In the predawn hours, Akimaru Tendo leaned tiredly against the window of his rented room, his body screaming at him to get some rest. But he knew he could not, knew he had to wait, thanks entirely to the late night visit he received from the bounty hunter in this very room. Akimaru had been about to settle in for one of his rare resting periods when the bounty hunter came rambling into his room without preamble. Hmm, Akimaru had thought, I didn’t lock the door. I must be tired. I’m getting sloppy.
The bounty hunter had simply told him that someone would be bringing him a present before sunrise, and that he should do with it what he needed to do. When Akimaru had inquired as to what the present would be, the bounty hunter had said nothing, opting instead to open the bedroom window and climb out onto the street. “Just do your thing,” he said, leaving the white-clad Ninja even more mystified. Now, with perhaps twenty minutes until the sun was due to come up over the horizon, Akimaru struggled to keep his purple eyes open.
The knock issued from his door with perhaps ten minutes to spare. When Akimaru opened the door, he found the enigmatic Mr. Brady standing in the hallway. He held his hand out, and Brady dropped a pair of earrings into the middle of his white glove. “I’ve done my part. It’s on you, now,” he said. Akimaru, too tired to be polite, slammed the door in the man’s face and turned toward his bed. He sat on the edge of the bed, and was prepared to lay down, when he realized there was something etched into the backings of the earrings.
‘Congratulations, Sylvia’. That was all there was room to engrave on the earrings, despite the fact that they were of the large, hoop variety. “The Councilor,” he whispered to himself. But how would Brady know to bring such things to him? The bounty hunter, or course. Portenda had told Akimaru outright that he should ‘do his thing’ with the present brought to him. Akimaru removed his gloves, revealing hands white as snow, with small blue ice crystals forming along the skin. Then, gingerly, he picked up one of the earrings.
And passed out of his own consciousness and present moment, into the earring.
He sees a humble living room, spacious enough for one person to live comfortably, and with enough expensive furnishings that the owner must surely be in a position of wealth. He can hear the owner of the earring sigh, and his field of vision turns slightly toward a sheet of paper in the woman’s hands. It appears to be a report from the Taxation and Excise Office of Ja-Wen. The subject name reads ‘Artemis Twitch’. Interesting, Akimaru thinks.
Manipulating his scrying power, Akimaru turns his field of vision around the room. There is nobody in the room with Sylvia Sado. There is only the faint sound of her breathing, the wind outside, and the settling of the house. The scent of jasmine is heavy, but Akimaru turns his view to see a stick of incense burning slowly by a window that is open a crack in the kitchen. He can just barely see the window from his vantage point, but it is fortunate that he can.
It is through that tiniest of cracks between the window and its frame that a gelatinous puddle of some sort comes morphing silently into the house. Akimaru focuses his attention on this form, and as it pools and slides soundlessly off of the kitchen counter, it slowly takes on the shape and form of Wayne Traedo, the Sidalis butler and servant of Mr. Twitch. The mutant takes form, a weapon in each hand, and steps to one side of the doorframe, out of sight. But it does not matter now. Akimaru has seen what he needs to see.
It is time to come back to reality, but something keeps him locked into the scrying. Akimaru does not want to be a first-hand witness to the slaughter that is about to take place. Doing so often leaves him shaken, and it is one of the hazards of scrying the possessions of the recently deceased. The emotional energies are still strong, and can sometimes slip over into his own consciousness, rendering him paralyzed. But as he watches, Councilor Sado, who he has also gleaned from the scrying is not all that she appears, steps into her kitchen.
“Wayne,” she says. What is this, Akimaru wonders. She knows him? How? “What are you doing here?”
“What I must, Rachael. Oh, wait, that isn’t your name anymore, is it,” says the mutant, and that is when he cuts her throat wide with the hatchet in his right hand. From there, what Akimaru witnesses firsthand is nothing short of pure slaughter, but even that fades quickly. But Akimaru has the answer to one question, and a whole new one to be asked.
Lester Joelly strode through the Moltevo Art Museum several hours after Akimaru completed his scrying and finally lay down for some rest. The Wererat was, as usual, impeccably dressed in an expensive business suit, his hair slicked back over his head, his thoughts turned not really toward the artworks themselves, but largely toward the Hoods’ Prime, Flint Ananham.
