitation Lamp through each pane of glass and measuring the transparency to see what percentage of light filtered through unaltered. I projected the results as a numerical score, simplified to only the eighth decimal, above each contestant. I would have displayed the whole value, but it tended to confuse people a bit too much. Eight decimals were good enough, I supposed.

I was impressed by all their efforts. The amount of polish that had gone into these performances was impressive. The 109,823 grit cloth did a very good job of putting a near-perfect shine on glass surfaces, and it came down to the very two favorites. They were within 1/10,000 of a point of each other.

So, with such a small margin between them, I decided to run a tiebreaker. I produced two more panes of glass, each equally marred with scratches and abrasions and mud, and gave them three minutes to do with what they wanted. All the onlookers cheered off to the side with the rather large crowd as we observed them scrubbing frantically, using all sorts of skills and ingenuity to not only clean but fix the glass. When they presented their final products, the jeweler bowed to his rival. "I am sure you have it, Miss Willow. I can only be awed by your talent. If you ever need a job, I have some connections," he said.

Sure enough, my sensors confirmed it. She had eked out the victory. That the other human could tell at a glance was very impressive. His jeweler-related skills must be so overpowered and well-trained that they hardly resembled the base skills. I couldn't even imagine which ones he was using despite having access to all of them.

After handing out the awards, I headed over to the palace, where I found Beatrice and Susan waiting for me. My sensors picked up their conversation as I approached.

"I'm surprised that Harold found anything interesting," Beatrice said. "What could have been so urgent?"

"Well, Harold's been in Barleona's capital for a long time. I'd hope that he'd find something by now," Susan replied.

"Barleona?" Bee's eyes widened. "I knew he was behind enemy lines, but that far back?"

"Well, I wouldn't really call them 'enemy lines.' Officially, we are on neutral standing with them, but they have been rather… adversarial," Susan explained.

"What did he have to say?" I chimed in, hovering in the room with a cheerful wave. The others bowed briefly as I appeared.

Susan unrolled a slim piece of paper and began translating the coded message. "Demons control civil service. Not just summoned labor. Cults present. Suspicious location at coordinates:" she said, listing off some map coordinates.

I immediately plotted where they were on my world maps. They were deep in the mountains in Barleona’s center. It was a place even Daedalus or Beatrice might have trouble getting to quickly. I could get there, of course, but anyone else would have to pass through a lot of Barleona's defenses.

"Well, we already suspected that the demons had set up shop in Baleona," Beatrice said.

"Yes, but it's important to have confirmation. Suppose we commit too much of our forces there on incomplete information. In that case, we leave ourselves open to reprisal elsewhere," Susan added.

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I chipped in some thoughts of my own. The words about a giant ritual made me nervous. "I don't think they can revive the lieutenants that I have consumed, but perhaps they are able to summon more?"

Susan shrugged. "Harold doesn't say what the ritual might be. I doubt he knows himself, though."

"Well, they did have to come from somewhere. But whatever it is, it can't be good." Beatrice nodded. "We need to find out more."

"Did Harold have a scheduled message drop or anything?" I asked.

Susan flipped over the piece of paper. "No, but he did receive a more hastily scrawled note that he was going to have to leave the city."

I beeped in concern. Barleona's capital was not anywhere near friendly cities. He might be able to get to other cities and send more messages from there, but that would take some time.

"Did he ask for extraction?" Beatrice asked.

Susan shook her head. "No, but he's probably going to need one."

"We need to send people, but I don't know who we can spare..." Beatrice murmured.

"I told them to wait. I think Archibald and Daedalus need to be in on this conversation. They would know most about what kind of ritual the group of Lieutenants would be trying to enact," I projected. In a moment, I zipped out of the room to scan for the big dragon.

I found the pair in the largest courtyard of the palace, both surrounded by people. Daedalus had numerous flower crowns hanging from his spikes as he daintily nibbled at the half of a cow that the citizens had given him. Archibald was telling stories to a couple hundred adults and children, the group watching with enraptured expressions. He stood on top of a crate as he spun his tales, drinking from an ale horn and chewing on a turkey leg.

