3-Mysteries

Valeria provided warm water and soap, and the woman and I were both much cleaner by the time the doctor arrived to check her over.  I stayed long enough to make sure she would be alright—not drugged, just underfed and in shock—and left Valeria with some gold to take care of the woman and pay for the laundering of all the stage costumes that were coming back to her splattered in blood. The sun was well up and the city awake and bustling by the time I changed into my own clothes and walked to the tavern where we were staying.

No one else was back yet, so I ordered a bath and sank into the glorified barrel of fast cooling water with tremendous relief. Our inn was on the edge of the Market Quarter and the sort of place frequented by peddlers upgrading from their wagon for the night. Respectable enough but nothing special. There was an outhouse behind the inn, and a bathhouse on the other side of the square. Rooms had a bed, a fireplace, and a little washstand with a pitcher and bowl. But for a few coins, the servants would haul a tub to your room and fill it with warm water.

The privacy was worth the coin. I would probably throw myself into the first river we came to after a week of being pawed by men who bought sex. A week that ended with an entire group of people who certainly appeared to be trying to summon a demon. I flexed my fingers on the rim of the tub. It’s not that my life had ever been uncomplicated, but once—long ago now—I hadn’t known people could summon demons. The Empress of Daiesen Bay had used a demon to push an entire city state—Shyr Valla, her greatest threat—out of this world and into the ethereal plane. That was the plane spirits passed through on their way to the afterlife. We didn’t know a lot about how it worked, obviously, or we’d have brought Shyr Valla back and overthrown the Empress already. Time got tangled up in the mess somehow, because aside from the missing city, nine people had been caught on the fringe of the spell. They’d turned up six years after Shyr Valla’s disappearance, only no time had passed for them. Eliah was one of those nine. The ten-year age gap between us significantly reduced now.

With a sigh, I tried to sink lower in the tub. Slouched, the water barely covered the gold pendant that I always wore. My nymph stripes were blooming over my submerged parts in graceful blue tendrils that faded over my dry knees and collarbones. I splashed some water around and saw a bit more color. We’d spent the entire summer in Angareth, and I’d gotten used to very fine tubs, very fine towels, and very fine plumbing. Of course, we’d been staying in the king’s palace. It was part of our payment for saving his niece’s life and enabling a treaty between Angareth and its neighbor, Terrimbir. Besides an absurd amount of gold, we’d been granted unfettered access to his library and rooms in the palace.

Leaning my head back, I closed my eyes. It was funny, if you looked at it a certain way: The surviving royals and their most trusted warriors from two of the conquered cities of Daiesen were all high-priced mercenaries and criminals now. Some of us had spent the past six years funding our brother’s dogged efforts to relieve our fallen city, others had spent the time running other criminals to the ground for the sake of it. Brought back together by the ghost of A’rora Wynn, Queen of the Lost City, who claimed to not be dead, we were knee deep in extremely dubious research about the ethereal plane, demons, the Old Wars, and the gods.

Up until last year, no one knew what had happened to Shyr Valla. And, honestly, even now we were going off the word of an apparition. Something that didn’t tend to bother humans since their entire race saw things the other races couldn’t. And the Empress killing any Seers she found did lend credence to the apparition’s testimony. Most gifts of Sight were small, like the one from my human half; a faint ability to sense souls by their emotions. If you did have a soul get lost on the way to the afterlife, a great number of humans would see it to some degree—and not a single full-blooded elf or dwarf or nymph could. Occasionally, you got someone who could see the future, or the past, or into the ethereal plane. People with gifts that strong were called Seers. The Countess we’d saved in Angareth was one such. She’d spouted enough cryptic visions at me to deprive me of sleep for a month.

We hadn’t found as much as we’d hoped in the libraries of Angareth. The stories of the Old Wars were all legends now, and full of the wrong details. What we sought was knowledge the gods traditionally didn’t share. Preserving the veils between planes was among the duties of the four gods and goddesses serving under Eloi, the Creator. But perhaps they were helping us, since they’d handed us some real, live, cultists to question. Perhaps having an entire city from the material plane shoved through the veil changed their priorities.

The Cultist

I realized I’d drifted off when I heard the lock on the door. The water was cold. I didn’t react at first, just breathed and reached to feel at the soul entering my space. His approach was soft—like someone trying not to startle a wild animal. When I opened my eyes, Quill was standing over me, his sad wig in his hand, an expression of open affection and admiration on his face.

There was no stopping my smile, and I stretched with as much grace as I could manage while folded into a half-barrel. Crouching next to the barrel, Quill kissed me, one hand trailing over my stripes and warming me to my core.

“The water is cold,” he said, surprised.

“You’re still dressed like a cowhand,” I replied.

Ruefully, he shook the water off his hand and stood up. “I am. I came straight here after processing all those prisoners at the Guard. It took a long time to get through fourteen people. Every one of them wounded to one degree or another.”

“How did the magistrate take it?”

“As well as could be hoped. It’s a bit of a shock for everyone that the murders were by a mob—much less one that included a couple prominent merchants and plenty of people raving about the power they sought.” He turned away and began to strip off the cowhand clothes. “Several of them told me I had no idea what I was dealing with.” He laughed coldly.

His skin was still tan from summer afternoons spent on the Juni River with me, and dark hair dusted his chest, trailing down tantalizingly. He caught me watching and winked as he finished removing the ill-fitting trousers.

I pulled myself out of the tub. “We’ll come back to that.”