The issue with Flint was not that he had harangued Lester and Sally Ridge, but that he had shown them just how vulnerable they were at any given time without their usual cadre of security forces. Though he didn’t care much for Victor Flant, and knew the Lizardman reciprocated the feelings of distaste that he felt toward him, Lester could not convince himself that they would be better off without his services. He was the raw strength they needed.
He might be convinced to allow Norbert Channel to provide security for Ms. Ridge, being as the Gnome had access to Pyromancy, fire magic. His arsenal of offensive spells, while not extremely impressive, was more than enough to fend off the usual rabble. But Norbert was a bit of a coward and primarily a Pickpocket and techno-geek. Lester himself, skilled with a long knife, was no match for an adversary with a larger weapon or any sort of advanced training with such.
Which, inevitably, led him to wondering just how powerful a Psychic Sally was. She could read the thoughts of others, true. He’d seen her levitate objects as heavy as a couch and easily guide them through the air with the powers of telekinesis, yes. And he knew that with enough effort, she could delve deep into a person’s mind, peering into their very subconscious and their id. He also knew that, like most Psychics, she was occasionally gifted with the mysterious Psychic power known as Flash Sight. With the Flash Sight, a Psychic could look into the past, any place in the present, or even into the future. The problem with the future Flash Sight, however, was that the future, she had informed him once, was not set in stone. What a Psychic might see in a future Flash Sight was but one strong possibility among an untold number of potential futures.
Beyond these powers, however, he didn’t think she could do much. Lester paused before a wonderfully displayed watercolor painting of a pond, in the center of which floated a single swan. The swan appeared to be staring out of the painting at the viewer, an interesting touch that was subtle, yet caught the eye if one looked directly at the animal. Lester nodded to himself, and then made his way out of the museum.
Turning west, the Wererat began heading back toward the high rise building that the Koikara Group was interred in for the duration of the Games. When he was a few minutes away, he spotted Victor Flant, and with his thoughts turning once again back to the trouble he and Sally had encountered with Flint, he made a direct line for the Lizardman Thug. “Victor, a word or two if you would before I get back to Ms. Ridge,” he said, stepping up beside Flant. The Lizardman appeared to be ready to head up the front steps leading into a potions shop, and he glared at Joelly with obvious dislike, but something else in his eyes.
“It’s kind of a good thing we ran into each other,” Flant said. “What did you wish to discuss, sir?”
“Well, it’s about Ms. Ridge’s security, actually,” said Lester, following Flant inside of the store. Behind the maple wood counter stood several shelves, each one laden with bottles and vials all swirling with the various colors of the rainbow. A dour-faced Illeck gentleman ran the counter, and he just looked at the two men silently.
“Three healing potions, highest grade you have,” Flant said to the clerk, who turned around to start fetching the requested items. “What about her security,” he asked.
“Well, I think it might be best if you were to stick close to her when she goes out on the town. With the rash of murders against my people, it might not be safe for me to remain near her at all times,” said Lester. He adjusted his tie, fidgeting nervously. The clerk uncorked one of the bottles in his hands, and the pungent aroma of lemon and cloves filled the small shop. He corked it once again, and handed Victor the bottles. The Lizardman tossed a single platinum coin on the counter, which the clerk swiftly deposited in his lock drawer. Lester scratched his chin. “Since you’re the most capable of defending her in the event that somebody should decide to try and slim out the competition, I’d like you to keep guard over her.”
“That sounds reasonable,” said Flant, putting his potions into empty notches along his belt for safe keeping. The Illeck clerk behind the counter disappeared momentarily into a back storage room, and Lester felt a little better about not having prying ears nearby.
“It’s only that there seems to be some menace going around right now, Victor, and we must take every precaution to ensure that the head of the company not come to any harm,” he said. He heard the tiny clack of a switch being thrown in the back room, followed by steel reinforced shutters coming down over the windows and the door of the shop out onto the street. “What the devil is going on here,” he whispered.
“Oh, nothing much,” said Victor, pulling on one of his spike-knuckled gloves from his long leather coat. “Like I said, your request seems reasonable, and very timely. After all, you won’t be able to provide any more services for Ms. Ridge, security or otherwise.” Lester’s gut twisted, the bronze spikes on the glove he saw on Victor’s hand causing his natural allergic reaction. “Don’t you worry, Lester,” said Victor, his face twisting into a rictus of rage and hatred. “This’ll only hurt for a minute or two.”
The first punch landed in Joelly’s gut, the spikes burning and piercing through his clothes and his flesh and muscle with ease. The force behind the blow doubled him over, and as he sank to his knees, Lester crossed his arms over his wound. Blood dribbled out in thin streamlets, staining the wood instantly.
