Exactly thirty minutes later, Kentaris stepped out of the taxi in front of the cafe. Getting the right clothes was a bitch. She didn’t have anything that fit the description at such short notice. She just threw on her most practical outfit and backpack, and tossed on her robe over them. With the hood down she could blend in almost anywhere. The one concession she made to street fashion was her boots. Waterproof steel-toed boots.
Wandering into the cafe, she searched for the Voidguard. Three men sat with their backs to her at the counter; none of them could be him. The booth next to her was occupied by a hassled mother trying to get her three children to settle down for dinner. At the far end, an intense young man in a short black coat trained ice blue eyes on her. Beringer.
They exchanged a curt nod. She took the seat opposite him. A subtle heat radiated from him; he was loaded down with quintessence. This close to him, it seemed there was no light in his bright blue eyes. They were open so wide it was if they were swallowing in the light. Those touched by the Void bore stigmata, some obvious, some not, and this was Beringer’s.
“Glad you could make it,” he said. “Do you want anything?”
He gestured at the menu. A cup of stale coffee rested on the table, barely touched.
“No thanks,” she said.
Her guts grumbled.
He raised an eyebrow. She shook her head. “I don’t like eating before a job.”
“Interferes with ambrosia uptake?”
She frowned. Almost. But his face was frank and open, and he nodded at the drinking tube poking from under the folds of fabric. He was asking about tradecraft, from one pro to another.
“Yeah. It slows me down. Can’t afford that if I need magic on the fly.”
“You’re not having anything?”
“I am.” He signaled a waitress over and ordered a pork souvlaki pita.
“So,” she said. “You have a lead, then?”
“Yes. Our friend is likely somewhere in the slums. I can show you,” he said, patting his pocket. When she nodded, he placed his telecrystal on the table and projected a street map. Thick red lines demarcated the area. It swallowed up almost half the city.
“That’s…not helping much,” she said.
“Better than scouring the entire city by ourselves. Besides, this is the worst case scenario. Our friend likes areas of corruption with easy access to prey, and he knows he has to stay low. I’ve correlated missing persons reports, population density studies, neighborhood crime rates, social network analysis and anomalous sighting reports.” He played with the screen. Red pins descended on the neighborhood, marking out a fistful of locations. “He’s likely to be found here, among the housing projects.”
“That’s still a fair way to walk,” she noted.
He tapped at a pin. “This one is the closest to us. Also, the likeliest spot.”
“How do you know that?”
White circles grew on the screen. Black pins sprouted in the spaces between the circles. “The areas in white are places covered by paling-stones. Our friend cannot cross the paling. Even if he has more friends with him.”
“How reliable is that information?” she interjected.
“Comes from an informant with a flawless record.”
“You mean one of the Fallen. One of your Greater Demons.”
Beringer smiled, said nothing more.
“I thought trafficking with Voidspawn was proscribed.”
He shrugged. “We take precautions. Besides, the Void is not a monolithic entity. It is to the advantage of the Church if we can use their rivalries and disputes against them.”
“Theology rationalizes everything, huh.”
“You’re a fine one to talk.”
She glared at him. “We could go on about this all day. Let’s get on with this.”
“Of course. As I was saying, our friend is deathly allergic to palings. He can only take routes where there are no palings. The black pins indicate incidents that can be attributed to him or his fellows. If we map routes from incidents to the suspect locations, we find this.”
Black lines grew from the crime scenes, converging on the red pin he had indicated.
“It’s the closest site to all of the incidents,” Kentaris said.
“Yes. And Voidspawn can be just as lazy as humans.”
“So we’re going to check it out?”
The waitress returned, setting down a plate with a large pita. Kentaris’ mouth watered, and she swallowed down the saliva. He took a moment to thank her, then regarded Kentaris. All the color seemed to drain from his eyes.
“You first,” he said.
“I see you’ve summoned some of your buddies. They can make a fly-by, see what’s what first.”
“You can see the connections?”
He smiled faintly, raising an eyebrow.
Kentaris closed her eyes, focusing on the thread that connected her to Telariel. Through the line she pulsed her thoughts: I have found a possible location. Please concentrate your efforts here. Encoded in her thoughts was an image of the map, drawn from her memory.
Okay! We’ll be there shortly!
With a knife and fork, Beringer tore the pita open, revealing a string of pork cubes nestled in a bed of vegetables, and ripped through the meat and greens with astonishing speed.
“You’re not having the pita?” she asked.
He swallowed. “It absorbed all the grease in the pork. Can’t have that in me. Also, the pita is made of wheat. Can’t have that either.”
She smiled. “Gluten intolerant?”
“Aren’t we all?”
As he crunched down the last of his vegetables, Teraliel returned.
Take a look at this!
She closed her eyes. A full-color image flooded her mind. She saw a five-story apartment block, crumbling around the edges. Foul black mist leaked from boarded-over windows, a sure sign of the Fallen.
“I think we have him,” she said.
“What do you see?”
“That’s it? Any sign of the target?”
Teraliel, can you get closer? I need to see if the Fallen is inside.
