10073 words (40 minute read)

Chapters 1-10

*1*

"You know, there is a reason these things have an expiry date," Dr. Jacobs said as he patted my arm, "and yours is well past that. Have you thought about getting a construct, recently?"

I scowled at the man. My ire was wasted, however, as he had already returned to his ministrations. His practised hands wove intricate patterns over my stricken heart, and I could feel him shaping the nether into the forms that would bring the ailing organ back to its old self.

Well, for a while, anyway.

"We've discussed this, Doctor. It's not something I'm prepared to do. There's got to be another way."

He clucked his tongue at me as he put his fingers down on my bare chest and I felt the tingle of the magic passing through my skin. "I know an excellent necromancer just down the street that makes a great flesh construct. Cheaper than metals or plastics, and you can hardly tell the difference between this," he poked my leg, "and her work."

I turned to look at the wall, frustrated. "I'm somewhat attached to this body," I said, a bit louder than I meant to. Hanging on the wall, mocking me, was a leaflet from the Government proclaiming the benefits of transferring to a construct.

Jacobs paused and looked up at me. His face was kindly, but his voice was very serious. "Mr. Tundra. Martin. Even the strongest will can only hold these together for so long. I can, of course, continue to correct some of the decay through medicine and spells, but eventually your body will break down beyond even my ability to fix. If this heart attack had happened outside of office hours and you had been unable to get an ambulance wyvern in time, nothing short of a favour from Death would have saved you."

"This body will one day die, Martin. And you with it. And there is no coming back from that. Most people abandon these long before the expiration date, which is, what, a hundred years for a good model? How long have you been in yours, again?"

I looked at him, at his oddly perfect face, at his vivid green irises, at the barely perceptible seams that ran down the sides of his neck, at his impeccably straight hair. I breathed deeply of the purified air, feeling my heart beating strongly in my chest once more. Somewhere at the back of my mind I heard a dark chuckle.

"Two hundred and fifty years," I answered after a long minute.

*2*

It had actually been two hundred and sixty-four, but most people stopped counting a century before that, and I was considered somewhat odd already. Why draw more attention to yourself, after all? Besides, few people asked how old you were these days. It wasn't even that it was considered rude. It was considered unimportant.

My watch pinged quietly. Noon. I wiped at its surface out of habit. A hundred years of neglect had dimmed the display and permanently fogged some of the glass. Still, it was a nice watch.

I wandered out into the sun with my body back to its more-or-less usual self. I was glad that the City had an excellent health care system, or my increasingly frequent visits to Dr. Jacobs would have very quickly exhausted my army pension. Granted, there weren't many people that had lived in their original model anywhere near as long as I had. Oh, sure, there were a handful that I knew offhand who were older than a hundred fifty or so, but they didn't have organ failure on a regular basis.

This was my second heart attack this month.

Last month, it had been kidney failure. The month before, we'd discovered a rare form of cancer that I'd survived only because my magical defences were strong and had delayed its spread. That had been touch and go. Even with the tumour stalled out, it had taken the surgeon several hours to remove it. Part of the problem had been that Dr. Jacobs had been playing golf up on the Cloud, so I'd had to take my chances with the nearest emergency ward.

The doctor that had worked on me had done a good job but sent me on my way with a quiet, "See you again soon." This kind of thing was always best done with your regular doctor, as having a stranger operate on you could take a heavy toll on any body, especially one that had seen as much use as mine.

I found my car sitting quietly at the far end of the parking lot, her pristine paint gleaming in the sunlight. The lot was almost empty today, though that wasn't entirely surprising. Most of Jacobs' patients didn't have the money to own their own vehicles, and took public dragon transit or the giant mole subway. I put my hand on the door handle, felt the familiar tingle as her guardian spells checked me over, and then slid into the seat as the door swung open.

I sat there for a long time, hands on the wheel, staring off into space. It was quiet inside, the spells designed to isolate the occupants from exterior noise and vibration still strong. She was like new, even after having been on the road for over a decade. I took very careful care of her, though I could probably afford to buy a new one if she died.

Feeling a bit tired, I sighed and pulled a small amount of nether from outside the car, shaping it with a quick flick of my wrist, and then lit the ignition fire. The car roared to life, then purred quietly as I idled her out onto the road toward Upper River District and home. Turning on the music player filled the cabin with some classical orchestrated metal. A flyer rocketed past, his goggles slightly askew, smirking at me in my chariot. I flipped him the finger and cranked the volume.

The singer howled something incoherent, which I tried to emulate. It came out in a hoarse whisper. Alright, so maybe my body wasn't quite back to its usual self after all.

I knew it was only a matter of time before something happened to it that couldn't be fixed and then it'd start to rot. After that, my options were to hang some air fresheners on my ears and wait for the end, or go out and get a new model. Most of the people I knew couldn't understand why I'd kept this body as long as I had. Explaining it to them gained me only blank stares or incredulous looks.

Another laugh from deep in my brain. I scowled and pushed the sound away.

My cellphone pierced the fury of the music with a single blast of electronic anger of its own. I spared it a quick glance, saw that it was a text from a friend, and then turned back to the road. If I'd wanted to, I had more than enough skill in the arcane arts to manipulate the phone without ever taking my hands of the wheel, but I was convinced that wasn't any less stupid than handling it physically.