“Hey, you’re gonna clean him up when you’re done here, right,” asked the Illeck, one of the many operatives of the Shades.
“Don’t worry about the cleanup,” said Victor, staring down at his hated target. He raised his fist high in the air, the spikes aimed right down at Lester Joelly’s head. “I’ll try to make this as clean as possible.”
This isn’t good, thought Lee Toren as he reviewed the papers before him. This isn’t good at all. How in the hell do I get myself mixed up in these messes? The papers before him were a single overall document, tracking the progress of the Games against the progress of the serial killer targeting the Wererats in the city. Thus far there had been four victims; Seth Logan, Koby Nellis, Wreck, and Sylvia Sado. But a key element was missing from the scene of the Councilor’s home that had been present in all three other locations, and that was the racist commentary left on the walls. Either somebody was turning copycat, or the criminal was wising up.
As far as Lee could tell, nobody involved directly in the Games could be responsible for the slayings. He leaned back in the chair by the table in his hotel suite, trying to force one of them to fit the profile, but he just couldn’t get it to work. Even with her occasional ethnic slur, Harley Morerock of the Sisters of Night just wouldn’t work. She had been seen in the company of Yvonne Wendil when Wreck went missing and when Councilor Sado was slain.
Likewise, Brailor of the Tacha Forus machine shop, who had been arrested on two counts of hate crimes committed in the Fiefdom of Lemago, had been targeting Werewolves, not Wererats. What was more, he had only gone so far as throwing rocks and occasionally bricks layered with silver plating through the windows of their homes. He’d never resorted to sneak-attacks. That also had been years before, when the lad was only sixteen or so. He was older now, and hopefully, smarter than that.
And in terms of events taking place outside of the Games throughout the city, Lee simply didn’t have the time or patience to run down a list of all the possible suspects in the city. Besides, that was the job of the police, wasn’t it? So why did it seem to him that the very people charged with the protection of the public weren’t doing much of anything about these murders? These were by no means honorable and legal battles. Honorable battles were not punishable by law in most city-states and kingdoms. But cold murder of this sort simply wasn’t allowed, and in Ja-Wen’s long history, didn’t go on long. Such villains were more often than not apprehended, tried and sentenced within days of their misdeeds.
Lee shook his head, fixing his thoughts once more on the Games. That night they would inform the contestants of the results of the Legal Knowledge Test, which had been won by Ridley Poe of the Shades, seconded by Norman Adwar of the Hoods, and in third place had been taken by Gabriel Logan of the Pack of Liars. Additionally, that evening would be the beginning of the Hidden Treasure event. Lee had already hidden the three ‘treasure’ objects throughout the city, and the other two judges had assembled sheets containing scavenger-hunt style clues to the locations of each. The third place object had a list of clues that was relatively easy to follow. The second place object’s instructions were a bit more obscure, but the agents and operatives of the various guilds and groups in the Games would not take too long to figure them out.
For the first place clue sheet, Lee had enlisted the assistance of Ja-Wen University’s Professor Edward LeDrake, an Elven scholar and certifiable genius whose course of instruction was in Histories of the Third and Fourth Age. The man had assembled a number of riddles for the list’s instructions, each one leading to yet another clue that could be used to decipher the meaning of the next set of instructions. The event would likely take three or four days, and the Games would not continue until all three treasure objects were discovered and returned to the judges. Of course, the other ongoing game to see who could attain the highest valued item in the city, might finish up before then as well.
Lee collected his thoughts, his fellow judges, and headed toward Hyde Park. When evening came and the thieves all gathered, he explained the rules and the basic purpose of the direction sheets everyone would be receiving, since this particular event would allow for everyone to be involved. “And of course, I needn’t tell you that the highest point value will go to the team that can decipher the instructions for the gold ranked ‘treasure’. Now, are there any questions for us,” he asked. Nobody said a word, and Lee noticed that the members of the Koikara Group were one man short. “Well then, with the exception of the Koikara Group, you are all free to get started.”
He approached Sally Ridge, who looked frankly distraught. Dressed in her usual blue power suit, tonight with pants instead of a skirt due to the slight chill that had fallen over the town, Lee saw that her eyes were fuzzy, unfocused. “Is there something the matter with you folks, tonight? Where’s Lester Joelly,” Lee asked.
