The Jade Court Part III – Loyalty

Soft music drifted into the room, delicate and precise.  Tanaka Yashida and Asahina Ito sat at a low table, watching a video feed on a large screen mounted to the wall.  A young boy sat in a chair nearby, legs crossed and eyes closed in meditation. It had been six months since their information gathering attempt had failed, the moment Ichi and Shinobu had set foot on Izu Oshima they had lost all contact.  Asahina saw it as a diplomatic snare. Tanaka saw it as a declaration of war.

Using his contacts on the island, he had first tried to remove the Jade Lady from the hotel she had taken up residence in, only to find out that she had indeed purchased the Miharayama Onsen hotel.  She had also paid twice the market value with cash. He’d tried to get local suppliers to stop selling their wares to the hotel, but he’d only managed a temporary pause in their business.

From there, Tanaka had widened his efforts to disrupt life on the island itself.  He had undermined the reliability of the power grid by cutting auxiliary power lines, sabotaged the ferry and bribed the local traffic authorities to undertake major repairs on the only bridge that connected to the mainland.  The Jade Lady had responded by constructing solar and tidal power generation that made Izu Oshima energy independent and helping to revive the local farming and fishing communities. The need for people to leave the island dropped dramatically.

Eventually, the amount of influence they could enact to change things on Izu Oshima had dwindled to almost nothing.  Councilors and officials politely declined bribes, business owners ceased responding to threats, and even locals who owed him favors only grudgingly agreed to do small things in return for being released from their obligations.  He had finally resorted to magical means.

One of the people who Asahina had helped him recruit was an Adept who had an affinity with animals.  Together with Tanaka’s tech department they had outfitted a few dozen pigeons with small cameras and deployed them to the island for spying purposes.  Now they watched in disbelief at what was happening in the city of Motomatchi.

The Jade Lady was walking the streets in formal dress from centuries ago.  She wore a flawless kimono of white embroidered with sakura trees, wooden sandals with high platforms to keep her feet out of the road dust and carried a parasol.  A huge Bengal tiger walked next to her like an obedient hound, everyone seemed to take its presence in stride.  

She exchanged pleasantries with every person she passed, calling them all by name, giving some gifts and accepting small tokens from others.  Children occasionally begged rides on the tiger’s back in exchange for small dishes of liquor that he lapped up with apparent relish. The townsfolk weren’t being forced or intimidated into obedience, they actually loved and respected her.

“It can’t be real,” Tanaka said, looking at Asahina. “Looks like you were right.  She is using some kind of mind control.”

“As strange as it seems, I don’t sense any kind of magic.” She said, “But I’d have to get closer to be sure.”

They watched as the lady walked into a small town square.  A gang of young men with masks over their faces ran from alleys in front of and to either side of her.  Most of them had knives, but their leader and two others had pistols.

“Tsung, please move one closer so that we can hear,” Asahina said, and one of the images on the screen came closer to the square as one of the pigeons landed on a fountain.

“-you stupid bitch?” The leader was yelling, “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, but you don’t get to tell us what to do!  You might have a pet tiger but that’s not gonna help you against bullets!”

“You are being most uncouth youngsters.”  She said, snapping her fan open in front of her face.  “One should show more respect for one’s elders.” A low rumble of a tiger’s growl rolled through the air.  It cut off when she put her hand on his head.

“The Tonda gang has run this town for longer than you’ve been alive.”  He pointed his gun at her, “We don’t take anyone trying to get a piece of the action.  We sent you warnings but you just wouldn’t let it go.”

“Izu Oshima is my island.”  She said calmly, “No gang of young fools can alter that.  Your guns cannot help you accomplish your goals. The only way you will be able to remain here is to agree to serve me and obey my commands absolutely.  I will not allow you to further trouble my people.”

The gang began laughing and their leader shook his head. “You’re outta your goddamn mind.  I’m gonna paint the walls with your blood!” His gun fired, and a bright splash of blood began to stain the Lady’s pristine white kimono.

A hail of stones flew as Sai’Li fell to sprawl on the grass in an expanding pool of blood.  Dozens of the citizens ran forward, throwing more rocks, carrying bats, sticks and carrying other improvised weapons.  Shopkeepers still wearing their aprons, servers from restaurants, students, housewives, and fishermen filled the square, skirting around the tiger where he stood protectively over his mistress.

“You boys leave now.”  A man in a business suit said, pointing at them with a golf club.  “Lady Sai’Li has done more to ensure our prosperity in the last two months than anyone in my lifetime.  You always said you were helping us but I never saw you do anything but demand free drinks and cause trouble.”

A group of teenage girls ran up to Sai’Li, stopping nervously a few feet away from the still bristling Ignis. “Lady!” One shouted, “We need to help you!  If we don’t stop the bleeding you’ll die!”

The tiger looked at them with a baleful glare but moved to put himself between her and the gang.  More rocks flew and the gang leader brandished his gun, causing some of the people to flinch.

“I’ll shoot you just like I did her!” He yelled, “Nobody fucks with the Tonda gang!”

A rock struck him in the face and he stumbled back, blood running from a broken nose.  The businessman ran forward, smashing his golf club into his gun hand, sending it flying.  One of the others aimed his pistol but went down under a half-ton of angry tiger before he could pull the trigger.  The remaining gang members fled.

“Something’s not right,” Tsung said, his voice soft and dreamlike.  “No! They’re dying!”

The video feeds closest to the square changed perspective and the ones further away caught the motion of small bodies falling.  The birds that had been carrying the cameras had fallen over. The leaves of the trees in the square turned brown and began to fall off in the light breeze.

A white Mercedes arrived, and a group of figures sprang out.  The Lady struggled to her feet, and the man in the business suit seemed to be talking to her.  Despite her injuries, she bowed to him before allowing the new arrivals to help her into the back of the car, leaving a trail of blood behind her. 