I pulled into my garage and hopped out of the car. The dull thump of her doors sealing behind me seemed incredibly loud in the sudden quiet. She was high quality. I'd personally assisted the worker in her creation. He had been very skilled and hadn't really required my help, but it's common for a car company to allow an owner to participate in his car's birth. I appreciated the gesture.

Walking in the front door, I dropped my keys on the counter. This had been a long day, and I could use a nap. At least I was probably healthy for another month.

There was a sudden fluctuation in the air next to me, and then a small winged creature appeared from nowhere. It opened its tiny, tooth-filled maw and barked out in a sing-song woman's voice, "Martin, it's Dr. Jacobs. I have bad news."

*3*

I turned to the little beast and sighed. It shook its head in a comically sad fashion and said, "I'm sorry to do this over Imp Messaging, but our phones are down and I have an emergency surgery on an ogre in ten minutes." The Doctor paused, leaving the imp to stare at me in annoyance, wings fluttering wildly to keep its round bulk in the air.

"Better just get to it, Doctor. You wouldn't be telling me here if it wasn't really, really bad," I said with more than a bit of trepidation.

The irritated imp snapped back into its Jacobs impersonation, and the doctor again spoke through its mouth. "The cancer's back. And it's past the point where we can correct it. You don't have much time, Martin. The damn thing is spreading at an unbelievable pace. You need to get out of that body, and you need to do it today."

I fell more than sat in the chair at the counter. The imp had resumed staring at me balefully now that the doctor had once again fallen silent. It swatted at one of my wisps absently. My cellphone sang again. My watch pinged.

Resignedly, I asked, "How long, Doctor?"

"A month, maybe month and a half. But you will find it pretty unpleasant in there over the next two weeks. You need to get into a construct before your body becomes too weak to handle the transfer spells," the imp said. It looked frantic.

A distant and ethereal laugh echoed from the depths.

I put my hands over my face and took a few deep breaths. When I felt slightly calmer, I looked back up at the imp. "Thanks for letting me know, Doctor. I have some things that I need to do, I should go."

The imp again looked very sad, and said, "Alright, Martin. Please keep in touch, you may not require my services again after you have transferred, but I would still like to know how you are." It reached up, patted me roughly on the head, and then vanished with a flash of light and a small pop.

I sat at the counter for a long time after Jacobs had hung up. A wisp settled on my shoulder and watched me quietly. A taxi dragon roared past outside. My neighbour shouted obscenities at his cat.

My phone chimed again, and this time I clicked it out of standby and had a look at my messages. My friend again, demanding to know why I wasn't answering his texts. I chuckled, briefly breaking out of my funk. Nox was never a particularly sunny and happy fellow.

I decided that I'd call him in a bit, and settled back into thinking about my predicament. I idly pulled a bit of nether from the air and shaped it into lights, letting the spell spin around my fingers in tight patterns. Looking out through the walls of reality, I could see the oceans of arcane energy floating in decaying, quiet menace. Energy enough to reduce the world to dust. I smiled bitterly.

The Government classified me as an archon, a creature with a terrifying amount of magical strength, but right now, that didn't mean a whole lot. My magical talents were almost entirely on the violent side of the spectrum. I could shape forms that annihilated whole Districts, but I couldn't heal so much as a paper cut. I couldn't save this body any more than Jacobs could.

Which meant a construct. I shivered and immediately turned away from the thought. Transfer was just as bad as death, as far as I was concerned. And I'd go to my grave before I'd meet my end in a transferring rite.

The alternative was to ask Death for a reprieve, but that was a long shot at best. The Horseman would need a pretty compelling reason to stay his hand, especially as I'd avoided his grasp for so long already. His brethren could also give me a stay of execution through their powerful magic, but War was keeping a low profile and Famine and Pestilence were absent. No one knew where the two sisters were.

No, the Four Horsemen were not going to be my salvation. There were other elder beings like them that might have the power to help me - the Green Lady, maybe - but they were unpredictable at best and were just as likely to take my life as to save it.

My watch pinged, and shortly after so did my phone. Two texts: one from Nox, this time stating that he'd come to my place and eat me if I didn't respond; and one from the Government, reminding me that my pension would end the day after I met my demise, as per the conditions of my retirement package.

I put my head against the counter and wondered how the day could get worse.

*4*

I decided that I'd go for a walk to try and clear my head, taking the time to send Nox a quick message letting him know that I wouldn't be particularly tasty and that I'd talk to him later. I didn't get a response, so I threw on a better jacket and headed out.

I left my house, shooing away the horde of wisps that tried to follow me out the door. A gremlin bolted past as I walked down my sidewalk, the beast was clutching a battered fedora and cackling madly. A few seconds later, a particularly angry steam construct went crashing by. I stood aside for it, as I was pretty sure my ailing body wouldn't take kindly to a head on collision with two metres of metal and magic. Across the street, an imp floated along next to a man, the two arguing with each other rather animatedly. I briefly wondered if the imp was working or if it was offline. It reached out, poked the man in the nose, and then floated up out of reach as it continued yelling. The man swatted at it angrily from below.

I soon left the residential areas behind me and entered into the parkland that ringed the District. It was quiet here, and I frequently walked this way when I needed to think. The breeze whistled through the ancient trees. I could hear birdsong from somewhere in there, though it may have been a sprite. I hoped it wasn't. I was direly allergic to their damned powder.

Ignoring my surroundings for the moment, I considered my situation. I could try some of my contacts in the Government. I'd spent the better part of a hundred years fighting in the Department of Enforcement and later the Department of Operations. Maybe Research had something experimental that could help.

