Chapter 18. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

“Ah, Miss Valentine. A pleasure as always.”

Glory offered the speaker her best fake smile. He was a grey haired old man in ornate blue robes with a face like sour grapes. The key fact though was that he was an important old man with a personality that matched his features.

They were in a spacious office with little in the way of decor. A heavy mahogany desk was the main feature of the room. There were no windows. Glory had been guided here as soon as she had arrived at the Lion Heart.

The building was old. It was also grand in every sense of the word. A magical dome surrounded it so the towering gothic structure couldn’t be seen from a distance. It had served as the base of the English branch of the Grand Moot for centuries. Despite the intimidating beauty and attention to comfort, it was a place that set Glory on edge.

“Mornin’, Councillor Lokstone. You seem to be doing well for yourself.” It took a lot of effort to maintain her courteous tone. The man was a prick and always had been, but he was the vindictive type that you didn’t want to offend.

“Busy times call for busy men. Busy men who can handle the strain tend to rise to the top of things. Ah, but you’re not here to talk about me. Have you come to accept our bounty?”

“Fifty million pounds to kill one man. That’s a lotta money,” Glory said contemplatively. She sat down on the chair opposite the man and leaned over, her fingers steepled just below her chin. “My main question though, is why?”

Lokstone met her gaze and offered her a grim smile. “We have allowed Déaþscúa to operate outside of the law for far too long. He has always been a loose cannon, disobeying orders whenever he pleases. If I’m being totally honest, such a decision would have been made many years ago, but I am afraid that those who had the power to do so were scared of him. A master should never live in fear of his dog. As a leader yourself, I’m sure you can understand this.

“He has overstepped too far this time. He has murdered a key thread in our world’s tapestry and potentially doomed us all in doing so. Reports say that he has also allowed two powerless children to get entangled in his affairs without alerting the authorities for a mindwipe. He has broken almost every law that we have but we all know that he would not come quietly if arrested.”

Glory’s face remained emotionless. “Forgive me if I’m wrong, Councillor, but my understanding is that the Grand Moot has a large security force and a formidable army at its disposal. Why then would you hire mercenaries? I hear tax money is already stretched and quality mercenaries are a big investment.”

There was a rattle of pots behind the councillor then a steaming cup floated around to rest beside his hand. He picked it up and took a small sip. It was an excessive use of casual magic. Glory couldn’t use basic magic like most powered individuals. Was he taunting her?

“You and I both know that you understand why we have asked you. If we send an army then there will be casualties. Our soldiers are strong but they have never been trained to take on a monster like him. Even our special forces would be reluctant to face him, especially since he trained most of them. Your Blue Bands are renowned for taking on suicidal missions and succeeding. More than that though, Déaþscúa is considered a hero by the public. Can you imagine public opinion if we were involved in his death? We’re already in an unstable position as it is.”

“But the prophecy-”

“Yes, yes. Perhaps you can’t kill him without Annis. You can maim him and capture him though. This contract is for bringing him in, dead or alive.”

“That’s no easy task. He’d need to be ambushed first, which is easy enough if he is focussed on his current hunt as deeply as I believe he is, then brought down by heavy fire power. Melee would be a big no-go. 50cal shots to shred him then plasma to prevent the regeneration. A man like Déaþscúa has little in the way of protection from modern weapons. None of us do.”

Lokstone sneered at that comment. “I am not concerned with the how. Do you accept the job?”

“I’ll have to speak to the band first. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” She stood up. “I’ll be in touch with you soon.”

“Don’t wait long,” Lokstone added in a cold voice. “It is a job offer, but it is one given by the Moot for the betterment of Earth. To refuse could cause unwanted consequences. Neither of us would like that, would we, Miss Valentine?”

Glory left without another word. As soon as the door closed behind her she began to swear under her breath. A faint metallic hissing noise began from under her shirt.

Déaþscúa was hunting Annis. Several others shared his goal, meaning that he would likely team up to take her down. This meant that getting him alone would be that much harder. Maybe Ailia would join him too. Beating him would require siding with Annis. Was enough money to finance her ambitions enough to throw aside her morals? 

It wouldn’t be a sensible decision to antagonise Déaþscúa in such circumstances, not that she had any intention to do so. Lokstone was an idiot if he thought that money alone would be enough to make her do something so damn stupid. He should also have known that his thinly veiled threats would only encourage her to rebel. Déaþscúa was a dick, but he was a good man at heart. At least until he lost his temper.

Something more had to be going on behind the scenes. Most people would have left it at that but Glory was a troublemaker at heart. That, combined with a deep need to understand everything, led her to turn deeper into the Lion Heart rather than towards the exit.

She walked confidently through the grand halls, passing cloaked men and women without causing a second glance in her direction. In fact, she didn’t receive a first glance.