“Well, that was unexpected,”  Tanaka said, running his fingers through his hair.

“Yes, she seems to have truly captured the hearts of those people.”  Asahina said, “I did not think that kind of tactic would be what she employed.”

“I was referring to how she tricked them all into thinking she had been hurt defending them,” Tanaka said, tapping a cigarette out of a pack and lighting it.  “After word of that little display spreads there won’t anyone in that city who wouldn’t die for her.”

“If she doesn’t die from being shot.” Asahina said, “That wasn’t a trivial injury.”

“She uses some kind of life magic.” Tsung said, “Or if it wasn’t her, someone else drained the life from everything around her.  The people were strong enough to stay alive, but the plants and smaller animals all died.”

“What does that?” Tanaka asked, looking at Asahina.

“Oh no.”  She said, her face going pale. “We thought they were all dead.”

“You thought WHO were all dead?” Tanaka snarled, “What have you been hiding from me?”

“I thought she was laying claim to the Jade Court out of ignorance or because none of them still lived to dispute her words,”  Asahina said, her face pale. “If my fears are accurate she may be an ancient evil returned.”

“What?” Tanaka looked caught between anger and surprise.  He’d never seen Asahina frightened before.

“Remember when we first met?  When I was hunting that creature and found out it had been stalking you?”  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Remember how hard it was to kill?”

“Once you told me how dangerous it was and we ganged up on it with the proper tools, it wasn’t that hard.”  He said, but the memory of the thing she had called a Black Court vampire still sent a thrill of fear down his spine.  “Garlic, crosses, and stakes through the heart, a scene right out of Brahm Stoker.”

“That’s why the Councils around the world worked to propagate that story,”  Asahina said, pouring a glass of scotch with shaking hands. “That’s one of the only times the wizarding world has used the power of normals to defeat a supernatural enemy.”

“I remember your history lesson from last time.”  He said, “What’s this got to do with her?”

“The Jade Court left a few centuries ago.”  Asahina said, “They weren’t driven out, they weren’t forced to go, but it was right before the first war between vampires and mages began.  At first, we thought it was because they were weak, there never were very many of them and nobody knows how they’re actually created.

“I haven’t been able to find more than rumors, but it seems as though this was a strategic move based on divination or maybe even advice from a dragon.  Either way, it was not due to any weakness that I could find.”  

“So we should stock up on crosses?”  Tanaka asked, lighting a cigarette.

“I looked through all of our records back then.”  She said, “After we drove the Black Court from our lands I wanted to research the other courts so that we could defend against them if need be.  I couldn’t find one single instance of a Jade Court vampire being killed. Not one.”

The Jade Court Part II – Rumors

“What’s this Jade Court nonsense?” Tanaka Yashida asked, lighting a cigarette.  “Does this ‘Lady Shirasiau’ really expect us to come to her like supplicants?”

“There are different thoughts on that subject.” Asahina said, “According to the Council there was once an Eastern vampire court.  They were said to have been exterminated centuries ago, but there have always been rumors that they simply retreated into another realm to wait for a time when they could return.

“Others think that she’s just an imposter, albeit a clever one.  She has supposedly modeled herself after a character from the pages of fifteenth-century legend, complete with the pet tiger.”  She poured herself a glass of whisky, “My opinion is that she’s an opportunist. I’m sure she has some power, but it’s likely mind magic or illusion, nothing more.”

“Well, if that’s true what do you suggest we do?”  He asked, annoyed. “I didn’t hire you for cryptic history lessons.  What’s the wizard angle on all this?”

“As of now, neither the American or British Council bodies are concerning themselves with a single woman, no matter what her supposed influence is.” Asahina said, “So you’re free to operate without stepping into Council politics.”

“Good.  She’s taken over the top floor of the Miharayama Onsen hotel.  I even heard a rumor that she bought the entire building.” Tanaka said.  “I think it’s time to send someone to pay her a visit.”

“I suggest Ichi and Shinobu.” She said, “A good combination of strength and intuition.”

“My first lieutenant and your former apprentice.”  Tanaka stubbed out his cigarette, “I agree, that is a strong combination.”

“Ichinose, we must approach with caution,”  Shinobu said, looking at the building with a squint that told him she was using her mage’s sight.  “There has been magic used in and around this place, although I do not see any wards.”

“Mages.” He grunted and adjusted his shoulder holster.

“You should have brought your sword.” She said, “It would be more fitting here.”

The door opened and a young man in a perfectly tailored suit looked them over.  “May I be of some assistance?” He asked.

“We are representatives from Master Yamazaki, here to pay our respects,” Shinobu said.

“You may call me San Shu.”  The man said, bowing at the waist, “I am Lady Shirasiu’s assistant.”  He held the door and followed them into the elevator. When the door opened on the thirteenth floor, Shinobu caught her breath.

The room was huge, the entire top floor was one enormous room.  All four walls were windows, showing spectacular views of mountains and ocean; the steam from hot springs and thick jungle.  A garden of bamboo grew on one side, a steaming pool of water sat on the other and in the center was a raised dais upon which sat a large throne that seemed to be carved of a single piece of green stone.  The most striking woman Shinobu had ever seen sat on comfortably on the Jade Throne, wearing a red kimono embroidered with golden thread smoking a kiseru and looking down on them with an indulgent smile.

“Ichinose Irigani and Shinobu Kiri of the Yamazaki clan.  Tell me, how is your Tanaka?”

“Miss Shirasiau,”  Shinobu said, bowing.  A sound shook the floor beneath her with a subsonic rumble.  Although she couldn’t see the animal making the noise, Shinobu could tell it was big and feline.