I shook my head. And owls could teach me to two-step.

Constructs again circled through my head, and I frowned. I understood the draws that transferring had. There were a lot of good reasons to want to get a new model. Maybe the original was dying, or had a genetic flaw of some kind, or the owner didn't identify with the gender they'd been born in, or even just the desire to be someone or something else.

I stopped and frowned. Then I turned my gaze inward and whispered, "Are you there?"

For a long moment, there was nothing. I had just started to give up in disgust when I heard the familiar laugh from far below.

I'm always here, Martin.

I shivered, as I always did when talking to him. I usually longed for a hot shower after. "Anything you care to add to save ourself?" I asked. The question echoed hollowly through the darkness. There was more silence, and then suddenly I felt his presence erupt from the depths, crashing up against the surface in a roiling geyser. I staggered and felt nauseous. Through the sickness of him being near, I heard his voice.

You can let me out.

I gathered my wits and with a fair amount of willpower, gathered him up and threw him back into the pit. He laughed the whole way.

I shook my head violently, and gulped for air. My mind was empty once more, though I thought I could hear him cackling from far away. Having recovered enough to move, I snarled something obscene beneath my breath. I should have known better than to speak to him.

He's a monster.

I don't talk to the Other often. I have to keep my guard up or he might break loose. Usually, he's content to haunt the dark recesses of my brain, watching. Sometimes he gets in close and pushes the walls and I have to push back. Sometimes he pushes the walls when I'm not at my best, and then I'm the one in the box. Being a passenger in my own body is not a fun experience. I always get the wheel back, though. Eventually.

A hand took mine, and a familiar and pleasant scent filled the air. I smiled without looking over at my new companion. Thoughts of constructs and death and the Other vanished, and I felt my day brighten.

"Hello, Ceile," I said, squeezing her hand.

"Hello, Old Man," she said, squeezing my hand back.

Ceile is my oldest and greatest friend. I met her on a crazy New Year's Night, the one where the Cloud was finally released and tethered to the Morning District. I don't remember a whole lot about the night, but I woke up in her hotel room and she woke up in mine. We've been steadfast friends ever since.

She called me Old Man, despite the fact that she was over a decade older than me. Of course, you couldn't tell. Ceile had abandoned her body long before I'd met her, having been in her flesh construct for over two hundred years. The necromancer who had built her new body had done an amazing job. Her light brown skin was so smooth and felt so much like original model flesh that unless you got a really good look at her, you'd never know. The seams were very subtle, the usual tremor of magic running beneath the surface almost unnoticeable.

My friend looked like she was thirty. And she would forever.

She rubbed some dust off of the ornate bracer on her right arm, and said, "I am sorry I was not able to get here sooner. The dwarves were acting up along the old water tunnels under Lower Eight and we went in to make sure they remembered who lost the war. I got your text while I was five kilometres down." She squeezed my hand again, looking worried as she gave my body the once-over.

Ceile wasn't a powerful magic user, having virtually no training and little natural strength, but much like Dr. Jacobs her skills with healing and other medical spells made me look like I had no talent at all. My friend made a gesture with her free hand, and I felt the alien tingle of one of her scanning spells. Unlike me, Ceile was an elementalist, shaping her magic from aether of the element of water. Not only was that living energy invisible to me as it flowed around us, but the feel of it was also completely different than that of something shaped from nether.

It made me uneasy, even after all my years. Not because it was different, but because being touched by aether made you feel alive, whereas being touched by nether felt like being dipped in oil.

Unless the spell in question was a fireball, then the two energies felt very similar.

Whatever Ceile saw during her scan made her shake her head in dismay. I gave her a laugh, "Jacobs is one of the best medical wizards in the City. If he says it's over, then it's over."

Ceile stopped walking and pulled me around to face her. She was almost half a foot taller than me, and staggeringly beautiful. She had chosen to appear as an elf when she had transferred into her flesh construct, and carried herself very much like a member of that aloof species.

She looked thoughtful and then gave me a tight hug. Turning us around, she started walking back up the path while gently pulling me into step next to her. With the barest hint of a smirk on her face, she said, "Let's go get a drink. I have someone I want you to meet."

*5*

We made our way back to my place to grab my car. Ceile could run the forty blocks without breaking a sweat, but I was an old man and that was a long way for me to walk, even with my ticker ticking away properly.

The guardian spells let my friend in first, as usual. I was pretty sure the car had a thing for her. Once we were both settled in the cabin, I fired up the engine. My chariot rolled down the driveway while I closed the garage door with a quick spell and then we were roaring down the road.

Ceile was quiet and kept giving me covert looks as I drove. I looked over and gave her a roguish grin, to which she wrinkled her nose in amusement and turned away.

Truth be told, I was feeling almost giddy. The cloud I'd been under for most of the day had faded away in her presence. She'd told me once that I had the same effect on her, but I'd always wondered if she was only humouring me. Ceile was the strongest person I knew.

We arrived in the Uge District and I pulled into one of the dingy parking lots that peppered the area. Rolling down my window, I swept my phone past the ticket kiosk screen to pay the fee, and then left the printed ticket on my dash. The sound as the car locked behind us was almost mournful.

My watch pinged, and I absently wiped at its display as Ceile and I walked out into the Uge. The almost-giddiness had started to dissipate. This District was loud, colourful, and dangerous. Coming here alone would have been a mistake. Sure, I could turn this block into a river of molten lava, but my body would fall apart from the strain.

