Wolfsmouth was a far more modern city than Ravenfort. The war generally known as the Sardok Invasion was usually remembered for the events in Hesaia and Narcia, but Retrein had not been without its scars. The Ashmarius, the Sardok Navy, had blockaded Wolfsmouth for nearly a year, bombarding it and killing thousands. Most of the old historical buildings had been pulverized, and while that was nearly four hundred years in the past, the mentality that had spread through the city was that nothing would last forever, so they may as well favor the new.
Frankly, Richard hated it. There was no character, only tall concrete monstrosities. The best they could come up with as a “historical” building was the Rearadin Lighthouse, which was rebuilt after the blockade was broken.
He was in the Law Offices of Kieran, Watts, and Elistion, another one of these arrogant skyscrapers. Watts had been dodging his calls. Perhaps the man had somehow convinced himself that Richard AIrbright was not worth his time. After all, Quentin Watts was from a family as old and aristocratic as the Airbrights, but without the taint of one particularly infamous ancestor.
Watts had been among them, back at the Academy, but he had chosen to pursue the far more practical career of a solicitor, and given his family connections, it was not exactly difficult to parlay this into a position in a prestigious law firm that would go out of their way to add his name to theirs.
And so, Richard found himself riding the lift up to the top floor of one of those hideous sky scrapers, suffering from boredom as he listened to the canned music that some idiot had decided might detract from the tedium of sitting in a metal box for several minutes. The lift was on the outer edge of the building, and was thus fitted with a large window that looked out over the city-sized shrine to modernity as rain pattered down the window and ran in wind-driven rivulets.
Whispering Jim stood next to him. The demon had been taking a more human-like form lately, something that Richard found curious. He was still utterly smoke-like, but it looked as if he might fill the space that a man would.
“There is a lot of greed in this building. It’s like a residue, you know. Greed is… well, honestly it’s the most boring motive. I would often avoid the greedy just on principle. No finesse required, and the greedy are already looking to make a deal. No sport there.”
Richard did not dignify the demon with a response.
“The exception was the people who did not realize their own greed. There was this one woman, a real piece of work. She would only ask for favors for other people. Very noble, yes? Except she would always hope that her superior co-worker would quit to pursue some passion project, so that she would get their promotion. It was that sort of thing. It was not long before I had her committing murders and cover-ups.”
Jim looked over to Richard for a reaction.
“Well, fine. What do you do for fun?”
The elevator door opened, and Richard stepped out. He walked forward to the receptionist’s desk, but there was no one there. Richard adjusted his glasses so they would sit more comfortably on his nose and then began to make his way down the corridor to the left, when he realized that Jim was not following.
“What is it?”
Jim wafted forward, hovering over the desk and pointing downward. Richard looked over and saw the secretary.
He was a young man, perhaps in his mid twenties. He had been shot twice in the head.
“How many are there?” asked Richard, as he pulled his sleeve back, revealing a metal spell-amplifier that was fastened to his wrist.
“I don’t know, but the greed has been replaced with… something else.”
Richard nodded. There was no one here that was meant to be here and still alive. “Be on alert, Jim.” But when he looked at the demon, he could see a ghastly smile crossing his face. “What are you smiling at?”
“A little relief to the tedium.”
Richard walked down the corridor slowly, methodically. It was fairly quiet, but he could hear some sort of aerosol puffing. They came to a corner office – this seemed to be Eliston’s.
Richard kicked the door open. Eliston was laid out on his desk. Someone had done something to his body that Richard did not care to speculate on, but it seemed bloated and discoloured.
“HAIL TO THE KING,” was spray-painted in white across the window that looked out over the city.
Richard could hear more of those aerosol puffs from another room. He stepped back in the corridor. The device on his wrist was fully powered up, but his heart was beating hard enough that he doubted he would need the amplification it provided.
He came to the next office, this one Watts’.
The figure with the spray-paint was small and feminine. She was dressed in all black, with a mask that obscured her face. She was only through “HAIL TO TH…” when she turned to face him.
“I advise you to…” began Richard, but he was interrupted when she picked up the pistol beside her.
Richard ducked out of the room as splinters from the door sprayed outward.
Deep breath. He took it, and then:
“Tine oíche!” A deep purple spout of flame erupted from his hand, spraying like a fire-hose at his target. The flames enveloped the gunwoman, and soon she was on the ground, a smoking wreck of a human being.
The sound had aroused the others, and two of them spilled out into the corridor. With a gesture, Richard mouthed the words “držet tohle” and a light blue circle of glimmering metal formed around one of the attackers’ necks, lifting him off his feet.
By this point, the other, who was taller and thinner, had lunged, and tackled Richard to the ground. The man was terribly strong, and probably half Richard’s age. His fist connected with Richard’s jaw, and he could feel his whole head shudder with the impact.
“Yes, master,” said the demon as he stood above the two of them. Though his face was only a swirl of smoke, Richard still felt he had a stupid, lazy expression.
This was all he needed to say. Black smoke swarmed around the attacker, lifting him off of Richard and swirling deep into his lungs. The smoke then shot out of the man’s every orifice, like steam from a kettle, and the man then collapsed to the floor.