“Please address her as Jade Lady if you wish to refer to her directly.”  Tan said, “Lord Ignis is a might protective.”

Shinobu’s eyes flicked around nervously, but couldn’t see anything.

Sai’Li exhaled a cloud of aromatic smoke and tapped the ashes out of her kiseru into a bronze brazier.  A servant took the pipe from her and refilled it with tobacco before handing it back. She put it delicately between her lips, drawing on the pipe while the servant held a match over the bowl.

“Jade Lady.” Shinobu began.

“Why did your master send you here?” Sai’Li interrupted, “Are you gifts?”

“Gifts?”  Shinobu was off guard, this was not what she had anticipated.

“What do you mean?” Ichi asked, reaching under his jacket.

“I told them all to come pay their respects to me.”  Sai’Li said, exhaling smoke from her nostrils, “I did not tell them to send their servants, so I am left wondering why they would do such a thing.”

Shinobu put a hand on Ichi’s arm, interrupting his move to draw his pistol.

“Child.”  Sai’Li said, “I have heard of these ‘guns’ that you favor in this age.  I am excited to see what you think they can do.” She handed her kiseru to the servant and waved him away.

Ichi held very still, not removing his hand from his gun. “My master did not send me here as a gift.  I will not be your creature.”

“No?”  Sai’Li asked, “Why did you come here if not to submit to my will?”

“We came here to offer our respects.”  He said, “Our family wishes to –“

“Do not lie to me, child.”  Sai’Li said, “Only curiosity has kept me from feeding  you to my tiger.”

“Just what is that supposed to mean?” He asked, “I have been sent here with my counterpart to give you the honor of the Yashida Clan.”

“What do you know of honor?”  Sai’Li asked, a gentle smile on her lips. “What would your master know of honor and duty when he sends you here instead of coming on his own?”

“I am willing to die for the honor of my master.” He said.

“Any fool can die.”  Sai’Li said, “What use are you to him dead?  I desire followers who are willing to live for me.”

“I will keep my oath to serve the Yashida Clan.”  Shinobu said, “They have not released me from that oath and I will not forsake my sworn word.”

“This is precisely why I told Tanaka to come himself.”  Sai’Li said, “As you took the trouble to come this far and are ignorant of the insult your master has given me, I am willing to allow you to leave.”

“I’ve heard enough.”  Ichi said, “We answered your request to come even though you treated it as a command.  We have sat through insults and arrogance that go beyond what my honor will tolerate. If you apologize I-”

He cut abruptly as Sai’Li snapped her fan open with a sound akin to a whip crack.  “Let me clarify. I did command your master to come here. It was not a request, nor should it have been treated like one.  One way or another he will come before me and he will have the same choice I give to everyone else who dares dream of opposing me.”

Her eyes locked on Ichi’s and he felt an involuntary shiver run down his spine.  “Serve me or die.”

Ichi drew his pistol with nearly inhuman speed and began firing in less than a half-second.  An orange blur moved between them and the bullets struck Ignis’s thick hide. The tiger roared and slashed claws tipped with jade and diamonds across his stomach.  Ichi dropped to his knees, trying to hold the wound closed and gasping in pain.

Shinobu threw her hands out and a lance of black energy flew from between them to strike Sai’Li in the chest.  A look of disbelief crossed her face and she stammered, “How can you? That should have killed you!”

“You are several centuries too late.”  Sai’Li said, “You cannot kill what is already dead.”

The Jade Court Part I – Return

Author’s note:  I’ve been reading a lot of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and Alex Verus by Benedict Jacka and have the urge to write a short story that has some kind of bridge between them… I don’t really think it’ll be very good, and I might not even get to any kind of tie-in to either book series, but once I get something in my head I have to try to write it or it makes me crazy.  I thought I’d make it about the return of the Jade Court of vampires and tell it through the lens of one of my favorite Pathfinder characters.  Longtime fans might remember the bloody adventures of Shirasiau Sai’Li; well here she comes back from the depths of my weird and twisted imagination to play the starring role.  Anyway, enough bullshit, I love writing this kind of thing.  Hopefully, you’ll enjoy reading it.

 

Tan Son Shu finished sweeping the courtyard and stretched, knuckling his back.  Taking care of the ruins Shimoda Castle was his life’s work.  His family legend said the small volcanic island of Izu Oshima was home to a line of royalty whose power made the world tremble in the late 1500s, and that his family had been their trusted servants.

Charged with maintaining the castle and its grounds until their return, Tan’s family had been living here for generations, but now he was the last of the Son Shu line.  The older of his relatives had all died and the younger had left for, lured by the neon lights and excitement of cities.

Turning to a line of ancient Bonsai trees that clung to a ring of stones in front of a mosaic showing a striking woman in a kimono holding a parasol over her head and a fan before her face walking a garden path with a tiger at her side.  Tan took his shears from their pouch and carefully trimmed a few branches.  He was absorbed in his work, Bonsai was a meditative practice, but a flicker of motion caught his eye.

He looked around to try and identify what had disturbed him, over the past few weeks some youngsters had been trespassing, trying to find a place to smoke and drink cheap sake.  They pretended to be Yakuza, but really they were just rebellious kids.  Tan didn’t see anyone and was turning back to his work when his eyes passed over the mosaic.  He rubbed his eyes and looked again.  The woman and her tiger were moving, walking up the garden path toward an archway.

Tan took a stumbling step backward as the pair stepped through the archway and into the courtyard.  Her kimono was black and elaborately embroidered with scenes of travel, accented with glittering gemstones and thread of gold.  The tiger’s claws and fangs were sheathed in jade and tipped with diamonds.  She looked around, only her eyes visible above her fan.

“What have you allowed to happen to my estates?”  She asked in an ancient and formal dialect, her voice like silk sliding over a katana’s blade.  Her eyes met his and he felt the crushing weight of her will.