It'd been a long time since I'd been able to reach anywhere near my potential.

No, I wouldn't be much use in a fight if we got jumped, but I wasn't alone. Ceile was a soldier, and one of the best. She was more dangerous than pretty much anyone in the Uge. You'd have to be pretty stupid to attack her.

"What does he think about all this?" Ceile quietly asked, giving my hand a tight squeeze. I knew who she was talking about without having to ask. Both she and Nox knew about the Other.

"He thinks it's funny, for the most part. Hasn't had much to say about it, though. He's been unusually quiet, other than a half-hearted attempt to break free earlier," I answered after a moment. My companion fell silent again.

I suddenly felt eyes on me, and shivered. The Uge was packed to the gills with every type of construct available. There were virtually no original models here, and even the most unobservant person could tell I was very much original. There were dangerous looks being shot my way, and I knew that many people here took the presence of people like me very, very poorly.

A group of metal constructs, titanium maybe, watched me intently from across the street, and there was nothing friendly about their gaze. Ceile didn't spare them a glance, but she did take my hand again.

I occasionally felt like a child when she was around. I wasn't strong anymore, despite the power that lurked at my fingertips. Over two centuries of medicinal and magical treatments to keep this frail body intact hadn't kept it from slowly tiring. Now, even a short walk could leave me breathing hard. A construct could take me apart pretty easily, but Ceile could hold her own against almost anything. It was mesmerizing to watch her fight.

As we headed for our destination, the group followed along. There were a lot of them. Not for the first time tonight did I think meeting Ceile's contact at a Basilisk & Castle back in the Upper River District would have made more sense. We were only a short way from the entrance to the pub and its neon sign depicting a cat in the process of being electrocuted when the group made its move.

"Hey! Fleshy!" one of them yelled as they all rapidly closed the distance. Knowing what was coming, I slowly turned and readied myself. I felt bad. This wasn't going to work out for them at all.

*6*

"Look at this one, Cogs!" one of them sneered as the group moved to surround us, "He's gotta be a millennium old!" The others all cackled evilly, and the sound of metal lips clanging filled the street. I noticed that the area was suddenly devoid of people. Oh good, these guys have a reputation.

"What, you too good for a replacement model, fleshy? You think you're better than us? Huh?" another of them snarled. More laughter. Ceile's hand tightened on mine, and I knew she was just waiting for them to get a little too brave. One of the constructs turned away from me and looked her up and down.

"Look at you. Still clinging to who you used to be, and trying to look pretty. I could give you a ride you'd never forget," it said in a nasty tone, making an obscene gesture and then reaching forward to prod her roughly in the chest.

I cringed a little inside.

Ceile let go of my hand gently, and in one smooth motion bent the Cog's arm in half. The construct squealed in electronic pain and fell away. The others roared and closed in on us, the first of which caught a kick to the abdomen that caved its plating in and sent it flying back into the street.

I tried to stay with her, mainly to make sure I didn't catch a wild swipe from one of the constructs by accident. Ceile moved like a viper, striking and moving so fast that she quickly overrode the ability of myself or the constructs to keep up with her. Still, there were a lot of them, and my friend could only do so much against that big of a group. One of them managed to lay a hand on her and tore away a large chunk of flesh from her shoulder.

Ceile howled and kicked that Cog in the face, almost ripping its head from its shoulders. It dropped like a rock, spewing oil and electric screams.

The constructs hadn't bothered with me yet, obviously not considering me a threat. From somewhere at the back of my mind, I felt something shift. Movement in the depths.

Let me out, Martin, and I'll teach every last one of these dogs to behave.

I shook my head, pushing his presence back toward the shadows. "I've got this, go back to your box," I said, under my breath. He laughed.

Ceile got hit again, and this time the blow threw her backward against a car, caving the driver's side door in. The Cogs swarmed toward her, and now I had to do something. I steeled myself, reached out and drew nether into my hands, prepared to shape it into the forms that would tear all of them apart.

Just in time to catch a punch to my face that knocked me flat and took my breath away. The nether flashed away, back into the oceans roiling behind the curtain. Spots danced across my vision, and I could just barely see Ceile being lifted from the cratered car and a couple Cogs drawing out wicked knives and grinning. A foot dropped into view in front of my face and then I was lifted high into the air, coming nose to nose with a smirking construct that was saying something about tearing my head in half.

In the middle of the chaos I felt the Other rush forward, hitting the surface in an explosion that rocked my mind. I tried to stop what was about to happen but I was too dazed and I couldn't push back

and then I pulled aether from the air around me, fingers already shaping the gusts. In a split second, I tore the head off of the construct holding me in the air and threw its body across the street to smash into several of its buddies. I slowly floated to the ground, the forms dancing around my feet, summoning the wind to further do my bidding. I laughed manically.

I was free. I could taste the elements again. I could feel the wind.

I could hear Martin angrily yelling from deep in my mind, but I ignored him.

Some of the other Cogs had noticed my performance, and were turning to come punish me. I laughed even louder, filled my arms with aether, and began folding it repeatedly. I gave the nearest construct a dirty look and a grin.

The wind suddenly rose from a breeze to a gale. The sky far above went grey, and then lightning blasted down from the clouds, hitting one of the Cogs and leaving it a smoking mess on the ground. I heard Ceile scream something, saw her staring at me in desperation. I ignored her, too. Besides, the thunder was too delightfully loud to hear her anyway.

