Consciousness returned slowly and painfully, which wasn’t an unfamiliar experience for Shook. What was unfamiliar was the nature of the pain. He was used to blows to the head, stunner spells, powerful hits to his midsection that drove the breath from his body. This was altogether different. An ache lingered in all his muscles, as if they had been tense for hours; his limbs twitched feebly as feeling returned to them. It felt much like stretching an arm on which he’d inadvertently slept until it was all pins and needles, except everywhere. An aggravating muzziness lingered in his consciousness.
“…somewhat disappointed, but my chieftain was adamant that he be kept alive to be delivered to your Guild. Ah, well, at least I now have proof that my new toy is effective. Truly, that is more valuable than the fleeting satisfaction of ending this dog’s life.”
Shook twitched, the second voice triggering a reaction. Softer, feminine… Saduko. He twitched again in remembered outrage. His body was coming back under his control, as were his senses, and he managed to take stock of what was immediately outside his own skin. He was tied, though only by the arms. Kneeling, hands behind his back, like Kamari, but thankfully his own fate had been less permanent. The smell of ozone lingered; someone had fired a wand. Of course, he’d been shot. Hadn’t he? Why wasn’t he dead, then?
His slowed thoughts finally caught up with his ears. New toy. A wand that administered non-lethal shocks? Very illegal, prone to causing nasty burns; even the Thieves’ Guild didn’t allow their use, judging them too brutal. But he didn’t feel burned. A new type of weapon then, not one of the old half-charge wands. Just his luck.
“Ah, he returns to us.” Something prodded his shoulder; he let out an involuntary grunt. “You have learned the price of disrespect, dog. The lady’s terms are that you be left with your life, but you can lose a great deal short of losing that, yes? Remember your manners henceforth.”
Somewhat laboriously, Shook lifted his head. The motion made his neck ache. The ache passed, though, as it began to all over his body. That overwhelming soreness didn’t fade entirely, but receded enough that he could test his arms against the bindings. Solid… Damn.
There were only four guards in the room now, and only two of those had staves trained on him. Two sent away and half the remainder put at ease; they were confident he was harmless. That was infuriating. The steward smirked down at him, idly toying with what as far as Shook could tell was just an ordinary magic wand, though it appeared to be carved from ebony, an unusual material. Saduko stood nearby, free and apparently regarded with respect, but rigid as a corpse and wide-eyed.
“What say you, good lady?” asked the steward casually, sneering down at Shook. “Shall we further educate him as to his place before sending him on his way?”
She hesitated a beat before answering. “Th-that is not necessary.”
“Ah, I suppose your Guild will want him functional enough to answer questions. Pity. I was told that my toy could damage the brain if overused.”
Again, a pause. “Y-yes. He needs…to answer questions.” She had her arms folded tightly across her chest. “The Guild wants to know… What he knows. What he has been up to.”
Shook was still muzzy, and he wasn’t much of a people person to begin with, but there were some kinds of social perception so deeply trained into him—into all accredited members of the Guild—that they worked instinctively. This situation seemed obvious on the surface; his partner had set him up. But Saduko’s manner clashed with the rest of the picture.
Hesitant. Uncertain. Clearly frightened, looking for cues, body language indicated reaching for comfort. Following the steward’s lead, talking too much but saying little.
He shook his head. It didn’t add up. She had the upper hand; what did she fear from the steward, her co-conspirator? And anyway, she was a reserved, blank-faced person most of the time; those made the best liars. Was she that badly rattled, and why? Or was it a double bluff, and if so, for whose benefit?
“Oh, you do not like this plan?” the steward asked him, misinterpreting his motion. “Too bad. Your opinions are not relevant here, dog. I suggest you learn to be comfortable on your knees. Such is the fate of all who try to steal from Chief Om’ponole.” The man folded his arms, still dangling that odd wand, looking ridiculously smug.
Shook stared up at him, worked his jaw to return the feeling in it, then very deliberately spat at the man’s feet.
One of the guards menacingly raised his staff; one of the others heroically tried to suppress a grin.
The steward’s face twisted with rage; he brandished the wand again in Shook’s direction, opening his mouth to speak.
A boom from outside was accompanied by a burst of colored light, briefly illuminating the thin paper shades covering the windows.
Everyone twitched, turning in unison to look. Seconds later there came another such sound, then a third, each accompanied by a bright flash.