Tan fell to his knees and pressed his forehead to the stones, “Great Lady, I am the last of the Son Shu line.  I have done my utmost to care for your property.  My deepest apologies for my failure.”

The tiger’s hot breath washed over his neck, smelling of alcohol and fresh blood and Tan was certain that would be the last thing he felt.  Something slithered into his mind, subtle yet powerful, and he could no more have stopped it than he could stop the tides.  Tan heard the sharp snap of a fan being closed and a mild exhalation of breath that might have been a sound of annoyance.

“Ignis, my pet, leave this one be.  He has been loyal when the rest of my retainers have forgotten.”  The hot breath retreated, and he saw a pair of jeweled sandals with perfectly formed feet stop before his still downcast eyes.  “Tan Son Shu.  You have spent your life in service to me.  It is time for your reward.”

“Great Lady, I desire no reward.  It has been an honor to serve.” He managed.

“All the same you shall have one.”  She said, lifting his chin with the toe of her sandal.  “I value loyalty and honor above all things.  You have spent the best years of your life in service to me, rise and receive your payment.”

He stood on trembling legs, eyes still downcast and felt the press of cold lips on his forehead.  A shiver ran through his body and his vision blurred, his chest felt tight and something changed.  With a shock, he removed his glasses to find his vision was perfect.  The tightness was a result of the return of youthful musculature straining against his undershirt.  Tan watched the gnarled arthritis of his fingers twist and straighten into strong, young joints.

He fell to his knees again, his fingertips daring to touch the edge of her sandal, “Great Lady, my life is yours.”

“You may call me Lady Shirasiau.”  She said before the sound of raucous laughter interrupted her.  A hiss and a gesture of her lacquered nails signaled the tiger and despite its size, it melted into the small bamboo thicket that grew on the east side of the courtyard without causing a single grass stem to waver.

“Hey old man!”  A boy’s voice rang out, slurred with drink. “You ain’t got the balls to call the cops on us this time!  We got the Yashida clan backing us now!”

Ten boys swaggered up the path, the one in the lead carrying a bokken over his shoulder.  The others carried bottles of sake and all were smoking cigarettes.  They were dressed in cheap suits and white dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up to show fresh tattoos on their forearms.  Tan moved to stand between Lady Shirasiau and the gang, hands closing into fists.

“You boys do not belong here.”  He said, “Please leave.”

“Woah, who’s the broad?”  The leader said, “And who the hell are you?”

“Yashida clan?”  The Lady asked, gliding forward, her sandals clicking on the cobblestones. “How interesting.  What would the Yashida clan want with such filthy infants?  Surely they have not gotten this soft.”

The kid with the bokken leered and pointed at her with it, “Bitch, I’m gonna enjoy breaking your bones.”

“Child.”  She said, tapping the end of his wooden sword with her fan, “You do not wish to make threats that are fundamentally impossible to make good on.”

“Lon, shoot this bitch.” The kid at the front said.  Nobody responded, and he looked around.  Tan noticed there were only nine; the last kid in the pack was gone.  “Lon?”

“I will give you a single chance to live.”  The Lady said, snapping open her fan. “Beg my forgiveness and pledge your life to me.”  A tiger’s rumbling cough came from the bamboo thicket and a shoe with three inches of bloody leg sticking out of it flew out to land in the middle of the boys with a sickening wet sound.

The punks scattered, running in different directions.  Every few minutes Tan heard a scream of fear that was suddenly cut off.  After nine such screams, the tiger padded up with blood on his chin and a satisfied gleam in his green cat eyes.

“Such a good boy.”  Lady Shirasiau said, laying a fond hand on the big cat’s head.

Tan was looking at her with a mixture of horror and awe.

“Tan Son Shu, you will secure me proper lodging befitting my station until my beloved castle can be rebuilt.”  She said, tossing a small silk purse at his feet.  “Send messages to the clans.  Tell them it is time for them to come and pay their respects to the Jade Court.”

 

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 73

“The Lady do be conversing with me,”  Durrak said, giving the man who had spoken last a stern look.  “I no do appreciate a pleasant interlude being interrupted with rudeness.”

“Stay out of this, Caverstorm.”  He said, all but spitting the words.  “This is not your concern and she is no ‘lady’ at all but an imposter, trained by a rogue mage who defied the-”

Durrak abruptly stood and hurled one of his spiked gauntlets in the man’s face, cutting off his tirade.  “I no do be taking insults to Ladies who do be sharing time with me lightly.”  He said, voice simmering with contempt.  “Be picking up my gauntlet or do be departing after formal apology.”

Callindra paused, left hand reaching into her bag, and waited to see what would happen.  Lorin was leaning back in his chair with a boyish grin on his face, watching with apparent glee, but she could see he had his hand on a knife hilt under the table.  The man stared at Durrak for a moment, ignoring the blood coming from wounds the spiked glove had made on his face.

“We are both Inquisitors of The Order.”  He said after a moment, indicating the woman who stood next to him. “You may not have understood who you were speaking with before you made that challenge.  I understand if you wish to withdraw it.”

The Dwarf began to laugh, a rumble that built until it was a full belly laugh that shook the fastenings of his armor.  “You do be thinking.”  He started, before lapsing back into laughter.  “You do be thinking I do be withdrawing my challenge because you do claim some bloody title?

“Before I do be coming to this place, it did be my life’s work to be taking titles from fools too weak to be keeping them.  Do be apologizing to this Lady and departing with your comrade or do be preparing to fight.”  Durrak folded his arms over his armored chest, a move that emphasized the broadness of his shoulders and the spikes on his armor.