I considered landing next to Archibald, but I was hesitant to interrupt. He was telling the story of his first time flying with Daedalus, and I knew it was everyone's favorite. So, instead of dragging him off immediately, I projected an image in his line of sight that told him to wrap it up and then headed toward Daedalus.

"What is it, my friend?" Daedalus rumbled. His tone suggested he was trying to whisper, but it was still loud enough that everyone could hear. 𝑅ead new chapt𝒆rs on novel𝒃in(.)com

"Oh, just a lead you might be interested in," I told Daedalus, who huffed some smoke out of his nostrils. "I like your decorations,"

Daedalus rolled his eyes at me and wrinkled his nose. "Yeah, well, the pollen is getting to me, so when we leave, I'd appreciate some help cleaning it up. Otherwise, I'm going to sneeze, and the people around here will not like it when I sneeze."

I started running my air purifier, directing it at the air around his nose, and he breathed in deeply. "Ah, much better, thank you."

We made some more small talk as Archibald finished his story. When the man finally came over to see what I needed, he climbed on Daedalus's back, and we soared over to the palace. I didn't remove the flowers decorating Daedalus like he'd asked. They were far too adorable to do that. Still, I did maintain my air purification the whole way over, preventing some rather destructive dragon sneezing.

When we landed, Susan filled the pair in about what Harold had said, and we all lapsed into some thoughtful silence. "I have a few ideas," Archibald said. "None of them are good."

"Yes, none of them are good…" Daedalus huffed. "In a place like that, no one hides demon-summoning rituals without good reason."

"Then we need to stop them as soon as we can," Beatrice argued. "Or at least get information. There could also be many reasonable explanations for something like this. But we need to investigate, and we need to extract Harold."

"I have an idea," I said. "Archibald and Daedalus, would you be willing to help escort a diplomatic envoy under emergency status to discuss the matter with their head of state?"

Daedalus thought for a moment as Archibald frowned. "A diplomatic envoy? Are we the diplomats?"

"No, just the escort."

He tilted his head to the side, then nodded. "Not a bad idea. Having a dragon as an escort may be a little overkill..." He shot a glance toward the red dragon beside him, "But we can always say he's an interested third party as well."

I projected a thumbs up above my chassis. Having Daedalus along would be a great help. The real question is, who else should go?

As I posed the question and turned to Beatrice, Susan immediately shook her head.

"You can't go, High Priestess. We're busy here," Susan objected. "You're too important to the city for you to just be gallivanting around. The party isn't even half over yet,"

Beatrice sagged in defeat but seemed to accept the woman's words. "Well, who else then? Tony?"

Tony was a good choice. He had spent a lot of time leveling and mastering his Custodian of the Beyond abilities and had become quite scary in his own right. Susan, though, wasn't exactly happy about the suggestion.

"If Tony's going, I'm going too," she folded her arms. "No way am I letting him go on a diplomatic mission himself. That guy can't lie or do politics to save his life."

She and Beatrice argued for a little bit about the practical issues of Susan leaving, but I decided it was okay. Still, I instructed her to pass off any important information to the Warden so that he could take over her duties for a while. The man had moved closer and closer to retirement but still had an active role in wrangling the Theocracy's politics. For Beatrice, he acted as an advisor more than anything. Still, he could run this information network for a little while before he got exhausted.

Susan nodded, heading off to find the Warden. Archibald and Daedalus left soon after to find Tony, intending to leave within an hour. As the group went about their preparations, Beatrice and I were left alone.

"Are you sure there's nothing we can do?" She asked me.

I gave her a beep of reassurance. There was still plenty of opportunity for her to help around here. Besides, with Archibald and Daedalus gone, the sky races would need a new judge.

For some reason, Beatrice groaned.

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