*

After a week living at night in a scraggy dress, it felt incredible to be out during the day dressed in my breeches and jerkin again. Shiharr and Azzad were at my back, my other little knives secreted back in their places. It was rather less incredible to walk down the bare hallways of Falletta’s jail carrying the menacing blade Quill had found in the hands of the murderers. We attracted attention from the prisoners—our cloaks and hoods obscured our features, but Eliah’s bow and Quill’s sword were clearly visible. I was sure we were the most interesting thing since a large group of people were locked up early this morning. My skin crawled as we went deeper into the building. I hated prisons. The jailer led us past holding cells with wooden walls and iron bars, meant for short term sentences and minor crimes. Half the people in the cells probably had alcohol induced headaches. At the end of the hallway was a door, and then stairs down to the cells underground—the ones intended for worse criminals. All the cultists from the night prior were down here.

The smell was horrendous. If I didn’t need air to speak, I’d just hold my breath. If they didn’t hang, they’d probably all die from infection to their wounds from existing down here. The jailer stopped at a glorified cage and banged on the iron bars. “Get up, you’ve got visitors.”

“Already?” rasped a man. “I haven’t even had dinner yet.” He laughed. It was a real laugh that said he thought he was getting out of here.

I stepped forward and the others faded behind me. This required a charlatan’s touch, and I was a practiced charlatan.

His shackles clanked as he crossed a few steps closer to the jailer’s lamp. His well-made clothes were rumpled and streaked with blood. There was an angry red bruise on his temple and his nose was swollen. He hesitated when he saw us; clearly, we weren’t what he’d expected. His voice was rough from the damage to his nose. “What do you want?”

I gazed at him a long moment, reaching for the cold, dark, sea inside me. “They said you were the leader.”

He lifted his chin. “I am.”

I turned to the jailer. “Leave us.”

The jailer hesitated, then shrugged. “I don’t care what you do with him.” He handed the lantern to Quill and headed back up the stairs.

The man wasn’t sure yet if he should be frightened. “Are you here to release me?”

Pushing back my hood, I allowed the light to fall on my face. “Do you know who I am?”

The man blinked at me, nothing sparking in his expression. “Should I?”

He didn’t recognize me from the street—nor was he familiar with my description. Good. “Not as well connected as I expected for someone dabbling with demons—I forgive you for not recognizing an outlaw when you see one.” I leaned toward him, my movements smooth and delicate as a lover. “Did you see anything beyond the veil?” I drew the knife Quill had found in the alley, it’s wicked curve and runes catching the light from the lantern, “Did anything answer you?”

The man stepped closer to the bars, his face animating at the sight of the dagger. “Are you a practitioner as well?”

I inclined my head.

“We hadn’t finished,” he said, “But we were close. I could feel the veil growing thin. I could hear him waiting to come through.” His hands closed on the bars.

I put one hand over his. “Who?”

“A prince of darkness. A demon. I did not have a name.”

My guts twisted, and I hoped it didn’t show on my face. “What do you need in order to finish?”

“Blood,” he answered without hesitation. “Ash for its desolation and blood sacrifice for life—it must be human and fresh, so the veil opens for their soul. When he comes through, he grants a wish to each who brought him back into this world. I’m sure he’d grant one to you if you help me finish.”

Stroking his knuckles, I said, “He taught you himself?”

The man nodded. “I saw him a few years ago, on a waning moon. Like a shade in the ethereal plane, but dark instead of pale. I’d read of such things and knew to call out when I saw him.”

“You read about this?”

His face turned sly, like a man flirting, and he openly swept his gaze over my body, even obscured as I was in darkness. “I see you are a woman of taste in search of power. I could teach you things—incredible things—there are powers in the ethereal plane to rival the gods. It’s there for the taking for those willing to do what is necessary. You and I could have whatever we want. I will teach you if you get me out of here.”

My hands tightened. Three women were dead because this man wanted power. “I think,” my voice had turned cold, “That there are other powers you should be concerned about.”

The man stiffened. He tried to pull away, but I trapped his hand and ran the flat of the dagger over his knuckles. I looked up at him, my lips curling as I let my inhumanness show. The air crackled between us as if the world itself wanted a piece of this monster. Real fear spread across his face, and he yanked back hard. I held firm. “You murdered three people,” I hissed at him, “There is no power waiting for you. You will hang, and when your soul crosses the planes and you come face to face with the gods, your demon will not help you. Rohhel’s ravens will eat your corpse.” He struggled, his fingers popping. I let go and he sprawled across the stone floor with a cry.

The man scooted away, face white with terror, “N-no, please. Fornern…” he stammered. His fear was so ludicrous it made me angrier.

“Did you listen when they wept in fear?” I spat, slamming the dagger against the bars.

Quill’s hand settled on my arm. The thrum in the air lessened. Turning away, I strode back to the stairs and left the darkness. I barely noticed the jailer waiting at the top of the stairs, or the prisoners gawking as I passed, hood down for all to see a furious woman with dark curls and a wicked knife. When I reached the front offices, I stopped and waited with my arms crossed. The clerks stared at me. I ignored them, replaying the exchange with the murderer in my mind. Perhaps I had let my anger too far off its leash. People weren’t usually quite so terrified of me—but then again, I didn’t have experience threatening gifted cultists. Or much experience with anyone gifted enough to be called a Seer. Maybe he saw something other people didn’t. Regardless, he probably still had books or journals in his home about this awful business, so we needed to find out where he lived before the Duke found out and got it into his head to seize them.  

Ayglos was the first up and he gave me an appraising look. “Are you alright?”

“I wanted to kill him.”

“That’s not what I mean.” He stopped close and squinted at me. “He saw something in your face that really frightened him.”

I bared my teeth at my older brother in a fake smile. “I’m apparently terrifying.”

My brother snorted.

Eliah walked up the stairs, Quill and the jailer following behind her. They weren’t looking at me like I’d done something bizarre, which was a relief. I turned to the jailer, “We’ll need his address, if you have it.”

*

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*

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