“Lord Caverstorm, please.”  Callindra said, “There is no need to intercede thus.  I would not want you to be injured for making such a noble gesture.”  Although her voice was calm, her eyes flashed with anger.  The Dwarf suspected she wished to defend her own honor.

“A gentleman no do be able to do less.”  Durrak said, “It no do be a gesture; it do be my obligation and my pleasure Lady.”

The entry chime sounded again, and the light illuminated a beautiful woman wearing a simple yet elegant dress of silver.  “The Lady Ellen Eth ‘Orien.”

Her eyes swept the ballroom, occasionally pausing on one group or another until they eventually came to rest on Durrak.  She took in Lorin, Callindra and the Inquisitors in silence, not offering support or rebuke.  Her presence seemed to calm the confrontation down, and the man bowed from the waist to Callindra.

“Lady Sol’Estin, please accept my apology for my behavior.”  He said, his voice perfectly polite.  “I should not have intruded on your private conversation and aired my grievances in front of others.  We shall discuss this later in private.”

“I fear I do not know your name, sir, for we have not been introduced.”  Callindra replied, stiffly formal, “May I please have your name?”

“I am Inquisitor Revchek.”  He said,  “We will speak privately of personal matters soon.”  The two Inquisitors stalked away, backs straight with tension.

“Seems to me that man intends to kill you,”  Lorin said laconically.

“The feeling is quite mutual.”  She said, watching the two as they retreated.  “I don’t think I’m going to give either of us a chance though.  Too much risk for not enough reward, as much as I’d like to see his liver on a stick.”

“You did be saying you no did know him,”  Durrak said, seeming confused.  “Why do you be wanting him dead?”

“I appreciate your chivalrous offer Lord Caverstorm.”  She said, “However, my quarrel with them is only due to the Order’s quarrel with my Master.  Now that he’s gone, I appear to have inherited his debts.”

“The offer do stand.”  Durrak said, “I did make it more for his sake than yours.  That man do be in need of a touch of humbling.”

“I find his arrogance in the face of the end of the world a little refreshing.”  Callindra said with a weak smile, “Or at least I would if I could find room for levity.  Thank you for the conversation and support.  If you find Cerioth tell her hello with that polearm for me.”

“You no do be staying?”  Durrak asked, raising a bushy eyebrow.

“No, I’m afraid this city has shown itself to be as dead as every other place.”  Callindra said, “Despite the people who shelter here, none of them are living.”

She stood from the table with a grace that Lorin now recognized.  It wasn’t the smoothness of a dancer or a Lady trained from childhood to move just so.  It was the litheness of a predator trained to kill.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 72

“Why did I be letting you be talking me into this?”  Durrak asked Lorin, “Look at these bedamned fools in their frippery.  Do they not be knowing there do be monsters from the Abyss feasting on human flesh above their heads?”

“Durrak, my friend, you need to relax and enjoy yourself,”  Lorin said, surveying the crowd.  “There are so many beauties here tonight, how can you focus on the problems of the world above with such delectable butterflies flitting about?”

“How do you be thinking of women now?”  Durrak took a lit cigar from his belt pouch, puffing a cloud of thick blue smoke.

“One has to enjoy things when one can, my friend.”  He smiled over Durrak’s right shoulder, “Like this vision of loveliness for example.”

A woman in a dark green dress with a matching bag incongruously strung on a silver chain that was bound to her wrist was walking purposefully toward them.  Lorin thought her a bit slender, but she moved with grace and confidence that he found alluring.  The only sign of nervousness was the way her hand clutched the bag’s chain.

“Lord Caverstorm?”  She inquired, ignoring Lorin completely and dipping a curtsey to Durrak.  “Might I impose on a moment of your time?”

Durrak chuckled at his friend’s stricken expression.  He grounded the butt of his Gisarme and bowed with a creak and scrape of armor.  “I do be at your disposal, Miss.”

“Apologies Lords, my name is Lady Callindra Sol’Estin.”  She curtseyed to Lorin as well, “Would you care to join me at a table so that we can converse with proper refreshment?”

“For you to be using Mithril, you do be showing much caution or that you do value the contents of your pouch most greatly,”  Durrak said, glancing at her wrist.  “I do be happy to join you Lady Sol’Estin.  This do be Lorin, I do be apologizing in advance for he do be a terrible flirt.”

“Please ignore the crude and uncultured Dwarf, my Lady,”  Lorin said with an elegant bow.  “We would be honored to sit with you.”

Instead of returning to the table she’d shared with a few other courtiers, she led the way to a small table and perched on the edge of a chair.  She signaled to a servant who brought an assortment of small snacks and a tray of wine glasses.

After the servant had left, she smiled at Durrak, but the words that came out of her mouth belied the expression.  “I hear you have an interest in the dragon Cerioth.  If you desire her death as intently as I do, perhaps we can help one another.”

“What quarrel do a Lady have with The Bane of Ignetium?”  Durrak asked, “A gentle lass like yourself no do be having cause to be picking fights with dragons.”

“I’ve killed one dragon already.”  She said, her voice fierce but calm.  “It wasn’t easy, but by all the gods and demons, I intend to do it again.”

“I think we may have misjudged you, my Lady.”  Lorin said, “It seems as though you aren’t a delicate flower despite looking the part almost perfectly.”

“I’m flattered that my ruse worked so well.”  She said, still smiling as though they were flirting or making small talk.  “I fear I’m even less of a Lady that you likely think.  I came here to try and figure out what the most powerful city ever constructed had done to survive the hordes of Taken, and instead, I discover a den of petty idiots pretending that someone’s claim to nobility still matters.”

Realization dawned on Lorin’s face.  “I remember that name now.  It’s not a surname, but a Title from a school of battle magic.”

“It is the Title of a wanted criminal.”  A woman’s voice from behind and to the left Callindra’s chair said.  “A Title that cannot be rightfully claimed by a half trained apprentice.”

