Resplendent Fire 17 – cont.
When I made it back to the Rising Sun house Saiten and Broken Walls had not yet returned which made me feel ill at ease. I guess I take for granted the sense of security they impart. I wandered the compound like a restless spirit late into the evening. Hate and guilt burn like acid through the substance of my thoughts and very much like pain it is hard to ignore when my mind isn’t occupied.
My dreams when I did sleep were fitful and unpleasant. Quick and clean is not the death Lang deserves and feeling I should attempt to preserve some level of moral high ground with her chafes me. In those empty hours I lamented the days when I was less conflicted about making my marks suffer for satisfaction sake but I highly doubt my friends would approve of how I wanted Lang to spend her final hours. Thankfully my allies cannot visit my dreams.
Resplendent Fire 18 – Games of Chance
I awoke before dawn and gave up on sleep altogether. It was a useless exercise to even attempt. I had already made up my mind to kill Lang sooner rather than later, perhaps that night if the chance arose and the raw energy of that resolve made me tremble. I wanted this game to be over.
There was no sign of Saten and Broken Walls that morning.
At the first sounds from Aster’s room I rapped on her door. Due to the early hour and the fact that I was not yet clothed in another form she was immediately and understandably concerned. I didn’t seek to worry her further and was direct in my purpose. I told her of the true nature of the knife and pleaded her assistance in taking it to Hatelis for appraisal. I reasoned that if this thing represents a binding spiritual compact then Hatelis, a god of contracts, should be capable of knowing the nature of it. Whether or not he will be willing to disclose it given that he has been tight lipped about Akkimu in the past is another matter. I didn’t mention to Aster that this is two tests wrapped in one. It is past time to see where Hatelis’s allegiance will fall. Akkimu or Aster.
As a plan it seemed perfectly sound until I actually handed Aster the cursed blade. I regretted my manipulations almost instantly. Had I had gone too far? Seeing her hold that weapon was like seeing a patch of the night sky at noon on a sunny day ; it didn’t belong there. I could see the horror of it on her delicate features. Under any normal circumstances this would have been too much for a girl of 17 from a teashop but I know that is only one part of who Aster is. I doubt she would appreciate me thinking or treating her like a child… but I have never met anyone who believed so wholeheartedly that everyone deserves rescue. In the circles I walk in that sentimentality could be a deadly weakness.
I had also not given a thought to how this might effect her aspirations. Cursing myself for the manipulative bastard I am I tried to show my concern for the trouble this might pose to her flirtations and asked her if things were going well with Hatelis. I recalled she seemed excited at her outing when she spoke to Chaoxi of it but she didn’t speak much about Hatelis himself which leads me to think that she is hesitating somehow. She told me she does still harbour feelings for him but is balking at the differences in their station. She feels intimidated being introduced to the world of the rich and powerful as a guest. She mentioned she didn’t think she could add much to that society.
The lives of the rich are often empty and frivolous pursuits of novelty. Her association with them could give them a taste of substance. I recognize the ineffable power she wields to bend others subtly to her will enough to know that I cannot match it. I too have fallen beneath it’s sway though in my case it is unfortunately eroding my resolve to act as I must. I feel like she herself is completely unaware of it which perhaps is the key to her charm. No matter what the bitter and jaded attempt to spend they cannot buy her honest enthusiasm and idealistic youth. If there was anyone capable of shattering their pretensions with compassion it is her. Besides, she’s been trying to rabble rouse amoungst the city’s poor and all those pitiable people can offer to better their station is violence. They have no time, energy or money to spare and there is little to be gained .
Still possessed of that restless energy I checked up on the children and left behind some kitchen goods and food. Should I perish they should be provisioned or a couple of days. When I checked back Saiten and Broken Walls had arrived an they reported the quarry outside of town was signing people into indentured servitude for an obscure promise of payment at the end of the year. Hatelis’s work I expect. I don’t doubt the poor dupes are going to be paid a far more meager sum then they are expecting for their time. Furthermore what they are quarrying stone for is a bit of a mystery. All Broken Walls can say is that they are lying about what they said it would be for. Curious, certainly dodgy, but not immediately life threatening so it must be let slide for now but I made mental note never agree to anything Hatelis had penned. I imagine the fine print would give me nightmares.
