“Dion keeps looking over here,” Somrak murmurs as he scouts out the secret market, looking for the best stall to start at. Though most of the sellers don’t have ‘stalls’ per se. They have simple tables, or even just blankets laid on the cobblestones of the ephemeral courtyard, a place that only exists in the Insula Caelestis at certain times, when the moons and stars align in the right configurations, and only for those bearing the correct medallions. While having a solid storefront might suggest competence to buyers, most of the merchants in this temporary market prize the ability to pack up and leave swiftly, for their products are those which are in high demand among a certain very specialized, niche clientele, those in need of imports from a land impossibly distant and yet almost close enough to touch: Hell.
“Varah will take care of that, don’t worry,” Alma whispers back. She looks down at her disguise, adjusting the cut-down jacket that conceals almost nothing. “So…plans?”
Somrak glances away from the market to look at her, and half-smiles. “Everyone will assume he’s just mesmerized by the hot mercenary anyway. You know the plan. We put it about that we’re looking for a summoner. Keep it vague whether we want to hire or be hired. Try to get a line on who’s still in the area now that the more obviously dangerous gangs have been cleared out.”
“That was not exactly what I meant. I meant…what part will you have me play here?” She moves closer, whispering, “And you are not exactly helping in making me more at ease in this silly outfit.” She looks down at the skin-tight, low-rise leather trousers, the matching midriff-revealing, cleavage-advertising bustier, and the leather jacket studded with bronze spikes, too tiny even to be closed. Festooned with knives, the ensemble looks like something Saira would wear, if Saira cared nothing for the practical protection that leather provides. Which is exactly what it is: the leftovers of Saira’s outfit, after being shredded in battle by the demon she and Sky fought, salvaged and redesigned by Sage. It was meant to be a gift to Saira, but a little judicious use of magic resized it to be a perfect fit for Alma. Further magic has changed her hair from its usual snowy white to a lustrous raven-wing black, and her skin tone to something with a hint more color than its normal creamy alabaster.
Somrak’s leathers, magically returned to their usual black-with-crimson-highlights so as to match Alma’s outfit, fit equally closely but do not reveal as much skin, though he has unzipped the jacket to show more of his smoothly muscled chest, wearing no shirt underneath. The idea is to make them appear to be from the same mercenary company. He has not changed his appearance, except for a simple spell to make the scar across his face fade into something barely noticeable, nothing more than a faint line.
“Well I didn’t choose it, did I?” He catches the look on her face and relents, reminding himself that just as he has a great deal to learn when it comes to being a normal, station-bound cop, Alma and Gwydion have had little to no experience in going undercover. “Just move with me, like we’ve fought side by side for years. If you recognize any faces, or if something comes up that clicks with something you know, break in if you feel it’s right, or signal me and we’ll slip off and share information.” He glances over her outfit again. “You’re a sexy death machine. Own it. Live the part.” He grins.
Alma rolls her eyes, then looks around, eyes flaring for a moment as she engages her divine sphere. Somrak catches a scent of cypress and cinnamon for just a moment. “See that corner to my right, the one with the animals?”
“Mm-hm.” He looks without seeming to look. The merchant is a rotund, jowly figure, sitting on a folding chair and fanning himself, lazily blinking his single large eye between a jutting forehead and a pug nose.
And around the merchant are creatures leashed, in cages, or in glass tanks, and many of them defy easy classification as well. Exotic, certainly. Strange hybrids of fish and frog, spider monkey and spider, hare and stag beetle, are on display, but the most striking is a beautiful tiger that lounges in a semicircle around the merchant’s feet.
“They are not animals,” Alma says. “Not normal ones, at least.”
Somrak takes a better look, knowing they will probably be approaching the merchant soon anyway. The tiger’s fur is the opposite color of the usual, a beautiful greyish-blue where it should be orange, white where it should be black, and vice-versa, like a negative. He calls upon his own sphere, that of fire. A familiar sound of crackling wood, a palpable heat, and the smell of burning causes Alma, the only person close enough to notice it, to look at him. “Their body temperatures are unnaturally high,” he says. “They’ve been magically altered. Metabolisms boosted. They’ll move fast, strike hard.”