I continued shaping the spells, reaching into the vortex to bow it to my will. I hit one of the Cogs with a bolt that sheared off its right arm and threw it into a building down the street. The aether rippled around me, begging me to turn it into destruction. To use it to devastate the block. To destroy the District. I decided that was a great idea.

Drawing ever more aether to me, I reached to the sky to pull down the tornado that would take the Uge down to the bedrock, grind it to dust, but something was wrong. My arm wouldn't rise above shoulder height, and I felt weak. My vision went fuzzy, and I felt dizzy and nauseous. Both Martin and Ceile were screaming at me, but my ears were full of a buzzing noise.

My chest felt suddenly tight, and I dropped to my knees. I snarled against this betrayal by my body, but the effort to do much more than that eluded me. I tried to stand back up, but I was so tired. The wind was gone, the sky once again full of fading sunlight. I looked up and I could see one of the Cogs standing over me, its arms reaching down to my head, a hand on either side.

Martin shook the bars of his cage in fury, and I tried to shoo him away. "Not now, Martin. I'm busy dying here," I whispered, hoarsely.

I suddenly felt pressure and pain as the construct began to squeeze, its face full of demented pleasure. I struggled to stay conscious and I felt Martin throw all of his strength against the bars

and then I put my hands weakly up to try and stop the construct from crushing my head, barely aware of the Other's ragged and angry cries from the depths at the back of my mind. I'd regained control, but all I think I was going to succeed in doing was dying at the wheel. The Cog suddenly looked up over my head and yelled something.

Then the pressure was gone, and the construct's feet flew up into the air out of my vision. I heard something snarl loudly beside me as I dropped unceremoniously to the ground.

The Cogs turned as one to the new sound, their faces full of anger and rage. One of them charged at the newcomer, and I had just enough of a view to watch it go flying back in two pieces.

"Do we have a problem here?" rumbled a voice that was deep and mostly growl.

The intact constructs fled.

Ceile was instantly at my side, and while I tried to speak, I could barely breathe. I could see her lips moving and healing magic darted across my body. Some of the tightness eased. She looked really angry.

A massive, furry, clawed hand dropped roughly onto my shoulder, and a huge wolfish face moved into view, glaring down at me. I gasped for air, but I was smiling.

"Hello, Nox," I whispered hoarsely.

"Martin," the werewolf growled back.

*7*

Ceile was an accomplished healer, but she was no doctor. Fortunately, it didn't look like my heart had decided to take the day off after all, and after a few minutes I was able to stand on my own legs. Nox had a strong hold on the back of my jacket anyway. As we walked down the street, I was pretty sure I could have stopped my legs and kept right on moving like a string-less marionette.

The street was full of people again, some stepping gingerly around the fallen constructs, others helping them up and into the shadows, others still scavenging pieces from the less fortunate. Most of them would be fine, as their head cases were all intact and could be transferred or rebuilt without much trouble. Well, provided they could get someone to take their head to an engineer to do it.

Ceile had a painful grip on my hand. She was pretty angry, and she spent most of the walk to the local medical outlet muttering angrily about the Other. In return, I could hear him weakly giggling at her. I kept quiet, but she was wrong. If he hadn't broken free, she and I would probably be dead and Nox would be busy ripping every Cog into tiny pieces.

Not that I was happy about the Other running the show. There was a good chance that left to his own devices long enough, he'd either kill everyone around him or himself, and by virtue of that, me.

Regardless, if Nox hadn't shown up, my head would be in multiple pieces and places at once and Ceile not much better off. The big 'wolf walked just over my shoulder, scanning the crowd around us for threats. I could tell he was angry, though that wasn't entirely surprising. Nox was almost always angry at something or another.

"You spend the morning in a damn hospital and you come here of all places?" he growled, menacingly. The crowd was already giving us a wide berth, but it thinned out even more at the sight and sound of the grumpy beast.

Ceile answered first. "This was my idea, Nox. We are meeting someone at the Cat once we are done putting the old man back together," she said. Nox snorted.

"Then you're both idiotic and I should drag you out of the District. Martin should be in bed, not fighting 'struct gangs. You're lucky that was just strain and not another heart attack," the 'wolf growled, though quieter this time. "As it is, once we're done with the medics I'm taking you back to your fancy car and sending you on your way."

Ceile slammed to a stop and started to let Nox know just how likely it'd be that he could send her anywhere when I put a hand on her shoulder and turned to face the 'wolf.

"I'm dying, Nox," was all I said.

He looked down at me, and for a brief moment his wolfish face was filled with sadness. He shook his head slowly and said, "I know." Sighing deeply, he caught hold of my jacket, lifted me off the ground, and continued our march toward the medical facility. I tried to reach the pavement and walk on my own for a few futile strides and then finally gave up.

Ceile caught up with us and took my hand after giving Nox a glare. I shrugged my shoulders as best I could and gave her a grin. For a brief instant that glare settled on me, and then she also shook her head and a slight smile cracked her face.

We walked - well, they walked - in silence for a couple blocks until Nox startled me by saying, "You obviously aren't here to get yourself a construct, and I don't imagine that's what you planned for him either, Ceile. So what's the deal?" She shook her head and pointed ahead.

We had arrived at the medical building, all white and sterile cleanliness. It stood out like a sore thumb against the chaos of neon and illusion outside. "Let us get this sorted out and I will give you the details," Ceile quietly said as we walked up the stairs and in the glass doors.