Soon after Aster left to visit Hatelis and Saiten left to terrorize the city’s destitute criminals Broken Walls and I ascended the tower to speak privately. At the top I scooped up the odd spirit-larva and was pleased to find it at last solid in my hand. I made to drop it from the tower to be rid of it as I reasoned that it won’t harm it indefinitely. My understanding is it will simply reform somewhere, hopefully where it won’t be a nuisance. Seeing my odd behavior Broken Walls stopped me to ask what I was doing. After I explained what I held Broken Walls spoke to it and commanded the small creature materialize, which it promptly did. While it didn’t appear the thing could communicate Broken Walls explained it probably was there for good reason if it was found on the top of a temple to the Unconquered and that killing it, even if it would just reform somewhere else, would be somewhat of a breach of manners. Broken Wall’s moved the small spirit to the shrine downstairs so it couldn’t eavesdrop and alone at last I recounted my experiences with Lang to Broken Walls. For the most part he stared out into the distance as I reported, interjecting every so often with a question. It all seemed fairly commonplace until he mentioned Lang’s unfortunate smell of graveyard dirt.
I had not mentioned that…
He was obtuse when I pointed out the discrepancy, insisting that I must have mentioned it at some point. Could this be some precursor of dementia? He is old after all and he did say he has been a prisoner for over a century. If he was left alone for even a quarter of that time his mental faculties might have suffered. His behavior did bring to mind the time Pearl Drop was locked in a cupboard for two months . She was never the same after that. I recall it was quite unsettling how she would occasionally stare at you blankly as though she didn’t quite understand what you were saying and she became obsessed with all manner of odd things. Mind you she didn’t last very long after that. It wasn’t a comfort to see Broken Walls exhibit similar behavior.
The only other viable notion – that Broken Walls had been spying on me – was frankly ludicrous. He had been out of the city with Saiten and even if he wasn’t the man practically clanks even when not wearing his armour. Definitely not stealthy enough to get so close to Lang as to smell her!
In the end I opted to let the matter drop. Broken Wall’s judgement has been sound so far regardless of his eccentricities. He speaks with decisiveness when telling me if Lang is lying or not and I am inclined to believe he has valuable insight but I still found this strange lapse unsettling. I endevoured not to judge him if he did lose a measure of his sanity to his jailers. Less than a decade of ill treatment made me more than a bit odd, I can’t imagine what a century might do.
More importantly one of the things Broken Walls brought it to my attention was that he firmly believed Lang wasn’t about to let me surrender the dagger peacefully. I suspected she might be duplicitous but had simply figured I could run if things turned sour. I had neglected the fact that either way after tonight Lang might become too difficult to track down. Particularly since I am not at all confident I can best her through martial skill alone. This could be the only opportunity I have to set a trap for her and bringing the full force of my allies to bare. The downside to this is that it means being more honest with Aster and Saiten than I would prefer on these matters.
We convened with them in the late afternoon. Broken Walls told them a thankfully concise version of my activities and informed them what we knew of Lang and the host and our planned meeting for the night. When I asked Aster what information she had gotten from Hatellis she revealed that he had sent her with a sealed letter for her eyes only. She opened and read it in her room and emerged looking shaken as she asked us if there were any graveyards in Champoor. My mind leapt back to that day in Black Quarter where Chaoxi and I had seen the bodies lying out to bloat in the sun but that was hardly a graveyard. Well to do citizens would normally insist on burial or at least cremation but I had never thought to look for funerary sites. I can’t recall ever seeing one which doesn’t fit. In a town where death is commonplace, where do all the bodies go?
Likely they are being used for some kind of sorcery. That bodes not well.