“And live shorter lives,” she finishes bitterly. “And I cannot see them with my scrying. Not most of them. They do not have souls like normal animals. I remember reading somewhere that that was a way of smuggling demon souls and forming hybrids in the old days. First step before human-demon hybrids.”
“Remove the soul, replace with demon,” Somrak says, nodding. “I’ve seen it before. Doesn’t show up as possession to most spells, either. And then sell the demon-possessed, speed-boosted creatures as weapons. You said ‘most’?”
Alma nods. “That tiger…it doesn’t seem to have had its soul removed yet. A few of the smaller ones too.” She snorts as they approach the merchant. “And to think it was me the Council wanted to kill…” She falls into her role, putting her wrist on his shoulder and her chin on her hand, looking over the merchandise. “Baby, what do you say we find a replacement for old Fang? Been awhile since we had a pet.”
Somrak grins. “As long as it can rip off the right faces and doesn’t beg at the table.”
“Oh, you know just what I like!” she exclaims with a grin and a little bite to her lower lip topped with a couple of playful pats to his chest. Her touch on his chest feels like a mild electric shock, and for a moment he thinks she has infused him with her mana, but then realizes it is his body thrilling to her touch. “I’ll train him well, you’ll see. After all, I trained you.” She winks and moves closer to inspect the animals. He has to tear his eyes away from her. The way she moves, this playful exploration of a role normally denied to her.
“Mrrrr…” the cyclops purrs. “Iiis best in market. You wan’ fighting beast?”
“What do you have?” Somrak asks, fascinated by the merchant’s eye, which on closer examination has a double-bifurcated pupil, four lenses each in the shape of a rounded quarter-slice of pie.
“Mrrr… Thiiis tigre iis ver’ amenable. Eat enemy, no body disposal. Mrrrr…”
Alma kneels in front of it. Surprisingly, the tiger raises its head to look at her, then closes its eyes and bumps its head against her ribcage, rubbing its brow against her. “Why he’s just a big kitty!” she cries as she strokes tiger’s chin, turning her head to hide her divine vision from the merchant. Somrak, however, sees her eyes glowing greenish-blue as she inspects the tiger closely. “You look so big but you’re just a kitty, aren’t you? Just a cute big bad tiger. Ooh, those are some big teeth!” By now the tiger is lying on the cobblestones, belly up, enjoying Alma’s energetic caresses and baby talk.
The merchant nods, smiling to reveal snaggle teeth. “Mrrr.” Somrak decides this is the cyclops’ way of laughing. And that the cyclops is actually female. “Part wolf…iiis, mrr, ten parcenture? Obey strong personality. But challenge weak one. Mrr. Eat big then.” Her grin is a horror to behold.
Alma laughs. “I like him, baby. Reminds me of you.”
Somrak gives her a look of hungry passion. A small voice – it sounds suspiciously like Sky’s – reminds him he is only playing a role, and so is Alma. But in the moment, falling deep into his undercover role as he always does, he doesn’t listen to that voice. To be what he pretends to be, and to be with her, an Alma as free of bonds as the character she is playing – would that not be sweet? He feels his heart pounding as he imagines kissing her, right now, no reservation, just kissing her with all his being. There is a very dangerous moment when he comes within a razor’s edge of doing it.
Then that little voice, so like Sky’s, whispers Remember. And he does. Remembers past dreams of love, dreams that would have been better left as dreams. The moment passes and he exhales, only then realizing he has not been breathing. He looks away from Alma and says to the merchant, “In that case he should be perfect. But the kind of things we get into…we need something with defenses.”
The merchant nods. “Got ways. Hear of aresion?”
Somrak narrows his eyes. It is a diabolic practice of infusing barely-sentient demons of war into a life form. “Don’t that cause sudden catastrophic fatalities?”
“Only, mrrr, one in twenty case. No problem, most time. Unfair rep.” The merchant’s assurances are a lie. Somrak knows that the failure rate is more like one in eight.
Alma stands and puts her arms around Somrak’s neck from behind, cheek brushing against his ear in mocked pleading for a tiger-shaped gift. “That was how we got our last pet his shields, remember? Just need to know the right guy.” She looks at the cyclops and shrugs. “Our guy is dead now. His contract expired.”