Glory’s magic wasn’t something she could harness in physical ways. She couldn’t throw fireballs, heal herself, or form shields. What she could do was meld perception. Everyone knew that she could. She had made sure of that. Only, she always forgot to mention that her ability worked in two ways.

Glory was popular because her power made everyone like her. She always stood out in a crowd and few people ever felt inclined to argue with her. It was a useful trait for a mercenary captain. What was perhaps more useful though was that she could reverse the effect. She could make herself so indistinct that she faded completely into the background.

This ability wasn’t perfect though. It didn’t work on cameras or sensors, something that the Heart had in abundance. A hundred years ago it would have been a flawless technique.

She wandered the corridors for a while until a woman in ornate red robes came into view. Glory recognised her as a minor councillor. As the woman passed her, Glory reached out and plucked an ID badge from her robe pocket. She smiled sweetly as the woman rushed obliviously onwards.

“Bingo.”

She set off again with renewed purpose, the ID badge flicking between her fingers as she walked. Moot buildings were shrouded in secrecy, their layout and contents only ever told on a need to know basis. Glory needed to know just about everything so had managed to obtain plans of almost every Moot building, along with several other important structures, all across the world. Most people collected stamps, teapots or trading cards. Glory collected classified documents. It was all the same to her.

She directed herself towards the Moot library. It stood in the oldest section of the Heart and was said to be the largest collection of knowledge in all of Europe. After a short wait, the door opened as an old man shuffled out and Glory slid past him before the door could close. The first part of the library was open to the public. She could have entered without needing any ID or stealth but she needed to go deeper.

The smell of old books washed over her as she made her way through the towering labyrinth of shelves. Gilded leather covers filled the polished wood frames in every direction. She glanced at the titles as she walked but she’d already read most of the book she could see.

Up ahead was another door. A sign stating ‘Private’ was nailed to it. This marked the entrance to the classified section of the library. Only ranked members of the Moot or specially selected individuals could access the information within. Someone like Glory certainly couldn’t. Or, at least couldn’t unless they had happened to steal a councillor’s ID badge.

She held the card up to a scanner beside the door. It beeped softly then the door clicked open. Glory quickly passed through it, closing the door behind her. The room she entered was smaller than the public section but the main difference was that the shelves were split into smaller sections that were sealed off behind locked panels. This meant that even people with access would only be able to read specific texts.

There was a camera above that was aimed down at the door. She’d have to work fast. She tapped her ear.

“Ace, I’m in. Give me a ten second warning. I’ll only have a few seconds to act.”

There was no response, but she wasn’t expecting one. Ace was waiting for her in the main reception room. Communications that crossed the building’s barrier were monitored but internal chatter was too common to bother with. Right about now, Ace would be stepping outside for a cigarette, conveniently wandering just beyond the barrier’s bounds. From there he’d be able to contact the rest of the Band.

Curiosity whispered in her ears to take a few moments and raid the classified files. There could be any amount of juicy information within. A stern beeping began from her back. She sighed and suppressed these thoughts then moved to the end of the room.

There was another door here, this time a bulky construct of metal like something you might find on a bank vault. Her stolen ID card was useless here. Only the top Moot leaders had access to the Future Archives.

Static crackled in her ear. It sounded like Ace was merrily chatting away with the receptionist. “It seems like that phone of yours is ringing every ten seconds. No rest for the wicked, eh.”

That was the signal. Ten seconds. She took a disc from her belt buckle and placed it over the lock. It was made of stone with runes engraved on its surface. Metal formed a frame around it. She tapped several runes then readied herself.

The lights flickered off. The disc glowed blue then began to spin. It made a hissing noise then the lock clicked open. The door inched open and Glory dove through it, wedging a foam tennis ball into the gap behind her. The lights flashed back on and the door tried to slam shut until it was blocked by the ball.

She was walking a dangerous line. Tripping the Heart’s primary power triggered the backup energy supply that was in turn disrupted with an EMP pulse. Not many people had the resources and knowledge to pull that off. The Blue Bands would be a prime suspect. She had to move fast.

The Future Archive was unlike any other room in the Heart. The information here wasn’t contained in books or machines but in beams of light. Hundreds of vertical beams glowed golden from all manner of objects that sat on ornate display stands. They warped the air around them, giving the whole room an ethereal feel like something viewed while half asleep.

Glory knew that she had to be quick but this time she couldn’t stop herself from staring in amazement. She wandered to the closest pillar of light. It was emanating from a wooden spoon. The plaque read ‘Famine in camps of magic’. She reached out and brushed the shimmering air with her fingers.

Visions rushed into her head so quickly that it took her breath. The pictures moved too fast for her to focus on but the feeling of hunger and hopelessness that rippled through her was enough to make her feel sick. She pulled her arm away in a panic.