We didn't have to wait long. In a neighbourhood of constructs, a medical team doesn't have much to do. The young tech who took care of us laughed unconcernedly about some big fight that had just happened down the street, unaware that we had a little something to do with it. Afterward, he filled the exam room with a healing mist, asked us to stay for about ten minutes, and then went back to watching the television at the front desk.

I looked around at my companions, and barely concealed a weak grin. We were an odd trio.

The exam room was spacious enough for the three of us and a technician, but the chairs were not designed for something like Nox. Almost three metres of blond-furred fury, he loomed over me and Ceile, clicking his nightmarish claws on the counter impatiently. His vivid blue eyes were constantly in motion, taking in everything around him at a speed that few others could match, much less exceed. There was a reason the Government required people like him to be licensed and closely monitored. Even lucid permanent therianthropes were very dangerous.

He said nothing, just looked angry even though he was probably only irritated. The 'wolf's face rarely showed anything other than anger or angrier. The shaggy hand that wasn't trying to vandalize the marble counter scratched idly at the fur under his chin.

By contrast, Ceile no longer looked angry, just serene. She always amazed me. My friend could fall into a terrifying rage or bitterly cold fury, but it was when she allowed herself to quiet and calm and settle that she was her strongest. Her attacks would flow like water, fast and smooth and deadly. She had to be pretty upset to have let the Cogs get the jump on her.

Her lightly pointed ears poked out of her mostly short-cropped dark hair, and I think she might have fit in well walking the streets of an elven city. At least until the elves realized she was a flesh construct, and then things might get ugly. Elves and humans might not be actively hostile with each other like we were with the dwarves, but they weren't happy to have us wandering around their cities either.

She stared at nothing, lost in thought, eyes focused on some distant object. I had questions for her, but I didn't want to interrupt and I knew that she would tell me when she was ready. She wouldn't have risked my life here in the Uge unless it was for a real good reason. If she wanted me to meet someone, it was important that I do.

And what about me, Martin?

I frowned but didn't respond. The Other laughed and floated along, just beneath the surface. Watching. He wouldn't bother trying to break free right now, but it was still disconcerting whenever he hung around.

The tech reappeared, breaking some of the discomfort, and waved us toward the exit with a flamboyant flourish. Nox lifted me to my feet, despite my squawk of complaint. I gave him a sour look, but the big 'wolf just snorted and ducked out the door.

We walked out into the night, Ceile on my left, once again holding my hand but gently now, and Nox on my right, no longer holding me up but walking very closely just over my shoulder, his big furry head scanning everything around us for trouble. The presence of my friends made me feel stronger, and I tried to maintain a steady pace, knowing that they were both drastically slowing their strides to match mine.

The familiar electrocuted neon cat materialized out of the fog of lights, and as we neared the entrance I had a quick scan of my own around the area. The constructs were all gone, and what damage there had been to property or street was already repaired. They didn't mess around in the Uge. Its denizens liked the noise and chaos of the place, but if anything was out of order, they had it fixed very quickly.

Nox took hold of the door handle, which seemed tiny in his hand, and held it open for us. I gave Ceile a wink and walked on through, my companions following me into the brightly lit interior. As the door slowly closed behind us, a sign appeared to our right.

"Welcome to the Electric Cat," it said as the pub's neon mascot rode the lightning forever.

*8*

Compared to the din and racket outside, the Cat was pretty quiet. I'd been to the Uge District a handful of times over the years, but had never set foot in this place. Ceile came here a couple of times a week with some of the soldiers we'd fought alongside over the years, and she had a reputation. The Cogs were either new to the area or just stupid, as pretty much everyone here knew my friend could mangle a steam construct with her bare hands if she wanted to.

A bulky plastic construct nervously walked up to us, wringing his hands and looking like he wanted to be anywhere else. The pub's bouncer, and a new one from the looks of it. He came to a stumbling halt in front of us, and his eyes twitched back and forth between the floor and Nox.

"I'm very sorry, sir, but I must see your license," the poor fellow stammered out, trying hard to seem intimidating and authoritative but failing miserably in the face of the werewolf towering over him.

Nox snorted, which nearly sent the newcomer scrambling for cover, and then reached down to his belt. Flicking a pouch open, he reached in and carefully pulled an identification package out with two of his very large claws. Looking down at the bouncer, he dropped the document into the withering construct's hands, crossed his arms and began tapping the claws on his feet against the tiles impatiently.

The bouncer looked his prize over, nodded with relief, and then haltingly passed the package back. "Thank you, Agent. No slight intended, just following regulations," he said as he slowly backed away. He gave a half salute and then turned and fled.

Nox sneered at the construct as he vanished into the back room. The big 'wolf put the document back into its pouch and went back to scanning for threats. He didn't have much patience for bureaucracy, even if he understood the reasons for it.

Along with having to be licensed, permanent therianthropes - as they were labeled by the Government - were usually pressured into working with the Department of Enforcement. Mostly to keep tabs on them but also to take advantage of their strengths. Nox was no exception. He'd been an Agent with Enforcement for almost ninety years, having been taken in by the Government when he was just fourteen.

Unless Ceile had summoned him here to meet us, his presence here meant something big was up in the District. Enforcement policed the whole City, but the people here weren't any happier about extra-humans than they were original models. Sending Nox in meant the Government needed muscle, either to take down a big target or to keep the place quiet. He was adept at either.

I had questions for both friends. This was turning into a really weird day.

