Miro tried to shift to the mortal world. “Ah, ‘the Underground’ is literal. If my lady would grant us earthswimming and flight, this will proceed more smoothly.”
Ardent laughed. “I suppose it would, sugar. Sorry.” She cast the spells, and they shifted to the mortal world. They earthswam upwards, dodging around wards that covered the mortal as well as the fey realm. The wards were invisible in the mortal realm, and the fey buildings did not exist there, so once they broke the surface, Miro’s line of sight was unobstructed. Soulsight showed a dizzying criss-cross of lines throughout the Etherium, ranging from attenuated and pure to knotted and corrupt. He could focus in on a single line, however, and the rest faded to background noise.
“Hold up a moment, sugar.” Ardent caught him up in one arm. The privacy bubble travelled with them, so they were still inside it. “One of Fallen’s people is still tracing me, so assuming anyone’s paying attention to it, she’s gonna know what we’re up to. Which is what I want, broadly speaking. But I don’t want her to know for sure that you’re the source of my strange new power. So if you’ll tell me which way to go, I’ll follow it. She hasn’t got a scryer on me, so I don’t think she’s listening in.”
He pointed, and Ardent flew across the Etherium. Miro gave her the occasional course correction as she went, when she had to detour around wards. Wards could not be placed closer together than half a yard, as a general rule, and could only be made so large, so they could not make the Etherium unnavigable even when they extended to the mortal realm. The mortal realm had none of the twistedness of Etherium space: no vastly stretched homes, no artificially shortened paths. On the whole, it was a far smaller place than its fey equivalent. In a couple of minutes, Miro told Ardent to stop as she started to go around a ward. “She’s inside this one.”
Ardent released Miro to shift to sparrow form and straddled the fey and mortal realms. They were beside one of the Palace walls. She tried ignoring the wall to see what lay through it – a fey straddling worlds could choose which parts to interact with – but the privacy ward blocked her. “And it’s definitely her?”
“Oh yes. Very distinctive.”
“Great. Wait – you can see souls through a privacy ward?” She shifted back to the mortal realm and her normal shape, and put her arm around him again.
“Yes. Soulsight isn’t the same as regular sight, and since almost no one has it, no one’s ever thought to ward against it.”
“Well. Isn’t that interesting? Let’s go look for some of her other minions. Pick – would you please select one of her stronger holds, and we’ll follow that?”
Miro parsed out one of the thick, knotted cords that led back to Fallen’s soul-hands, and pointed. “That way.” Still holding Miro, Ardent returned to the mortal world and flew off in the new direction. He asked, “So what exactly are we doing here? You do realize she’s got solid holds on dozens of souls, and perceptible strings on literally thousands?”
“Oh yeah. We’re never gonna find them all one at a time like this. No, we have several purposes here, and finding everyone isn’t one of them. First, we’re gonna find the people she’s most likely to trust and depend upon, because somebody like Fallen doesn’t trust anyone she can’t control. Second, we’re gonna drive her crazy trying to figure out what we’re doing. How long do you think it’s gonna take her to figure out that I’m flying to within a few feet of her physical location and then flying to within a few feet of some random mook’s physical location? Because I am betting on a long time. Everybody in the Moon Etherium teleports everywhere. No one remembers where things are in relation to one another. She probably won’t remember where she was when she’s looking at this log. Nevermind where her flunkies might be. Third, once she does figure it out, she’ll become paranoid about whether or not we’re watching her most trusted people. Which I will be, by the way. Tracing, at least. Fourth: she’s going to be desperate to know how we’re doing it, and she’ll waste time trying to figure out if it’s something she can duplicate. Fifth: it’s the distraction. While she’s busy figuring out what we’re doing here-and-now, the plan I’m hoping will work is coming to fruition two hundred miles away. Oh, and sixth: we might get lucky and follow a line that happens to lead to the phoenix rose. If she’s trusting anyone else with its location, you can bet it’ll be someone she has a hold over.”
Miro smiled, amused by the curious deviousness of it. “So you can not only control someone’s behavior by watching them, but you can control them by being watched?”
“Never doubt it, sugar.” She grinned at him. “Of course, Fallen’s been controlling me by watching me, too. That’s why I haven’t gone back to my apartment. And am wondering if I want to go back to the Underground. I should at least message them about the goon I left sleeping there.” She paused to summon her farspeaker surface. “I’ve got his aether signature now. I can always find him later with the tracer. If I figure out how that rod he used to break into my room works, I can even fish him out of a warded area. Am I drunk on power yet, sugar?”
He held up thumb and forefinger pinched close together. “Perhaps by a whisker,” he said, and she laughed to hear her colloquialism on his lips.
She flew on, and started to say something else when he told her, “Here, just a few feet ahead.” She backed up, and straddled the fey world. They were in a floating park located on the back of a huge turtle-shaped golem. A dozen or so fey were playing a shapeshifting racing game. They were currently all different kinds of centaurs, halfway across the park. “Which one is it?”
“That paint stallion centaur, in russet and white.”
Ardent caught his aether signature, and then ported back to where they’d found Fallen earlier. They repeated the process to find five more indebted individuals. On the sixth, Miro lost the thread partway to the target. “Either they teleported elsewhere, or Fallen did,” he explained. “Either one would move the path of the obligation.” Ardent ported them back to where Fallen had been, and Miro shook his head. “She’s not here now.”
“Heh. Well, she’s easy enough to find again.” Ardent hooked her bag out of the locket with one finger, then pulled the tracer golem from it. She gave it Fallen’s aether signature, and it dutifully wrote out her location. Ardent teleported to the closest unwarded space to it. She turned off the trace again, and then they were off to find another of Fallen’s potential flunkies. “And if she didn’t notice us already, I’m sure she’ll have noticed that. I don’t think she can block the tracer, however. I haven’t been able to shake hers on me. So I’ve just made her more paranoid about being traced back to the phoenix rose, but I’m sure she was already paranoid about that.”
After a couple of hours, they had fifty-three aether signatures, and Miro’s soulsight felt blurry. “Do you get souleyestrain?” Ardent asked, concerned.
“I don’t know. I’ve never spent so much time following obligation-lines before.” He closed his eyes and rubbed at them, which didn’t seem to help.
“Time for a break. We need food anyway. And I can pick up those books I wanted from White Rose. Also, figure out where we’re going to spend the night. I am leaning towards ‘outside of the Etherium’. Perhaps ‘far outside of the Etherium’. As in, far enough that we can’t be traced or scryed. But then there’s the matter of timing. I don’t know how much time we can afford to lose to paranoia.” Ardent crinkled her nose, and took them to the Archive.
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