Cautiously, she moved around the prophecies, her eyes darting between plaques while trying to avoid staring too far into the lights. Eventually she found what she was looking for. She took a deep breath then reached out towards a grayscale globe of the world. Sensations washed over her. This time she was ready for them. 

The images returned, this time of a desolate landscape of ruined buildings. It was hard to focus on any details, the specifics seemingly changing with every slight movement, but a raging storm of energy filled her attention. A dark figure stood beside it, arms held wide. She couldn’t see who it was as their back was turned. The hair suggested a woman. 

Another figure lurched into view. She had never seen him in person but the disproportioned body matched the description of the cannibal, Christie. The scene played out in a jarringly erratic way as Christie approached the woman and reached out. Power crackled around them both as his hand brushed against the woman’s cheek. Then he grabbed her head and twisted. There was a sharp snapping sound then the storm of energy constricted around them before imploding.

The vision ended abruptly. So, Christie was supposed to kill someone mid ritual. Judging by the appearance and circumstances, this was probably Annis. That meant that Annis needed to be stopped. But if the Moot knew this, why had they not moved against her and why now were they wanting to keep Déaþscúa from her tracks? It didn’t make sense.

She turned to leave when another plaque caught her eye. Cursing, she moved closer. It read ‘The eclipsing of the shadow of death’. Above it laid an antique sword. As she stared at it sirens began to blare.

“Fuck. Five more minutes, guys. Don’t be rude and interrupt me now.”

Her curiosity was too great. She thrust her hand into the light only to immediately pull it back as pain and sickness wracked her body. Her knees gave out and she toppled to the tiled floor. The vision hadn’t just been of the death she had expected but of complete and utter madness.

Sounds were audible behind the door now. She was out of time. Angry voices encouraged her to pull herself together and search for a way out. At the far side of the room was yet another door but Glory couldn’t see any way to open it. A magic seal likely kept it closed.

She reached behind her back and under her shirt to where a small tube was strapped along her spine. It was metal and was about as long as her forearm. At the press of a button it extended to a full sized staff. Runes glowed crimson across its surface.

“I’d hoped not to have to use you yet. Oh well. Hope you’re ready for a show.”

The runes pulsed excitedly. She aimed the tip of the staff at the door then the entire room lit up with an explosion of crimson energy. As quickly as it had appeared, the light vanished, leaving a clean hole through the metal before her. 

Glory dived through the whole, careful not to touch the molten edges. As soon as she rolled to her feet she heard the other door begin to open. There were no other exits. She was trapped.

She scanned the room. It was full of wires that ran across the walls and floor. All of them were connected to a central structure that looked half computer and half hospital bed. A body was visible beneath the machinery. It wore the lavish robes of a high councillor.

“Protellious Avus. Grand Moot Aevumancer,” she said, her smile growing. An important hostage was always a good start for an escape plan. “So, you’re the one who made all of those prophecies. Wait…”

She looked closer. The body was just that. A lifeless corpse. The faded skin was pulled tight over bones while eyeless sockets stared at the ceiling. It looked like he had been dead for a few months at least.

Her staff beeped hectically. She span and fired a blazing beam through the gap in the door. Shouted curses filled the air as the guards took cover. A blast of fire narrowly missed her as they began to counterattack. It seemed they were reluctant to enter the room. She doubted very much that it was because of her. That hesitation wouldn’t last long.

Glory aimed at the floor between her feet, jumped, then fired. Smoke and dust filled the room. By the time it had cleared she had already vanished through a dark hole where she had been standing.

She’d misjudged the thickness of the ground, cutting through more layers than she had ever intended. She fell through a dusty basement then further until she crashed into a pool of shallow water.

“Bollocks,” she muttered, sitting up slightly then jamming a dislocated leg back into place.

It appeared that she was in the Moot’s sewer system. Fetid water surrounded her in a cramped stone tunnel. The smell was almost unbearable. She quickly gathered up her staff and set off down the passage, wading through the knee high sludge as fast as she could with a limp. The staff beeped loudly at her, its glowing runes casting the walls in a faint red hue.

“Hey, stop swearing. Only one of us is allowed such foul language. Think of the age rating.”

Beep Buzz.

“I’m not breaking the fourth wall. You are by pointing it out.”

Buzzz Eh Eh Beep

“No, we can’t just shoot through the roof indiscriminately. Potential cave-ins aside, we wanted information, not wanton murder.”

BEEPBEEPBEEP

“Okay, perhaps you wanted senseless murder. But then this is why you’re a stick. Anyway, you’re out of power and you know it. Now shut up and let’s get outta here. I have a lotta work to do before the shit hits the fan.”

Previous – Chapter 17.

Next – Chapter 19.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 18. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

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