“Mrrrrrr…only, er, idiot let contract expire. Better off without him.” The merchant’s purring laugh sounds nervous. She would know that Alma is not talking about a mercenary contract, but a demonic pact. “I know summoner. He never fail to get de…ermmmrrr, extension? Ha, extension.”
Somrak asks, “How long to infuse the tiger? And if it fails to take properly, we are not paying. Just to be clear.” Alma’s arms on him no longer distract with thoughts of impossibilities. He is only playing a role, and so is she, and he is glad for her touch only insofar that it indicates he hasn’t made obvious that his desire for her is more than just acting.
The cyclops considers. “Delivery in three day.”
Alma curls Somrak’s ponytail around her finger. “Baby, you know I don’t trust goods from summoners I don’t know.” She looks at the merchant. “I wanna meet this one before we do any business. We’ve had enough people try to cheat us.” She moves her hand down to one of the half dozen knives on her belt. “Just try, mind you. I’m sure you understand, business woman like you.”
The cyclops eyes her nervously. “Mrrrr, this summoner got rep. Guarantee good. No independent.”
“With a gang?” Somrak asks. “Which outfit?”
The cyclops looks around, her jowls sinking. “De Whisper. You know…”
Alma pretends to be impressed. “Isn’t that the one with the diabolists?”
The animal merchant nods. “Ask roun’. Here, everyone know Whisper.”
“We’ll do that,” Somrak says. “We’ll be back. Maybe.”
“Probably,” Alma insists, hammer-punching Somrak’s shoulder. “Come on, sweetie, I really like him. I’ll call him Misty.”
As they move away, Somrak says quietly, “I get the feeling this is the first you’ve heard of this Whisper gang too?”
“They are not local, I can tell you that. And that would explain why they keep evading us. As I suspected, we need to start warning our neighboring wards. I’ll enquire with my cousins again, see if they know anything.”
“Could be our quarry,” Somrak agrees. “If not, we have even more trouble on our hands. Let’s do that asking around, then have a word with Dion and Fencer. After that, see if we can convince One-Eye to let us attend the summoning.” He glances back at the tiger, which is watching them go like a rejected dog at an animal shelter. “Maybe we can steal us a kitty before any infusing happens.”
Alma grins. “Oh baby, you know just how to make a girl happy, don’t you?”
“Stop looking at them. Focus.”
Fencer’s growl is low and discrete, at least by busy market standards, easily missed by most otherwise-engaged ears, but somehow it carries through to Dion’s distracted mind, raising the hairs on the back of his head to attention, in the same way that catching the faintest of snoring sounds bouncing off calcareous stalactites would freeze the blood of anyone taking shelter from the rain in a dark, suddenly not-so-empty cave.
“I am perfectly focused,” he lies, averting his eyes from the other side of the market, where Alma and Somrak are currently trying to gather information, to look at Fencer with a carefully blank expression.
“Could have fooled me,” she replies with a snort.
She is right, he has to admit. Although, of course, not to her. It is not just a matter of this being the type of operation that Dion very much dislikes and usually avoids for its naturally uncontrollable, unpredictable character. For as much as he is willing to admit that such actions are sometimes justifiable, they just feel to him like a rather dishonest way of upholding the law. Somewhat like cheating for Guardia, who are supposed to set an example that civilians can follow. And then again, that is why they call these things off-blue ops (as opposed to the everyday true-blue Guardia work). But perhaps more uncomfortable than this temporary change of roles is the apparent eagerness with which Alma, so worried before about Saira’s involvement in the whole demon issue, now puts herself in the role she did not want the woman playing. She seems to not mind at all that Somrak, hot-headed and vicious when provoked Somrak, is constantly taking control of the investigation away from her, or even the occasional glances of desire he keeps dispensing her. Dion’s mind treacherously plays back Alma’s admission that she finds the fire god attractive. And seen together now, walking side by side with matching outfits, even if Alma’s hair and the exaggerated sway of her hips is all wrong for her, they seem like a perfect, matching pair. A better match than Dion could ever expect to be.
Stop it! he scolds himself. This is not the place nor the time! They are undercover. Stop being weak!