“Come along quietly, child.”  Another voice said, this one behind and to the right. “All we want is you to lead us to your Master.”

The Angel Murders – Father Henderson Part 2

The Thurifer swung gently, wafting Frankincense into the air and Ralph Henderson intoned sacred words, drank blessed wine and lit candles.  The incense smoke swirled into a vaguely humanoid shape floating in the center of the Maltese cross he had drawn on the floor in pure salt.

“Mortal man.”  A voice echoed throughout the rectory, “What is thine request?”

“I can’t believe it.” Ralph whispered, “It actually worked.”

“This realm pains me, mortal.”  The angel said, “Make your request that I may depart.”

“Please, give me the power to help  those in need.” He said, kneeling in reverence.  

“Do you accept this power of your own free will?” The angel asked.

“Yes,” Ralph said, trembling in anticipation.

The Angel’s hand touched his head and pain exploded in his temples.

“What is stopping you from helping those in need?” The Angel demanded.

“I don’t have the money or connections.” Ralph gasped.

“Why do you lack these things?” The Angel asked.

“I-” Ralph hesitated, “Being a priest doesn’t pay well and-”

“If you are seeking material gain and your cause is just what is to stop you from taking what you require?”

Ralph’s eyes went blank and the pain spiked.  He answered with utmost honesty. “The law and lack of ability.”

“If your cause is true and just the law has no sway over you.” The Angel proclaimed, “The ability to take what you need shall be yours.”

The pain vanished and its absence was like a drug.  Ralph fell sideways, laying on the floor and panting.  There was a liquor store down the street. They sold alcohol, regardless of the lives it destroyed.  With the money from just one day of sales, he could feed the vulnerable in his parish for a week.

Ralph gathered some simple tools, pins, Allen wrenches, a screwdriver, wire cutters, and a flashlight.  The clothes he was wearing were already black. With a smile, the priest adjusted his collar, slipped on a thin pair of leather gloves, and slipped out into the night.

It was a matter of minutes to tease open the back door using the pins for picks and a small Allen wrench for a torsion wrench.  A glance at the security panel told him it was a simple model that would be easily disabled by cutting the ground wire. He twisted the panel open and snipped the wire.  The numbers kept counting down but he ignored them.

Ralph saw the camera pointed at the back door.  It took him a few minutes to follow the cables back to a closet and unplug the camera system.  He opened the system’s panel and removed the hard drives, slipping them into his coat pocket.

Moving to the safe, he knelt in front of it, gently testing the handle.  There was just enough play in it that he knew it hadn’t been set properly.  If a combination lock isn’t spun after the combination is put in, all one need do is put pressure on the handle and gently turn the dial clockwise.  When he got to 50, the tumblers clicked and the safe door opened.

“Praise God.” Ralph breathed, stuffing his pockets full of bills. “Thank you, Lord.”

The Seven – Part 2

The problem with being a bank teller is it’s boring.  For most of the day you literally have nothing to do, but you can’t surf the web or whatever because your position is so public and obvious.  All there was to do was sit and stare out the window for hours on end, but really, I couldn’t even enjoy being lazy. It was just so damn boring.

Then the flip side was that when you needed to do work it required a lot of focus.  People were picky about their finances, and rightly so. It was hard enough to see your hard-earned money dwindle just from bills; let alone someone making a mistake with a deposit.

“Sweetheart, you’re new right?  You’re new.” I snapped out of my daze to look at the little old lady standing in front of my teller window.

“Yes, I-” I began.

“I don’t like working with new girls.”  She said, turning to the person behind her.  “You can go first, I’ll wait for Samantha.”

I sighed in resignation, “Can I help you sir?”

“I need to get into my safety deposit box.”  The man said, fiddling with his key.

I got his account number, had him sign and let him into the vault.  Taking his key and the master key, I opened the fiddly little door and pulled out his surprisingly heavy box.  Brining it to the private room, I set it on the table and withdrew so he could do whatever he was going to do. I leaned against the wall and zoned out for a few minutes.

A crash from inside the room, muffled by the thick door, snapping me out of my thoughts.  I knocked on the door, “Sir? Excuse me Mr. Anderson are you OK in there?” There was no answer.

I bit my lip, knocking again before trying the handle.  The door was locked, but I had a key and carefully opened the door.  “Sir?” I looked in the room and saw him sprawled on the floor. His safety deposit box had fallen to the floor, and small bars of gold with a swastika stamped on them were scattered around the room.  Still inside the box were wads of 100 dollar bills bound with rubber bands.

Fucking Nazi gold?  I felt a flash of rage and swiped a bundle of bills.  Fucking Nazis, this bastard didn’t deserve this money.    In a flash of insight, I quickly stood on the chair, lifted a ceiling tile and tucked the cash inside.  I didn’t know what possessed me to do it, my pulse was racing in exhilaration. Jumping back down, I checked for his pulse and almost threw up.  He had no pulse. Turning back to Mr. Anderson, I took out my cell phone and dialed 911.

“I work at State Bank downtown, our address is 11 West Second street, we need an ambulance.”

“What is your name and what is the nature of your emergency?”

“A man collapsed, I don’t think he has a pulse.  Oh gods I don’t know CPR.” I felt myself panicking.  What had I been thinking, taking that wad of cash?

“Just stay on the scene miss, emergency personnel are on their way.”  She sounded almost bored.

“OK, thank you.”  I said, “I’m going to hang up and tell my boss.”

I ran out to tell the bank president that there was a corpse in his safety deposit room.

“Nice push with the anger at the Nazi’s, Wrath.” Said Greed.

“You started it with those twinkling gold bars, Greed.” Wrath said with a nod. “But let’s not forget Envy’s contribution.”