“We don’t know,” said Turpin, for once dressed in a typical Ninja’s garb. “Nobody seems to be able to find him, and Norbert here has already cross-referenced with every employee we have in the city. It’s like he vanished, Mr. Toren.”
“Good gods,” Lee sighed. He looked away from Sally Ridge, his eyes on the ground. He couldn’t even detect her usual faint trace of perfume, in all likelihood forgotten in the sudden disappearance of her most trusted advisor and confidante. “Well, maybe he just got caught up with a lady friend or somefin’, eh?”
“Doubtful,” offered Victor Flant, who, although he appeared distracted, didn’t seem nearly as distressed as Ridge, Channel or Turpin. “He used to live here, Mr. Toren, and he is a Rogue. It’s more likely that some old business finally caught up to him.” Lee started to turn away, but noted the way that the Lizardman Thug smirked behind Ridge’s back at her, a self-satisfied sort of smile that he’d come to know over the years. After all, he’d worn it far too often to not know what it meant. It meant that he knew something important, and was going to use it against Ridge.
Anna Deus was not the sort of woman who settled for second best. She didn’t settle for much of anything, really, so when the Hoods had split from the other groups at Hyde Park, she had led them directly to one of the city’s larger libraries and got them all hunkered down around a polished ash table. She spread out the three sheets of instructions for the gold rank prize of the ‘Treasure’ event, and reviewed the fine handwriting thereon.
“These sheets are completely filled, front and back,” said Jerry in a whiny, ‘I don’t want to be here’ tone of voice. “How the hell are we supposed to follow these hints, anyways? I mean, this first one right off is a doozy,” he said, holding up the first of his sheets.
“’In the place where the Dragon did sleep, shalt thou find that the foot put forward should be the finest one. There shall you begin,’” said Norman, reading directly from the first instruction. “This could be rough, Will,” he said to Deus. “Even I haven’t the foggiest what this is supposed to mean.”
“I think that’s why the boss brought us here,” said Flint. “We can find out if this is a literary reference, and if so, we can take the next step needed. Everything is going to be confined to the boundaries of the city, which is still a really big area to cover, but at least it isn’t the entire country we’re talking about. That,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t want to think about what that would entail.”
“All right, we’re going to split up in here,” said Anna Deus. “Each of you take a section and start looking through the quotation reference catalogues over by the check-out desk. I’ll be doing the same. From there, we all check the category references around the shelves,” she said, leaning on the table. “Understood?” All five Hoods agreed, and set about their task, each one of them trying to think over the riddle by itself before they found the reference book or novel that would lead them to their next step.
It was looking to Anna like they might be at the library quite a while.
Jefe rubbed his temples, read over the first instruction of the gold rank treasure sheets again, and then tucked them away. “All right, guys, what say we settle for second place on this one, eh? I seriously doubt we’ll be able to figure out the puzzles for the first prize.”
“Agreed,” said Stephanie Claudis. The Pack of Liars, now four members strong instead of their original five, rested comfortably in the basement of a travel goods store, lounging about on inflatable travel mattresses while they tried to figure out the very first of the clues provided on the gold rank sheets. Moving her papers around, Stephanie located the two sheets of instructions for finding the silver rank ‘treasure’, and scanned the lines written there. “Okay, it says that we’ll need to find the ‘Owl’s mark’ in Saint Ashton’s. But it doesn’t give the street address.”
“Who the heck is Saint Ashton,” asked Gabriel, picking his teeth with a single claw.
“In the religion of Lenos, he is a lesser guardian spirit of children,” said Esmerelda. “Particularly of orphans. The instructions here say to take what we find by the Owl’s mark and give it over to ‘the man who stands behind the Great Book’. No idea what that means, either.”
“We’ll figure that out when we find this Saint Ashton’s,” said Jefe. “Let’s us also not forget that there will likely be one or two other groups competing for this prize. If there’s only one item at the Owl’s mark, then we will be out of the running for this if someone else should find it first,” he said. “Let’s split up topside, find out where Saint Ashton’s is, and meet at the Waymark Tavern in an hour. Agreed?” The Pack of Liars exited the travel goods shop through its ventilation system, all four of them temporarily taking on their animus forms to scramble through the vents and out into the building’s back lot, and from there split up to perform their tasks. They would have an eventful evening.
Yvonne Wendil sat on Helen and Amanda’s rented bed while the other four Sisters of Night watched her with intense scrutiny. The Gnome woman was applying a thick blue gel of some sort to bits and pieces of the instruction sheets in her possession, and none of the others, Harley included, cared to risk being blown up in case the woman’s Alchemy had a bad result. Bad results in Alchemy tended to go ‘boom’ in a big way.