“My niece tells me you’re good at what you do.” Fencer’s voice cuts into his thoughts like an axe into butter. “Let’s see if she’s looking at you straight.” She looks around at the stalls. This part of the market is slightly more elaborate, more turned to selling alchemical components and, therefore, requiring specialized containers and shields. Many of the things being sold here could very easily explode or, in a slightly less colorful scenario, metabolize half the market into primal muck if they were to be released from their special tubes and transport media.
“We need alchemical merchants selling things that are not on display,” she announces in dry tones that certainly don’t match her chosen cover’s outfit.
In fact, nothing in this cover even remotely resembles Fencer’s usual look or personality, no matter how much she hasn’t changed about herself. Her red hair, usually military-short, now falls in rich curls over her shoulders, a few locks braided with golden thread and tiny bells reminiscent of what would happen if a very lonely, fashion-forward lady were to own a very depressed angora cat. Her blind, milky eye looks pristinely crimson after a simple illusion spell, matching the other one perfectly, now that the spell that usually courses through it in silvery lines has been dimmed. Her practical, no-nonsense leather outfit has been replaced with long, colorful skirts and a flimsy, frilled, low-cut red blouse that is just short enough to leave her fit abdomen on display. In short, she looks exactly like Fencer would if all the bile in her were to be replaced with pixie dust. Or something she could have become if life had taken a different turn, maybe.
Too bad she still has the same personality, though.
“It would help to know at least something of what we are meant to be buying,” he notes, letting a hint of irritation creep into his voice. “I could identify similar ingredients that are on display.”
For a moment, it is like Fencer didn’t even hear him, or is pretending not to. She remains silent, making no secret of her visual browsing around the stalls, tables, heavy-duty cisterns propped on engine-powered carts and flat surfaces alike, like a buyer so used to this place that she finds no danger in it. Then, she says in almost casual tones, “What can you do with infera aura?”
Dion pauses, mentally browsing his internal library of spells and spell components. This is a test, he senses. Fencer thinks very little of him already – actually, Fencer is famous for thinking very little of everyone but she seems to despise him with a peculiar intensity. Surely, she will know of the trail of scorned lovers he has left behind in the First Ring, but does she suspect his involvement with her niece? Anyway, it is imperative that he makes a good impression with the subcommander.
“I could make something that enhances psychic abilities,” he replies, making a mental note to remember that this is an important component in soul bombs. “Clairvoyance, telepathy…maybe psychokinesis.”
Fencer harrumphs at his answer. “Huh… Been studying your lesson amidst prowling for your next bedmate, have you? Very well, let’s play with that knowledge. Tonight, you are my client, trying to increase your psychic abilities. Any final goal you’d like to have?”
Dion finds himself taking unwilling, boyish pleasure at her response despite the stinging comment about his personal life. He has passed her test. Thank the Fates for small favors.
“How about the ability to read souls?” he offers.
Fencer snorts, possibly at the thought of him delving into her area of expertise. “Sure, why not? All I need is an act you can keep, Prettyboy.” She jerks her head at the stalls around them. “So…who’s trading in the rock here?”
Dion breathes deeply before taking a more attentive look around. Doing his best to remain as inconspicuous as possible, he keeps his powers reined in as he analyzes the goods on display, looking for anything out of the ordinary. His eyes glint only a very pale golden over the usual hazel that Dion has done nothing to cover. Other than a less-formal attire and a simple spell to turn his hair blonde and tan his skin, Dion, by far the more mortal-looking and less conspicuous of the Three Rat Dei force has very little trouble keeping attention away from himself. A familiar tingle to his senses makes him focus on a rickety stall made of stacked-up wooden crates organized in tiers and covered by a filthy rag that must, in some former life, have been a potato sack.
He gestures subtly at it, with his chin. “The fellow with the eyepatch. He has some lesser wares on display, but they are essentially impure versions of infera.”
“Then that’s where we start,” Fencer replies. “If you’re not sure of what to say, just stay quiet. Let me do the talking.”
Dion takes another deep breath at her deprecatory tone, trying very hard not to sigh. Dealing with Fencer, he is finding, means spending most of the time between fear, shame and irritation in equal parts. How can Alma have dealt with her so long and still hold any affection for the goddess? They move toward the stall and a merchant who could very easily make a fortune advertising for wooden sea-faring vessels and old maps defaced with big red crossmarks. Dion finds himself thinking of fish dinners for some reason.