“Fireworks,” the steward said, relaxing, then curled his lip in a disdainful expression. Shook was starting to wonder if he had any different ones; whether angry or amused, he looked smug. Worst kind of man. “That fool Vandro has truly spared no expense for his ridiculous party. Too bad you are missing it,” he added to Shook, again with a sneering smile.
“Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk?” Shook grated. “How long’s it take? Gimme an estimate so I can plan my evening.”
The steward scowled again as if on command. Smug, predictable, and clearly not all that bright. Really, the worst kind of man. He must have industriously licked every boot in the province to have gained such a position of authority.
He raised the wand again, and again twitched and stopped at a bright explosion from outside, this one much closer. The steward snorted disdainfully, opened his mouth speak again—doubtless to deliver another of his self-congratulatory tirades, but froze completely as a very peculiar whistling noise from outside grew rapidly louder.
This time, the explosion was deafening, the flash brilliant even through the shades, and the very ground shook with it.
“What in hell’s name—that hit the ground!” squawked the steward. “Our grounds! What is going—” At a second sharp whistle, he yelped and covered his head with his arms.
This time, the whole world blew up.
Shook’s next conscious thought was annoyed resignation at how this night was turning out. One way or another, it seemed he wasn’t getting out of here without suffering a string of undignified injuries.
Smoke, yelling, running feet, the crashing of falling mortar… He opened his eyes, blinking a few times before he could make sense of a perplexing blend of darkness and light. A corner of the shed had collapsed; its edges were blackened, crumbling, and in a few places actually on fire. Booms and flashes were almost constant now, framed in the ragged gap in the walls. People were running away, which was quite sensible. He wished he could join them.
Then hands grabbed him from behind, hauling him painfully upright. Reflexively, he twisted, trying to kick backward.
“Stop fighting!” Saduko snapped. “They will not be distracted forever. We must escape now!”
“We?!” he snarled, kicking at her again and twisting out of her grip. “You led me into this trap!”
“Then why would I help you flee?” she shot back, producing a knife from her belt. Shook shied backward; she moved with him. “We don’t have time for this, Shook. Turn back around so I can free your hands.”
“Why? Why should I trust you?” he snarled. “That asshole knew you. He said you were the one who arranged all this. Why would he lie?”
“I don’t believe he did lie,” she said grimly. “I believe he thought I was his contact. And he ran away but was not harmed, which means he will be back with more guards any moment. Turn around!”
“That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Aiya, you great fool! Can you not see? You are collateral damage here! The point was not to catch you, it was to make it seem I turned you in, you and Vandro and all the others. You are not betrayed, Shook! I am! Now for the last time, turn around! If you will not let me free you, I will leave you here!”
Shook stared at her dumbly for a moment. A fresh round of yells from the grounds outside jogged him back to life, and he silently did as she asked, tensing as his hands were grasped from behind. But she simply began sawing at the ropes; the knife went nowhere near his own skin.
The fireworks were still banging and flashing above, uncomfortably close, but no more hit the grounds themselves. He didn’t bother to worry about it. There wasn’t a thing he could do about them either way, and he had more pressing concerns.
Her explanation made sense. It was the only thing that did, really. So this whole trap wasn’t aimed at him, the renegade thief with a price on his head, but at the irrelevant foreign woman he was working with. That bothered him more than it should.
His bonds parted with a final snap and he whirled back to face her. “Thanks.”
Saduko nodded curtly. “We must return to Vandro.”
“Right.” He brushed past her. The collapsed corner of the shed led into the walled grounds; luckily the damage inflicted on the building hadn’t bent it enough that the opposite door was stuck. Shook pulled it open and peeked out. The outer grounds looked incongruously festive with their decorative fairy lights, lit by colorful flashes from above. He could already see the lack of guards on their patrols; they must have rushed inward to respond to the fire. Why had none come to the shed? Well, whatever, he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. “Looks like the coast is clear. Follow me. We’re not gonna take a straight route back; someone’s clearly after us, and I don’t wanna step into another trap.”
“Sensible,” she said, following him outside. He had just moved beyond the trees shielding the gardener’s door from the street when she gasped.
Turning to find the problem, Shook beheld one of Om’ponole’s guards, trussed like a pig at the base of the tree stand. He was glaring up at them, wriggling fruitlessly and making muffled noises around a gag.
Apparently at least one guard had run for the shed.
They weren’t alone.
“Shit fire,” he growled. Of all the times for his pet demon to be elsewhere. He could really use some more backup right about now. “Speed above stealth, but keep your eyes peeled. We’ve got company. The clever kind.”