But twenty minutes after she’d begun, Yvonne shook her head and breathed deeply. “Well, we’ve got three different handwriting styles here, but we already know two of them. The third place instruction sheet was written by the Illeck judge. No issues there. The second place instruction sheets were written by Lee Toren. I’ve checked both sets of instructions to notices I’ve filched from the three judges, and they match up perfectly. Plus, Lee’s fingerprints are all over these,” she said, waving the second place instructions around.
“And the first place instructions,” asked Helen Vanik, the group’s leader.
“Unknown source, no fingerprints on the sheets,” Yvonne said, but she didn’t look too discouraged. “I can tell from the strokes, though, that these were written with a quill instead of a pen.”
“A quill? Who even uses those things anymore,” asked Amanda Setine, running a hand through Helen’s hair lazily.
“Not too many folks, and that narrows things down for us, thankfully.”
“I still don’t understand what you’re doing all of this for,” said Cailee testily. “This isn’t getting us to solve any of the riddles on those instructions. We may be better off just going for second or third place.”
“There’s a very simple reason for doing this,” said Helen Vanik. “Since the author of the first place instructions is not a judge, we will be able to use methods of discerning the meanings of the instructions without the need of jumping through hoops,” she said. She wrapped one arm around Setine’s waist, pulling her closer to her side. “We’ll be able to get answers directly from the source.”
“Oh, please tell me that’ll be my job,” said Harley, cracking her knuckles.
“It can be, if you like,” said Vanik. “For now, though, we must find out who in this city still uses the old ways of writing. We should split up for now.” Cailee, Harley and Yvonne quickly excused themselves, and Amanda Setine closed the door behind them. “It’s so nice that you know me so well,” she said, unzipping the back of her dress. “Would you be a dear, Amanda, and help me out of this?”
“Hey, I actually know this one,” said Kenneth O’Toole, the Tacha Forus’s Cuyotai Q Mage. The others spun to look at him as they walked along Marsh Street, grins surfacing all around. “This first clue, it’s from ‘In Shadows Walked the Beast’ by Percy Graham. Great fiction writer,” said the Cuyotai. The others had circled around him like a pack of wolves, and he swallowed hard. “I, uh, I have a copy of the book back in my hotel room.”
“Well lead the way then, fool,” hollered Robert Saffis. “This might be the first useful thing you’ve done in months.” The group jogged along behind the wiry Cuyotai, finally arriving in his rented room. He took the book from its place on his night stand, and took it over to the card table. He hunkered down, flipping through to about the halfway point in the book. He turned the book out toward Paul Stockton, who looked at the page in wonder.
“It’s the title of the chapter,” he said. “’Where the Dragon Doth Sleep’. Where does it take place?”
“Um, let me see really quick. I don’t remember these sorts of things automatically,” said Kenneth. He scanned the page with a finger on the text, turning a few pages until finally he arrived at his answer. “Here we go! It’s the apartment building at the northwestern corner of Rigor and Rictus. My gods, kind of dreary names for streets, isn’t it?”
“That book is set in Ja-Wen,” asked Brailor.
“Well, not the whole thing. Just a handful of chapters,” said Kenneth. “But what does it matter? We’ve gotta get moving. Graham’s a pretty popular author, and if anybody else is aiming for first place, they might be able to figure it out in short order.” But Kenneth didn’t realize that of all of the groups who had agreed to go after the first place ‘treasure’, his was to be the first to make any real progress.
Jefe Gabriez led his people through the quiet intersections and unpaved roads on the outskirts of the city, the scent of the wild grassland plains to the west teasing at his nostrils. It was an odor that spoke of wild animals, monsters, and the unknown. Mostly, though, Jefe could smell freedom out there, outside of the confines of the city. As a Wererat, he liked cities well enough; they were his people’s natural environment. But sometimes, especially when that city was not home, he missed the open roads.
“Hey, boss,” Stephanie Claudis whispered ahead to him. He turned to find her pointing off to his left. Following her finger, he peered through the nighttime dark at an abandoned, decrepit church. Running back alongside the humble structure was a broken stone pathway, which lead back to what appeared to be a three-story house. The second building was approximately one hundred yards from north end to south, he estimated, and seemed to impose itself upon reality with the most tremendous of efforts. In faded marble along the wide, veranda-style porch, however, he could just make out the words, ‘Saint Ashton’s Haven For Children’.