“If you’re not buyin’, move on,” the stall owner grumbles with a scowl that doesn’t look so much directed at them than built-in for general purposes. “You’re takin’ up space for payin’ customers.”
Fencer responds to this with a smile that could have been pleasant if it had a little more practice to it. She makes a show of looking around at the complete absence of any other customers interested in the man’s wares, one hand on her hip in relaxed defiance.
“Now there’s a way to attract clientele!” she says with a nasally, high pitched voice that could have sent dogs running away whimpering. “Come on, we’re good for the money if you’re good for what we’re lookin’ for. And I can tell you it ain’t here…” she adds with a disappointed look at his stall.
The approach seems completely lost on what Dion is beginning to think of as the least likely merchant to sell anything on this side of the Urbis. “Fine! You think I don’t have what you want, then get out of my face!”
“Hang on,” the god intervenes, trying to salvage what little chance they have of making the man talk to them. He picks a chunk of greyish-yellow rock speckled with reddish-black mineral deposits and sniffs at it like an amateur connoisseur with no magic abilities would. Infera aura, one of the many minerals a mage is required to learn about at the Magic Academy, is famous for smelling like a scream, although to Dion’s nose, it has always smelled like a mixture of fireworks and blood: pungent, metallic but with a note of sweetness and mustiness if scented through the roof of the mouth. This chunk of rock smells only very faintly of that against the obvious sulphurous reek of the stone encasing the tiny deposits of infera aura. “Well…this would have to be refined considerably. But if it is all we can find…”
Fencer puts a hand on his as if to advise him to put the rock down. Her fingers feel cold as steel against his skin. “Calm down, dearie, we just got here.” She turns to the stall owner with a meaningful look on her face. “New customer, impatient little critter. Come on, help a girl out. Gotta eat an’ all.”
“You won’t find anything purer in the Fourth Ring than what Lucky Pete carries,” the man states with a grunt. “Third, either. I just keep it off the table. Can’t trust nobody.”
Dion cannot help but marvel once more at the cruel irony that mortals tend to wield against each other in their so-called friendly demonstrations of affection. Not that this fellow seems used, or even willing, to indulge in demonstrations of affection. With a squat, square face populated by sun marks and a greyish-yellow hue that speaks of a dying liver, he looks at them disapprovingly through a single eye, the other currently hidden behind a leather patch that doesn’t quite manage to conceal the whole of a terrible scar running from his left eyebrow to the ipsilateral cheekbone. His chin is lined with a patchy, stubbly, greying beard to match the filthy, greying brown hair on his scalp, not much darker in color than his yellowing teeth, crooked and chipped, that must have chewed on too many tobacco leaves. Add to this to a disjointed frame that has him permanently hunched over his right side, and Lucky Pete does not look lucky at all.
Still, his overall terrible looks are not even remotely as nightmare inducing as the sudden sound of Fencer’s playful giggles. “Lucky Pete, hey? I’m Crystal and this gentleman…heck, I don’t even know his name but then again, why would I, right? Anyways…he’s got this real fierce competition in his business, just tryin’ to stay a couple of steps ahead if you get my meaning.”
Dion can only admire the commitment with which she keeps up this flirty, savvy act, so different from her usual, commanding self. Against all odds, she seems to fall in Lucky Pete’s good graces, for he curls his lip while still managing to keep the frown in place. “Needs insight, eh?” He looks Dion up and down with a look that would make a prized heifer instinctively show its teeth. “You got any ability with readin’ minds at all? Or you just pretend?”
“I…I have flashes,” Dion lies, forcing a stutter. “Moments. Not enough…”
Pete nods his head, unimpressed, as his hand reaches down to produce an old battered, once-green metal box locked shut with a padlock. “Yeah, sure you do. Well if you ain’t got any real ability, this won’t help. But that’s your problem, not mine.”