The fairy approached the target. The building loomed large in her vision. She inspected the windows, looking for a way in. She pulled up to a promising window, one that had been shattered long ago. She checked for tripwires and wards. Satisfied, she closed in and—
A black shadow appeared at the window.
Teraliel went flying, spinning round and round and round. Kentaris bit down, preventing herself from yelling out loud. The faery smacked against a wall, dropped down. But before she hit the ground she recovered, pulling herself back up.
Teraliel! Are you okay?
Ow…head hurts. Can’t…think.
You’ve done enough. Thanks for your help. Go home and rest.
The thread cut.
“Saw something?” Beringer asked.
“Yeah. She tried to get in, but someone…something…kicked her out. He’s there.”
“Did you see our friend?”
“Then we have to see for ourselves.”
“What? What the—”
“Hey, put yourself in my shoes, okay? I work for a bureaucracy, and I am not officially working with you. When this is over I might have to discuss the operation with an Inquisitor. I have to be able to tell him, in all honesty, that I had eyes on the subject, or at least one of his buddies.”
She sighed. “Dammit. Let’s go before I change my mind.”
He got up, leaving some money on the table and recovering his telecrystal. As they left the cafe, he reached into an inner pocket and stuck a earpiece into his left ear.
“I’ve got an anomalous energy reader in my pocket. I’ve tuned it to pick up the presence of a Greater Demon, and it’s got the range of a city block. If he’s there, this will pick it up. Oh, and stay on my left.”
“Stay on my left.”
“So you won’t interfere with my draw.”
She shook her head. “Fine.”
“You’re armed, right?”
She raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”
At the same time, she felt under her cloak, checking that her revolver was still there.
“That’s a yes,” he said.
She kept silent.
“Keep your weapon close,” he continued.
“It won’t be my first choice of weapons.”
“You’ll never know.”
The Voidguard led the way, and she stayed at his side. He kept his head on a swivel, his hands in his pockets, guiding his feet by whatever it was he heard in his ear.
Amarantopolis called itself the Heart of the Church, but vice lurked in the shadow of the cathedrals. A trio of women displaying too much makeup and skin leaned against a graffiti-coated wall, while a shifty-eyed man prowled nearby. In a dark alleyway, a man squatted against the wall, a bundle of unmarked goods laid out on a blanket. A mangy dog licked itself on the street, pausing every so often to steer clear of humans. As the night set in, streetlamps flashed on, bathing the world in dim amber.
Beringer halted on the street opposite the destination. The apartment block was exactly as Teraliel had seen it. But in the glow of the street lighting the windows appeared to sprout eyeballs and teeth, while tongues of mold and peeling paint crawled down the sides.
As he surveyed the building, Kentaris allowed herself a sip of ambrosia. It charged her, soothing the gnawing in her stomach. She augmented her vision, seeing the world as it truly was. The building was smothered in black mist. A Fellbeast was present. No. Fellbeasts.
The world crawled to a stop, fading to black and white. She blinked, or tried, but her eyelids seemed to droop in slow motion. A black mass warped in, solidifying in front of Beringer, transforming into a tall thin man dressed entirely in black.
The Fallen was warping time; the only reason she was aware of it was the ambrosia in her. She burned it all, accelerating herself to match the Fallen’s pace in space-time.
“Well, well, well,” Simon said. “The Voidguard and the hexe. I was wondering when you’d show up.”
“To the Void with you,” Beringer said.
His words sped up, melting into a blur. Kentaris sucked down more ambrosia, and coherency returned.
The Fallen shrugged. “Sure, as with all things. But until then, let’s play a little game.”
“What game?” Kentaris asked.
Simon grinned, holding up a palm. A portal appeared. Through it she saw a group of naked girls, bound together with oozing black tentacles. They squirmed, eyes wide open. They tried to scream, but their mouths were covered in plugs of black filth. The camera rotated, showing a collection of human-shaped clouds.
Fellmen. What the Voidguard called Defiled.
“I have brought some special guests for dinner,” he said. “Well, dinner for my kin, that is. Let’s see if you can rescue them before my kin get too hungry.”
“Hostages?” Kentaris asked. “That’s below you.”
“I am of the Fallen. What isn’t below me?”
“We can talk about this,” Beringer said evenly. “You want us, don’t you?”
Simon wagged a finger. “Ah, ah, ah! I know what you’re thinking. You just want to buy time until your friends get here. Sorry, no. If you walk away, my kin eats them. If you call your men, my kin eats them. If you dally with me, my kin eats them. If you go in now, well, maybemy kin eats them. Or not, it’s up to you.”
“I’d swear at you, but it’d be a compliment,” Beringer said.
“We have to save them,” Kentaris said.
“Agreed.” Beringer removed his hands from his pockets. “We accept your challenge.”
“Wonderful!” He clapped. “We look forward to having you for dinner, too.”
The demon warped out, and time resumed.
“Shit,” Kentaris said.
“Yeah. Ready to back me, hexe?”
“Are you ready, Voidguard?”
Beringer flashed his teeth. “Always. Let’s do this.”
If this story looks familiar, it’s the original concept of my Covenant Chronicles series. To see how it really turned out, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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