“Si, it would appear we’ve found Saint Ashton’s finally,” he said. “How did your source know it was on this road, Esmerelda?”
“She grew up at the orphanage,” replied the Ninja of the Pack of Liars. “She remembered the road, but that was it. Shall we go in?”
“No, not all of us,” said Jefe, leading the way down the broken footpath toward the structure. Halfway down the path, his sensitive nose caught a whiff of something vaguely rotten, and he looked hard at the church on his left that they were passing. “Esmerelda, you and Stephanie go into Ashton’s. Gabe and I will keep an eye out here for any competition.” The ladies nodded and sprinted ahead, going into the building via the creaking front doors. When they were out of sight within, Jefe took Gabriel by the arm lightly. “Stay right here a minute, I’ll be right back.”
“What’s going on,” Gabe asked. He never liked being left on his own.
“I’m just going to check something out, don’t worry about it,” replied Jefe. Returning to the street facing the church, he headed up the weed-strewn path to the church’s front double doors, pulling one open as slowly and quietly as he could. Inside, he spotted the source of the rotten stench almost right away. Making the sign for the deity Loki, god of thieves, Jefe found himself staring down at the decimated corpse of Lester Joelly.
Headmaster Fly had been reluctant to let Akimaru go, but he understood his reasons perfectly well. Potts, the Gnome in the Midnight Suns’ group, was already working on the literary reference materials that he could to crack the mysteries of the first riddle, and Fly didn’t think that Clarissa Weeks or Rage would be able to help out much with it. Still, he reasoned, the mystery of the slayings was more important to the Black Draconus Ninja than one event of the Games. The white-clad Ninja had his blessings.
When Akimaru slipped unseen into the library in which the Hoods were performing their own research at only two hours until dawn, he immediately identified Flint Ananham and approached him openly, not guising his approach in any way. Flint felt the chill of the man’s presence on his fur, and looked up from a thick tome of poetry at him, a small grin surfacing on his snout. “Ah, Akimaru. Good to see you.”
“I know who killed Councilor Sado,” said Akimaru aloud, making sure that the other Hoods, and the overnight librarian if he was interested, could hear him. Within moments all five operatives of the Hoods were gathered around him, and Akimaru prepared himself for his explanation. “It was Wayne Traedo of the Shades.” He went on to inform them of his ability of scrying, and how he had used it with the help of Mr. Brady of the Tacha Forus on one of the deceased Councilor’s earrings, taken from her person at the morgue. He told the Hoods of every brutal blow, and of the Sidalis’s unique method of entering the woman’s residence. He finished his report by telling them that Traedo had made reference to having known the woman once, but by a different name.
“That’s no huge surprise,” said Flint. “My people often come up with at least three or four sets of identity papers and backgrounds, so that if we get caught up in legal issues, we can move on after escaping or serving our time without worry. But I think Sado was her real name. After all, she was a legitimate government official, so she’d want to use her real name, which most of us keep clean until we find the line of work we’re going to stick with for a long, long time.”
“The real hell of the thing is that scryed visions can’t be used as evidence,” said Jerry Norbit. “At least, not back in Desanadron. Norman?”
“Nope, can’t be used here either,” said the Gnome Engineer. He ran a hand through his unruly white hair nervously. “We’d need some sort of actual, physical evidence. And besides which, we can’t link him to the other murders, not directly. If we can’t solidly prove his guilt, then we can’t go to the police. It’s the rules of the Games, after all.”
“But surely there must be something that can be done,” said Akimaru, flustered. “We cannot stand by and simply wait for him to strike again.”
“He may already have done so,” said Flint, folding his arms over his chest. “Lester Joelly was missing from the announcement of the event tonight. He’s not the sort to skip out on something important to him like the Games. Is there anything else you can give us on the Shades,” he asked.
“Actually, yes. Headmaster Fly and myself have learned that our Clarissa Weeks has been recruited to work for Twitch as a spy in our midst, though she does not know that we know,” said the white-clad Ninja. He seemed about to say something more, when a revelation struck him. “The bounty hunter,” he whispered.
“Portenda? What about him,” asked Anna Deus.
“He would most likely not interfere with anyone if we went to him about the contestants of the Games, but Traedo killed a civilian who was not involved in them,” Akimaru said. “He might be willing to help based on that. He is the one who informed me that Brady would be coming with the earring.”