He unlocks and removes the padlock that was easily more expensive and is probably harder to destroy than the box itself. This would probably look nonsensical to most people but anyone knowing what the box contains would also know that infera aura has an unfortunate tendency to blow up under relatively high pressures and elevated temperatures. And as Lucky Pete opens the box, Dion can see his suspicions were correct. The inside of the battered, metal case is rigged to explode if anyone tries to force the lid or its hinges. In the center, on a padded cushion, sits a chunk of infera aura as big as a child’s fist, all spikes and black veins against a blood-red crystalline background. Lucky Pete puts the box down before Dion, harrumphing in victory at Dion’s faked astonishment.
Dion makes a show of examining the mineral, raising it to his nose with one hand while the other, placed next to the box and momentarily out of Pete’s attention range, subtly releases a tracking spell, a thin golden line that crawls into the box and curls under the padded cushion and out of sight to lie in waiting of Dion’s activating command. Dion puts the rock down on the cushion again. “There is not enough here for what I need.”
“Well, there’s enough for me to cook you something for your first session,” Fencer volunteers, playing her part. “But, yeah, my potions take a little more than that. And…” she sniffs the sample “this one’s old.”
Lucky Pete’s frown somehow manages to intensify and he shuts the box with a speed that has Dion cringing slightly, in fear of an explosion. “Yeah it’s old. You know what it takes to get fresh infera? You know what kind of bargains have to be made? I go about gettin’ it when I have an order. Now are you makin’ an order? Because it’s one hundred percent cash up front.”
“Sure!” Fencer exclaims. “I’m gonna need enough to fill that little box of yours if it were powdered. When can we have it? Don’t wanna leave my customer waitin’ and my other ingredients goin’ bad.”
Lucky Pete’s eyes narrow as he runs mental calculations. “That’s goin’ to run you fifteen thousand staters.”
Dion eyes widen in a shock that he doesn’t need to try too hard to fake. Most of the people in this Ring will never manage to make fifteen thousand staters in a lifetime of hard work. The god feels a pang of guilt at an old memory of paying that same amount for a fine suit or a night of partying with friends.
Fencer, however, seems unphased and invested in holding on to her mark. “I told you already, we’re good for it. But I don’t go about carryin’ that kind of money on me to a demon market filled with shady types.”
“Fine,” Pete grunts. “The workin’ has to be made durin’ the dark of the Moons. Next one of those is the last day of the year. I’ll need the money before that or I’ll just sell to anyone who comes along flashin’ some real cash.”
“Can we meet here in two days, Mister Pete?” Dion volunteers after a meaningful glance from his partner in negotiations.
Lucky Pete gives him a look of tired condescendence and shakes his head in disbelief. “You sure don’t understand how this place works. But yeah, head toward here as best you can. I’ll be watchin’ and let you know where we meet as you go.”
“Sounds peachy to me,” Fencer says brightly. “See you then.”
Lucky Pete snorts. “Real peachy, sure.”
Meeting set, they leave the stall and Lucky Pete’s earshot.
“Nice job playing clueless,” Fencer grunts, her strict and hostile personality returning in its full glory. “Not too much effort, was it?”
Dion can barely hide his resentment as he looks at her. “Letting one’s opponent think one a fool is wisdom.”
Fencer looks at him in appraising silence for a moment, then shakes her head. “Pak… Always had a thing for drama, that one. Come on, let’s meet up with the others.”
“Greetings, fellow seekers of forbidden knowledge.” Somrak’s low voice as he greets Gwydion and the Fencer is dry and ironic.
Fencer snorts. “Been waiting all night to say that line, have you?”
He slips his arm from around Alma’s waist, but she still stands hip to hip with him as they pretend to be examining medallions with leering, demonic faces.
Just playing the role, Alma reminds herself.
Oh you love it, you slut, Nekh snickers. If Sergeant Steamy weren’t here you’d have kissed Scarface there and you know it. Hell, you’d have been rutting on a table.
Alma gives Fencer a tight smile without looking at her. “So you were talking to your one-eyed merchant for awhile. Anything?” She picks up a medallion that appears at first glance to be intricately intertwined monstrous beings being tortured together, then realizes it is a graphic depiction of a degenerate orgy. She puts it down with a frown as Nekh cackles with glee.
“He’s good for one of the hardest components to get for our firecrackers,” Fencer replies. “Mustn’t be too many down here who can pull it out of their hats. Looks nervous too. We’re probably not the only buyers around. But we’ve arranged a meet, two days from now.”