If you ask me-

"And I'm not asking you. Shut up," I said, under my breath. Ceile gave me a funny look, but I waved her off. The Other just chuckled and vanished into the depths.

We sat at one of the split-level tables, with Ceile and me on the upper seat, Nox on the lower. These booths served the dual purpose of being more comfortable for big patrons and also putting everyone at roughly eye level. The 'wolf settled in, not looking pleased but at least looking slightly less irritated. My less-monstrous companion put a hand on my leg and looked around the pub intently.

"Alright, who wants to go first? Ceile, who're we here to see? Nox, what're you doing here? Unless Ceile called you in, something bad must be going on in the District," I asked. My voice was shaky, but after the day I'd been having, I was okay with that.

Nox gave a low growl and then stopped his scanning to look at me. He shook his head slowly, then said, "The Department sent me here to bring the District back into order. We'd been getting reports of some of the old gangs reforming, so I was to find some of them and tear them apart." He lifted a claw and pointed at me with a sneer, "And it's a good thing I'm here. That group was huge, and they were going to kill you both right in the busiest part of the Uge. That's either a lot of guts or a lot of stupid. Once we're done here, I'll have to go and make sure they don't get to do it again."

I looked at the werewolf and I was reminded that as much as I regarded him as my friend, he was very much a monster and a weapon. The Government didn't keep him on the payroll for his stunning intellect, though he wasn't an idiot. No, they kept him because there wasn't much out there that he couldn't kill.

Ceile and I liked to joke that he could take a dragon.

What would be more interesting is to see which of your friends could take the other.

I snarled in my head and lashed out with all my will, sending the Other spinning away into the depths of my mind. He laughed as he vanished into the darkness.

Nox had fallen silent and returned to gazing around the room. The other patrons were avoiding his gaze as much as possible, though one goblin in the corner made brief eye contact and then fled for the washrooms with a squeak of fear.

I turned to Ceile and raised an eyebrow at her. She quietly looked at me, her emerald green eyes intense and unblinking, and said, "There is a man that has agreed to meet with us. He is a wizard, and a powerful one, but his true power lies in gathering information. And he has information that I think you very much need."

Seeing my look of confusion, my friend reached up and touched my cheek. Her soft, light brown skin was warm against my face.

"The Fountain of Youth, Martin. He knows of an artifact that can restore your body. Do you not see? You are going to live forever with me."

*9*

I stared at her, mouth agape, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Nox was doing a fair approximation of that as well. The laughter in the dark corners of my mind had gone dead silent. My watch pinged.

After a long moment me, Nox, and the Other all started talking at once. Though the big 'wolf's voice was quiet, at least for him, he drowned my own out. "What are you talking about, Angael?" he snarled, "There's no such thing."

Ceile ignored him, just continued looking at me. I frowned and said, "How, Ceile? That kind of magic doesn't exist. Science either. And I won't transfer to a construct." That last part echoed through my head. As far as I knew, a construct was the only thing that would save me. If I chose not to take one, then I'd be gone. But Ceile would live on forever, provided her body wasn't completely destroyed somehow, swapping from construct to construct.

She'd live on forever. Without me.

Ceile must have seen something in my eyes, as she took both of my hands and held them tight. Moving in very close, she stared at me intently. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Nox staring at nothing just over her shoulder.

"You are right. No spell, no surgery, no medicine will work. I have researched every option to exhaustion and came up with nothing. A hundred years, I have looked! All for nothing," she said, her voice briefly tinged with desperation. "And when I had almost given up hope, prepared to accept that my greatest friend would one day be gone forever, this man came to me with an answer."

Now I was really shocked. For so long, I'd just let everything slide, thinking I'd figure something out when my health got bad and all along, Ceile had been looking for a solution. I suddenly felt ashamed and looked away.

Ceile put a hand under my chin and pulled my head over to look into her eyes. "Do you trust me?" she asked.

I nodded without hesitating. I trusted her with my life. If she thought there was a chance this man knew how to save me, then it might work. I squeezed her hands. She smiled, brilliantly.

"His name is Bill. He is," she paused briefly, "a bit odd. But he has a reputation, and a very good one, for finding things out. He had heard of my search and he was intrigued."

Nox was staring at us silently, his face pensive, one bushy eyebrow slightly raised. He looked almost comical, though mentioning that to him would have probably been a mistake. I could feel the Other hovering just below the surface, listening. Ceile smiled at me again, and then turned toward the pub floor and beckoned.

From out of nowhere, a thin man appeared. Garbed in flowing, rainbow robes covered in chaotic patterns, he would have been almost perfectly camouflaged in the cacophony of neon in the streets outside. He had unruly brown hair and a ridiculously twirled mustache. Ornate brilliant blue rings decorated each of his fingers. He strode forward with purpose, stopping at the foot of our table. He bowed deeply.

"Hello, my friends! I am Bill. And I know everything."

*10*

Bill sat himself down on the upper seat, having chosen a spot where all three of us could easily see, hear, and speak to him. Ceile smiled at the wizard. Nox did not.

The Other lurked, uncharacteristically quiet.

"I imagine you all have a lot of questions, and I will attempt to provide answers for each but this is not the place for such discussions. Instead, I'll give you my five minute pitch, and if you like what you hear we can go to a slightly more private location," Bill said, arms gesturing wildly.

I struggled to wrap my head around the constantly shifting cadence of the strange fellow's speech. If he was hiding an accent, he was doing a good job. I couldn't begin to pick a region he might be from.

