Tuesday, February 16, 2016


            Six Coins arrived in the morning by airship, but getting back to his home in Exbrooke would take potentially two more hours, pushing his arrival to afternoon. His codename would not suffice anymore. After the catastrophe in Arizradna, he had only one of his enchanted coins left. The others had been stolen, disenchanted, or broken entirely by the sheer force of will of his opponents.
            He had come to try to restore some semblance of order to operations there, but it was clear that the Schism had spilled over to the other continents. Something called Templar One – previously believed to be a Rogue Agent, but that mystery had only deepened – had taken one of the most exemplary branches of the House and turned it into a slaughterhouse. The chains had broken almost entirely, and the kind of trust that one learned as an old-school House Agent had evaporated. He had given the most superior surviving agent in the country, a djinni called Mr. Flow, license to reorganize due to the emergency, but Six Coins was hearing reports that he had been killed as well somewhere in the south.
            Six Coins himself had been shot and stabbed twice, the second time by an Agent called Greenthumb, whom he had recruited personally – loyalties be damned. Whatever this was, it had to be larger than the Rogue operating out of the Sarona Desert. This was something far stranger and exceedingly dangerous. He only hoped that the Diplomat was keeping himself safe over there – assuming, of course, that the Diplomat was not the one behind all of this in the first place.
            He arrived by coach – a conveyance that was hardly inconspicuous, but surely less conspicuous than allowing someone in Ravenfort to see Sir Roderick Candel sneaking about in an ordinary cab. Exbrooke was a comforting sight after hot deserts of Arizradna. Some nice rain, and some tea followed by something stronger would help him begin to put himself together after his travels.
            He stepped out of the coach and gave the driver a crisp bill after he unloaded the luggage. Crimms, good man as he ever was, had already come down with an umbrella. He took up the bags and held the umbrella over the two of them.
            “I hope your trip was productive, Sir Roderick?” said Crimms.
            “Unfortunately no. A damned bloody mess, actually.”
            “I have some tea brewing, and a bottle of 20 year Glenwhaye on ice.”
            “Well done, Crimms.”
            They entered the house and Six Coins removed his glove, hat, and coat, handing them to Crimms. “Sir, your coins?” said the old footman.
            “Yes, well, as I said, a bloody mess over there.”
            “Will you be safe, sir? With all the RAS members being killed?”
            I’d forgotten about that, thought Six Coins. He had been so consumed in the machinations of the opposing faction within the House – they had begun to call them the “Whites” for lack of a better term – that he forgot about the serial killings that had been going on. “Rest assured, Crimms. The coins were only for my personal protection. The residence should be impregnable.”
            “I only worry for your safety, sir.”
            “That’s kind of you to say, Crimms.” Six Coins believed it. Crimms was the sort of old-fashioned servant who looked to his master as something greater than human. It would certainly shatter some illusions if Crimms could see that Six Coins’ direct superior within the House was a mousy little grandmother with a foreign accent from the Sagrean Sea (though anyone who knew who she really was might bow down to her as if she were a Queen.)
            Crimms was walking toward the closet to put coat away when he stopped short. “Sir, I just remembered. That younger gentleman was by here earlier today. The one with the glasses. You instructed me not to ask him his name?”
            Four Eyes. Of course he had been here. He was meant to wait until Six Coins arrived. “Oh, is he not here?”
            “No sir, but I did relay your message to him.”
            “Message, what message?”
            “I received a call earlier today from Dowdry. That I was to convey to the young gentleman.”
            Dowdry? Dowdry had been his valet when he left for Arizradna. Three days after arriving, several gunmen had attacked their hotel room. Dowdry had been shot at least seven times, at least one of which had been unambiguously fatal. He had forgotten all about Dowdry – a recent hire given that Crimms’ advancing age made travel too difficult for him.
            “What was the message?”
            “I don’t entirely recall, sir. Something about a bog, I think?”
            A bog. “Not Murleg’s bog?”
            “Yes, I believe it was. Something about a hole dug up there. I had no idea what it meant, but I never wish to pry, sir.”
            It was the bog where Four Eyes had dumped Thatch’s body, back before the Jaroka mission. Someone had known how to draw him out. Four Eyes was a powerful asset, a mole within the Rookery. And now he was being set up.
            “Crimms, I’ll be going out again,” he said, and without waiting for his coat, he ran out the door. Six Coins began furiously casting scouting spells to try to track down where Four Eyes had gone. Absentmindedly, he held out a hand to hail a cab. He would figure out where to go along the way.
            The cab pulled up and Six Coins stepped in. “Start heading downtown. I’ll tell you more when I know where we’re going.”
            “You’ve got it, partner,” said the cabbie with a hint of a Redlander accent.
            They turned down Kellihan’s Overlook toward Bishop’s Bridge. With a high perspective on the rest of Ravenfort, Six Coins attempted to map out possible locations where Four Eyes might have gone and where the Whites might have dumped Thatch’s body.
            If the Whites had gotten their hands on the real Thatch’s body, where would they put it? Would they just show it to the Rookery? No, that would expose them. They’d only use it to make sure that Four Eyes would make a mistake. He might have gone to the safehouse in Exbrooke – which was oddly convenient, given his proximity.
            That was when Six Coins heard the sound of metal scraping against leather.
            He looked up. The cab driver was familiar. Six Coins did a quick mental search and realized that it was Jeremy Ford. He had never dealt with the man personally – the House did not often need outside contractors for wet work – but he was familiar.
            “Mr. Ford. I hadn’t recognized you,” said Six Coins, preparing a spell in his hand. “I assure you that whatever they are paying you, we can do far better. But only if you leave me alive.”