“Huh, sounds like the sort of thing he’d do,” said Anna, shaking her head. “If you don’t mind then, Akimaru, we’ve got research to get back to. We leave it in the hands of yourself and your sensei.” Akimaru offered them a bow, and then darted back out into the streets of the city, off to locate and speak with Portenda the Quiet. As soon as he was gone, the Hoods got back to their research, and five minutes later, Jerry Norbit gave out a whooping shout of victory.
“I think I found it,” he said, holding up a hardcover copy of the very same book that Kenneth O’Toole had in his personal possession. The game was very much afoot now.
Dawn, the hour of the day when merchants in cities far and wide prepare to open up their shops for the day. Leastwise, those that operated profitably for that period of time. It was also the time of day when traveling salesmen started taking their horse or donkey-driven carts into the roving marketplaces that shifted location from day to day throughout the civilized cities of Tamalaria, and today was no different.
But dawn had an entirely different meaning for Sally Ridge, and as she lay tossing in her bed, coming up from her slumber, she felt the rushing winds in her mind of the oncoming approach of a Flash Sight. Often when she experienced the Psychic power of the Flash Sight it was shortly after she woke from sleep, even so much as a nap. Tired and fearful of Lester’s fate, she had no desire to lose herself in the Flash Sight, and so she struggled to press it back, to push it away.
Tossing her legs over the side of her bed, Sally made her way swiftly to her private bathroom, turning the faucets to get shower started for herself. She had left the continued search for the second place ‘treasure’ in the current event in the hands of Flant, Norbert Channel and Turpin. She just couldn’t bring herself to concentrate on it, not with Lester missing for so long. With every hour that passed in his absence, she became more and more certain that he was dead.
Sally removed her nightshirt and stepped into the warm streaming water, letting her hair plaster over her head, shoulders and back. The interior sound of rushing wind grew in her ears, but slowly, building force like an inevitable tidal wave. Drawing her arms down to her sides, she let the running water splash against her breasts and belly, letting the warmth give her what comfort it could.
And moments later, the wind suddenly built to an unstoppable force in her mind, and her eyes began twitching back and forth out of focus. Her body stiffened, her hips thrusting forward, her feet arching upward. “Oh, gods,” she moaned before she dropped flat into the bottom of the tub, lost in the Flash Sight.
She sees Helen Vanik, the leader of the Sisters of Night, her arms wrapped around the upper body of Amanda Setine, another of their group and Helen’s current lover. They are laying in a plush four poster bed, definitely not in Ja-Wen. She knows this is a future-based Flash Sight, and she knows that the likelihood of this sight coming to pass as reality is almost certain. As they lay content in their bed, the door of the chamber opens silently, and a Cuyotai woman, Cailee Parthridge, slips into their midst. She has a spiked mace in her hand, not the sort of weapon typically associated with a Cuyotai, but she has it nonetheless. And she does not appear to be hesitant about what she is about to do. Approaching the bed with the two Illeck women laying peacefully there, Cailee raises the weapon high over her head, and brings it crashing down into first Vanik’s face, and before Setine can even open her eyes at the sudden violence, the weapon is brought down with a crunch into her chest, crushing her breastbone, lungs, and puncturing her heart with one of the dominant spikes on the round iron ball. The pulpy ruin of Vanik’s face emits a single watery croak, and then lies perfectly still, the brain damaged beyond all possible aid.
Without any hiccup or slowing of her pace, Cailee leaves the corpses just as they lay, escaping out through an open window in the room. The vision morphs into a thick white mist for a few minutes, and Sally feels certain that the mists will soon recede and leave her back in her physical body. But none such luck, as it would turn out. Instead, she finds herself now looking into a gaming hall here, in Ja-Wen.
The gaming hall, she knows thanks to the Flash Sight’s informative powers, is located on the north side of the city. The owner of the gaming hall is an operative of the Shades, and tonight he has some very lucky customers in the place, the four members of the Pack of Liars, and a fifth Wererat, Flint Ananham. He appears to have his arm around the waist of Stephanie Claudis, who has agreed to come back to Desanadron with him. Jefe, Sally knows, is not overly pleased with the arrangement, but he has agreed with Stephanie that he won’t put up a fight about it.