His legs were sore and stiff, both from kneeling and likely from whatever that weapon had done to him, but even so it felt good to get moving again. The stiffness began to work itself out almost immediately; he gathered speed as he went, till he was pelting downhill toward the street, not pausing till he was across it in the inadequate shadow of another estate’s outer fence. Saduko came dashing up behind him, her shorter legs not matching his stride. She seemed to be in good shape, though. Wasn’t gasping, and even had enough spare breath to mutter imprecations in Sifanese.
Shook gave her just enough time to get abreast of him before taking off again, leading them one street back toward Vandro’s estate, which was on the opposite side of the city, then moving a block upward. Damn this fancy-ass neighborhood and its lack of cover… He quickly adjusted his tactics, moving back toward the center of Onkawa as quickly and directly as possible. Once into the warren of buildings and alleys he could start doubling back and zigzagging; trying to throw off pursuit out in the open would be fruitless.
Of course, the same maze of urban blind corners that could provide them with cover also offered a thousand potential ambushes, and it was a safe bet that whoever was stalking them knew this city a lot better than he.
“Slow…down,” Saduko panted, apparently having finally reached the limits of her endurance. Shook paused, giving her a critical look over his shoulder. She wasn’t quite doubled over, but leaned against a wall, gasping. In shape or no, he had to remember she was some kind of scholar, not someone accustomed to running around through alleys.
“We don’t have time,” he said curtly. “No telling who’s after us, but they were close enough to intercept that guard back at the palace. Probably have eyes on us right now.”
“Then running will only lead to a trap!” she said, straightening and glaring up at him. “Pause a moment; we must think. Give me time to work. I have equipment with me to distract and confuse pursuers.”
“Take half a minute,” he said, peering around warily. They had made it to a commercial district bordering the residential park, now dark and unoccupied. Wide open street, but lots of alleys emerging into it, not to mention shuttered fruit stands, deep shop doorways… This place was just lousy with cover. He couldn’t see anyone nearby, which meant exactly nothing.
Saduko was already busy fiddling with her devices; she had pulled out a whole handful of those little brass spider-star things. “This is the fastest plan; I regret that we do not have time to be careful. Get your knife; a cut on each of our hands to smear blood across several of these, and we can send decoys in all directions. They will not know who to follow.”
“Okay, that’s a pretty good plan,” he said grudgingly, reaching into his coat for his utility knife. He discovered that the Om’ponole’s steward and guards hadn’t even confiscated his wands. What a bunch of amateurs.
“It is indeed a good plan,” said a new voice from directly above. “You can drop it, though, Gimmick. We have this in hand now.”
Shook fumbled his knife, dropped it, and didn’t bother to lunge for it. Instead he closed his hand around the butt of the wand holstered under his arm.
“Ah, ah, ah, Thumper, let’s not go and do anything unwise. Remove that hand from your coat, very slowly, very empty. There’s a good boy.”
A man loomed at the edge of a building above, silhouetted against the moonlight above. The fireworks were finally trailing off, but brief flashes still illuminated him; far away as he was, Shook couldn’t make out any details, and the effect was annoyingly dramatic. He gave the speaker only a moment’s attention, though, being far more concerned with the eight figures that had melted out of as many nearby hiding spots, approaching them slowly. Every one had a wand out, pointed at him.
At him alone, not at Saduko.
Belatedly, he processed the fact that she had just been addressed by what was unmistakeably a Guild tag.
Shook slowly removed his hand from his coat, as directed, and raised both in the air, turning his glare back on Saduko.
“Bitch, I have absolutely no idea how, but on my father’s soul, I will pay you back for this.”
She just looked at him in silence. Her expression was shocked, confused, as if she were just as taken aback by this development as he. He wondered why she still bothered.
No. This was a simple job; it had been foiled by simple betrayal. How many layers to this mess could there possibly be?
The crowd oohed and aahed satisfyingly at the fireworks display.
“Good man, Trigger,” Vandro murmured, swirling his cocktail in one hand. He had climbed through the house to one of the balconies overlooking the grounds when the lights in the sky started, seeking a moment of privacy to confer with his Butler, who he knew would find him swiftly. The party had progressed to the point that it was hard to find a shady spot not already occupied in the gardens themselves. Gratifying, in his role as host, but currently inconvenient.
As expected, Wilberforce materialized from the hallway, clearing his throat diffidently to announce his approach.