"Your friend Ceile Angael is correct. I am in constant search of knowledge, traveling the world looking for the answers to things I do not know. Listening for tales that might turn out to be true." The wizard paused for effect. Nox snorted and clicked his claws on the table.

"And somewhere out there is something that can somehow do what magic and science can't, wizard? This is ridiculous. Ceile, I can't believe you fell for this. Martin, let's get out of this dump," the big 'wolf growled and started to stand. I looked over at him and was about to say something when Bill abruptly slammed his hand down on the table, palm down. Each of his rings flared red.

The lights in the pub went out, and the other patrons faded into shadow, their noises deadening and then vanishing altogether. A brilliant red light sprung into existence behind the wizard, back-lighting him in crimson. Wind had sprung up from nowhere, and Bill's hair and cloak billowed out. Then he spoke, and his voice echoed through the void we now found ourselves in.

"Stay, friends! I am Bill, who was once known as Peter and will one day be known again as Poe! I have walked through terrible lands and nightmare realms! I have spoken to fell creatures and beings older than this world itself! I've parlayed with Death, the Eldest of the Horsemen; swapped riddles with the Earthmonger, King of the Dwarves; sung a dire dirge with the Harrowtree, Lord of Wolves and Ravens! I have walked among dwarves and elves and kobolds and dragons! I have traveled to the Reyan Desert in the deep south and dipped a toe in the poisoned ocean at its edge, and journeyed to the very end of the Ravenmyre in the far north and looked into oblivion! I've learned magic from archons, the greatest of wizards, and shared stories with an aethon, an elementalist of truly mind-boggling power! I have ventured to the tallest mountains and to the deepest caves!" the wizard roared.

"And there, my friends, in a vault far below the earth, lies an artifact. A relic from a distant time, built when the human species created horrors simply because they could. This device can regenerate a human body, give it back its youth and vigour," the wizard said, his voice quieter. "The particulars I can give you later, should you choose to hire my services. Suffice it to say that this item can save your life, Martin Tundra, and extend it well into the future. If we go get it, that is."

With that, the wizard lifted his hand from the table and the pub returned to normal. His rings slowly went dark and then back to brilliant blue. I blinked in the sudden light and looked around to find the other patrons completely oblivious to Bill's magic.

Nox was looking at the wizard with disbelief and distrust written plainly on his face. His claws were frozen over the tabletop. Ceile, on the other hand, was looking at me with hope in her eyes. It was obvious that she believed that Bill was not only telling the truth but also that his prize might do what he says it does.

I wanted to believe that, too.

"How long, Bill? How long to go get this thing?" I asked. Nox started to growl something at me, but I put my hand up and he grudgingly went silent. Turning back to the wizard, I continued, "How long? Will it be dangerous?"

Bill gave me a smile, and said, "Two weeks. Longer if things go wrong. And yes, we're going to run into trouble."

Two weeks. Longer if things go wrong. That put this little adventure past the two weeks of relative healthiness that the doctor had given me and closing on the date range of my death. So, that meant the last bit of this journey was going to be unpleasant, if I chose to go.

If I chose to go. I didn't have a lot of choices, really. If I declined Bill's services, then what would I spend my last days doing? Obviously I'd spend them with Ceile and Nox whenever they had the time. Get nostalgic with them, laugh over old stories and a pint, at least until my body deteriorated to the point where I was stuck at home or in a hospital. And then I'd lie there and wait to die. Or I could continue searching for some escape from my doom, pour over the libraries, scour the dark parts of the lower Districts for a less-than-legal solution of some kind.

Or I could buy a construct and undergo the transfer rites.

I shook my head slowly. No, none of those would be my fate. I wouldn't lie in a bed, my body disintegrating around me until the end came. I wouldn't find my salvation in the City. Any areas I hadn't already searched would have been poured over by Ceile.

And as far as I was concerned, transfer was a bit misleading. Cloning, more like, and cloning where the original is destroyed. Oh, that wasn't what the Government and such would like you to believe, of course. They'd been supporters for centuries. No, as far as the vast majority were concerned, transferring your consciousness into a construct was the natural progression of things. Ceile's reason for abandoning her birth body was different, but she still believed that once your original model had reached its end, the next step was transfer.

I broke out of my thoughts to find everyone staring at me with very different expressions. Bill was smiling gently, fingers steepled beneath his chin. Ceile looked excited, continuing to squeeze my hand tightly. Nox had returned to his seat and was now glaring at me in disbelief.

"You're thinking about this. You're actually thinking about going on this trip, and you don't know anything about it," the 'wolf quietly growled.

I looked at him for a moment, and then nodded. "I've got weeks but not months, Nox. And I'm not interested in going to shake hands with Death quite yet. What else can I do?" I said, then turned back to Bill. "Alright, Bill, let's hear the details. I'm interested."

The wizard clapped his hands and a broad grin split his mustachioed face. "Excellent, but not here. Some things should be spoken of only in private. My home isn't far, we can discuss the adventure there," he said. Then he lifted free of his chair as though he were a marionette with invisible strings and floated to the pub floor behind him. With a flourish, he waved us all toward the door and then strode away with a spin.

Ceile burst into laughter, squeezed my arm lightly, and then slid off the bench after dropping some coins on the table to cover our drinks. She was still laughing as we walked to the door and its neon cat, with Nox thundering along behind us, his wolfish face dour.

From somewhere at the back of my mind, I felt the Other smile.

And so it begins.