All five of them are winning big at their tables, really raking in the winnings, but they are also getting surprisingly drunk on the complementary drinks that they are being brought. Sally’s vision shifts in hyper-speed motion over to the hall’s bar, where a Human bartender, his face half plated over and a cybernetic eye implanted in his right socket, surreptitiously sprinkles finely ground bronze dust into the drinks being served to the Wererats. He is slowly poisoning them, allowing the hard liquor to stupefy the lycanthropes even more quickly due to their allergic reaction to the metal being taken in with their drink.
As all five are near the point of passing out right at their tables, several large ‘security officers’, really operatives of Twitch and his Shades, come and drag them all down a hidden set of steps to the building’s basement. There, Ridley Poe waits for them, along with Wreck, the Wererat in Twitch’s employ. That, thinks Sally, is very curious indeed. So he isn’t dead. Poe wastes no time at all, using the Aeromancy spell Wind Cutlass to cut the throats of the four members of the Pack of Liars. When they are bloodied and dead upon the cement floor, Wreck stalks up to Flint, and with a single grapple and twist of his muscular arms, breaks Ananham’s neck.
“Clean up this mess,” Poe says to several waiting men in the shadows of the basement. And when they step forward, Sally is in for such a shock that her Flash Sight immediately ends upon seeing a familiar face.
“Oh, with pleasure,” says Victor Flant as he adjusts his three-piece suit.
“Ms. Ridge,” said Norbert, knocking politely on her private bathroom door. “Um, it’s almost ten in the morning, ma’am, and I believe I know where we need to go for the first clue. Ms. Ridge?” He knocked again, and when he received no answer, he began to worry. Then he heard her gasp aloud, almost a cry of shock, and the Gnome wasted no more time. He took a step back from the door, aimed his left palm at the door, and called out in a soft voice, “Ball of Flame.” An orange sphere of fiery force streaked from his palm into the knob of the bathroom door, blasting the metal and wood into smoking nothingness. The door swung open, and he rushed inside.
He found Sally Ridge laying in about an inch of water at the bottom of the tub, bucking and thrashing, her eyes rolled back in her head. He had seen this sort of thing with her before, but never quite so harshly had she moved about. Gotta bring her out of this, he thought, got to do something to bring her back to reality. He paced back and forth on the bathroom tile, twisting a finger through his well-cropped beard. He stopped next to the tub a few moments later, and tried to think of how Lester had brought her around the last time she’d been like this.
“Ah, that’s right,” he said. Using a flat, open palm, Norbert Channel reached down into the tub and slapped her right breast hard enough to lift a resounding ‘crack’ into the air. Instantly her eyes rolled back down, and Sally screamed a frightened little scream, scrambling up into a seated position and crossing her arms over her exposed breasts.
“Do you mind,” she snapped, whipping the shower curtain closed.
“Not really. Remember, you’re Human. I don’t exactly take to your kind in a sexual manner.”
“I suppose I’m just lucky it wasn’t Turpin,” she sighed, standing up in behind the curtain and reaching out for her towel blindly. Norbert took it off of its hook by the door and guided it to her questing hand. “Gods know what he would have thought.”
“He likely would have at least asked you for a date,” commented Channel as Ridge stepped out of the tub wrapped in her towel.
“Oh, I have a feeling he would have asked for more than that,” she said gruffly. She closed the bathroom door as best she could, then unwrapped the towel around herself and started drying her hair.
“I’m still here, you know,” said Channel, staring at her exposed buttocks as she walked to the mirror on the front of the medicine cabinet.
“Like you said yourself, I’ve got nothing you want,” she replied.
“Doesn’t mean I don’t like what I see.”
“I think I can live with that,” she said. Ridge reached to her left, pulling a fresh set of clothes out of the rolling closet she kept in the bathroom. She pulled on her undergarments quickly, then took a few minutes deciding on an outfit for what she had to do. She finally decided on a pair of black slacks, enchanted many months ago for protection against physical attacks, and a simple white blouse similarly enhanced. She had herself embroidered a pair of black roses onto the shoulders of the shirt, a nice little homey touch that she liked to add to some bits of her limited wardrobe. “Norbert, I want you to go find Turpin and bring him up here. The three of us need to talk.”
“And Victor,” asked the Gnome technician.
“Leave him be. He will be the subject of some of our discussion,” she said, raking a brush through her hair. “And the discussion will not be pleasant. I have had a vision. After we have had our private discussion, I need you to get in touch with our Lookout Division here in the city, and get in touch with the Pack of Liars, Flint Ananham, and the Sisters of Night. Exclude Cailee Parthridge from the Sisters. We all need to have a little pow-wow.”