“Bless that meddling elf,” Vandro commented. “I’d been all set to explain away the shape-shifted succubus at the party if Tellwyrn happened across her, and did my best to plan things so it wouldn’t happen. And then my plans went to shit, which is the only reason we have any warning that something’s gone wrong.”
“Yes, sir,” the Butler said calmly. “The diversion appears to have been a success. Two explosives have ‘accidentally’ struck the Om’ponole estate. From a vantage on the villa’s roof, I discerned that one impacted within the interior grounds, and the other has damaged the wall gatehouse which was to provide Master Shook and Saduko-san’s point of entry.”
Vandro sucked in a breath and let it out through his teeth. “Watch your ass, Jerry,” he muttered, then spoke more loudly. “Whatever the hell that demon is up to, Jerry’s got the reliquary rigged so that if he dies, she goes back in it and stays there. She’ll be very careful to protect him from mortal danger. I hope we didn’t just accidentally make it all moot.”
“Master Shook is resourceful and a consummate professional,” said Wilberforce, folding his hands behind himself. “As is Saduko-san. I believe some confidence in their abilities is appropriate.”
“Quite right, Wilberforce, quite right.”
“I fear the news is not all good, sir.”
Vandro grunted. “What the hell now?”
“The interior security system has been brought up as you ordered, but parts of it have malfunctioned.”
Vandro turned to face him. “…parts?”
“Specifically,” Wilberforce said grimly, “the new features designed to detect demonic activity. In fact, the original system, while carefully left intact enough to avoid drawing attention, appears to have been altered. I judge that the purpose of this was to widen that blind spot. We are effectively blind to infernal movement on the estate at the moment.”
Vandro narrowed his eyes. “That thing is supposed to be voice-locked. Only you or I should be able to alter its settings.”
“Yes, sir. Or someone able to flawlessly mimic us.”
“Well.” He shook his head, chuckling wryly. “Well, well, well. It’s not as if we didn’t know she could do that. Wilberforce, old friend, I do believe we’re getting senile.”
“Indeed, sir,” Wilberforce said impassively. “Perhaps we should retire to someplace sunny, like Onkawa. We could buy a villa.”
Vandro’s laughter boomed out over the balcony, joining the sounds of merriment from below. “All right, all right, point taken. So, let’s deal with the here and now. The bitch has apparently gone to some effort to make sure we can’t spot her moving on the grounds, so… It stands to reason she’s still here.”
“Unless the point of this maneuver was to create that impression specifically so she could move elsewhere while we fruitlessly combed the estate for her.”
Vandro was shaking his head before the Butler finished speaking. “You’ll drive yourself mad playing that game. Anyhow, we don’t have a reliable way of hunting her down in the city at large anyhow; she can fly. No, best to assume she blinded us for a reason. She’s still here, Wilberforce, and whatever she’s doing, it’s not done.”
“As you say, sir.”
Vandro frowned in thought, taking a sip of his cocktail. “…we have plenty of power crystals in storage, correct?”
“Yes, sir, of all sizes. I ensure our stock is adequate to resupply every magical appliance on the estate. We could, in theory, reactivate every device present were they all to spontaneously burn out.”
“Good, good… Excellent. And how many are rune-capped and attuned to the network?”
“Nearly all, sir,” Wilberforce said slowly. “All except the smaller units which were part of our weekly supply shipment; with the party preparations, I regret that I have not had time to attend to all my normal maintenance tasks.”
“Well, nearly all should be enough. I want you to go activate them.”
“…activate them, sir?”
Vandro grinned broadly. “We have to face the prospect that our own security system can be used against us, Wilberforce. Scryers, golems, and all. Yes, activate them, every last one. You keep the master control runes on your person at all times?”
“Of course, sir.”
“And your access hasn’t been tampered with?”
“It has not. I have been using the runes as normal all evening.”
“Good. Activate all the surplus power crystals, and be ready to bring the whole grid up to full power when I give the order.”
“I…see. Yes, sir.”
“To be on the safe side,” Vandro added thoughtfully, “and to minimize collateral damage, take time to disconnect as many extra systems as you can. Whatever’s not absolutely needed to keep the place running.”
“Sir…the grounds are fully lit and active for this very extravagant party. Virtually all enchanted devices on the estate are actively in use at the moment.”
“I see.” Vandro sighed heavily. “Well, then, let’s hope Kheshiri doesn’t force my hand. Otherwise, this is gonna get very expensive.”