“We make one hell of a team.” Envy agreed.

“If you two are done jerking each other off we need to plan our next steps.” Said Lust.

“There’s nothing wrong with a little well-deserved satisfaction.” Pride said.

“Oh good, it’s lunch time.” Said Gluttony.  

Sloth was asleep.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 71

“Oh please, simply call me Drake.” He said, smiling.  “I assure you the honor and pleasure of our meeting is certainly mine.”

She lowered her eyelashes and walked next to him, allowing him to guide her to a group of people sitting at a table.  “Pleasure can be shared, Count.” Flirting was not something she excelled at, but Rrayu had given her some tips and to her surprise, they seemed to work far better than she would have imagined possible.

“Indeed,”  Drake said, giving her a brief but through leer.  “Perhaps we can share more later.”

Callindra suppressed a shudder and kept her face down in case she couldn’t keep her feelings from showing.  “Perhaps.”

“Drake, you old letch!”  One of the men at the table laughed, “Always getting to the newest and prettiest girls first.”

“Come now; she’s not just a pretty face,”  Drake said with a smile. “This young lady is The Sol’Estin.”

Most of the courtiers at the table made polite noises, either ambivalent about or ignorant of the title.  Two of them stopped and gave her looks that did little to disguise their hostility.

“I thought they were warriors or sword fighters or something.”  A young woman in a low cut black dress said, “Or is that just a title?”

Callindra took a glass of wine from a passing servant, ignoring the question.  She focused on her surroundings and covertly kept an eye on the two hostile courtiers.  One was a woman of striking beauty dressed in a comparatively severe gown and the other was a man who looked old but still well-muscled and hale.

“Nay Kapirnika, the title requires training and skill.”  Drake said with a smile, “Rumor has it, Lady Callindra is quite accomplished with a blade.”

“Hardly seems proper for a Lady,”  Kapirnika said, giving Callindra a mildly scandalized look.

“Well, in this age, we all must make sacrifices,”  Callindra said, sipping her wine.

“Too true.”  The woman across from her said.

Before the others could comment further, the chime sounded again, this time followed by an officious voice.  “Lords Durrak Caverstorm and Lorin Blackthorn.”

The light illuminated the staircase and an odd pair, a tall and elegantly attired Elf standing next to a heavily armed and armored Dwarf.  They were chatting as they walked down the staircase, apparently not paying any attention to the eyes that followed them. The Dwarf pulled something from a belt pouch and blew a cloud of bright blue smoke into the air with an accompanying exclamation.

“That pair finally showed up at a ball,”  Drake said, looking at them with narrowed eyes.  “I wonder what our Lady offered or threatened them with.”

“I don’t think the Dwarf would respond to threats passively.”  The older man who had been glaring at her said.

“He has a history of obliterating threats quite actively.”  Kapirnika said enthusiastically, “I don’t think the Elf should be assessed as any less capable, however.  Have you seen him shoot his bow? Gives me chills.”

“Drake, see if you can get them to come over here.”  The severely dressed woman said, “I’d love to take a closer look at that polearm he carries.  Word has it Herself enchanted it for him so he could get his revenge on that menace of a dragon.  More power to him if he can, for all I think he’s insane to try.”

“Zinneah, you’re only ever interested in whatever magic someone has.” Kapirnika said, “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Zinneah glared briefly at her before her gaze returned to Callindra, focusing on her right side.  “Oh, I think of many things, Kapi dear, but I always come back to what’s important. Magic, power and weapons matter now more than anything else.”

Callindra toyed with the stem of her wine glass, “You mentioned a dragon?  Would that be Cerioth?”

“What would you know of that?”  She snapped, giving Callindra a more appraising look.  “How did you manage to make it here alive anyway? Your guards must be quite competent.”

“Please excuse me,”  Callindra said, setting her wine glass down as she rose.  “I must go and speak with Lord Caverstorm.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 70

The ‘transport’ had turned out to be a handcart pulled by two burly men, and it was only big enough for Callindra to ride.  Since the rest of her friends were posing as her guards, she thought it was fitting that they walk, regardless of how much Reed grumbled about it.  Besides, there was no way she could have walked that far in the gown and shoes.  Even if it wasn’t so tight she could barely breathe, she would be worried about soiling her hem in the dirt of the street.

Following the winding wooden platforms that connected the dirt and cobblestone streets, they arrived at Ellen Eth ‘Orien’s mansion.  It was three stories tall, each story made of a different color of marble.  The courtyard was paved with gold coins instead of gravel, and guards in matching jet black livery stood at the polished blackwood doors.

Callindra stepped from the cart, gratefully accepting Reed’s hand to steady herself when her bloody skirts nearly tripped her.  Now she understood why Ladies had attendants.  Approaching the guards at the door, she gave them a slight inclination of her head and walked through the door.  The ballroom was so breathtaking it took her a moment to notice her companions hadn’t entered behind her.

A man in black livery with a staff of office stepped from behind a podium, looking at her appraisingly.  “And you are?”  He inquired in a voice that suggested she was dressed in strips of rotting meat.

Her temper flared, and a gust of wind swirled around her before blowing an inkwell over onto a stack of paper before also blowing the documents to the floor.  “Invited.”  She said shortly, gliding past him as he jumped to try and save the parchment.

“My attendants should be joining me shortly,”  Callindra said over her shoulder, and then she had to focus on her surroundings.  The arched entrance led down to a floor inlaid with gold and jade in intricate swirling patterns.  Richly dressed men and women stood in groups, talking and listening to an orchestra playing in a minor key.

As she walked through the archway, a gentle chime sounded, and the assembled folk turned to look in her direction.  A light above illuminated her as she walked down a wide staircase, and a servant in white livery came to offer escort.  A man in a perfectly tailored suit of dark red satin with lace ruffles at the cuffs and collar approached and bowed.