“Thank you, Jim,” said Richard, as he stood himself up. That was right before a bullet passed through Jim and rang as it skipped off a now-broken light fixture.
Richard hit the ground once again, this time on his own volition. The bullets sprayed down the hallway again, from what he guessed was some sort of submachine gun, but he responded with another jet of flame.
“That about did it!” said Jim, a giddy excitement in his voice, yet as he had spoken, his voice had deepened to an inhuman baritone.
Richard did not have time to disapprove of the demon’s attitude. He had not been in a situation like this for many years – no preparation, no time to be clever. If he was forced to fight and kill any more of them, he would stick to his most tried and practiced spells, which to him were as simple as pulling the trigger on a gun.
Jim was already chasing down the remaining members of the death squad, and Richard could hear some very disturbing sounds punctuated by all-too-human screams as the demon cleared out what he assumed was probably Kieran’s office.
When the sounds had died down, Richard carefully got to his feet. He made his way into the third office, careful not to look to closely at the scattered remains of the… five professional killers who clearly had never faced a full-fledged demon before.
Jim had grown enormous, yard-long horns extending from his shadowy head and a pair of great wings coming out of his back.
Ah yes, this is the Nar’shastakala’xin that I had read about. The demon had proven its worth, albeit in a most disturbing manner. Richard felt a pang of sympathy for the poor forensics team that would have to sort through the mess.
The demon turned to face him, and growled with the sound of tectonic plates grinding together. And then Jim softened, and shrank, and then he was the size of a man again.
“Have I pleased my master?” asked Jim. There was something terribly off-putting about the almost childlike tone that he took.
“We have someone to question.”
Richard took care not to step on the burning corpse of the man with the submachine gun. They approached the one living member of the team, who had grabbed onto the floating metal ring to keep himself from suffocating.
Richard ripped the mask off his head. He was a bulky man, perhaps in his thirties, with dark, sweat-soaked hair.
“Why kill Watts? What did it matter?”
The man grunted. “We… don’t kill me…”
“I see very little reason to do that,” said Richard. Indeed, he did not, because the man had already been shot several times by his overzealous comrade with the submachine gun, who was now smoldering with purple flames. “Why Watts? Why here?”
“It was a job,” said the man. “I was following my orders.”
Richard conjured a spark of “nightfire” in his hand and held it close to the man’s face. “That was never an excuse.”
“I didn’t know who they were. We just went in and did the mission.”
Richard narrowed his eyes. “Mission?” And then he noticed the REA badge the man had embroidered on his body armor. “You’re an enforcer.”
The man did what must have been his best attempt at a head-nod while suspended by a metal ring floating in the air.
“Well, doubly damned, then,” said Richard. “Besides, their names are on the bloody building.” The man was going white. He would not have much time. “Tell me, what did he give you?’
“Money, it was money,” said the man.
“Completely worth it, wouldn’t you agree?” asked Richard. “The spray-paint. Did he have you write anything other than the propaganda?”
The man looked vaguely confused.
“All hail the king, and that nonsense? Was there anything else he told you to paint?”
Less confusion, more pain now. The man was fading fast.
“Henry Thall.” He stepped around to face him, putting his hands on the man’s shoulders. “The man who paid you to do this. What else did he tell you? Did he have you paint anything other than ‘Hail to the King?’”
“Richard, he’s dead.”
“Damn!” yelled Richard, and he released the ring with a gesture, and the man’s body fell in an awkward pile.
There would be a lot of interviews to go through, and the REA in particular was going to press hard to find some fault in Richard’s actions, but thankfully the Royal Arcane Society still pulled a decent amount of weight, and given Richard’s position in one of Retrein’s most important families, it was generally agreed that his involvement in the incident would be kept on a need-to-know basis.
More than anything, Richard was frustrated. The inscriptions on and around the other bodies were meaningful – Henry was trying to do something. But what that was, Richard could still not guess.
And this, well, this was just wanton killing. Watts was no arcanist – he was a lawyer. Certainly, he had been there when it happened the first time, but he was hardly a key player.
The train ride back was quiet. Jim had contracted himself. It was unusual for the demon to be so small and unobtrusive. He hardly said three words the entire trip.
Isabelle was not home – at a friend’s, Richard believed. He had covered her head-to-toe in the best protective wards he could come up with, but he still worried. After all, it had occurred to him that Watts was meant for him. Henry was a clever beast, but he also recognized that Richard was clever as well. Henry knew that the best way to hide one's intentions was to make the occasional irrational move.
And given what he had turned into, Richard would not put it past him to sacrifice a dozen people merely to add to the confusion.
It all came down to the most frustrating question: What was Henry Thall attempting to achieve?
Richard took off his hat and put it on the stand and then walked into the living room.
“Mr. Airbright, so good to meet you,” said a female voice.
Sitting in Richard’s favorite chair was a beautiful young woman in a graphite-grey business suit. Richard froze.
“You may call me Sweet Clara,” said the woman. “I am here representing Henry Thall.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)