            And then Six Coins noticed that there were grey hand-prints on the man’s head. The hair and skin had sort of melted together into a colorless mass. Ford smiled, stretching the grey non-flesh in disgusting ways. His teeth had become stained with something that smelled oddly like coffee, only entirely unpleasant.
            “They’re not paying me anything, Six Coins. That’s not how Mr. Thall operates.”
            Six Coins tried to recall who Thall was, but came up short. “The House will kill you for this, Ford.”
            “Kill me? Six Coins, I’m already dead.” He pulled the gun out and fired, but not before Six Coins grabbed him by the wrist. The bullet missed, shattering the rear windshield instead. Ford’s grip was amazingly strong. He pulled back the hammer on the revolver once more. Six Coins released the hand and cast his spell.
            Tine sioc!” he cried out, and a four-inch-long missile of ice that blazed with light blue flames shot out from his hand, shearing off half of Ford’s head with it. The other half was flash-frozen and Six Coins could see a trail of frozen mist going out the massive, but cleanly circular hole in the windshield.
            The cab veered off the left, and before Six Coins could react, they skidded into the guardrail. They collided with an oncoming lorry, which gave the cab the last push it needed to go over the edge, down to the point where the Vinely River joined the Lockey on its way through the center of the city, two hundred feet below.
            Nascine took a knife from the kitchen. It wasn’t the sort of thing that was designed for combat. In fact, the cheap things that the Rookery would pay for weren’t really all that good for cutting bread or meat. Still, it was more of a weapon than she was likely to have.
            It had definitely been Tartin – she knew the voice almost as well as her own. She held the knife with the blade flat against the palm side of her forearm, able to stab or slash with it should it come to that.
            The House had made it there first. They knew about the building, and somehow they had tracked her through the forest… or they knew that she was going to come this way.
            Violence did not come naturally to her. She was a thief of the old school.
            The basement was dark. She peeked at the light switch, finding it in the “on” position. She made a sweep through the ground floor, her shoes left behind to reduce the noise of her steps. She did not see anyone.
            The basement stairs were old wood, and likely prone to creaking. It was a feature – making it harder to be snuck up on if someone should find the safehouse.
            Still, she had trained with the Rookery for almost half her life. She slid through the door and landed on the basement floor next to the stairs.
            It was almost pitch black – only a little light had been able to cascade down from the hallway. There was a wall that obscured the stairs from the main basement room. If the people in there had heard her, they made no mention of it.
            She could hear Tartin breathing. He made no attempt to quiet it. Faintly, she could hear another pulse of breaths. Tartin moaned. He sounded woozy and in pain.
            Nascine crept forward, grateful for the porous concrete floor that disguised steps far better than the hardwood above. She was careful to keep the blade of her knife sandwiched between her arm and her hip, just in case there was some beam of light that the knife might catch.
            There was a very low hum, like some sort of electrical appliance. That meant that it was probably the light bulb that had been removed and not the breaker that had been flipped.
            She lowered herself to the ground, almost to a crawl. Tartin continued to vocalize. She peered around the wall, hoping to catch a glimpse in that darkness. That was when she noticed that there was a basement window.
            The window was bright, with blue-shaded sunlight pouring in. The room should have been perfectly visible, but it wasn’t. In fact, the light bulb that hung from the ceiling radiated a yellow glow, but somehow it did not seem to illuminate anything except for her retinas.
            Her stomach seemed to plunge as she realized that whoever was there could probably see her.
            “All right,” she said, dropping any pretense of stealth. “I can hear you breathing. Don’t think I can’t throw this knife just from that.”
            “…Emily?” moaned Tartin.
            “Yes, Gil, I’m here.” She pushed forward into the inky darkness that filled the room. She closed her eyes, hoping that it would turn off that part of her brain enough to enhance the other parts.
            “Emily, he’s…” and then Tartin gasped, whispering “ok, ok.”
            Nascine held the knife at the ready, hoping desperately that her ability to throw it would surpass her confidence in doing so. She moved forward, toward Tartin’s voice, trying to focus on the second pulse of breathing.
            Her foot brushed something. She felt it with her free hand. It was smooth, with hard right-angle edges.
            A glint of something to her left. She turned and ducked. She could hear Tartin moving along with someone much quieter.
            “Emily, they killed Chris Thatch!” yelled Tartin.
            There was a click – the mechanical sort of sound that could be that of a revolver’s hammer being pulled back or a pistol’s safety flicked off. Her knife flashed and there was a shot. She charged forward, barreling into the spot where she had seen the explosion of light.
            In an instant, the darkness blinked away. She slashed with her knife and the tall man she had tackled cried out in pain as his gun clattered to the floor. She held the knife to the man’s throat and then gaped in shock.
            It was Chris Thatch – the man who she had thought of for so long as James Tarson. He was bleeding from his wrist where she had slashed him and she could see blood on the concrete under his head. He was still conscious, though he groaned in pain.
            She shouted back. “Gil? Are you all right?”
            “Almost,” he said. She glanced back to see that he was on the ground, clutching his leg, which was bleeding. “I think it was just a graze, but it hurts like hell.” With his uninjured foot, he kicked the gun to the far corner of the room.
            “Thatch,” she said. “What the hell were you doing?”
            Four Eyes answered only with a moan.
            “That isn’t Chris Thatch, Emily,” said Tartin.
            She looked back. Tartin shook his head.
            “What?” she asked.
            “Thatch is in there,” he said, and pointed to the Ice Chest.
            Nascine spared a moment to glance over. She could see an arm hanging out of the chest, blue with frost.
            “What the hell?” she asked, but before Tartin could say anything, she understood.

            “You’ve been looking for a House agent within the Rookery? I think you just found him.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)