After some debate we hit upon a plan that hinged on Broken Walls being able to follow me to our meeting and summoning the others while I stalled for time. To muddy the waters I carefully disguised Broken Wall’s face with my kit. I know the spirits have been keeping an eye on this place and if he’s spotted I hope it will be enough to not immediately alert them to his presence. Saiten and Aster would be waiting nearby and if my ruse was prematurely discovered I would create the flashiest display I can to alert them. I demonstrated my abilities to mimic a fire aspect’s display to the others. My friends were startled or in Chaoxi’s case mildly perturbed but they are accustomed to my oddities by now and didn’t comment.
We began at dusk.
A few blocks from Rising Sun house I summoned Hathesis but when he appeared belatedly after my second call I was told that Lang was busy preparing for that evening and was not available earlier. I told him if she got back early that I would wait at a nearby restaurant. It was an hour and a half before I saw Hathesis ooze through a side door of the restaurant to whisper in my ear. I made no sign that I could see him as he came and went. I would find this bumbling sycophantic spirit’s attempts at gravity and drama childish but honestly they probably serve him quite well with mortals who cannot see him. The power of theatrics falls flat once you strip out the illusion but I could see it’s use. Grabbing the unopened bottle of wine from the table I followed him out.
Dusk was quickly approaching. It seemed we were going to be testing ourselves against the advice of every citizen we had met and stay out past sunset. Broken Walls tailed Hathesis and I at a close distance to one of the more well to do places outside the wall. When I opened the door I saw Lang’s eyes flick over my shoulder catching sight of Broken Walls briefly. Looking to my right I saw the owner of this abode trussed up so tight he could hardly twitch. It looked as though the sacrifice came pre-prepared. Grand.
I handed off the bottle of wine to Hathesis as Lang dug in the cupboards for a set of wine glasses. She was abrupt and tried to get straight to the point of us sealing the pact but I demurred. I told her I felt like she was trying to rush me into a decision. I told her that our purposes were not completely unaligned which, like any good lie, was half truth. I am not blind and deluded enough to not recognize our purposes are similar. We both believe that the world can be improved by subtraction. Our opinion really only differs significantly on who makes the cut and why. I posed some “last minute concerns” regarding my freedom of mobility once I was sworn in which she was quick to soothe. She assured me I ( and by extension other agents of Akkimu) would not limited to the city and only required to check in from time to time. Eager to move things along she motioned to the bound man who squirmed against his bonds and made smothered noises through his gag.
I needed more time… alright and I was desperate to not have to add another life to the ones I have already wasted in this farce. I told her I had another concern, that I had been followed. I used it as an opportunity to ask if they have any enemies in the city and to try and ease Lang into believing that I was being upfront. Lang more or less confirmed that they did have enemies in the city but when she questioned me briefly about my pursuer breathed easy when I mentioned that he had only been following me for an hour or two. She was very confident that the fact I was followed posed no problem now that the sun had set.
It was at this time that the first of the host made their way into the room. They are human in shape but like Hathesis they are very pale. They could almost be his double if their hands actually dripped blood. They moved in a strange and unsettling fashion much like poorly handled marionettes – their movements sloppy, unnatural and uncoordinated. I looked them over feigning more lighthearted curiosity as Lang’s patience wore thin.
I couldn’t stall much longer without giving the game away. Lang was loosing patience with me and it was time and past for me to have made my decision. I knew Broken Walls had probably summoned the others by now and with any luck they were not far off. I did my best to act as though I really did worry I might miss out on a good offer but was concerned she was trying to get me into a contract that I didn’t benefit from. She gave me all the old reasons over again as if my memory was lacking and I replied it was not enough. I didn’t need a silver dagger when I had my own power. Walking at night in a single city of Creation was a paltry tidbit. I wanted to know what benefit her association really bought me. She asked me what I wanted.
“Impress me.” I told her summoning every fiber of false cocksure self-confidence I could muster to seem overconfident in my worth to her. I knew she was a pretender to a more lofty social standing, I sought to sink claws into her pride. Maybe even wear her out before the others came. She drew in a sharp breath and held it, considering.
“No.” she answered. A second later the roof exploded.