Somrak nods. “I’ll still be around to play backup. Good. Gwydion, did you plant the trace charm?”
Gydion nods. “It won’t activate until we’re ready.”
Alma gives Somrak a look that makes him pause, his body language subtly changing to defer to Alma. She knows that normally he is in command on missions like this, and finds it an effort not to take charge now. Straightening from the slinky posture of a sexy mercenary into a more authoritative stance, she says, “On our part, after talking to several merchants, we’ve found–”
She stops speaking as the others’ expressions and her own senses tell her someone is behind her, in danger of overhearing their words. And then a large, beefy hand squeezes her right buttock. She catches the expressions of the other three: a dawning fury on Gwydion’s face, a cold fire in Somrak’s eyes, and a slight knowing curve to the corner of her aunt’s mouth as she prepares to see a demonstration of Alma’s ability.
Seriously? she thinks. Despite years of harassment at Guardia stations across the Insula, few have been stupid enough to lay a hand on her. Even Nekh is shocked. What? Who? he splutters.
A moment later Alma has spun and put a knife at the throat of a bulky warrior. He is almost as tall as Sky, but far paler, with long, unkempt blonde hair and skin almost as white as Alma’s but burnt red from the sun, wearing denim jeans, heavy leather boots, and a jacket that looks like military surplus, or perhaps his own armored jacket from service in the Urbis army. He wears a broadsword on his hip, long and with an elegant basket hilt that does not seem to go with the blunt, dull features of his face.
A dark-skinned man with a shaven head and dreadlocked goatee looks dismayed at the action of what is apparently his bodyguard. His expensive suit and gold stickpin indicate that he is likely a wizard of some sort, come to buy rare and illegal spell components at the market. He steps quickly over to the group, looking apologetic.
Alma falls back into her role as deadly mercenary, holding the knife at his throat almost casually, looking at him as if judging a cut of beef. “Careful, hon. Don’t want to get your hand cut off. Or anything attached to it.”
His eyes go wide, but he smiles and laughs nervously. “Heh, pretty quick with that knife.” His accent is nothing from Three Rats or the neighboring wards.
Alma nods slowly. “Oh, and this is just my left hand. Should see me with my right one.” She looks down significantly, and the bodyguard’s eyes follow hers to see another blade held with the tip pointed upward at his crotch, ready to give him a swift and brutal vasectomy.
Yes, yes, do it! Nekh urges. Open him right up from groin to throat. He deserves it. Vulgar little troll. Big troll. Whatever.
You sound almost protective, Alma points out.
Not at all! Nekh insists. I just…was surprised is all. Now if I could arrange for a gang of my men to have their way with you, one after another, before slowly cutting you to pieces, it would be different.
Thank you for reminding me what a sad little monster you are, Nekh, Alma replies as he fills her mind with disgusting images.
Somrak circles to flank the bodyguard, lazily placing himself in position to take him out quickly while also being in reach of the wizard. Shoulders flexing, he contemptuously snarls at the wizard, “You bring a fool like this to a meet?”
The wizard straightens the lapels of his jacket. His voice is almost inhumanly deep. “Can’t get good help on short notice in this hellhole. This one will be more useful in bottles.”
The bodyguard looks surprised. “Huh? We’re going drinking?”
“I can get your tap running real quick if you like,” Alma says, her blades still ready to open the man up at both ends.
“Please,” the wizard says. “It will be more convenient if he can walk home. I’ll take him to pieces there. I needed a liver for a little project anyway.”
Alma steps back and sheathes her knives. “Suit yourself. Just make sure he keeps his hands to himself until you get there.”
“Oh I’ll keep his hands to myself, I assure you. My apologies for the rudeness. Come along,” he says to the confused thug, who follows with a backward glance at Alma.
After they leave, Gwydion asks, “Shouldn’t we…do something?”
Somrak looks after them, then at Gwydion. “None of our business,” he says brusquely, but pauses a moment. “Can you…put a tracer on the bodyguard? Without anyone noticing?” He glances at Alma, who nods.
Gwydion says, “A moment.”