“Delgrin did not introduce you, but I gather you must be Lady Sol’Estin?”  He took her hand and brushed it with his lips.  “I am Count Drake Ardent.”

Callindra took her hand back to curtsey as Rrayu had taught her, “I am indeed, it is a pleasure to meet you, Count Ardent.”

The Seven – Part I

I stood outside my new home with my single suitcase clasped in my arms.  The stiff wind blowing off the lake made me shiver and I wished I’d been able to afford a thicker coat.  Minnesota was colder than I thought it would be, I was unprepared for how strong the wind could be, nothing had gone as planned.

Originally I was supposed to be moving into an apartment building right downtown, but when I’d arrived the apartment management hadn’t gotten my deposit, hadn’t reserved my space and had been totally unhelpful.  With the majority of my funds having been lost in the check I’d sent the apartment manager I was unable to put a deposit down on another apartment.

Aimlessly wandering around Canal Park, watching idiots feed seagulls and take their pictures in front of a weird fish fountain I’d eventually wound up slouching between the Dewitt Seitz building and a Mexican restaurant; enjoying the smells of tortillas frying from one side and smoked fish and Vietnamese cuisine from the other side.

“Hey, kid.”  I jumped at the voice, having been lost in my thoughts.  “You got a light?”

I looked at the short man who had exited from a side door, an unlit cigarette held between his lips.  He looked like he must be a cook from one of the restaurants, white apron, white pants, white kerchief holding back his mass of blonde curls.

“Yeah.”  I fished in the pocket of my jacket and produced a battered Zippo lighter.  It was scarred from being used to open beer bottles and from me drunkenly dropping it on more than one occasion but it always lit on the first flick of the wheel.

I took my last precious hand-rolled smoke from my cigarette holder and lit it, then extended the flame to the man sharing the alley with me.  He leaned in and lit up and gave me a curious look that took in my suitcase, travel-worn appearance and seemed to pierce through to lay all my troubles bare.

“What you doing out here?”  He asked, exhaling smoke through his nostrils.

“Just keeping out of the wind.”  I said, trying not to show how uncomfortable I found his piercing green eyes.

“You gotta place tonight?”  He asked, pointing his chin at my suitcase.  When I didn’t answer he shrugged, “None of my business, but I know of a place that’s up for rent.  Landlord really wants to get someone in it and he ain’t too picky about background checks and whatever.”

I shoved my braids back and blew out a cloud of smoke.  “What’s this then?”

He pulled an order pad and a pen from his pocket and scribbled a phone number on it.  Holding it out he shrugged, “Tell Dave that Jon gave ya his number.”  When I took it, he flicked the cherry off his cigarette, tossed the butt in a dumpster and went back inside.

That was how I’d ended up taking a bus a few miles down the narrow strip of land that divided the St Louis River bay and the mighty waters of Lake Superior to a cluster of tiny cabins nestled in a copse of evergreens.  The number 7 hung crookedly above the door and I had a feeling foreboding that I just couldn’t shake.

My landlord had said he’d stop by in the morning to, “Talk about my rent and whatever.” He’d also told me the key was under the mat, which didn’t make me think anyone gave a shit about this place, much less him.  Still, I needed a place to stay and it was fucking cold.

I found the key as promised in its spot under the mat, unlocked the door and walked inside.  The cabin smelled of cedar, candle wax, and wood smoke.  I fumbled about for a light switch, found it, flicked it on and winced as the bulb flashed once and died.  A flick of my thumb brought the flame of my trusty Zippo to illuminate my surroundings and I lit a few candles that were placed conveniently close to the door.

After looking at the propane heater for a few silent minutes, I decided to make a fire in the woodstove instead.  If the light bulb had randomly exploded I didn’t want to tempt fate with my dubious skills with natural gas.  Although honestly maybe it would be better if I just blew myself up.

A few tears leaked from the corners of my eyes, as I crumpled newspaper and stacked up kindling.  What I really needed was a little food, a nice fire and maybe a beer.  My finances were so strained that it was silly to think about it, but I was so hungry and I’d had such a horrible day didn’t I deserve a little treat?

I lit the fire with my zippo and smiled; getting a lift from knowing I could at least build my own fire.  A flash of anger at the apartment manager who had cost me my security deposit made my decision for me.  I pulled my phone from my pocket and a quick search pulled up a food delivery service.  They even offered to stop by Hoops brewing to pick me up a couple of beers.

There were a few dog eared paperbacks on the windowsill, and I picked up a Danielle Steele novel I hadn’t read yet.  Trashy romance novels were a guilty pleasure; I don’t know why, but the lurid scenes made me feel better. I wished to be one of those characters swept up in her lover’s arms, just letting him take care of everything.

When the pizza arrived, I ate the entire thing and drank both the 24-ounce beers.  I even convinced the delivery boy to give me a couple of cigarettes and sat close to the fireplace smoking and feeling too full, but too lazy to try and walk it off.  I leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling, already feeling better.

‘Wow, I never would have seen this coming.’ Said Pride, ‘She actually understands.’

‘Hungry enough to stuff herself silly.” Said Gluttony.

‘Giving in to her addiction enough to talk a couple of smokes out of the delivery boy.’ Said Greed.

‘Reading that awful romance novel.’ Said Lust.

‘And wishing to be one of those damsels who doesn’t have to worry about anything.” Said Envy.

‘Angry about those who have wronged her.’ Said Wrath.

‘Too lazy to bother doing anything about it.’ Said Sloth.

‘We’ve kept everyone else from this place without meaning to.’ Pride said, looking down on the girl asleep in the chair before the fireplace.

‘Now one who truly understands us has arrived.’ Greed said, ‘We must help her and make her stay.’