“This is an unnecessary risk,” Fencer mutters, as she moves to shield Gwydion from notice. But she does nothing to stop him, and a few seconds later a small spiderlike phantom drops to the ground and scurries after the oblivious thug. Though it has a slight blue glow, no one spots it before it catches up to its target and scurries up and into his left boot.
Alma glances around for anyone watching, then resumes her previous stance. “If we can follow up on him without blowing our lead, we will. As I was saying… We’ve found what is probably the gang we are hunting. They call themselves the Whisper. Specialized in summoners and demon binding.”
Fencer asks, “Where do they operate?”
“We don’t know and the locals don’t seem to know either,” Alma replies. “A neighboring ward, probably. It seems the name Whisper comes from their ability to appear out of nowhere and strike without leaving traces. We’ll go back to the animal merchant now and set up our meeting.”
Gwydion looks at her with admiration. “Two leads for a little more than an hour’s work.”
The small smile she gives him in reply disappears as a shout of, “No! No no no do not open!” rings out across the courtyard.
She looks in the direction of the disturbance and sees the same tow-headed bodyguard holding a small casket that he’s just opened. The merchant is rapidly backing away, and the bodyguard’s employer is taking a step back and beginning a casting, traces of red energy following his rapidly moving fingertips.
Gwydion is looking at the scene with rapt attention, and the air around him feels charged with activating power. Fencer growls, “Leave them be, Prettyboy. We don’t want to attract attention to ourselves.”
Alma agrees. “We should start thinking about leaving, really. If we’re seen asking too many questions, things might get…uncomfortable for us. Gwydion?”
He ignores them, his eyes taking on a golden hue. “Demon…” he mutters.
Out of the casket comes a limb, emaciated and covered in coarse black hair. On the end of it is a hand, claws on the ends of seven or eight fingers. Two opposable thumbs. It seizes the bodyguard by the face. He lets go of the box, but frozen in terror he does not reach for his broadsword. The box is in midair for a moment, the absurd arm projecting from it, holding itself up by gripping the mortal, and then more follows. A head that by itself is too big to fit through the opening of the box, and yet it does somehow squeeze through, violating the rules of physics. A shoulder, and another head attached to that, partially fused to the first. And then another, all three on the same thick, sinewy neck – no, two more heads, smaller, like tumors, all five fused together, looking eyelessly in different directions, vertical slit-like mouths moaning, drawing in air and scent.
The bodyguard screams as steam rises from his face, his skin turning black as he falls to his knees.
Alma glances at Somrak, hoping for advice from one who with far more experience in fighting demons. “Should we…?”
Somrak shakes his head. “That wizard will take care of–” He breaks off as the smooth-pated wizard abruptly ceases his casting, looking down at where another set of claws has slashed his belly open. Entrails spill with surprising ease. He steps back and collapses. “All right,” Somrak continues, “that wizard won’t take care of it. But they’ll have somebody to banish it–”
The demon frees itself entirely from the box. It is huge, the size of a rhinoceros, but with a pair of froglike legs. It lashes out, wounding any who are in reach, howling its hate at all the mortals and gods of the Insula. Three more bodies lie still on the ground.
It leaps, landing right among the exotic animals Alma and Somrak had been inspecting earlier. Cages shatter and animals squeal. The tiger flees. The cyclopean dealer shrieks and receives a death-blow in return, catching on fire. Two more fleeing mortals burst into flame, crying out in pain and panic. Then the demon leaps again, farther this time, out of the courtyard entirely and down a dark and twisted street.
Somrak looks after it in grim silence.
“You were saying?” Alma asks drily.
Dion’s eyes follow the demon as it moves out of sight, saying, “That is a powerful, deadly demon. We have to pursue or it will keep killing everyone in its path.”
Somrak looks at Alma, holding his hand out, palm up, to indicate she take the lead. She looks back at Gwydion, then her eyes dart to his right, seeing only empty space where her aunt had been a moment before. “It seems one of us is already pursuing. Come on.”
As they run in pursuit, Somrak asks, “Can you locate her?”
“She’s teleporting,” Alma says. “I can only detect her when she materializes in this plane.”
“It’s this way,” Gwydion says, his eyes flashing gold. He seems certain of himself.
Alma asks no questions, but follows Gwydion’s lead.